Building Blocks: Poland’s Most Popular Homes
default, Building Blocks: Poland’s Most Popular Homes, Lublin, a view of the Czuby residential neighbourhood from the Gray Office Park office building terrace, photo: Jakub Orzechowski, center, czuby_-lublin-ag.jpg
A third of Poles live in residential blocks of flats. Even though prefabricated multi-family buildings are a staple of the Polish landscape, they are surrounded by myths and legends. But what is the true story behind them?
There are different accounts of where and when first residential blocks of flats were built. Because even though popular opinion has it that Le Corbusier was their ‘inventor’, the idea of building simple multi-family buildings for those who cannot afford their own house was already born in the 19th century. They were built for workers next to the factories they worked at. These houses were, however, still very traditional in form – they were made out of bricks and had high-pitched roofs. But the simple, geometric blocks containing around a dozen little apartments are indeed a modernist concept. In light of the constant lack of living spaces in the dynamically developing European cities, and even more so after the damages brought by World War I, it was necessary to think of a new housing model: mass-produced, inexpensive and easy to build.
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To help the cities
In 1933, aboard a ship sailing from Marseilles to Athens, the IV International Congress of Modern Architecture (Congrès international d’architecture moderne, CIAM), took place. The most progressive, avant-garde, but also the most socially aware architects in the world all took part. It is then that the Athens Charter was drafted, the most important document in the history of modern urban planning, containing instructions on how to build and expand contemporary cities. It is largely to the Athens Charter that we owe the existence of blocks and residential neighbourhoods full of them. The mastermind behind it was of course Le Corbusier.
The advent of the machinist era has provoked immense disturbances in the conduct of men, in the patterns of their distribution over the earth’s surface and in their undertakings: an unchecked trend, propelled by mechanized speeds, toward concentration in the cities, a precipitate and world-wide evolution without precedent in history. Chaos has entered the cities.
This is how the signatories of the Athens Charter diagnosed contemporary urban problems at the time. The polluted, overpopulated and densely built-up European cities were dominated by buildings originating in the era preceding the industrial revolution, buildings that had been built for the wealthy bourgeoise. But a new architecture was needed now, one that would bring the working people out of dark basements with no running water and electricity. The basis of the idea behind blocks was the social awareness of the architects who realised that they had the power to change the situation of the workers for the better. The authors of the Athens Charter agreed that every living being requires a good mixture of ‘sun, vegetation and space’. Modernist apartments could not be large, but they made up for it by being separated from the noise of the streets, by being surrounded by vegetation and by having large windows and conveniences that were unheard of in the cheapest living spaces at that time (again, running water and electricity). As soon as the idea of the residential block was conceived, a vision of a neighbourhood with loosely arranged houses followed, built at a relatively large distance from one another (the modernists approved of many sizes, from cosy apartment buildings to skyscrapers), where the small size of the apartments was compensated by the proximity of safe rest and recreational areas. The Athens Charter stated:
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Henceforth, residential districts must occupy the best locations within the urban space, using the topography to advantage, taking the climate into account, and having the best exposure to sunshine with accessible verdant areas at their disposal.
The guidelines drafted in 1933 by an international group of architects and city planners left a colossal imprint on modern architecture, especially in the countries from behind the Iron Curtain. Modernist concepts had been well known in Poland from the very beginning and Polish architects took part in the CIAM conferences in the 1930’s. They even implemented the ideas from the Athens Charter themselves – their fullest embodiment is a neighbourhood in Warsaw’s Rakowiec district, designed by Szymon and Helena Syrkus. The idea of building residential buildings and neighbourhoods that flourished greatly in the second half of the 20th century did not appear in Poland out of the blue. It was adapted, partly distorted (the industrialisation, which means the standardisation, of the construction process is to blame here), but most importantly, it was implemented on a staggering scale.
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To understand how Poland’s residential architecture was industrialised, with all the downsides of the process, one has to be aware of the state of the country after World War II. The Central Statistics Office yearbook summarising war damages states:
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On the basis of the recording of war damages conducted by regional reconstruction departments, it was established that 295,400 city buildings were either destroyed or damaged (147,600, that is 50%, in historical Poland, and 147,800, that is 50%, in western and northern regions), with their cubic capacity amounting to 526.9 million cubic metres (221.8 million m3 – 42.1% and 305.1 million m3 – 57.9% respectively).
At the same time, industrialisation of the country and the development of large factories was one of the most important goals for the authorities. Regardless of whether these ideas were right or whether they were formulated independently, they effected a radical change of the social structure – the number of people living in the countryside was reduced, while there took place an enormous and virtually constant movement of people to the cities. The number of Poles increased in general – just between 1950 and 1970, the population grew from 24.6 million to 32 million people. ‘The housing crisis’ was not only a political slogan, but an actual phenomenon. Mass industrial production of housing was the only way of addressing this issue.
The ideas to industrialise housing construction did not find a fertile ground in Poland until the middle of the 1950’s. Before that, they were constrained by the state-mandated doctrine of socialist realism, which stood in opposition to modernist forms (high cost and long construction time of socialist-realist housing was in fact one of the most important factors influencing the downfall of this ideology). The political thaw of 1956 and the return to modernist forms made it clear that a mass increase in the number of residential blocks is necessary. The fact that the first fully-prefabricated buildings in post-war Poland were built in 1956 in Hutnicze Neighbourhood in socialist-realist Nowa Huta, can be seen as a bridging of the gap between the socialist realism and the new era.
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Before concrete prefabs
In the 1960’s, blocks in Poland were built using many different technologies. There were blocks constructed using entirely traditional methods, blocks employing only some prefabricated elements, and blocks constructed using only prefabricated elements. In 1959, on the southern reaches of Warsaw, on the site of Southern Industrial District ‘Służewiec’, which was already filled with industrial plants, a small residential neighbourhood began construction. It became a kind of a testing ground.
Each and every building in the neighbourhood had different dimensions and was built using a different, experimental, prefabrication technology. The Prototype Neighbourhood was one of the places where the idea of mass-producing housing was born – at the beginning of 1960’s many architectural studios were occupied with developing their own ways of such mass production. Contrary to popular belief, Polish residential blocks were constructed not only with the help of a concrete prefab technology imported from East Germany. Poland had many local varieties developed by Polish engineers, architects and builders. The first prize in the 1968 state competition for ‘the creation of a system of construction and assembly’ that was to become the basis for the construction industry was won by the W-70 technology developed under the supervision of Maria and Kazimierz Piechotka. The technology was first used on a large scale during the construction of two neighbourhoods in Radom – Nad Potokiem and Ustronie. The first apartments there were ready to be inhabited in 1972. W-70 soon became one of the most popular construction methods in the country. Maria Piechotka wrote:
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The way of using the system and the architectural details of the building depend on the needs and the wishes, skills and imagination of the authors and designers of specific projects.
These dreams of the architects quickly faced a reality check. The political pressure, constant reductions of costs and, most importantly, the construction of more and more ‘housing factories’ made it so that the architects had almost no influence over the shape of their buildings. This was decided by their constructor – the producer of the building materials. The first housing factory with a production line imported from East Germany was opened on 17th July 1969 in Bzie Zameckie, which is now a district of the city of Jastrzębie Zdrój. More factories of prefabricated housing parts were created all over Poland and their products dominated the housing market in the 1970s.
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A block neighbourhood in every town
If not for the industrialisation of the housing production process, today’s Poland would not have so many blocks, or bloki as they are called in Polish. Some are convinced that the country would have looked much prettier without them. But it cannot be forgotten that thanks to concrete prefabs and dozens of other technologies, 7 million apartments were built between 1945 and 1988. Never before and never again have so many homes been built at once.
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It is these clusters of blocks, and not individual buildings, that form the Polish landscape. They are commonly called blokowiska. They had their highs and lows. In the 1970s, people would dream of living there, but they would also end up frustrated when there were no roads, stores or bus stops built near the buildings. In the 1990s, people would often speak of blokersi, a subculture of hooligans raised in the concrete prefabs.
The first years of the new millennium was a time when the blocks took on new pastel-coloured hues. The insulation of the residential blocks with the use of Styrofoam made it possible to paint them with lively colours, sometimes even patterns or simple paintings. Ten-storey high buildings with ladybugs, sailboats, sunsets and trees on them is not an uncommon sight. Nowadays, the residents of the ‘old’ blokowiska try to fight the attempts of developers to construct new buildings between the concrete prefabs. Because even with the imperfections of the materials used in construction, or with small apartment sizes, the neighbourhoods consisting of prefabricated blocks are usually in line with the most important recommendations of the Athens Charter. They were constructed in nice locations, they are well-connected with other districts and they are surrounded by greenery. All this makes them a tasty morsel for the housing market.
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There are around 12 million Poles living in blocks at this moment. In larger cities, their inhabitants amount to 80% of the population. Even though the neighbourhoods constructed in Poland in the 1970s became more and more alike, many of the blokowiska built in the second half of the 20th century are worth admiring. Wrocław’s ‘Manhattan’, the construction of which began in 1968 at Grunwaldzki Square, is considered one of the most famous block neighbourhoods, many of which stand out thanks to their shape, the urban planning involved in their construction and the technology used to build them.
The author of ‘Manhattan’, Jadwiga Grabowska-Hawrylak, merged many high-rises into a single complex by using commercial pavilions to connect them. She also gave the houses a unique shape (using prefabs that she had designed herself), which resulted in a distinctive residential complex that instantly pops in Wrocław’s panorama. The Tysiąclecia Neighbourhood in Katowice is appreciated for the characteristic shape of its houses, but also for its extraordinary contribution to the landscape. Created in 1961 by the studio of Aleksander Frant, Henryk Buszko and Tadeusz Szewczyk , the last buildings, famously called ‘corn-cobs’ were ready in the 1980s. The architects stressed numerous times that the neighbourhood was designed in the same way as landscape park would be! Very large and simple blocks were arranged in an enormous, green area, so that virtually every window offers a view of greenery. Vehicles are not allowed in the zone and a series of walking tracks complemented by the necessary infrastructure (schools, stores) was organised in exchange. Today, this Katowice neighbourhood, commonly referred to as Tauzen, is leading the rankings for the best place to live in Śląsk.
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The same year that Katowice’s Tysiąclecia Neighbourhood was designed, Jerzy Czyż, Jan Furman and Andrzej Skopiński envisioned the Za Żelazną Bramą Neighbourhood in Warsaw. The project was a part of an architectural competition held to find a vision of housing that would fit the centre of Warsaw – a residential complex with big-city charm. The architects proposed to build giant, liveable ‘wardrobes’ containing commercial areas on the ground floors. The construction of enormous buildings made the most of the area available while also leaving a lot of space between buildings (which was one of the postulates of the Athens Charter). The residential blocks themselves are inspired by Le Corbusier’s idea of unité d'habitation. The architects wanted every block of the Za Żelazną Bramą Neigbourhood to be an independent community of neighbours – the buildings were designed to have spacious hallways that would facilitate the creation of social bonds. However, this idea was not successful.
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Among the neighbourhoods that were designed as a compromise between the need to build very much and very quickly, and the desire to create interesting architecture, it is worth pointing out the so-called Przymorze Wielkie in Gdańsk (designed in 1959 by Tadeusz Różański, Danuta Olędzka, Tadeusz Poznański, Józef Chmiel and Janusz Morek). There, in between the smaller buildings, the famous falowce were constructed – long and broad buildings that resemble sea waves, hence the name coming from ‘fala’, the Polish word for ‘wave’. Their shapes were inspired by the coastline and they were supposed to be a break from the monotony and feeling of being overwhelmed that are often associated with traditional blocks of similar size.
Not every neighbourhood built under the communist regime consisted of large blocks. The Sady Żoliborskie and Szwoleżerów neighbourhoods, two Warsaw-based projects by Halina Skibniewska, are even today considered great examples of a well-designed, cosy and hospitable living spaces. The perfect balance between long residential blocks and vegetation, between multi-family constructions and the landscape, was something that the famous art and architecture duo Oskar and Zofia Hansen also tried to achieve when they designed the Juliusz Słowacki Neighbourhood in Lublin in 1961.
A humanist neighbourhood
The evolution in the construction of residential areas in Poland can be divided, to put it rather simply, into stages. When the socialist-realist doctrine was abandoned in 1956, Poland saw a return to modernist forms and the architects had a chance to create projects with individualised forms and arrangements. This became more and more difficult in the 1970s as the production of housing was dominated by housing factories and the blocks became more uniform. The situation was changed by the economic crisis of the 1980s when the state funding dried up. People had to stop designing huge residential neighbourhoods, but new small housing investments regained their individual look. There is, however, one neighbourhood that stands out – Ursynów Północny in Warsaw.
The design was created as a part of a 1971 architectural competition. It was soon slightly modified when the head architect, Ludwik Borawski, passed away and Marek Budzyński took over the project. Even though the neighbourhood was built using concrete prefabs, it still has a unique character of a cosy and hospitable place full of greenery. Ursynów cannot really be called a blokowisko – the residential blocks of various sizes were designed so that they would resemble a neighbourly settlement. In 1975, Marek Budzyński wrote in Architektura (editor’s translation: Architecture) journal that:
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Ursynów cannot become just a sleeping place, it has to be a new and vital fragment of Warsaw. (…) We want Ursynów to be not only an anonymous unit in the city planners’ notebooks but a city district that has its own distinct character.
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Today, almost half a century after it was designed, Ursynów Północny has a great reputation as a place to live. In 2016, the neighbourhood became the subject of a book documenting the process of creating the design, its implementation and its later use. Bloki w Słońcu (Sun-lit Blocks) by Lidia Pańków is a fascinating story of the creation and the functioning of one of the biggest, but also one of the most unique, concrete prefab neighbourhoods in Poland. Actually, it is worth noting that blocks and neighbourhoods have more and more often been becoming the subjects of books. While this part of Poland’s architectural heritage used to be ashamedly ignored, nowadays it is more and more often appreciated, because, paradoxically, the blocks offer better living conditions than the new developer-made neighbourhoods. As a result, readers are more willing to learn about their history, architecture and birth of Poland’s most famous neighbourhoods.
This newfound interest can be traced back to 2011, when Jarosław Trybuś published his Przewodnik Po Warszawskich Blokowiskach (A Guidebook of Warsaw’s Blokowiska), which describes the neighbourhoods as something worthy of our attention and which challenges the unjust opinion that they are dehumanised, overwhelming examples of totalitarian architecture. For the last several years, the City Museum in Tychy has been publishing books describing the city, which was built under the communist regime and consists largely of blocks. And again, the stereotypes surrounding blokowiska were dismantled when it turned out that the architecture in Tychy is varied and includes works of art and constructions with a more individualised character (this group includes the projects of Marek Dziekoński).
The Wrocław branch of the Association of Polish Architects has recently been publishing a series of little books – monographies devoted to Wrocław-based architects, many of whom built blocks using industrially-produced concrete prefabs, but they made their designs original, surprising and interesting. The monography of Kraków-based architect Witold Cęckiewicz (published in 2015 by Instytut Architektury), who not only designed his own projects but was also the city’s head architect for many years, allows the reader to learn about the conditions in which the residential blocks and neighbourhoods were constructed at the time. The most extensive examination of the phenomenon of the residential blocks is Beata Chomątowska’s Betonia (Concreteland) published in 2018 by Wydawnictwo Czarne. The author looks at residential blocks constructed not only in Poland but also in Germany, France and the United Kingdom. She treats them not just as architectural objects but as a political, social and economic phenomenon that leaves its imprint not only on its inhabitants but also on urban space in general.
The immense impact of residential blocks on the Polish culture can be seen in Tomasz Knittel’s series of documentaries. It turns out that it was in these very blocks, where many songs, novels, poems, movies and visual art, that are now an undeniable part of Polish history, were born.
Residential blocks are an inseparable part of the Polish environment. It might be a good idea to look at them and learn something about them. Some might even be worthy of our appreciation!
Originally written in Polish, translated by MW, edited by NR, Oct 2018
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