In 1950s Poland, a whole new city was built in a matter of years. Envisioned by the communist regime, it was to conform to their official aesthetic doctrine of socialist realism. Today its unique architecture and layout, a mix of Renaissance and communist influences, renders it a monument of international significance. Here we take a look at Nowa Huta’s appeal as well as its unobvious history.
A socialist town
A town of good fate
With no suburbs and alleys
Friendly to all people
The youngest of our towns
Founding a new foundry
After World War II, Poland had a communist regime imposed on it by Stalin due to a deal struck with Churchill and Roosevelt at Yalta. One of the first things the Soviet Union insisted upon Poland was that it increase its steel production – the metal was an important measure of a nation’s development in the pre-information age. Poland had little choice but to pursue its Big Brother’s wish with haste.
The communist vision of industrialisation entailed the creation of huge plants. The argument was that they worked out cheaper and more effective than smaller ones. The decision was made to take this to its logical extreme, and build a steelworks so enormous that it needed an entirely new city to house its workers.
The location of this new behemoth, whose area eventually extended over 1,000 hectares, or 10 square kilometres, was determined at the beginning of 1949 – it was to stand just to the east of the city of Kraków, a traditional centre for Poland’s intelligentsia. Some believe the choice was an element of class conflict, aimed at watering down the anti-communist elite living there with an influx of pro-governmental proletarians. On Polish Radio in May 2013, Paweł Jagło of the Historical Museum of the City of Kraków shot down this popular theory:
Had the mythical communists wanted to build Nowa Huta to get under Kraków’s skin, they would’ve built it in the Grzegórzki or Podgórze district, near the Main Square. The actual reasons were completely different, more technical (…). The proximity of water needed to cool foundry products. The proximity of resources, black coal in Upper Silesia and iron ores meant to be imported from Kryvyi Rih in ‘brotherly’ Ukraine (…). Also the closeness of Kraków, an intellectual base for the new plant. Because of all this, Nowa Huta was built where it was (…) on a vast, flat area perfect for raising a big new plant.
In Polish Nowa Huta means ‘New Foundry’ and, in almost ruthlessly simple fashion, that’s what the prospective steelworks’ symbiotic town was named by the authorities.
A project called Wanda
Even though it wasn’t technically a part of Kraków, the area where the steelworks and new city were to arise wasn’t desolate. Villages existed there, places like Grębałów, Mogiła and Pleszów, some with history going as far back as the 13th century. But the arrival of big industry was the end of the traditional, agrarian lifestyle of these communities.
Many people had their farms taken away from them without proper compensation that would allow for new arrangements. Consequently, a lot of the ‘original’ locals were forced to seek new employment and ended up working on the very construction project that had gobbled up their land…
However, even today you can still find remnants of the olden days within the administrative limits of Nowa Huta. The summer retreat of Poland’s eminent 19th-century historical painter Jan Matejko is one example, his manor nowadays serving as a museum about his life. There’s also the impressive Cisterian Abbey dating back to the 13th century.
There’s even a pre-Poland monument in these parts, the Wanda Mound, a mysterious artificial hillock, most probably from the 7th or 8th century, whose function is uncertain. Tradition has it that it’s the burial mound of a mythical Kraków princess called Wanda.
Nowadays, all these traces of the area’s past remind us how this past had to go, and quickly. The imperative to industrialise was backed by the oppressive Stalinist system that didn’t tolerate hesitation.
The pressure to provide dwellings for the steelworks’ builders was so great that the first houses of Nowa Huta, those meant for its construction workers, were built before the city’s layout had even been prepared. The construction of Nowa Huta’s very first house began on 23rd June 1949. The building is now at 14 Osiedle Wandy, an address that’s a nod to the area’s legendary princess: ‘14 Wanda’s Estate’.
A suspicious band of architects
Before the buildings began to appear, at least one important thing had been settled: the new city of Nowa Huta would lie between the gargantuan plant and Kraków. Its development was indeed impromptu in those early stages, but it was nevertheless overlooked by a Kraków-based group of engineers and architects with a preliminary vision. They only came up with a comprehensive plan for the city as late as 1951, when already tens of buildings for builders’ quarters and offices had been erected.
Among those preparing the urban concept for Nowa Huta was Professor Stanisław Juchnowicz. He reminisced about the planning team in the 2008 group publication Nowa Huta: Przeszłość i Wizja (Nowa Huta: Past & Vision):
The Warsaw University of Technology graduate Tadeusz Ptaszycki, designated as the city’s chief architect, initially gathered a group of young architects with only a few years’ experience who had studied architecture at domestic technical universities, including the Lviv University of Technology. We came from various places in Poland and had various wartime pasts. Among us were soldiers of the Home Army in Lviv, participants of the Warsaw Uprising, and soldiers in General Anders’ Army.
These war backgrounds, though at first seemingly innocuous (most of Poland’s citizens had been caught up in the war in one way or another), are actually rather surprising when you consider the responsibility this group had been given by the new ruling power. The communists often considered people who had a history of fighting for Poland’s freedom to be a threat to their regime. As Juchnowicz comments on this group he was part of:
It’s hard to believe that the first so-called socialist cities were built by people with such pasts.
The chief architect Tadeusz Ptaszycki himself was a World War II combatant. Before he took up the job of building Nowa Huta from scratch, he worked as the head engineer on Wrocław’s reconstruction, a city that had been heavily affected by the conflict. The skill which he exhibited during that operation (it took only three years to get the city, 70% of which had been destroyed, back up and running) landed him the Nowa Huta job. Ptaszycki oversaw Nowa Huta’s development from 1949 to 1960.
The perfect working-class city
In the years 1949 to 1956, Poland’s official aesthetic doctrine, enforced by the Soviets and encompassing all forms of art, was socialist realism. Referencing 19th-century realism, this movement was meant to promote the communist worldview by presenting labour-related themes and employing clarity of form. Its aim was to inspire subservient awe. Nowa Huta’s creators had to abide by its architectural guidelines, preferring symmetry as well as renaissance and classical shapes.
However, as mentioned above, many of the city’s designers were genuine patriots. As such, they sought to make use of their pre-war education and bring as much of the Polish architectural school into the project as possible, despite the uneasy conditions of the times.
Nowa Huta’s importance to the communist regime cannot be overstated. The authorities granted the project plenty of funding, which alongside the reconstruction of Warsaw, was among the nation’s highest priorities. It meant the architects could propose some pretty impressive solutions. So how did Ptaszycki and his team envision what was dubbed the ‘perfect working-class city’?
The town was meant to house 100,000 inhabitants, with a triangular shape determined by pre-existing routes and natural forms. One of these edges reflects the shape of a small local river, the Dłubnia, which flows into the Vistula. The Vistula in turn gave the city another of its important natural determinants – an approximately 14-metre escarpment.
The triangle formation was divided symmetrically with the so-called Central Square in the south serving as a focal point for all the neighbourhoods, the city’s main arteries extending away from it. From an aerial perspective, the whole layout seems a bit like a giant leaf with the streets being its veins.
The same for everybody
The core of the city, which you find within the described triangle, was built in the years 1949-1955. The rapid development of Nowa Huta in these years was accompanied by a rapid growth in population. In 1950, it counted almost 19,000 souls. Just two years later, almost 57,000. By 1956, Nowa Huta had well over the planned 100,000 inhabitants, exceeding all expectations. Most of these people came in from rural Poland in search of a better life.
Living in a brand new city, even though it was still under construction and therefore full of glitches, was often a huge leap compared to the existence offered by a poor village in the deep provinces. So when people settled here, they often sought to bring in their relatives. Interestingly, the incoming masses quickly adapted to urban life and formed a community. In her 2009 article Nowa Huta: Skąd Przychodzimy (Nowa Huta: Our Origins), anthropologist Dr Barbara Klich-Kluczewska writes that already in 1956 ‘(…) Nowa Huta’s community was crystallising. From the chaos of human searches, errors, wrongs and successes, an orderly social life was emerging, one that reflected its times’.
Apart from the new inhabitants’ will to coexist, the city itself, its concept and layout, were responsible for the rise of a community. For example, to make Nowa Huta as homely as possible, the architects made use of the neighbourhood unit concept devised in 1920s America by Clarence A. Perry. According to Perry’s idea, a ‘neighbourhood unit’ provides its residents with key facilities: shops, kindergartens, restaurants, etc. Thanks to this, you can get a number of things done without leaving the unit, a major convenience. A single unit is also supposed to be planned for a specified limited amount of people – so that rather than being a huge hub for a crowd of anonymous inhabitants, it facilitates the creation of a local community where people recognise each other.
In Nowa Huta, this concept was implemented with much success. The neighbourhood units, each counting between five and six thousand residents, often have pleasant inner areas with greenery and playgrounds. Plus, thanks to quotas set by the architects, the sizes of local facilities such as schools corresponded to the needs of their communities.
Piotr Ożański, one of the builders of Nowa Huta in the 1950s reminisced in a broadcast aired by Polish Radio in 1976:
P.O: (…) I married so I got an apartment.
Reporter: Did you build it yourself?
P.O.: No my buddies did (laughter).
Reporter: Did your wife also work in Nowa Huta?
P.O.: Yes, my wife also worked in Nowa Huta. Like me, she was a builder. She built nurseries mainly. (…) At first we had one son, later two others appeared and they all went to the nurseries that we built ourselves (…). I can’t imagine leaving Nowa Huta, because I built this city with my own hands. I live in it, I know the people.
To ensure that the city’s parts wouldn’t be isolated from one another, the planners designed lengthy boulevards connecting the various neighbourhoods. Additionally, the arteries leading to Central Square were equipped with tramlines and even bicycle routes, something that’s very much en vogue nowadays… The fact that the architects decided to use the neighbourhood unit concept developed in America, the Soviet Union’s sworn enemy, shows that their approach to communism was by no means simple-minded.
Another nod to the well-being of the citizens was the diversification of the buildings’ architecture. Varying in shape and size, they provided residents with individuality and local identity. The general principal was that Central Square, with its massive five- and six-storey structures, was the highest area and that the buildings gradually get smaller as you move away from it. What was uniform, however, were the apartments. In an ideal socialist city these had to be, with very few exceptions, of the same size and standard for everybody.
Renaissance influences & shortcomings
Since the architects were ‘allowed’ to draw on certain historical solutions within the socialist-realist aesthetic, they made the most of it. The radiant Central Square is said to reference Rome’s Piazza del Popolo, designed in the early 1800s and the city’s layout echoes the Renaissance concept of the ‘ideal city’ that was supposed to be both functional and beautiful. The buildings themselves display Renaissance influences too through details like domes, attics and Palladian-style windows.
Development continued after 1955, but, due to the end of Stalinism in 1956, the use of socialist-realism was becoming less and less frequent until it faded altogether. The socialist-realist part of town is sometimes referred to as ‘old Nowa Huta’ and is arguably what is most unique about the place.
Of course, not everything the architects envisioned was realised, which is only understandable when you consider the scale of the undertaking. Among the biggest gaps, one has to mention the absence of the high-rise city hall that was supposed to stand in the square tellingly called Park Ratuszowy (City Hall Park). The square is right in the middle of the entire layout.
Also, incorporating the buildings raised in the ‘impromptu phase’ to the west of Central Square into the city has resulted in a disruption of the overall symmetry. Most notably, the park planned behind Central Square as a major recreational area was never opened – today its filled with boggy, half-natural, half-man-created meadows.
But if you think these shortcomings somehow determine the overall outcome of the creation of Nowa Huta, think again. How many points of a plan for a 100,000-inhabitant city would you leave unchecked if you had to realise it in just a few years?
Welcoming a socialist city
Today Nowa Huta has the status of a world-class monument of social realism. But when the fight against communism was still high on the agenda of Polish society, it was simply inappropriate to praise anything about the architectural heritage of the oppressive system.
For example, the poem about Nowa Huta quoted at the very beginning, titled Na Powitanie Budowy Socjalistycznego Miasta (Welcoming the Building of a Socialist City) was written in 1952 by a young Wisława Szymborska. In her later years, the Nobel Prize in Literature-winner said she must’ve been ‘naive and clueless’ to have written such a poem.
After the abolition of communism, however, emotions eased and objective judgements became more common. Considering it was built from scratch by skilled architects and planners in a very specific style, it became widely accepted that Nowa Huta was something unavoidably exceptional.
Among the city’s most characteristic buildings one should probably mention the 1955 Teatr Ludowy (People’s Theatre) designed by Janusz Ingarden and Jan Dąbrowski, and described in the aforementioned book Nowa Huta: Past & Vision as a ‘miniature embodiment of the idea of the opera with its splendour and luxury’. The big housing buildings in Central Square, designed by Janusz Ingarden to reference Renaissance and Baroque architecture, are among the finest examples of socialist realism you’ll ever see. Also, the twin edifices of the Administrative Centre of the steelworks, despite being located outside the triangle of ‘old Nowa Huta’ and near the plant, are among the city’s classics. These two buildings designed by Janusz Ballenstedt as well as Janusz and Marta Ingarden are sometimes called ‘the Doge’s Palaces’ due to their resemblance to Renaissance palaces.
Switching from a communist pearl into a capitalist delight
As symbols of communism’s supposed success, Nowa Huta and the steelworks were shown off by the authorities to important foreign visitors such as Nikita Khrushchev, Fidel Castro and even Emperor Haile Selassie. However, despite all its advantages, this showcase ‘worker’s paradise’ had to compete with the Catholic paradise for the souls of its inhabitants. In accordance with communist’s atheist doctrine, no church was ever included in the city’s planning. But even at the start in the 1950s, people had wanted a place of worship here. The authorities simply wouldn’t allow it. One only appeared after much social unrest, and in 1977, Cardinal Karol Wojtyła, the prospective Pope John Paul II, consecrated this new church, putting an end to a long and determined struggle by the local community. Today, a monument known as the Nowa Huta Cross is a reminder of these events.
After Poland finally got rid of the communist regime in 1989, it transpired that the very reason of Nowa Huta’s existence, the steelworks, was also one of the city’s greatest weaknesses. Its huge size (it used to provide employment for a whopping 38,000 people), advertised as economically sound, actually made it hard to manage and deeply hindered any efforts to adapt the plant to the changes that came with the new economic realities after the collapse of the Eastern Bloc. The plant eventually withered and was sold to a foreign company. Today it employs about 4,000 people. Interestingly, the popular notion that the plant was largely responsible for pollution detrimental to Kraków’s historical architecture isn’t really true. About 85% of the winds in the city’s area blow from west to east, so the foundry’s fumes actually poisoned the Niepołomicka Forest found to the east of the facility rather than Kraków.
Today, many tourists are tempted to visit Nowa Huta when they come to the city. Foreigners see this area as unique, maybe even exotic. In the radio programme mentioned earlier, Paweł Jagło said that international visitors ‘are attracted by social realism’ and ‘want to get a feel of the past, they want to touch communism’. In 2012, the Gazeta Krakowska newspaper quoted Mrs. Maria Nicpoń, a long-term resident of Nowa Huta’s oldest house at 14 Osiedle Wandy:
This building of ours is awfully famous. Every day we have a couple of tours standing in front of our windows.
The irony of this situation is that the ‘ideal working class city’ once so coveted by the communist authorities has become a draw for tourists from all over the capitalist world. Fortunately, a tour of Nowa Huta typically involves hearing much of its history, so visitors often leave knowing a thing or two about the past of all these unusual sights.
You need something authentic
Given the sheer scale of the plant’s operations, it’s no wonder that unemployment became a problem for the citizens of Nowa Huta after its collapse. Sadly this problem has persisted. The communist dream turned out to be precisely what it was – a dream and nothing more. Once Nowa Huta snapped out of it when the communist system fell, the ‘worker’s paradise’ driven by one gargantuan plant turned out to be susceptible to all the regular troubles of real life. It gained the reputation of a dodgy neighbourhood, even though many argue that that it wasn’t true.
Nevertheless, a recent study shows that Nowa Huta is among the top choices for people looking to buy an apartment in Kraków. They value the city-turned-district (Nowa Huta became an administrative unit of Kraków on 1st January 1951) for its infrastructure and numerous green areas. In last year’s interview for Onet.pl, the Nowa Huta-based mural artist Łukasz Lenda said:
This authenticity attracts. Because it’s real. Nowa Huta draws you in because it hasn’t been glossed over. I believe that in a world where there’s so much falseness, you need something authentic. That’s why our neighbourhood fascinates. That’s the advantage of Nowa Huta.
Author: Marek Kępa, Jan 2017