The Architecture of Polish Independence
default, The Monumentality
of Polish Independence, National Museum in Warsaw, photo: Piotr Ligier / National Museum in Warsaw, center, mnw_photo_c_copyright_by_piotr_ligier_wystawa_trasa_m-z.jpg
State-building symbolism and monumentality, but also modernity and innovation – these are characteristics of the buildings that were created in Poland after 1918. Architecture played a particularly important role during the re-born country’s earliest years of independence.
Poland regaining its independence in 1918 was not only a moment of great joy, but also a great challenge. After 123 years of occupation by foreign powers, the country had to be put back together again. Regions that had belonged to different partitions for so long had different official languages and different levels of development, culture and economy. It was necessary not to point out these disparities but to rebuild the spirit of unity and national identity amongst the people. Architecture played an important role in this symbolic integration of long-divided parts of the country.
That’s why the year 1918 became an important caesura in the development of Polish architecture. Although at the beginning of the 20th century, Polish architects kept up to speed with new trends and directions in architecture, it was only after the regaining of independence that they were able to pursue them according to their own creative ideas. The belief that architecture should not only serve a specific function but that it could also serve as a certain kind of propaganda made it easier to build many ground-breaking structures that remain full of political and architectural meaning today.
The main building of the Sejm, Warsaw
It is difficult to imagine a building with a greater symbolic meaning to an independent country than the seat of its parliament. Since 1918, the newly founded Polish Parliament held its proceedings in the building of the Instytut Aleksandryjsko-Maryjskiego Wychowania Panien (Aleksandryjski-Maryjski Institute for Young Ladies), a former all-girls’ high-school in Wiejska Street which was adapted to serve its new function. In 1925, Kazimierz Skórewicz, the curator of the Royal Castle, was named responsible for the expansion of the building.
The architect worked against the then-common belief that the seat of the Parliament should resemble a palace or a castle, instead designing a simple, four-storey high Dom Poselski (House of the Deputies) and the distinctive amphitheatre meeting room housed by a rotunda resembling a tent. Its walls, separated by columns, are adorned with reliefs created by Jan Szczepkowski in 1927 and 1928. The allegories of the professions depicted there are considered one of Poland’s best examples of the art deco style.
Bohdan Pniewski, who was in charge of the expansion of the building in the years 1949-1952, stayed true to the Sejm’s far-from-monumental shape and added a complex of small pavilions surrounded by greenery.
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National Museum in Warsaw
The National Museum in Warsaw was created as a cultural institution in 1916, but it had to wait quite a long time to receive a home. The first official competition for the design of the building (which was initially supposed to be built in the Ujazdów district) was announced in 1919, but the jury was not satisfied with the results. There were two more competitions held in the following years, but they also brought a dissatisfying outcome. Interestingly, the press criticised the designs for being repetitive and not modern enough.
The building that we all know today was designed by Tadeusz Tołwiński, who won the fourth (and finally successful) competition. He proposed an edifice as austere as it is monumental. The building does not have any unnecessary details or ornaments, and it is also not directly connected to any historical styles. The outer walls of the National Museum are finished with sandstone from Szydłowiec, and the same material, along with marble from Kielce, adorns the elegant but modest entrance hall. The restraint of this architecture is its great asset – at the beginning of the 20th century, it was still common to create museum buildings with rich, ornamental and sumptuous shapes and classicist details. Tadeusz Tołwiński went against the dominant trend and designed a very simple edifice that gains its stature from the composition of the geometric shapes and well-balanced proportions, rather than from ornamentation. Despite the many changes that Warsaw’s architecture has undergone since 1938 when the building of the National Museum was opened, Tołwiński’s austere design remains majestic.
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Bank Gospodarstwa Krajowego, Warsaw
Bank Gospodarstwa Krajowego (BGK) was the biggest Interwar banking institution. It was created in 1924 following the initiative of Władysław Grabski, who was then the Prime Minister and Minister of Treasury and specialised in long-term loans. Its clients were mostly state enterprises and institutions as well as local governments – BGK loans were used to build factories, residential neighbourhoods, schools and thousands of other buildings serving as proof of progress and of the development of a state that had just regained its independence.
In 1927, there was a competition for the design of BGK headquarters; construction began four years later. The building was designed by Rudolf Świerczyński, the co-creator of the Architecture Department of the Warsaw Technological University and its dean in the 1930s. Although he was educated in classical architecture, in his designs and lectures, he was a proponent of modernity.
The Warsaw building of the BGK is the clearest example that new trends and technical solutions could go hand in hand with a shape that would be proper for a public utility building. The style in which the building was constructed is called modernist classicism – and it unites restrained shapes with a modern frame construction and stylish art deco details, such as the portico at the entrance adorned with Jan Szczepkowski’s reliefs, and numerous elements of the interior. Interestingly, an expansion of the building that took place in the 1950s did not harm it at all – it maintained its austere and monumental look.
The Building of the Ministry for Religious Denominations and Public Enlightenment (today, the Ministry of National Education), Warsaw
This is the first ministry building constructed in the II Republic of Poland. It was designed in 1925 by Zdzisław Mączeński and fits the style of reduced classicism that was popular at that time in Europe. Although buildings in this style retained elements associated with their traditional counterparts (porticos, columns, courtyards, representative staircases), they were constructed in a simplified form. And so, in the buildings of the Ministry for Religious Denominations and Public Enlightenment, the portico is supported by simple pillars and not by columns. The entrance hall is similarly lacking in any ornaments.
The smooth exterior walls of the building are filled with windows that do not have any frames, the walls do not have any cornices, and there are no sculpted railings on the staircases. The art deco design of the interiors is the work of Wojciech Jastrzębowski.
Warsaw School of Economics
The creation of institutions of higher education, where the future elites would be formed, was also an important element in the rebirth of the independent state. The Warsaw School of Economics (it received the name in 1933) was created in 1918, based on the Wyższa Szkoła Handlowa (Higher Trade School). In the Interwar period, it was the most important economics university in the country. Its first provost, Bolesław Miklaszewski, came up with an idea to begin construction of a new campus in Warsaw’s Mokotów district. The design for the building complex was created in 1924 by Jan Koszczyc-Witkiewicz, who was one of the architects looking for a ‘national style’ – forms that would arise from Polish history and tradition and that would evoke the local spirit.
By 1939, two buildings of the WSE were built – the Pawilon Zakładów Doświadczalnych (Experimental Factory Pavilion) and the library. The main building was constructed in the 1950s, but it followed the design by Koszczyc-Witkiewicz from the 1920s. Despite the introduction of the communist regime, the socialist realists liked the pre-war forms of national architecture.
The buildings of the WSE were erected with the help of the then-modern frame construction in a very successful mixture of modernism, expressionism and national historicism. Echoes of both folk art and modernism can be seen in the shapes and details of the WSE buildings.
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AGH University of Science and Technology, Kraków
The permission to create a higher school of mining in Kraków was granted by the Emperor Franz Joseph I in 1913, but the institution only came into being five years later. In 1923, the construction of the AGH campus began – the biggest construction project in Interwar Kraków. The main building, designed by Sławomir Odrzywolski in cooperation with Adam Bellenstedt and Wacław Krzyżanowski, was given the most expressive shape.
The architects of this monumental edifice reached a kind of a compromise: the external walls on the sides were designed in a modernist style, but the front is classicist. The central point of this monumental and symmetrical exterior is the entrance portico supported by an Ionic colonnade and topped with a big cornice and a sculpted attic.
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Centralny Instytut Wychowania Fizycznego im. Józefa Piłsudskiego (today, the Józef Piłsudski University of Physical Education), Warsaw
The construction of the biggest sports complex in Europe of the beginning of the 1930s took only 30 months. In 1928, Edgar Norwerth designed the 80-hectare building complex of the Centralny Instytut Wychowania Fizycznego (CIWF) (Central Institute of Physical Education). The architect wrote:
The Institute aims not only to educate specialists in various sports or professional technicians working in athletics, but justifies its own existence with a much broader foundation – the shaping of youth with tough bodies and minds that would be accustomed to a constant and organised effort which would stand in contrast to the hysteria of spontaneous action, which is believed to be our racial characteristic.
The architecture was also supposed to embody these ideas. Norwerth design the CIWF as a very modern complex, breaking with academic classicism by designing modernist buildings of various shapes arranged amongst the greenery. The irregular arrangement of the simple shapes with smooth exteriors – ornamented only with the rhythm of windows, the connectors and the empty spaces between the buildings – was the background for the institution’s groundbreaking methods of physical training.
The hallmark of the complex is the boiler house’s chimney attached to the water tower ... and a six-storey residential building, next to the industrial-looking building of the indoor swimming pool.
Służewiec horse racing track, Warsaw
The first horse races took place in Warsaw in 1841. A kilometre-long racetrack was built for that purpose in Pole Mokotowskie, near Unii Lubelskiej Square. The rising popularity of this sport and the successes of Polish horses were the reasons for the construction of a newer, bigger venue.
In 1929, a team of architects led by Zygmunt Plater-Zyberk created the design of a modern complex that included racetracks, three separate stands for the audience and a group of technical facilities (such as stables, harness rooms, warehouses). In the next few years, one of the most modern racetracks in Europe of that time was created in Służewiec, a district at the southern reaches of Warsaw.
The functional solutions used during the construction have not aged at all, and the architecture designed by Plater-Zyberk is captivating both thanks to how it fits the landscape and its modernist form. The representative stands are an extraordinary example of the latter. Its expressive silhouette, rounded shapes and the contrasting black-and-white finish perfectly correspond with the dynamism of the races.
The city of Gdynia
The transformation of a fishing village into a modern port city was the biggest undertaking of the II Republic of Poland. The construction of Gdynia was a financial, political, urbanistic and logistical challenge. In 1921, when the work started, Gdynia had only 1268 inhabitants; five years later, the number rose to 12,000 and in 1939, to 127,000.
Gdynia is a modernist city, designed in the 1920s in compliance with the rules of the style that was the most popular at that time. Alongside the wide avenues, white buildings were constructed, with horizontal lines of windows and rounded corners – these forms were considered the most modern at that time, and also fit the gravity of public institutions.
Even today, these buildings house, amongst others, the office building of the Social Insurance Institution (designed by Roman Piotrowski), the residential building of the BGK Pension Fund (designed by Stanisław Ziołowski), the Dom Żeglarza Polskiego (the Polish Sailors’ Home, designed by Bohdan Damięcki and Tadeusz Sieczkowski), and the District Court (designed by Zygmunt Karpiński, Tadeusz Sieczkowski and Roman Sołtyński). There are also many private buildings in this style.
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The expansion of downtown Katowice was not a uniform, state enterprise, but it was of great propagandistic importance and resulted in numerous modern building projects.
After Upper Silesia was divided in 1921 into the Polish and German parts, both regions started competing with each other, and architecture became one of the pieces of this ‘race’ – there were modern and impressive buildings erected on both sides of the border in an attempt to manifest the strength of both countries.
At that time, there was a skyscraper constructed in Katowice (the second tallest building in Poland) as well as the monumental building of the Sejm Śląski and dozens of tenement houses designed in the modernist style. In 1927, the construction of an enormous cathedral designed by Zygmunt Gawlik and Franciszek Mączyński began.
The building of the Silesian Museum as designed by Karol Scheyer was supposed to be one of the biggest architectural achievements of the time. The monumental, modernist edifice was planned as one of the most modern museums in Europe. Its construction finished in August 1939, but it was destroyed in the 1940s by the Nazi Germans.
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The building of the Pocztowa Kasa Oszczędności (later the PKO BP Bank), Kraków
Adolf Szyszko-Bohusz was not only an architect who contributed to the development of 20th-century architecture but also a conservator and an expert on historical styles. Michał Wiśniewski, the architect’s monographer, wrote:
He is one of the most important Polish architects of the first half of the 20th century, and he largely shaped the space of the modern-day Kraków, while at the same time being one of the creators of the national myth of the reborn Second Republic of Poland. […] His work, based on the split between tradition and the search for new forms in architecture, reaches deep into the essence of the processes that took place in the architecture of the beginning of the 20th century.
When he designed the building of the bank on an atypical, triangular parcel at Wielopole Street, Szyszko-Bohusz opted for academic classicism, an elegant style full of pathos. The prominent cornice and tall attic is supported by massive semi-columns in the Corinthian style, and the large windows are encased by baluster railings. The rounded corner of the building houses its circular main hall, which was inspired by the Roman Pantheon. The edifice and its monumental silhouette filled the space at the convergence of three streets, and its columned exterior makes for an effective finish of the view.
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Church of St Roch, Białystok
The decision to replace an old chapel at St Roch Hill with an impressive church was made in 1925. The design was chosen as a result of a competition. Its winner, Oskar Sosnowski, designed the building in a star shape, which was supposed to correspond with the planned patron of the church – it was supposed to be devoted to the ‘Morning Star’, one of the names for the Virgin Mary, used in prayers.
The construction was meant to be an expression of gratitude for the regaining of independence (it is said that during World War I, some Poles promised in Rome that they would celebrate independence by building churches inspired by the names Mary is given in the Lithany of Loreto). In the end, the building was constructed with an octagon as its base, but the star theme can still be seen in its forms – in the ceiling of the main hallway as well as in the attics, the top of the tower and the decorations on the walls. The soaring shape of the church is a mixture of modernism and expressionism.
Supported by a reinforced concrete frame and topped with a 78-metre high tower, it exhibits inspirations from the ultramodern concrete designs of Auguste Perret, the national style of Kraków architects, the slenderness of gothic churches and the dynamic character of German expressionism. The Białystok church is one of the most original architectural designs of the Second Republic of Poland.
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Neighbourhoods of WSM Żoliborz & Rakowiec, Warsaw
Modernity and progress in the architecture of the beginning of the 20th century are expressed not only by reinforced concrete frames, functionalism and skyscrapers. They are also exhibited in the innovative designs in which urban planning and architecture are connected with social and economic issues. This is the case of the buildings constructed by the Warszawska Spółdzielnia Mieszkaniowa (WSM) (Warsaw Residential Cooperative), which was created in 1921.
As part of the WSM, avant-garde architects and urban planners worked together with politicians, social activists, doctors and teachers to create an optimal design for a residential neighbourhood in which a low-income worker and his family could find shelter that would be relatively comfortable and affordable. Even though the first houses created by WSM in Żoliborz turned out to be too big and too expensive for those with the lowest wages, the actions of the cooperative contributed not only to the public debate and to our understanding of the problem of housing but also to the development of architecture and residential design.
Before World War II brought an end to the attempts of the activists working in the WSM, they managed to finish a part of a functionalist neighbourhood in Warsaw’s Rakowiec (designed by Helena and Szymon Syrkus) that embodied the cooperative’s ideas to the fullest (apart from the residential blocks, they also constructed the Dom Społeczny – the Social Home).
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An unfulfilled vision: Józef Piłsudski District in Warsaw
Had the Józef Piłsudski District been created, it would have been the most important accomplishment of the independence architecture – a project that could embody the pathos of the era.
The plan to create public buildings in the fields of Pole Mokotowskie dates as far back as the 1920s, and following Józef Piłsudski’s death in 1935, the work on the new district accelerated and its design became even more monumental. The vast area was supposed to contain not only a 70-metre wide square, but also a wide avenue that would be perfect for military parades (it was designed to be almost four kilometres long and surrounded by stands). Around the square and the avenue, enormous, monumental buildings were supposed to be built, and the complex was to be crowned with the Temple of Holy Providence and a giant statue of Marshall Piłsudski.
Even though the design was full of pathos and ambition, it was not possible to build the district – the city couldn’t afford it. But the design fully shows the imperial ambitions and aspirations of its creators and a faith in architecture as a propaganda tool.
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Originally written in Polish by Anna Cymer, translated by MW, Nov 2018