Katowice's skyscraper, located on Żwirki i Wigury Street, was completed in 1934. At that time, its 14 floors and height of 62 metres made it one of Europe’s tallest buildings, and its creation had great significance.
On 20th March 1921, a plebiscite was held in Upper Silesia. The 1,220,524 citizens of the region with voting rights were supposed to decide on whether to join their lands with Poland or with Germany. In effect, Silesia was divided into two parts which, in subsequent years, entered into a rivalry with each other because of political and propagandist reasons. This included building investments. In the 1930s, like today, there was a belief that spectacular skyscrapers visible from a distance are symbols of victory and power. Even though they were much smaller than today, they were still impressive because tall constructions were relatively new in architecture.
With that in mind, it’s no wonder that Katowice’s authorities decided to build a skyscraper – the construction works were financed by the Silesian Parliament (the pragmatic Germans did not plan such costly investments). It was placed in the city’s southern part which was filling up with luxury and relatively modern (at that time) modernist tenement houses. It was known from the beginning that a tall building not only has to overlook the vicinity but also represent what is most innovative in architecture. The edifice was designed by Tadeusz Kozłowski but its constructor, Stefan Bryła, one of the most prominent engineers of that time, also had a big impact on the vision of the skyscraper. Bryła created the first ever welded road bridge and the Prudential office building – a skyscraper in Warsaw which was built at the same time as the one in Katowice. The Kozłowski-Bryła duo built an edifice for Katowice which is elegant in its modernist austerity. The building is composed of two cuboids (the lower one has 6 aboveground and two underground floors, the dominant respectively 14 and 3) has smooth, stone façades and very sparsely spread out details. The architects focused more on picking the right finishing materials, diversifying the stone’s type, colour and texture and on the shape of the stairs, railings and lamps. The edifice was very stylish, had a porter, two elevators, and rubbish chutes. In the skyscraper’s upper part, there were apartments – quite luxurious for the time. They were equipped with bathrooms, central heating, and warm water. The building even had its own telephone exchange. The apartments varied in size – there were small studios and apartments over 100m2 with servants’ quarters. The biggest apartments were inhabited by prominent tax officials because the lower part was occupied by the Silesian Tax Chamber. On the fourth floor, there was a link thanks to which people living in the tower could get to work. In the afternoon, they could rest on the roof terrace which offered a magnificent view of the city (during World War II, the terrace served as an observation point for the air defence force).
Construction of the Katowice skyscraper commenced in 1930 and was completed four years later. However, the building remained the tallest building in Poland for only one year – soon afterwards, the Prudential in Warsaw was completed. It topped the Silesian tower by six metres. The Silesian skyscraper belongs to the functionalist school – the section of modernism in which the simplicity of form, the block’s austerity and minimalistic details were supposed to emphasise the edifice’s function.
One has to acknowledge that the skyscraper’s designers created a building which was truly exceptional for its time. Without a doubt, Tadeusz Kozłowski knew of skyscrapers built in the United States at the end of the 19th century. The first American skyscrapers also had stone façades and quite squat proportions (for their time). However, they were also the first step towards building much higher. Stefan Bryła, a world-renowned engineer, was able to design a steel framework which sustained this impressive block and gave it its modern character. Over one thousand tons of steel was used for the building’s construction – this investment saved two Silesian steelworks from going bankrupt due to the Great Depression.
As early as in 1931, a film dedicated to the Silesian skyscraper was created. It had its official premiere in Rialto cinema in Katowice which was attended by Silesia’s governor Michał Grażyński. Later, it was screened in many other Polish cities – the building was well-known and it promoted the idea of building high. No similar building appeared in Silesia’s German part – the Katowice tower, even though it was surpassed by the one in Warsaw, overlooked Silesia for many more years.
Originally written in Polish by Anna Cymer, translated by Patryk Grabowski, Nov 2018