Nikiszowiec is not the only Silesian workers’ housing estate to be preserved in its original form, but it is definitely the most famous. It has now been made into a fashionable place to live, as well as a destination for tourists.
In the 1880s, the booming mining company Georg von Giesche’s Erben (Heirs of Georg von Gische), which already owned several industrial plants in Silesia, started to purchase land south-east of Katowice. Soon afterwards, mines started to be built around the pitheads, and more workers were needed. In the first years of the 20th century, it was already quite common practice for the owners of large factories to build housing estates for workers close-by. It was not dictated by grandeur – workers living next to the workplace did not have to waste time commuting. It was also easier to control them. A company flat was an incentive to take up work far from ones’ place of birth, but it was also a method of disciplining employees because a dismissed worker would lose the roof over their head.
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The Giszowiec estate was the first estate established for the workers employed in the mines of Georg von Giesche’s Erben. Built between 1907 and 1910, it was designed according to the idea of a garden town which was very fashionable at that time. It consisted of two-, three- and four-family houses surrounded by greenery in the form of rural cottages. The centre of the estate was a square with stylistically similar retail and service buildings. Georg and Emil Zillmann, who were brought here from Charlottenburg, were responsible for the project of this workers’ colony.
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The estate was named ‘Nickisch’ – the same as the mine shaft next to which it was built (and which in turn owed its name to Baron Nickisch von Rosenegk, a member of the board of directors of the Gische company). It was built entirely of brick and although it seems that the houses in it are identical, a trained eye will notice many differing details. Individual quarters differ in size and plan, and the houses have different shapes of window bays, gates and window frames. Some apartments are equipped with loggias, and some floors of the houses are separated by decorative brick friezes. There were no two identical entrances to the staircases (out of a total of 126). The homogeneous, coherent architecture of Nikiszowiec is, therefore, also subtly diversified. The building’s most characteristic elements – appearing also in many other similar worker colonies in Silesia – are the window niches painted red (red paint was the cheapest and most easily accessible).
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Nikiszowiec is not only a characteristic example of architecture offering the unique atmosphere of a small, brick settlement. The housing estate also played an important role in history, being an important place for participants in numerous worker strikes and subsequent Silesian uprisings (in a poll concerning the national affiliation of the region after World War I, 72% of Nikiszowiec residents voted in favour of Silesia joining Poland). These events became the basis for the screenplays of Kazimierz Kutz’s films Salt of the Black Earth and Pearl in the Crown, both shot in Nikiszowiec. The so-called Janowska Group, an association of non-professional painters, was active in the community centre in the estate. The most famous creator of the naïve art movement, Teofil Ociepka (who was born in the area and worked in the Giesche mine for many years), was a member of this association – he was the most famous creator of the movement next to Nikifor.
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After many mines were liquidated as a result of the political transformation and employment was significantly reduced in others, Nikiszowiec started to struggle with serious social problems. Situated on the outskirts of the city, it could not wait for revitalisation projects. However, it was then discovered by tourists and to this day it is one of the most visited places in all of Silesia. Like other historical districts with an uncanny vibe, Nikiszowiec started to attract new residents and became fashionable. Today it has its own community to organise cultural events and fairs. It also has an association founded by social psychologist Philip Zimbardo which supports local identity and the integration of residents.
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The construction of Nikiszowiec lasted from 1911 to 1919; the church was put into service in 1927 (after the outbreak of World War I its construction was interrupted for several years). In total, more than 1000 flats were built in the estate, most of which contained two rooms and had 63m2 of floor space. The estate has preserved its original appearance to this day (except for its courtyards, which have been arranged according to modern needs). In 1978 it was entered in its entirety into the register of monuments, in 2011 it was declared a Historic Monument – the highest form of monument protection in Poland.
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Sources: Joanna Tofirska (Katowice Nikiszowiec: Miejsca, Ludzie, Historia, published in 2007 by the Museum of the History of Katowice), Lech Szarańca (Osada i Osiedla Katowic, Wydawnictwo "Śląsk", 1983).
Originally written in Polish by Anna Cymer, translated into English by P. Grabowski, December 2019