On 31st August 2014 – the 25th anniversary of the signing of the August Accords in Gdańsk – the European Solidarity Centre was opened to the public. No less than 58 architectural studios from all around the world submitted their projects to the competition for its design. The winning work was created by the Fort studio from Gdańsk.
When, at the turn of the century, the idea of building the ‘Polish Roads to Freedom’ Museum of Solidarity (the institution's original name, conceived in March 1998 by the President of the Council of the City of Gdańsk Paweł Adamowicz and historian Jerzy Kukliński) was crystallizing, its creators focused on the social and educational role this institution was to play. Thus, the emphasis has been put on compiling an archive of data about the history of the Solidarity movement, and on arranging a reading room. The museum’s founders were foremost concerned with its being an educational forum:
This living monument – a symbol of the victory of the Solidarność’s peaceful revolution – is to be a world centre fostering the ideas of freedom, democracy and solidarity –
declared the signatories of the European Solidarity Centre’s foundation act (among them, 22 prime ministers and presidents) in 2005
We want to transfer the ideas we believed to the pages of contemporary history for the sake of future generations – said Lech Wałęsa.
The project, developed over the course of several years, was eventually completed on 31st
August, 2014, when the European Solidarity Centre was officially opened to the public, along with its core exhibition that spreads over two floors and occupies 3,000 square meters. It presents the history of the opposition movements that led to democratic changes across Central and Eastern Europe, and in particular, the Solidarity movement. It covers the period from the strikes in August 1980 until the turn of 1989, as well as the democratic changes in Poland and neighbouring countries.
The exhibition is arranged chronologically and follows a coherent narrative, thus making it comprehensible both to a Pole who experienced the transformation firsthand and to a foreigner who may not know what life in a communist country was like. The exhibition comprises interactive features – film screenings, sound recordings, and touch screens – enabling visitors to explore, at their own pace, the complicated circumstances that have shaped modern Europe. The exhibition allows us to understand the importance of certain events (such as Polish Round Table Talks), but also to see the reality of life in those days.
Alongside the exhibition space, the ECS also houses a library which brings together 20,000 books and 6.5 thousand copies of magazines, mainly related to the history of the Solidarity and the anti-communist opposition in the Polish People's Republic and other countries of Central and Eastern Europe. In the first month after its opening, the ECS had already started running educational workshops for children, youth and adults, as well as a series of scientific meetings and lectures for the general public.
In addition to its programme and collection, which are still being developed, the European Solidarity Centre also attracts with the very architectural design of its headquarters. In line with the global trend, like many cultural institutions, the ECS was bestowed with a building which is not only a ‘packaging’ but a part of the concept and one of its exhibits.
No less than 58 architectural studios participated in the international architectural competition for the ECS’s design, which was adjudicated in December 2007. The winning design was created by Fort studio from Gdańsk – an irregularly shaped building covered in rust-coloured sheet metal reminiscent of a ship’s hull. "This work best reflects the strength and spirit of the Solidarity movement and the industrial character of the yard" – said the jury, justifying their decision. Indeed, the building is located at Solidarity Square, next to the legendary shipyard gate and near the Monument to the Fallen Shipyard Workers, and so had to integrate with this unique area.
Wojciech Targowski, Piotr Mazur, Antoni Taraszkiewicz and Paweł Czarzasty – the main designers of Fort studio – proposed a structure with slightly sloping walls made of the fashionable material that is cor-ten steel. Employing it on such a large scale (it had previously only been used as decorative detail in buildings in Poland) sparked a bit of controversy: to many of Gdańsk's residents, the huge, rusty surfaces of the ESC were reminiscent of... sloppy construction. Wojciech Targowski from the Fort studio explained on the Trojmiasto.pl portal that:
The use of this material is consistent with the aesthetic and symbolic concept of the ECS project. Cor-ten is to refer to the landscape of the shipyard which is adjacent to the building of the ECS. After all, its raw, industrial terrain used to be strewn with similar rusting sheets. Reaching slightly deeper, this kind of material is a reference to the simplicity and austerity of the idea of Solidarity, which originated in this shipbuilding landscape.
The architects combined this particular material with other ideas to maintain associations with the shipyard. One of the ESC’s elevations is glazed and hidden behind the external horizontal blinds; the other three are made of cor-ten steel of a non-uniform colour.
Now, the colour gets its final tone. Cor-ten steel’s essential quality is that it will not change significantly in the future. I would not like it to be of a completely uniform colour; the less monochromatic it is, the more satisfied I'll feel – explained the designer in Bryla.pl.
The building is surrounded by water from the side of Solidarity Square and the Monument to the Fallen Shipyard Workers. The square in front of the building is split by canals; water also flows through the walls of a pit in the ground corridor, leading to one of the entrances.
Anyone who has had the opportunity to be on a ship’s hull while under construction and seen how a ship is built will have similar impressions when entering the headquarters of the ECS: a large, open space; high, oblique, steel walls, and concrete structural elements resemble the interior of a ship under construction – even the lift has an appropriately industrial design.
The most noticeable difference is the green square on the ground floor. The ESC’s entrance hall is filled with trees and lawns. The architects introduced some greenery into the building in order to warm its character. The hall, a space that any visitor has to pass through, is decorated with a beautifully illuminated lawn with lined with benches so as not to appear cold and unwelcoming.
The industrial character is maintained in all areas of the building. Visitors to the exhibition walk through successive galleries connected by rusty bridges hung high above the ground, open a huge, steel door and climb stairs with railings made of metal mesh. With an exhibition space divided into a series of separate galleries, the designers created ‘cracks’ between them running through the entire height of the building. The bridges are not only a means of passing between the spaces, but also provide a spot from which one can observe the rusty space of the ESC from different points, heights and angles.
The headquarters of the European Solidarity Centre is a distinctive and bold architectural work. However, its form is not cheap flashiness – the architects thought through the building’s function, the context in which it arose, and the history of its location. It is a building which from afar indicates its content and which will certainly become a reference point for further investment in this area. The only worrying fact is that in a few years time, it is quite likely that the ESC building will be the only physical reminder of the history of this area.
Paradoxically, the institution meant to preserve and tell the history of the shipyard might be the only one left to commemorate it. Sold to private investors, the Gdańsk Shipyard has been in fact gradually razed to the ground – subsequently, post-industrial buildings have been pulled down. It is even problematic to add individual buildings to the register of historical monuments, a difficulty which will result in their disappearance.
Even the fate of the shipyard cranes, the most recognizable shapes in the panorama of Gdańsk, is uncertain – a third of them have already been demolished. At the time of the opening of the ESC, its headquarters stood in the foreground of an empty horizon. If not for the adjacent gate topped with a sign stating ‘Gdańsk Shipyard’, tourists who are less familiar with the site certainly would not realise that they are entering a ship factory which is also a site of supreme historical importance,
Anna Cymer, October 2014, transl. GS