The history of Nowa Huta
A living legend of communism. The flagship development from the days when Comrade Stalin watched things from the Kremlin. Yet it makes sense to take a different look at Nowa Huta (literally: “the New Steel Mills”): a well-designed, functional city with a long history, at times dramatic, which reaches far beyond the last century.
In the 1950s, a new city was raised to the east of Kraków, on the most fertile agricultural land in the region. This followed a “proposal” to build a great steel mills complex by Joseph Stalin.
Various locations were considered, yet finally a decision was reached that Poland’s largest industrial plant would be developed together with a model communist city in the village of Mogiła, not far away from Kraków.
The local people had tilled the fields for centuries, and traces of settlement in the area reach several thousand years before the birth of Christ (this is where the oldest work of goldsmithery in Poland was found: an earring from around 2000 BC). This is the place where the mysterious Mound of Wanda was built in the 7th or 8th century AD, in tribute to the daughter of the city’s mythical founder.
This is also where we can find one of the oldest churches of Kraków. The Cistercian monks settled in Mogiła early in the Middle Ages. The church and monastery they founded soon became one of the most popular sanctuaries in Poland. Centuries later, it remained the only church in the atheist Nowa Huta – as the Communist authorities intended it to be – for many years.
There were geographic and demographic considerations supporting the construction of the huge steel mills, yet perhaps the most decisive ones were those of a political nature. A throng of the working class was to change the ideological face of Kraków, which Communist powers considered a stronghold of political reactionism under the overpowering influence of intelligentsia and the Catholic Church.
The breaking of the ground for the foundations of the first building in Nowa Huta (the block at 14 Mierzwy Street, as recalled today by a commemorative plaque) got underway on 23 June 1949: the nameday of Wanda. One of the tasks defined for the new city was to forge a community of atheists. Eager to juxtapose a pagan heroine to Catholic saints, the authorities were prepared to name anything after her. Nowa Huta has a monument to Wanda (on the mound), but also a residential settlement, stadium, and a department store.
Somewhat later, on 26 April 1950, the first worker embarked on the construction of the steel mills that would soon be named after Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. In the record year of 1977, the steel-spewing moloch reached its production apogee: 6.7 million tons of steel a year with record employment of 38,000, accompanied – unsurprisingly – by environmental pollution.
Following its ideology, the art of socialist realism was to be “socialist in content and nationalist in form”. Several renaissance cities in Poland had escaped the destruction of the war, namely Kraków, Zamość, and Kazimierz on the Vistula, and the style was recognised as “the Polish national form”, so a decision was made to have Nowa Huta follow that style. The new city was constructed by eminent urban planners who had been brought up to respect classical models. The heart of the new city was to be a central square, modelled on the Greek agora, where public life thrived. It was to be surrounded by residential areas and the most important buildings of the party, including its Municipal Committee. The project was never completed.
Today, there are five main arteries radiating from the Central Square (plac Centralny, the main square of Nowa Huta). Standing between them are quarters denoted by successive letters of the alphabet: cosy mini-towns bathing in greenery and self-sufficient, moreover – furnished with air-raid shelters, and exceptional defensive attributes. The Administrative Centre of the former Lenin Steelworks (today: ArcelorMittal Poland) makes a powerful impression. The locals refer to the imposing buildings standing by the gate to the steelworks (ul. Ujastek 1) in a style alluding to the renaissance as the “Doges’ Palace” or “Vatican”.
Meanwhile, cultural institutions were also opened in Nowa Huta during the 1950s: the Ludowy Theatre (os. Teatralne 34) operating to this day, and two twin cinemas: the Świt (os. Teatralne 10) and the Światowid (os. Centrum E-1, today housing the Museum of the People’s Republic of Poland). With time, the hub of the socialist city became encircled by successive estates, which now reflect the typical stages of the architecture of the People’s Republic. Long did the new city wait for its own place of prayer (a function that had to be maintained for decades by the Church of the Cistercian monastery). The first church in the workers’ district of Kraków, the famous Ark of the Lord, was only built in 1967–77, and this only thanks to the determination of the locals.
Contrary to their intentions and plans, communist ideologists failed to set the new city at loggerheads with the intelligentsia of ancient Kraków, nor did they succeed in making it a city without churches. It was in Nowa Huta that crowds demonstrated in defence of Solidarity, which was banned during martial law (1981–83). It became a particular irony of history that the architecture of Nowa Huta’s residential districts, developed to help to defend the country in case of a NATO attack, made it more difficult for police forces to catch the participants.
In 2004 the so-called “Stara Nowa Huta” (i.e. the “Old New Steel Mills”) was entered into the register of Kraków’s built heritage, as a representative case of socialist realist urban developments in Poland.
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