Kraków and Architecture

27 January 2022

Kraków – a Post-War City

Michał Wiśniewski

The image of contemporary Kraków was shaped in the wake of the Second World War. Although the city was developing fast before 1939, the real growth was yet to come.

Soon after the war, the city expanded to cover over 300 square kilometres, making it fifty times larger than when Austrian fortifications were removed just four decades earlier. This expansion came with the development of Nowa Huta – a new residential district for workers at the Vladimir Lenin Steelworks, located about 8 kilometres from the city centre. It remains one of the most fascinating post-war urbanist and architectural sites in Poland.

In spite of the difficult political and economic situation at the time of the construction of Nowa Huta, its appearance and quality is highly diverse. To an extent, it also serves as a guidebook to the history of non-material culture of Poland under communism. Its earliest part was built in the first half of the 1950s, immediately becoming a symbol of its era and a milestone achievement of social realism. In 1949, Poland was subjected to Soviet-style propaganda promoting monumentalism and ornamentation with nationalist connotations. Rooted in this style, the development of Nowa Huta combined a layout resembling that of Magnitogorsk and recalling St Petersburg’s Baroque map, featuring ornamentation based on Wawel and the Main Market Square. The buildings lining the Centralny Square and the Róż Avenue, and the twin pavilions of the Steelworks’ Administrative Centre, are surely Poland’s greatest achievements in this field.

Steelworks’ Administrative Centre, photo by Wojciech Wandzel

In spite of the utopian perfection of Nowa Huta, designed by the team led by Tadeusz Ptaszycki, it was never fully completed. The dramatic political events of 1956 and changes at the top meant that social realism became a rather short-lived idea, in spite of its initial importance. Following Władysław Gomułka’s rise to power, the aesthetics of recently-completed buildings such as the Palace of Culture and Science in Warsaw and Nowa Huta in Kraków no longer fitted with the political vision, not helped by their association with years of Stalinism. With the ongoing space race between the world’s superpowers, the idea of progress became all-important and meant that cities of the Eastern Bloc would become synonymous with modernity. In Polish and Cracovian architecture it meant a return to the ideas of modernism, bold reinforced concrete constructions, vast glazed spaces and futuristic forms straight from sci-fi films. It also meant growing use of prefab elements, including concrete slabs for tower blocks.

Following the political thaw of 1956, Cracovian designers were given their first opportunity to travel to the West. They returned from beyond the Iron Curtain with new ideas and previously unfamiliar designs. The first chance to showcase them came with housing. In 1959, the Szklane Domy [Glass Houses – trans.] estate in Nowa Huta featured an elongated block known as Swedish, designed by Janusz and Marta Ingarden. It was soon joined by Kazimierz Chodorkowski’s French block. They both followed modernist designs featuring extensive glazing and reinforced concrete supports, with elaborate, abstract interior décor. An urbanist competition for the designs of the next part of Nowa Huta – an estate aiming to house 50,000 residents in Bieńczyce – was won by Jadwiga Guzicka, and all other estates in this part of Kraków followed her modernist vision.

View on Bieńczyce and the Church of Our Lady Queen of Poland, photo by Wojciech Gorgolewski

The most important architectural event at the time was the expansion of Kraków’s university campuses, including the construction of a new site of the Jagiellonian University along Krasińskiego, Mickiewicza and Słowackiego avenues. As well as parading its modernity, Gomułka’s Poland also showcased its traditions and history. The 550th anniversary of the Battle of Grunwald (1960), the 600th anniversary of the Kraków Academy (1964) and the celebrations of the millennium of the Polish state (1966) all contributed to the creation of numerous new public buildings in the city centre. Other architecturally-important constructions include the Brutalist structure of the BWA Pavilion – now the Bunkier Sztuki gallery, designed by Krystyna Różyska-Tołłoczko and completed in 1965. Cracovia Hotel and Kijów Cinema, designed by Witold Cęckiewicz, opened the same year. The light reinforced concrete structure, illuminated, glazed ground floor and abstract mosaic in the lobby of Cracovia Hotel were powerful accents in Kraków’s largest modernist building. The futuristic cinema with its expressive shape featuring a curved roof is decorated with the city’s largest abstract mosaic. Other important structures are university campuses, such as the Academy of Physical Education in Czyżyny (Leszek Filar, 1977). Perhaps the most interesting complex of this type is the AGH University of Science and Technology campus – Tomasz Mańkowski’s team created a unique design featuring five white towers separated by long lines of low-rise buildings.

The final stage of the development of modernist architecture in Kraków brought mass construction of churches. Just a few new places of worship were erected between the Second World War and the late 1970s; the breakthrough came in 1977 with the completion of Wojciech Pietrzyk’s ark-shaped Church of Our Lady Queen of Poland in Bieńczyce. One of Kraków's largest churches, completed after the Second Vatican Council, introduced a previously unknown sacral design with a central open plan and modernist structure reminiscent of an abstract sculpture. The early days of the pontificate of John Paul II paved the way for more similar buildings: over twenty new churches were built in Kraków in the 1980s, mainly monumental, modernist constructions becoming the dominant features of new housing estates. The stand-out places of worship in Nowa Huta are the Church of St Maksymilian Maria Kolbe in Mistrzejowice (Józef Dutkiewicz, 1976–1983) and the Church of St Brother Albert in Czyżyny (Witold Cęckiewicz, 1985–1994). The Church of St Jadwiga at the Krowodrza Górka estate (Romuald Loegler, Jacek Czekaj, 1977–1989) is also important.

Church of St Brother Albert in Czyżyny, photo by Jacek Ogiela

During just three post-war decades Kraków’s architectural landscape changed dramatically. The city no longer had a single centre surrounded by concentric lines of buildings. The new district of Nowa Huta had its own, alternative centre which went on to pave the way for the creation of many bold constructions which continue to define Kraków’s landscape until the present day.

Dr. Michał Wiśniewski
He works at the Kraków University of Economics and the International Cultural Centre, member of the board of the Institute of Architecture Foundation and author of publications on Cracovian and Polish 20th-century architecture. Curator or co-author of exhibitions dedicated to the history of architecture such as Impossible Figures, first shown at La Biennale di Venezia International Architecture Exhibition in 2014.

The article was published in the 4/2021 issue of the “Kraków Culture” quarterly.

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