Seldom do I go anywhere without noticing comparisons or otherwise to where I live or places I know. I’ve always had this fascination about how places come to be and how they change or adapt. I suppose it comes from my liking of geography at school which lead me to study land use.
This year’s summer hols were no different. We went to Zakopane in south Poland and spent some time in and around Kraków. I tend to share photos of my travels when I’m out and about, hoping others might find what I share interesting or useful in some way; my way of attempting to make the world a smaller place perhaps.
Zakopane was a fascinating place; Poland’s winter capital at the foot of the Tatra Mountains on the border with Slovakia. I found it interesting in how it is introducing new infrastructure to parts of an old town.
That’s reasonably easy to do on the outskirts of town where new roads can be built wide enough to accommodate lanes of traffic and then segregated for cycling and pedestrians. Not so easy in the old town area.
Cycling is increasingly becoming a way of getting around. It was interesting to see that you could pick bikes up in the park and were encouraged to enter the town on segregated cycleways.
Zakopane was a great place and whilst Kraków was picturesque ……
and there’s loads to do for the typical tourist, my eldest son and I wanted to explore off the beaten track.
We’d heard about a place not far from Kraków called Nowa Huta, meaning New Steel Mill. Soviet Union funded, it’s one of only two entirely pre-planned socialist realist cities ever built and apparently one of the finest examples of deliberate social engineering. It ticked the boxes for me from land use/urban planning perspective and as my son is studying Russian, and interested in history, we spent a whole 8 Zlotys (80p each) on a 30 minute tram ride and went back in time.
Nowa Huta was created in 1949 on land taken by the communist government. The idea was to introduce a new working class to balance out ‘conservative, reactionary Kraków’. The main focus was a giant steelworks, after which the town takes its name. The Vladimir Lenin Steelworks opened in 1954; a present from the Soviet Union. The reasons were mostly ideological as coal had to be transported from miles away and iron ore from the Soviet Union. Local demand for steel was relatively non existent.
Following the collapse of communism in 1990, the factory was renamed Huta im. T. Sendzimira to commemorate the scientist and engineer Tadeusz Sendzimir. In its 1970’s heyday it employed around 40,000 people and produced almost seven million tons of steel annually. Nowa Huta was to become an ideal town for Communist propaganda and populated mostly by industrial workers.
Found on the end of al. Solidarności, the main avenue, the entrance and administrative centre of the steel plant was given the full socialist makeover, with two matching concrete buildings crowned with a Renaissance comb attic to echo the fine old buildings of Poland.
In the 1980s, the steel plant was one of the most important centres of anticommunist resistance, with many strikes and demonstrations, eventually becoming a stronghold of the Solidarity movement lead by Lech Walesa.
It would be full of parks for children, wide, tree-line avenues and paths, essentially modern (if not spacious) flats, and had the promise of gainful employment for all. In 1951 it was joined with Kraków and in 1952 tramway construction started. I’m pretty sure me and firstborn returned to Kraków on one of the original trams!
The whole city was planned like a Renaissance city, but in Social Realist style.
Vast impressive, geometrical boulevards lead from the central square – not unlike Eastgate and Lower Headrow in Leeds. The monumental architecture of the Central Square (Plac Centralny) was surrounded by huge estates of blocks of flats, again not unlike those built in the UK. I’m thinking Quarry Hill for those that know Leeds and Park Hil in Sheffield.
As a nod to local tradition, Polish Renaissance and baroque arcades, ornamental parapets and the like were added.
Careful planning was key, and the suburb was designed with ‘efficient mutual control’ in mind.
Wide streets would prevent the spread of fire and dense planting of trees would easily soak up a nuclear blast, while the layout was such that the city could easily be turned into a fortress if it came under attack.
Architecture was an extremely important tool for the creators of a new social order. It was intended to help to form a socialist theme – the ideas sparking citizens’ consciousness and outlook on life. During this work, a crucial role fell to the architect who wasn’t perceived merely as an engineer creating streets and edifices, but an “engineer of the human soul”. The general outlook of a building was more valued than how it looked. It needed to express social ideas, to arouse a feeling of persistence and power.
Nowa Huta’s central Avenue of Roses featured a statue of Vladimir Lenin, unveiled in April 1973. The bronze monument was pulled down in 1989, as a result of numerous protest actions by local citizens. Nowa Huta now has more than 200,000 inhabitants.
It was plain to see as we walked round how the folk who lived there were using the open spaces and many benches and seating to get out and meet each other, the shade provided by the many trees also helping to keep it cooler.
Since the fall of Communism the city that was once a showpiece for Stalinism now boasts many tributes to anti-Communists. Streets formerly named after Lenin and the Cuban Revolution have been renamed to honour Pope John Paul II and the Polish World War II hero Władysław Anders. In 2004, Plac Centralny, Nowa Huta’s central square was controversially renamed Ronald Reagan Central Square in honour of the former U.S. President.
Nowa Huta is the location of an award-winning film by Andrzej Wajda called the Man of Marble (Polish: Człowiek z marmuru), based on a true story of the rise and fall of a Stakhanovite bricklayer who helped build the new model socialist city in the course of Stalinism in Poland. Man of Marble, made in the mid 1970s, predated the Solidarity labour union movement in Gdańsk that was ultimately responsible for overthrowing Communism.
The Utopian dream that was Nowa Huta was never fully realised. A grand town hall in the style of the renaissance halls found across Poland was never built, nor was the theatre building across from it and the ornamental architectural details planned for the monumental buildings of Plac Centralny were never added. There were also no churches which gradually led to confrontations and subsequent additions.
Maybe it might appear a bit dull on the face of it but the folk who lived there seemed to like it and the space they had between the buildings. Groups of older men played chess on the many tables and benches, and people used the parks and open spaces to meet and greet.
People cycled and cycle lanes were being introduced. The advantage of the wide streets is they could accommodate trams, two lanes of dual carriageways, segregated cycleways and segregated paths. Fair enough, that left a lot of grass to cut for the local authorities, but try retrofitting that transport corridor in a major city anywhere today without first removing something else first.
And while I was drafting this post, I noticed a tweet in my time line by Ronnie Hughes (@asenseofplace1) from Liverpool.
1948 – a municipal dream?…..reality elsewhere……..funny that!