A day spent in Katowice is a day well spent – particularly if you like stunning Socialist Modernism, monumental high rises and coal. In this article, I briefly document episodes from the rich post-war architectural heritage of Upper Silesia.
I visited Katowice on a tantrum. I had already been to Krakow for a few days around Christmas 2019, our last trip before the 2020 global lockdown. Krakow was a city tormented and beautiful, if a bit gentrified these days. My family had been planning a morning of shopping and sweets in the city’s crowded Market Square, so after typically losing that vote – 3 ayes to 1 nay – I woke up before dawn, and wishing them a fun morning ahead, I got on a local bus to Katowice.
At daybreak, I crossed over from the voivodeship (that’s what they call a county in Poland) of Małopolska towards the Upper Silesian Urban Area, the largest conurbation in Poland, and one of the largest in Europe. Comprising 40 cities totalling about 3 million inhabitants, it is home to a significant number of active coal mines and other major industries, often comparable to the Rurhgebiet in Germany. In its heart, the city of Katowice, where 10% of the region’s population resides. Sipping on a tiny cap of bitter coach station coin-op machine coffee, I watched the forests unfolding along the route. There were forests of tall green trees, and forests of tall red-on-white chimneys, their billowing ivory smoke joining the grey skies above.
An hour later, I pulled into Katowice’s no-nonsense coach station. It was a glorified open air car park, where morning commuters mustered under an array of dim, yellowed spotlights, exposed to December’s sub zero temperatures. As I got off the bus, I saw the largest single unit high rise I’d ever seen – and I’ve seen a few – dominating the skies above the station. I have to confess, I was here mostly for the housing, about which I’d heard a lot. By its mid-80’s peak, Katowice had been at the epicentre of development of some of the most expansive and ambitious residential estates in the Eastern Bloc, designed to attract and accommodate its ever growing population of industrial workers. My purpose for the morning was to capture the 7 decades of urbanisation in Katowice in a series of photos, along with some of the changes these autonomous, vertical neighbourhoods have experienced since the fall of Communism in 1989.
Katowice’s Super Projects
During socialist times, these new microrayons (lit. micro districts) had been inserted to the existing urban fabric of cities as socialist novelties of monumental scale. I had already experienced the magnificence of Nowa Huta, the model socialist microrayon at the outskirts of the city. But here in Katowice, I noticed how a great deal of socialist infrastructure had been strategically placed adjacent to Katowice’s historic centre. Such as the building I was now staring at in disbelief : the humongous Superjednostka (Super Unit), a 15 storey block for up to 3000 residents – and that’s excluding the clusters of ancillary low rise units surrounding it. It was built by architect Mieczysław Król between 1967 and 1971, and once sported the motto “OUR HEARTS, THOUGHTS, ACTIONS FOR YOU, OUR SOCIALIST HOMELAND” on its roof. Today, the sign has been replaced by the bright neon logo of a furniture company. Its scale is immense : this is the largest single housing block I’ve ever seen. It’s a Great Wall of residential flats, standing on titanic, Corbusian piloti.
Across the Superjednostka, one can see the equally gigantic Silesian Insurgents’ Monument. Its three bronze winged elements were designed by sculptor Gustaw Zemła and architect Wojciech Zabłocki in 1967, and represent the 3 Silesian Uprisings of 1919-21, a series of armed struggles that resulted in the secession of Upper Silesia from Weimar Germany to Poland at the time.
It is a monument clearly linked to Polish nationalism and the region’s tumultuous history with neighbouring Germany. But it also reflects on a period where the Polish Republic and the Soviet Union, both nascent states at the time, were also at war with each other. Therefore the fact the monument survived two decades of Soviet scrutiny is surprising to me – although Poland’s loyalty had never been in doubt throughout its socialist era. In fact, Katowice was briefly renamed to Stalinogród in 1953, just two days after Stalin’s death, to mourn the loss of the Soviet leader. The name change never caught on, though, and the city’s name reverted back to Katowice in the aftermath of the announcement of Nikita Khrushchev’s new de-Stalinisation policies in 1956. And in 1968, Polish divisions entered Czechoslovakia on behalf of the Warsaw Pact to help quell another uprising there, known as the Prague Spring. Just going with the flow of history, I suppose.
The Socialist Modernist ensemble of Katowice’s city centre is completed by the breath-taking shape of the Spodek Arena – lit. a flying saucer of epic proportions. It was designed by Maciej Gintowt & Maciej Krasiński, and built between 1964 and 1971. Boasting a hotel, 3 car parks and space for 10.000 spectators, Spodek remained Poland’s largest indoor space for over 4 decades and it is a mesmerising sight to behold to this day.
Katowice’s post-war socialist architecure effort was led by General Jerzy Ziętek. He was a Polish war hero who fought in the 1920 Polish Insurgency and World War 2, and went on to become a prominent member in the Upper Silesian assembly after 1945. Ziętek was appointed a Silesian vojvod in 1964, becoming the leader of the assembly and thus asserting political control of the region’s infrastructure projects. The Spodek Arena was the most visibly stunning projects that went ahead during his tenure as a leader of the Upper Silesian Assembly. But it came with structural integrity concerns from the overseeing civil engineer Wacław Zalewski, owing to the stadium’s gravity-defying design and engineering. Ever a practical soldier, Ziętek used his army contacts to march 4000 soldiers inside the arena upon its completion in 1971, under orders to jump, clap and stomp as loudly as they could. The engineers were then able to measure the vibrations generated, and thus were able to test and verify Spodek’s structural integrity to everyone’ satisfaction.
De Gaulle in Katowice
In 1967, French President Charle De Gaulle announced an official state visit to the Polish People’s Republic. The regime of First Secretary Władysław Gomułka saw an opportunity to showcase the achievements of Polish state socialism to the world, and so everything was ordered into immediate overdrive. Naturally, the weight of preparations in Katowice fell on the shoulders of Jerzy Ziętek and his associates. They came under direct orders from the head of diplomatic protocol in Warsaw to create a show for the French statesman, who would be making a stop at Katowice along the route from Warsaw to Cracow.
De Gaulle was a revered figure in Poland : as a young major, he had joined the 1919 French military mission in aid of the nascent Second Polish Republic, participating in military operations near the river Zbrucz. For his service to Poland, he received the Virtuti Militari, the state’s highest decoration. Gaulle’s love affair with Poland endured : during a 1944 visit to Moscow to meet Stalin, De Gaulle invested some of France’s precious political capital to petition for the settlement of Poland’s western border with Germany at the Oder-Neisse line, which was ultimately adopted between the East German and Polish governments in the post war period.
Although the Spodek was already under construction since 1964, breaking ground for the Superednostka was urgently brought forward to coincide with the French President’s visit. In a similar manner, the Silesian Insurgents’ Monument was unveiled just one week ahead of De Gaulle and Ziętek taking a stroll in the streets of Katowice. The two men followed by their entourages inspected the monument and the two massive construction sites next to it, and experienced the adulation of the jubilant crowds that cheered the French President everywhere he appeared.
The extent of Ziętek’s detailed preparations is impressive. There were special cheat sheets for everyone involved, down to the prominent wives of Katowice, who were meant to adhere to strict styles and dress colours which differed for each of the key events : the French President’s street stroll, the banquet in his honour, and the concert in the House of Music and Dance at nearby Zabrze. On that day, the ladies of Katowice had to change their outfit several times.
De Gaulle was there on a specific mission he referred to as his “pilgrimage to Poland”. It was a charm offensive designed to capitalise on his popularity into presenting his vision of European unity to the Polish leadership. It is said that the plans for the exceptionally large residential high rise at Katowice pleased the French statesman, who exalted Superjednostka’s similarities with Le Corbusier’s 1952 Unite de Habitation. It was mostly flattery : for despite the ambitious vision of its designer, the rushed construction of the Super Unit was further marred by the use of poor quality materials and similar corner-cutting, meaning that it didn’t turn out as super as its Marseille counterpart. It did turn out much bigger though, which must have been Ziętek’s plan all along. The roundabout and subway that connects the Spodek, the Silesian Insurgents’ Monument and the Superjednostka is still called Rondo Zietka in his honour.
De Gaulle finished off his charm offensive with a televised speech in Polish : “Long live Poland, our dear, noble, brave Poland !” he proclaimed. But despite the warm handshakes and general jubilation, Secretary Gomulka didn’t succumb to De Gaulle’s diplomatic overtures : he ultimately rejected any notion of the Polish People’s Republic leaving the Soviet sphere of influence to join the newly launched pan-European movement. Nevertheless, De Gaulle’s unwavering faith in Poland’s European identity was vindicated, albeit much later. His wartime proposals for Poland’s western border with Germany formed the basis for the final 1990 border settlement between the countries. In 2004, Poland formally joined the European Union.
Shaping a new metropolis
I am now standing atop the artificial hill that cleverly splits Katowice’s modern international congress centre in two, and take one final look at central Katowice’s socialist modernist legacy. It looks glorious – just as it was indented. After spending some time to take this vision in – my lens doesn’t do it justice – I am now ready to leave this behind, cross over to the other side, and be acquainted with another narrative from Katowice’s architectural legacy.
At the time of De Gaulle’s visit in 1967, Katowice was the epicentre of Upper Silesia’s rapid post-war urbanisation. The ample mining resources and industry of the region attracted tens of thousands of workers and their families, flocking into Upper Silesian cities shortly after the end of the war. Katowice’s population effectively doubled in the space of two generations, reaching a peak of 350.000 inhabitants in 1985. Ziętek’s mega projects in central Katowice were a reflection of this growth trend – and indeed there was much, much more infrastructure at play, on either side of the timeline of De Gaulle’s visit.
I had arrived at Katowice at dawn. It was the middle of the morning now. From the mound, I could see one of Katowice’s most recognizable icons, the Warszawa II coal mine shaft. Yes, a coal mine right in the middle of the city’s centre. Across the motorway, the impressive sight of the famous Star Estate, an ensemble of 7 star-shaped towers – and equally star shaped ancillary buildings – emerged through the morning haze. The estate (formally known as the Walenty Roździeńskiego Estate) sprang up in the very heart of Katowice between 1978 and 1985, taking over land previously used for mining operations, and re-decorating the landscape in the Modernist pastel colours of yellow, green and blue. I later found out that at least 3 of the roofs are painted a Modern red, which completes the colour set ! I couldn’t help thinking whether these roofs might have all been red back in the day? It would have been amazing flying Soviet delegates over the Star Estate, it’s 7 red stars symbolizing the 7 members of the Warsaw Pact… or maybe that wasn’t the intention at all, but it’s a thought.
It is a pretty looking estate regardless. Katowice’s Stars were built by the architectural duo of Henryk Buszko and Alexander Franta – Silesian Modernist architectural legends, and among Poland’s most significant urban planners. Buszko, Franta and their friend Jerzy Gottfried first met as architecture students at Krakow’s University of Science and Technology, and soon began working together. Their first creations in Warsaw and Katowice were typically shoehorned into the prevalent Stalinist architecture designs of the 40s and 50s – a situation which suffocated their youthful, impetuous creativity. When a competition to design the surroundings of the iconic Palace of Culture and Science in Warsaw’s Lenin Square was announced in 1954, their entry suggested bronze sculptures of horses across the sombre facade of hotel Polonia. Inexplicably, the establishment frowned upon their proposal through Jan Minorski, an influential Stalinist ideologue and editor of Architektura magazine : “No green horses will help you here !”, he announced, referring to the hue of the verdigris (the green patina on bronze statues and roofs that characterised Western imperial architecture from the Hapsburg Palaces of Vienna to the Statue of Liberty). Stalin presumably hated it, judging from the absolute dominance of polished steel in sculptures from his era. The nickname, however, stuck, and the ‘radical’ team would be known as the Green Horses going forward.
Tarnished by that green hue, the team spent must of their early career trying to escape the orbit of Miastoprojekt of Katowice (the local branch of the State Design Office) whose local city branches were the only available avenue for any architect who actually wanted to be involved in serious projects. Their proposals and designs were under close scrutiny ever since the green horses fiasco, and an application to form their own independent studio was rejected in 1956. They finally managed to escape the clutches of Miastoprojekt in 1958 : Stalin was long gone, de-Stalinisation was the new order of the day, and the once omnipotent State Design Office was undergoing significant changes. The new situation allowed the three architects to pursue more independent careers : Jerzy Gottfried went his own way in 1958, while Buzsko and Franta created the Pracownia Projektów Budownictwa Ogólnego on the same year : their General Building Projects Studio became the first independent architectural practice in Poland. The pioneering duo worked together until 2001, creating over 500 plans and designs – including the entire Star Estate which I’d just seen, and the other, even bigger estate in the outskirts of Katowice I was heading to next.
Upper Silesia’s rapid growth in the 60s resulted in a constant stream of commissions for the enterprising duo. The region’s exponential growth meant that further microrayons had to be planned in the outskirts of Katowice, and fast. This meant either expanding the city proper into rural land, or replacing its low rise suburbia. The grander of these projects replaced a series of former pop-up neighbourhoods made of wooden Finnish houses. These were initially given to the USSR by Finland as war reparations in the late 40s. The Soviets then donated these on to the equally devastated Polish People’s Republic. Later, more of these Finnish houses were obtained via direct trade with Finland in return for – what else – Polish iron and coal, the bountiful harvest of Upper Silesia.
Most of those quaint little houses along with the rest of the villages of Bederowiec, Sośnina and Klimzowiec were sacrificed in 1961 to make space for the new Osiedle Tysiąclecia lit. the Millennium Estate. Referring to the foundation of the first kingdom of Poland by the Piast dynasty in the year 960, the ‘Thousand Years of the Polish State’ microrayon became the centerpiece of a series of state celebrations for the important millennial jubilee. There were parades, speeches, exhibitions, even archaeological digs. And there was this new estate in Katowice, one of the largest in Poland, planned to house nearly 40.000 residents. Its planning and design was orchestrated by Buzsko and Franta, leading a broader team of architects, and became their greatest achievement : it became a life-long project, to which they added for over 30 years. In the process, they created a living, breathing district which accommodates 25.000 residents today, with integrated shops, medical facilities and kindergartens, squares and ponds. It was designed with utmost care and consideration for the residents, down to the last detail. For example, they planned so children attending the estate’s schools wouldn’t have to cross any roads in their daily commute. The adjacent Drogowa Trasa Średnicowa, a six lane dual carriageway, takes residents to central Katowice in a matter of a few minutes. Wide pedestrian passages under the motorway link the Millenium Estate with the nearby Provincial Park of Culture and Recreation, a beautiful natural reserve.
“Architecture is the art of the backdrop. It is always created for a specific purpose, as a result of an existing need. It’s task is to create spatial conditions for the human being – an individual in a community. The task of architectural formation is to serve specific manifestations of human activity, participate in shaping this activity in urban spaces, and ultimately, participate in shaping the human itself”Henryk Buszko & Aleksander Franta quoted in “Współczesna architektura Polska” by Przemysław Szafer (1988)
The Millenium Estate’s most celebrated additions, however, wouldn’t appear until after the fall of Communism – an event that seems to have given further impetus and focus to the duo. Liberated from the constraints of state-led design, Buzsko and Franta created the most enduring buildings of the estate, the stylish towers known as Kukurydze (Corn Cobs). The five residential high rises – built between 1988 and 1991 – are universally loved for their photogenic looks and natural symmetry, and are affectionately nicknamed after their similarity to maize. The buildings appear to be the duo’s self-confessed response to Bertrand Goldberg’s 1968 Marina City Towers in Chicago – albeit at a much smaller scale. However, peaking at a respectable 25 floors atop a hill, the Kukurydze still visually dominate the estate’s skyline, and are still among Poland’s tallest residential towers. I observe that their rounded shapes are essentially the same 8-pointed Stars of their Walenty Roździeńskiego Star towers, only curved, smoothed… makes you think outside the timeline, and wonder which design came first.
The nearby Church of the Holy Cross and Our Lady Healer of the Sick, also added to the estate after the fall of Comunism, is characterised by a similar tubular design, and a mind-blowing helicoid bell tower that’s screaming of Tatlin’s Tower. It’s a nod to Constructivism, the ground-breaking architectural movement of the 20’s that dominated post-Revolutionary Russia. Constructivism bridged Art Deco and Modernism – and alongside green horses, was also openly despised by Stalin for its perceived ostentatious, bourgeois style.
Could the unorthodox, mould-breaking shapes of the Church and the Kukurudze, at the time so different to every other high rise block in the estate, and indeed in Katowice – maybe even Poland, at least up to the early 90s – be an architectural metaphor for their final artistic emancipation? These later additions may may well have been a statement from the newly redeemed Green Horses, finally vindicated in their struggle against the rigidity of a state that has been trying to square the circle for over half a century.
I spent a few hours wandering about the estate, enjoying a slice of the community’s daily life. The architects were invested here for three decades, and in the process, the Millennium Estate had become a veritable museum of Polish Modernism. A watchful observer can distinguish the changing materials and techniques, and also the progress of the design philosophy as it endeavoured to meet the growing needs of the city and its inhabitants. I instinctively compared it with what I’ve witnessed in other suburban council estates elsewhere in Europe, and life at the Millenium Estate looked fantastic. Overall, Katowice’s formerly socialist micro districts look far from the hated, dilapidated remnants of a bygone era. These are tidy, well maintained properties, thoroughly renovated, and capable in attracting new investment to meet the ongoing demand for great housing in Upper Silesia
Of course progress – same as revolution – doesn’t come without sacrifice. The endurance of Katowice’s estates is certainly a testament to the vision of urban planners like Henryk Buszko & Aleksander Franta – who infused it with perennial utility and enduring aesthetic quality – but also, quite frankly, the result of the free market economics and sounder residential management practises that followed in the aftermath of communism in Poland. Today, Katowice’s estates are still expanding: the newly built Cztery Wieze (Four Towers, built between 2013 and 2019) at Tauzen – the ‘trendy’ colloquial byname for Millenium – are the latest addition to Upper Silesia’s finest estate. Financed by a group of investors and built without any apparent reference to Buszko and Franta’s masterplan, the new, post-modern looking high rises, look alien, contrived and a bit out of place among its well ordered blocks and public spaces. The marketing drive, blatantly targeting Katowice’s up and coming middle class, makes a big deal of the towers as being the new, ‘modern’ part of the iconic estate. More and more buildings are planned, shoehorned in open spaces previously set aside for visual coherence, atmosphere, or traffic flows : the integrity of the mature, carefully laid out masterplan is threatened by a new creed, and a new breed of developers.
Buszko and Franta vigorously contested the unwarranted development. I hear they even went to court to secure an injunction over those atrocious trespasses, but their case was dismissed. And so the Green Horses, veteran survivors of Miastoprojekt’s bureaucratic formality, suffered the trespass of a new soulless, unbidden architecture piggybacking their meticulously crafted Millenium Estate masterplan. Henryk Buszko passed away in 2015, and Alexander Franta in 2019.
The end of an era
It’s a somewhat sad story – but one that’s easily exceeded in sadness by this veritable monument to the horrors of arbitrary urban renewal : its Katowice’s (once) astonishing central rail station. Not too long ago, Katowice’s Dworzec Kolejowy (lit. Station Building) used to be one of Poland’s most eminent examples of Brutalist architecture. It was designed by Wacław Kłyszewski, Jerzy Mokrzyński and Eugeniusz Wierzbicki in 1970, and engineered by Wacław Zalewski, whom you might recall as being in charge of of Spodek Arena’s structural integrity. The tall, board marked columns supported an array of twinned hypars (hyperbolic paraboloids) : in this building they are shaped like elegant square chalices, which could have come right out of Felix Candela‘s sketch book.
Long gone is the concourse that connected the station to the nearby square, and long gone are the original chalices too, along with the entire station : The original structure was razed to the ground in 2011. Under pressure from local conservation groups, the architects reconstructed the station based on the original plans. It is a consolation, although only two out of the eight pairs of chalices remain visible. The rest have being swallowed by the monstrous Galleria Katowicka, an unceremonious glass and steel mall that has been integrated to the station. The station/mall complex is now managed by European retail conglomerates and Asian Hedge Funds. Looking at the copycat station from above in my map’s satellite view, I can see that each chalice is now bearing a huge ventilation unit. ‘Bon voyage to the Modern roof’ I think to myself. Then I bite into my sub, staring at a plastic sign from a fast food chain bolted onto one of the station’s beautifully Doric board marked columns. I am adding this to the long list of atrocities that keep me awake at night.
- ‘Tauzen” nieśmiertelny. Jak ikona Śląska stała się symbolem powojennej moderny w Polsce‘ by Filip Springer at the Weekend Gazeta
- ‘5 wielkich nieobecnych Katowic, czyli ikon architektury, które zostały zburzone’ by Michał Kubieniec at F5 Katowice
- ‘Zielone Konie / Green Horses’ by Tadeusz Barucki (2015)
- ‘Henryk Buszko i Aleksander Franta – „zielone konie” architektury’ at the Narodowy Instytut Architektury e Urbanistyki
- Some photo series presented at Wyborcza Katowice
- Some other photos found at Fotopolska.eu
- Some other photos from the Memoir2Ville Twitter Account
Disclaimer : Despite my best efforts, I haven’t been able to properly source the provenance of some of the old photos I have used in this article. I have also refrained from posting certain social media as the source. If you hold the copyright for any of the materials I have used in this article, please let me know at email@example.com, and I’ll be delighted to link and reference these appropriately.
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