A tale of two cities: Nowa Huta

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The English version of L’altra Cracovia: Nowa Huta by Roberto Reale

Author and translator Roberto Reale

Nowa Huta — so many things.

From a merely cadastral standpoint, Nowa Huta is the easternmost district of Krakow, the XVIII. It is, also, one of the few places in Poland inhabited without gaps since the Neolithic Era; subsequently, the site is home to a large Celtic outpost as well as to the country’s oldest Slavic settlement. Later on, it appears to be linked with the city’s eponymous founder, Krakus, and with his daughter, whose mortal spoils rest underneath the Wanda Mound (Kopiec Wandy), a few kilometres away 1.

Still afterwards, Nowa Huta becomes grange to the Cistercian monastery of Mogiła. In due course the outskirts of the yet-to-be-recognised district are included in the border between territories controlled by Austria-Hungary and Russia. After 1945, the socialist regime decides to erect a satellite city combined with a vast industrial complex, in part to attract people from the countryside and to abash the resistance of the city’s middle class.

In Polish, Nowa Huta means “New Steelworks”.

Its creators hope that Nowa Huta will become the ideal city, a coherent derivation of the founding principles of socialist realism; whose postulates it embodies in the most refined manner, with the only possible exception of the Russian city of Magnitogorsk in Chelyabinsk Oblast2. Many of the best architects in Poland join the planning committee: amongst them, Martha and Janusz Ingarden (the latter being the son of the philosopher Roman Ingarden, Andrzej Uniejewski, Tadeusz Uniejewski, Marian Uramowski, Zbigniew Jaroszyński, Stanisław Reński, Ewa Mańkowska3.

On July 22, 1954, the Vladimir Lenin Steelworks (today Tadeusz Sendzimir Steelworks, Polish: Huta im. T. Sendzimira) is opened, and in less than twenty years the factory becomes the largest steel mill in Poland. In its heyday — in the 1970s — the plant employs up to 40,000 people and produces almost seven million tonnes of steel per year. At around the same time, the largest tobacco factory in Poland and a cement factory are built on the area.

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In recent history of Poland, Nowa Huta is an ever-renovating source of frictions that in the long run end up undermining the regime’s authority. A monument near the Church of the Lord’s Ark (Kościół Arka Pana) commemorates to this day the site where Bogdan Włosik, then in his early twenties, was shot dead by security services. His funeral was attended by 20,000 mourners. But the twist of fate strikes in, and what was to be the flagship of Polish communism turns into a stronghold of dissent. A post-1989 toponymic revanche dictates street names to switch from Lenin to Solidarność, from the Six-Years Plans to Pope John Paul II, from the October Revolution to general Władysław Anders. The central square (plac Centralny) is renamed after Ronald Reagan.

In mainstream culture, Nowa Huta is the set of Andrzej Wajda’s movie Man of Marble (Człowiek z marmuru, 1976), the true-to-life account of a Polish Stakhanovite whose fall into disgrace in the regime’s eyes already heralds the soon-to-be-heard winds of change.

According to the criticism of many a fault-finder, Nowa Huta is tantamount to ignominy, alienation, marginality; even today, nay, especially today.

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Last but not least, as far as architectural history is concerned, Nowa Huta will always outlive its matter-of-factly identity as a systematic catalog of experiences and artefacts. Many others look at it as a time-defying masterpiece of urban planning, rich in historical and symbolic meanings, as well as a perfect trade-off between its residential and productive functions. Those readers who wish to dive deeper into the internals of the architectural and urban design of Nowa Huta may refer to the excellent online documentation at Krakowski Szlak Modernizmu.

Nowa Huta as the ideal city

Utopia, according to Karl Mannheim, is “a structural vision of the totality that is and is becoming”4; and yet, without heeding the risk of a discrepancy between a project’s abstract rationality, its implementation, and the need for a development of society, both Keynes and Weber expect utopia to reach far beyond the field of pure contemplation or of ideology, and well into the pragmatic realm of planning. Of course, as far as the urban structure is concerned, a clear path in that direction had already been traced by Leon Battista Alberti5: and it is not without interest that champions of both camps, the Western and the Marxist, appeal to principles that are, ultimately, akin to each other. The foundation of Alexei Gutnov’s treatise Novy element rasseleniya: na puti k novomu gorodu6, indeed, rests ultimately upon the following programmatic statement by Marx and Engels:

Our basic premises are not arbitrary assumptions or dogmas but concrete facts, from which one can abstract only by an act of imagination…. These can be established empirically.

And also:

In this way [i.e., through the social ties necessary to satisfy the primary needs] men enter into material relationships with each other, relationships conditioned both by their needs and by the means of production, relationships as old as man himself. It is these relationships assuming ever new forms which make up what we mean by “history”.

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In Nowa Huta, therefore, the residential-production “dialectical merger”, besides being measured up to ideal proportions never to be seen again in Europe, is resolved into the simultaneous design of the industrial plant (Kombinat Metalurgiczny) and the residential settlement. The latter is more westward, being inscribed in a vast triangle whose vertex faces the south. On the other hand, the huge steelworks is oriented eastwards, its structure hinging directly upon the unyielding laws of its function. And we may rest assured that the mutual deployment of the two “halves” of Nowa Huta is no accident: they are two formæ urbis that mirror each other, in the same way as the socialist credo regarded both the private space and the workspace as foundational and specular dimensions of life.

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Since its founding, Nowa Huta aspires to be the new city centre, or rather, the new Krakow; opposing the thorough rationality of its design, the novel criteria of its establishment, the daring extent of socialist planning to the dusty facades of the Old Town. So much so, indeed, that even  Wisława Szymborska’s usually cautions voice lends her ear to the enthusiastic bravos, and undoubtedly appears to appreciate the idea of Building the Socialist City (Na powitanie budowy socjalistycznego miasta) 7 8:

In asphalt and in perseverance

we cast the streets breadth.

In bricks and in braveness

we measure the buildings height.

In iron and in wakefulness

we construct the bridges span.

In hope we dye the greenery of trees.

In joy we mould the white of plaster.

 

Hail the socialistic city

hail the city of good fortune.

For, lo, no suburbs and no ginnels

and in friendship shall ev’ry man ever live.

‘Tis the youngest of the cities we have

and the oldest of the cities that will be.

‘Tis the youngest for tomorrow morn

and the oldest for a future far to come.

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The rejection of vernacular elements, perceived as obsolete or inadequate to express the socialist Gospel, is a direct consequence of a strong urgency of refounding the history. There is, of course, a risk: that of losing the track of a formal as well as of anthropological continuity. As Greg Castillo writes in Soviet Orientalism9:

While the proponents of Socialist Realism found beauty in local ornament, they had no patience for indigenous urban form. Even the bards of the new folklore rallied against the native city.

The ultimate referent is Moscow’s urban improvement scheme of 1935, the so-called Stalin Plan, with the dramatic compulsion that lies at its core: “virtually every structure outside the Kremlin walls would be razed and rebuilt”10. Times do change, though, and as soon as Stalinism declined the Moscow-bred Neronian frenzy spontaneously transitioned into more sensible attempts at a mediation11:

In Nowa Huta, socialist realism took on a particular national form through the incorporation of Renaissance and Baroque elements inspired by the architecture of Krakow’s oldest core (for example, arches, pillars, balustrades, window pediments, and portals).

From the standpoint of urban planning, the refusal to embrace the historical legacy of the pre-existing city, the plea for a rational approach uncompromised with naive aestheticism, or rather, for an architectural language directly linked to a rigorous and optimized functional organization, are to lead naturally to Renaissance models. There is a twist, though, for the connection of the town centre with its countryside (the Italian contado), which was pivotal for the Italian cities during the XV and XVI centuries, translates in the 1950s and 1960s as relationship with the industrial landscape. Yet, the urge to self-sufficiency is the same, as is the almost-biological coherence of the organization.

Nowa Huta Roberto 4

In Jan Kurek’s Postcard from Nowa Huta (Z Nowej Huty pocztówka) 12, not only does the peculiar choice of words capture the close-to-life features of the new district, describing its irresistible stirring during the early days of construction and the development of the great “organism” into its ultimate shape; but also the polar opposition to the historical centre is accurately pictured, so much so, indeed, that we are almost deluded into seeing this Doppelgänger of Krakow’s Old Town take on a live of its own. The poet is eager to sing the praises of this new course of history, and makes no secret of his enthusiasm; yet his verses do convey a submerged inquietude vis-à-vis the new Leviathan, whose birth and growth he describes through images that encompass both the biological and the engineering world13:

Day after day closer and closer to me oozes Nowa Huta.

Day after day menhirs bulge higher in the sky — Nowa Huta.

Night after night atop the Kombinat — ablaze.

 

Build ye!

Every night — mistful roar of sparks.

Hammer ye mightier iron!

 

From the north-east does the newborn city wax

into the old city’s womb roots a growin’.

Who heads whither?

Do we towards Nowa Huta move

or towards us thrives Nowa Huta?

Both cities are bound to march

against each other

and as siblings each other salute.

Legacy of the past, in marble petrified

by history itself, still alive and warm!

Nowa Huta as a non-place

In the original plan, mostly unchanged till today, Nowa Huta is divided into 36 blocks of houses, called osiedla. Each osiedle has its own designation: “sunny” (Słoneczne), “green” (Zielone), “theatrical” (Teatralne), and so on and so forth. And each osiedle has a number of buildings allocated to it: which makes street names superfluous, but confuses the stranger who is not used to a three-tiered coordinate system. In socialist times, each osiedle was equipped with schools, a grocery store, a bakery, a pharmacy, a cobbler, a sports field, and a cultural centre. Furthermore, Nowa Huta had a theatre, cinemas, an artificial lake, and later on even churches. The architects also put great value on green recreation area: to such an extent, indeed, that even today Nowa Huta remains the greenest part of Krakow14.

From the large collective systems of biology Nowa Huta borrows its fractal structure, each osiedle acting as the basic module, whilst both the district, at the topmost level, and each building, at the lowest, replicate the osiedle’s spatial and functional arrangement. Hence not only do the three tiers (building, osiedle, district) coordinate each other, but, in the true sense of the word, they define each other.

Hence, whilst the historical city is doomed to perpetuate itself according to canons that were fixed once and for always, the productive city commandeers such primary processes of the urban organism as befit it. And, ironically, the productive city seems almost immune to the depletion of meaning that plagues most time-honoured stylistic features in architecture.

Today, the ideological assumptions and the collective Weltanschauung from which socialist utopia came to pass are over. The greatest danger lies then in Nowa Huta giving up its strong identity and seeking a second-hand validation through identifying with those places that abound in every corner of the earth but are totally devoid of depth and allure. Such are those places, as Marc Augé writes, that do not hold enough significance to be regarded as “places” and are, therefore, non-places15 

Nowa Huta as civic awareness

No today is conceivable that refrains from taking care of the past and of its remnants; in other words, under no circumstances can our day and age afford to dispense with protecting and preserving the traces of our history, especially as far as the anthropic space is concerned. And, for the sake of clarity, I am not advocating any manner of barren crystallization of historical canons or artefacts (which would be unfeasible even for smaller patches of “urban fabric”, let alone such a vast district as Nowa Huta is), but, rather more to the point, a continuous flow of use based on the subtle tracery of relationships whereby men and cities, houses and streets, social and productive habits are consistently intertwined. The Italian archeologist and art historian Salvatore Settis speaks of “the poetry of reuse”16, and summons the haunting beauty of a fragment by Plutarch:

A city, like a living thing, is a united and continuous whole. This does not cease to be itself as it changes in growing older, nor does it become one thing after another with the lapse of time, but is always at one with its former self in feeling and identity, and must take all blame or credit for what it does or has done in its public character, so long as the association that creates it and binds it together with interwoven strands preserves it as a unity. To create a multiplicity, or rather an infinity, of cities by chronological distinctions is like creating many men out of one because the man is now old, but was in his prime before, and yet earlier was a lad.

Present-day Krakow is a world-class city, swarming with cultural life and appealing to tourists; yet I dare say that the Markenimage it is struggling to offer can hardly be told apart from a gimmicky homage to the faded-out rêverie of a Habsburg Mitteleuropa, a subsided world in which Krakow itself can still dream of holding a privileged stance; not without a good dose of hypocrisy, as a matter of fact. As to myself, I heard of the former capital being called archaiczne miasto, an archaic city. And it is but too true that so much of Krakow’s human, economic, and social history is glossed over or, at best, granted an extremely marginal role, lest it should disrupt the carefully-crafted locus amœnus narrative.

Not unlike the large housing complexes built by the Iron Curtain regimes (paneláky in Czechoslovakia, panelházak in Hungary, Plattenbauten in East Germany, khrushchovki in Russia), and even to a greater extent due to the exceptional quality of its design, Nowa Huta boasts a historical value that largely overshadows the lifespan of the Polish United Workers’ Party. Furthermore, the district’s urban plan was never, in any conceivable sense, a failure, nor is it today.

Nowa Huta 5

So much so, indeed, that the civic awareness (or awakening) which is today to be witnessed in Nowa Huta has more to do with a phoenix’s rebirth than with a genuine dawning, for it had never been really missing. Whereby it can be inferred that the criteria, both urbanistic and architectural, according to which Nowa Huta was designed and built, did include a “theory of man”, and endeavoured in their own way to be as good a proposal for creating a “good society” as any other. Perhaps such a proposal should be allowed to prove its worth in spite of the historical contingencies from which it was born.

1Jerzy Karnasiewicz, Nowa Huta. Okruchy życia i meandry historia, Kraków: Wydawnictwo Towarzystwo Słowaków w Polsce, 2003

2 Nowa Huta, in inyourpocket.com; link accessed on October 9, 2017

3 Biographical data are available online at In memoriam – Pamięci Architektów Polskich.

4 Karl Mannheim, Das konservative Denken, in Archiv für Sozialwissenschaft und Sozialpolitik, 1927; cited by Manfredo Tafuri, Progetto e Utopia, Bari: Laterza, 1973; English transl. Architecture and Utopia: Design and Capitalist Development, Cambridge and London: The MIT Press, 1976

5 Cf. Françoise Choay, La Règle et le Modèle, Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1996; English transl. The Rule and the Model: On the Theory of Architecture and Urbanism, Cambridge: MIT Press, 1997

6 Stroyizdat, 1966; English transl. The Ideal Communist City, New York: G. Braziller, [1971]

7 Dlatego żyjemy, Warszawa, 1952

8 Translation by the author

9 InTraditional Dwellings and Settlements Review, Volume VIII, II, 1997

10 Cf. also L. Perchik, Bol’shevistskiy plan rekonstruktsii Moskvy, Moscow, Partizdat, 1935; English transl. The Reconstruction of Moscow, Moscow: Co-operative Publishing Society of Foreign Workers in the U.S.S.R., 1936

11 Kinga Pozniak, Nowa Huta: Generations of Change in a Model Socialist Town, Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2014

12 Cf. e.g. Monika Golonka-Czajkowska, Nowe miasto nowych ludzi: Mitologie nowohuckie, Krakow: Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Jagiellońskiego, 2013

13 Translation by the author

14 Vera Trappmann, Fallen heroes in global capitalism: Workers and the Restructuring of Polish Steel Industry, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013

15 Non-lieux, introduction à une anthropologie de la surmodernité, Paris: Le Seuil, 1992; English transl. Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity, London and New York: Verso, 1995

16 Se Venezia muore, Turin: Einaudi, 2014; English transl. If Venice Dies, New York: New Vessel Press, 2015

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