The Trouble with Modernity - Architectural Culture in Gdansk
Jacek Friedrich

Traditional or modern? This question was acutely relevant during the reconstruction of Gdansk after 1945 when the debate surrounding the rebuilding of the city’s historical centre became extremely heated. While several architects and planners saw an opportunity to effect the reconstruction in the style and spirit of Poland’s socialist vision, others called the historical appearance of the city to be resurrected, as the destruction of historical cities and monuments by the German occupiers was viewed as an act of arch barbarism, committed for the sole purpose of undermining Polish identity. So what was this vision of the “new, appealing and happy city”? And how does Gdansk look today?

In 1945, Gdańsk was a city devastated by war and its reconstruction was an obvious objective of the new Polish city authorities. Reconstruction certainly, but what kind of reconstruction? This question was asked not only in Gdańsk. Answers were also sought in Rotterdam, Minsk, Dresden, Coventry, Warsaw, Berlin and many other European cities, all of which had been devastated. Each of them found unique answers. Among the many dilemmas faced in those days, the following was also to be tackled: should we restore the city the way it was before the war, or should we use the damage to design an urban organism that would more adequately meet modern needs. This dilemma revealed itself most acutely when it came to ruined historic centres. Here, the question of „tradition or modernity“ took the most extreme form. In Poland, the demolition of historic cities was considered a conscious, barbarian act of the Nazi oppressor, an attempt to eradicate the national identity. Despite this, the reconstruction of historic sites was not a foregone conclusion, but rather the subject of a broad debate. The emotions it carried were accurately portrayed, as early as 1945, by Michał Walicki, a leading Polish art historian:

Phantoms of cities burnt to the ground, ashes of Warsaw and Gdańsk, Poznań and Wrocław, provoke an irresistible vision of new, beautiful and happy cities. The question of construction and reconstruction becomes a captivating watchword, capturing all and understood by all: its visionary representation - built on emotions, rich in sensual and experiential sharpness [...]. It is an all-encompassing task not only for urban designers, but each and every one of us. This sense of common purpose, both understandable and comforting, explains the abundance of opinions on what reconstruction should be1.

Sentiments revealed during this several-year long discussion preceding the reconstruction of Gdańsk were from both extremes of the argument. The concept of reconstructing the historic centre in accordance with historical patterns was gaining more ground. Some, however, advocated reconstruction in the modern framework. A particularly fierce protest against historical reconstruction was voiced by Henryk Tetzlaff, who demanded a complete reconstruction of the centre in a modernistic character:

[...] where the old commercial centre of Gdańsk was located, where its windy and narrow streets were running, we will build a modern housing district with wide, sunny communication routes, gardens and parks extending over picturesque canals and water of the former centre. We will thus create a model of a modern, seaside city with a separate commercial district and separate residential area. The ideal living conditions for the man of labour are contained in the expression: „Do not live where you work.“2

This modern vision is supported by the following statement: „The city thus reconstructed [...] will earn us more respect worldwide than if we tried to raise from the rubble - by all means romantic, by all means beautiful - but alien and outdated [bold by J.F.] its medieval forms.“3

This way of thinking about Gdańsk’s future gradually seemed to lose support. As early as two months after Teztzlaff’s speech, a nationwide meeting of conservators took place in Gdańsk, attended, among other guests, by the General Conservator of the Republic of Poland, Jan Zachwatowicz. The majority of participants opted for the reconstruction of the centre in historical forms. Subsequent events confirm that tendency: in 1947, the voivodship conservator decided to extend his custody over Główne Miasto [the City Centre], together with Wyspa Spichrzów, and December of the same year witnessed the opening of the exhibition, where the city development plan was presented, providing for the construction of the administrative and commercial centre in the central district of Gdańsk, and preserving the historical character of a portion of the city. The views of the proponents of modernist solutions did meet with a response. Further debate and the actual reconstruction of the historical centre clearly shows an attempt to forge a synthesis of historical options with „modernist“ proposals.

Similarly, in more detailed guidelines for an urban development plan for the historic quarters of Gdańsk to act as the basis for reconstruction, there are some solutions constituting a synthesis of historical and modern proposals - it was stated, for example, that tenement houses subject to reconstruction, despite external historical forms should be „planned for a modern interior.“4 Modernist principles made their presence felt in particular in the guideline on loosening the inter-block development to leave larger spaces for yards and greenery, while preserving the historical network of streets. This line of thinking will soon result in an interesting hybrid of history and modernity, embodied in Gdańsk’s Główne Miasto. The presentation of this phenomenon should be preceded at least by a short report on what was happening in the architectural landscape of Gdańsk for the first couple of years following the end of the war, which was a period when the reconstruction of the centre in historical forms could not be taken for granted.

The most important of the structures erected at that time were modern, although not radically modernist.

This short period of dominating modern forms ended in 1949, which marked the socialist realism breakthrough in the history of Polish architecture. For Gdańsk, this year has a double meaning. Next to a shift towards socialist realism (brilliantly manifested by the structure of the „Czytelnik“ publishing house, designed by Wacław Rembiszewski), this year also marks the commencement of Gdańsk’s reconstruction in historical forms. Both, distant as they may appear from various standpoints, actually share some features. One of these is anti-modernism, more or less explicitly manifested. An interesting observation here is that neither social realism nor historical reconstruction leave out the notion of modernity, but simply adapt it to the principles they advance. Whereas in the case of socialist realism, we can speak of some form of appropriation of the notion of „modernity“, historical reconstruction poses a much more complex problem.

Representatives of socialist realism extensively used the rhetoric of modernity, true modernity being seen by them, paradoxically, in historised architectural forms. The concept itself, subjected to a peculiar redefinition, was evaluated as positive. This is corroborated by, for example, the requirements for the competition for the development of the Western section of the centre of Gdańsk, which stipulated that „a number of features should be designed, that will express a modern, socialist city“5. Interestingly, according to social realism, not only was „modernity“ transformed, but also tradition, which was no longer a value in itself but a factor in the game between the „old“ and the „new.“ This is most clearly visible in one of the statements relating to the said competition: „The establishment of a modern, socialist centre is a reality that cannot and should not be governed by the old dominating features of the city centre compound.“6 Taking into account the explicitly socialist-realistic character of the competition, it must be noted that the recurring notion of „modernity“ clearly refers to the „socialist content“, to use a classic formula of the socialist realism theory, rather than to the form, which was to implement anti-modernistic ideals.

At first glance, the very idea of restoring the entire historical district to its original state may appear anti-modernist, and it was seemingly implemented during the reconstruction of Gdańsk’s City Centre. However, if we take a closer look at the methods used in this reconstruction, it will appear that they created numerous modernist elements. We could therefore venture to say that the reconstructed City Centre is the realisation of modern urban design proposals. Władysław Czerny, the first planner of Gdańsk’s reconstruction, said that historic Gdańsk is „the original basis of the social structure of the residential district we are seeking for the future; it is far more modern in this respect than the pseudo-modernist kitsch.“7 The base elements of that urban design modernity in the reconstructed City Centre were the following: a significant loosening of inter-block building spacing, and it being filled with greenery and public utility facilities, such as nurseries or kindergartens; discarding the development of narrow transverse streets, which not only further spaced out the buildings and ensured better ventilation of inter-block spaces, but also did away with poorly-lit flats; a significant decrease in building depth on individual parcels, designed to allow more light into flats; and the introduction of compounds of „tenement buildings“ sharing staircases, which resembled modernist blocks.

This strong relationship between the reconstruction of the City Centre and the modernist theory of architecture, in particular modern urban design, so obvious from the historical perspective, was probably not as legible at the time of reconstruction. Designers themselves were certainly aware of this relationship, but the majority of the reconstruction audience and users of the reconstructed city perceived the traditional, historical or historising representation as dominating over the modern one. These conclusions can be drawn from the opinions on the reconstruction of Gdańsk during the post-Stalin thaw.

Around 1956, the compelling thought was that the reconstruction of the historic city should be considered finished. Truly characteristic are the results of the questionnaire circulated by „Dziennik Bałtycki“ in 1956, entitled „Old or New Gdańsk?“. The summary reads that „it clearly transpires from the majority of letters sent to us together with the questionnaires, that the society above all demands comfortable housing, sunlight and greenery, and that further reconstruction of small historic houses is a waste of public money. [...].“8 This, of course, on the one hand related to the wane of socialist realism, the historising aspect of which could, despite numerous differences, be associated with the historical reconstruction of the City Centre (especially considering the propaganda dimension of Gdańsk’s reconstruction). On the other hand, it resulted from a simultaneous reassessment of the modernist tradition. The first notable stimulus for change was the critique of the previous Soviet practice in the area of architecture and construction delivered by Nikita Khrushchev in December 1954. Khrushchev did not question socialist doctrine as such, but demanded spending cuts and typisation, as if „by the way“ speaking against „superfluous decorations.“

Irrespective of the circumstances in the Soviet Union we can speak of a crack that soon led to the official approval of modernity in Polish architecture. Even if we do not cite a growing body of designs created after 1955 that discarded socialist realism’s style, a visible sign of this approval was the speech by Józef Cyrankiewicz, delivered in March 1956 at the Nationwide Council of Architects in Warsaw.

These words show that Cyrankiewicz went a longer way in his criticism of social realism than Khrushchev, since he questioned not only the economic aspect but also, be it indirectly, the aesthetic one. For this is how the encouragement to experiment and innovate should be probably interpreted, not to mention the admission of using western patterns and styles which, at that time, could only be of a modernist nature. Perhaps what made Cyrankiewicz put it that way was also his personal inclinations, since he was one of the few dignitaries of Socialist Poland who was interested in modern architecture. In any event, this statement was a reflection of the broader tendency of the day, which is further corroborated by the words of Włodzimierz Sokorski, the Minister for Culture and Arts, said at the same time: „The artist should be trusted entirely, and this is the most important thing during the transformation we are currently undergoing.“9

In 1955 and 1956, the Gdańsk community displayed some symptoms of, at first, criticising socialist realism, and subsequently an increasing wave of interest in architectural modernity. A great illustration of this transformation is the activity of Lech Kadłubowski at that time. Towards the end of 1955, this leading representative of socialist realism published an article in which, veiled in socialist-realism phraseology, he subscribes to the modernist or functionalist view. The following sentence can serve as an example: „We need to introduce, consciously and responsibly, the following three words - function, structure, form (bold after original) to our everyday practice.“10

Kadłubowski does not limit himself to declarations. Above all, in 1956 he designed a modern theatre building, and two years later, at the same Targ Węglowy, a large furniture shop, described by the press as a „very modern building - a ‘palace of glass’ with steel fittings visible from the outside next to the windows.“11 The manner of this design’s public presentation, and the report from it, serve as a good example of the transformation that took only three to four years to complete.

Under such circumstances, it is only natural that at the end of the fifties, the reconstruction of the historical Gdańsk ceased to stir the interest of the press, and probably Gdańsk’s inhabitants themselves. Their imagination was soon to be fired by tower blocks (one of them fourteen storeys high) at Stare Przedmieście, at that time known as Gdańsk-Południe, „colourful“ blocks at Kanał Raduni which „can be looked at for hours“12, a modern condominium estate and finally the construction of the „thousand-yearers“. At the same time, Poland was captivated by a fascination with modernity, permitted at last. This phenomenon was noticed in post-thaw Polish art by Pierre Restany, who wrote: „Cultural isolation resulted in general frustration, from which everyone was eager to escape as soon as possible: to make up for the delays (...), to belong to modernity at any price“13. In the port metropolitan Tri-City the overcoming of the isolations inevitably was particularly intensive. It is definitely not by mere chance that Sopot hosted the first jazz festival in Poland in 1956 and that in the Tri-City Polish rock was born, although called locally big beat. The examples of catching up for lost time that Restany referred to are much more numerous. Small wonder that modernist zeal extended over architecture as well. During this period, that is towards the end of the fifties and from the beginning of the sixties, the majority of the best post-war architecture in Gdańsk and Sopot was built.

The modernist direction of Polish architecture during the thaw period was not essentially undermined until the eighties, although in this respect the history of architecture in Gdańsk and Sopot in the last two decades of the People’s Republic of Poland was no different from that of the rest of the country. Also here, the sign of the seventies were mostly big slab estates, although individual interesting structures did appear in that decade.

The eighties, so important for Gdańsk in terms of social and political history, were not particularly interesting from the architectural perspective, which in general can be related to the overall social and economic crisis in Poland at that time. The harbingers of radical change, to begin in the following decade, had already begun to appear. At that time, a strong tendency to question the value of modernism appeared in architectural practice and the accompanying debate. Designers tried to engage in a discourse with historising post-modernism, on the verge of extinction in the West, and created designs that could be categorized under peculiar regionalism. By all means, the decisive stimulus for such exploration was the grand-scale retroversion of the Old Town in the neighbouring city of Elbląg, designed by Gdańsk architects. Perhaps the attempt at a dialogue with Western post-modernism, made at the turn of the nineties, could be seen as analogous to the modernist boom in architecture after 1956, once again an attempt to make up for the time lost as a result of the collapse during the eighties. Despite numerous differences, the psychological motivation may be similar. Besides explorations of this type which, in all uncertainty, could be considered a proposal, several buildings have appeared in recent years whose ostentatious traditionalism stems entirely from follow-the-herd or commercial reasons. Sopot is particularly full of crass examples of this, where the idea to try and relate present-day architecture to the local buildings of the end of the 20th century is implemented in a naïve way (the „Resident“ hotel), or even as a parody (the „Sobieski“ villa).

At the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the new century, the anti-modernist tendency has been expressed not only in architectural practice. During this period, numerous statements have been made by leading cultural representatives, who have fiercely questioned the legacy of architectural modernism. Among other reasons, the tradition of post-war reconstruction, cherished in Gdańsk, could also be a factor here.

A peculiar manifestation of the anti-modern tendency is the almost sweeping disregard for gems of 20th century architecture in the conservation practice of both towns.

We are witnessing yet - at least in Gdańsk - a new interest in the problem of modernism: in 2004, another conference was held, at the Technical University of Gdańsk, devoted to modernist public utility buildings, and the issues related to modern architecture in the Tri-City are increasingly often the subject of history study by art students at Gdańsk University. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, designs of new structures, including those adjacent to historic architecture, are beginning to return to modern forms. The most spectacular instance of this is the winning design in the competition for the building of the so-called Shakespearian theatre.

It is probably much too soon to decide what direction further development of architecture in Gdańsk and Sopot will take, but even today we can surmise that the issue of modernity will reappear high on the agenda of both architectural discussion and practice in both cities.

1 M. Walicki, Kiedy po miastach stały ratusze, [When city halls were standing in towns] „Skarpa Warszawska“ 1945, No. 1, p. 5-6. As a side-remark, twenty-five years later Osmańczyk agreed with his adversary writing: „Certainly, it was Walicki who was absolutely right, not me...“, E. Osmańczyk, Był rok 1945... [It was 1945...], Warszawa 1970, p. 142 (quoted after: B. Rymaszewski, Klucze ochrony zabytków w Polsce [Protecting historic artifacts in Poland], Warszawa 1992, p.171).

2 H. Tetzlaff, Czy i gdzie Gdańsk powinien być odbudowany?[If and Where Should Gdańsk be Reconstructed], „Dziennik Bałtycki„, 202 of 25 July 1947, p. 3.

3 Ibid.

4 J. Borowski, Zabytkowy Gdańsk w odbudowie.[Historic Gdańsk Reconstructed] „Technika Morza i Wybrzeża„ [Maritime and Seaside Engineering], Y. III: 1948, No. 11/12, p. 32.

5 S. Lier, Konkurs na projekt urbanistyczno-architektoniczny fragmentu śródmieścia Gdańska [Competition for the urban planning and architectural design of a section of Gdańsk’s centre] , „Architektura„, 1954, No. 7-8

6 B. Szmidt, Na drodze przemian, [The Path of Transformation] „Przegląd Kulturalny„, 1953, No. 51-52, quoted after: E.Goldzamt, Architektura zespołów śródmiejskich i problemy dziedzictwa [Architecture of city-centre compounds and heritage problems], Warszawa 1956, p. 526.

7 W. Czerny, Odbudowa Gdańska [Reconstruction of Gdańsk], p. 24; other lines of Czerny’s statement may suggest that the remark about „pseudo-modernistic kitsch“ referred to the pre-war buildings of Gdynia.

8Budujmy miasta dla naszych potrzeb i naszej wygody [Let’s build cities for our needs and our comfort], „Dziennik Bałtycki„, No. 91 of 17 April 1956, p.4.

9 XIX Sesja Rady Kultury i Sztuki. Każdy artysta ma prawo własnego widzenia rzeczywistości [Every artist has the right to see the reality in his own way],Głos Wybrzeża„, No. 74 of 27 March 1956, p. 1.

10 L. Kadłubowski, W nowych warunkach musimy stworzyć nowe formy architektury. Na pytanie „co dalej?“ nie można odpowiedzieć bez pasji twórczej [Under new circumstances we must create new architectural forms. The „what next?“ question cannot be answered without creative passion], „Dziennik Bałtycki„, No. 282 of 26 November 1955, p. 2.

11 (A.P.) Pałac meblowy stanie przy Targu Węglowym [The furniture palace will stand at Targ Węglowy], „Głos Wybrzeża„, No. 309 of 27,28 December 1958, p. 4.

12 S. Ostrowski, Na osi Heweliusza czyli gdański skok w nowoczesność [On Hevelius’ Axis that is the Gdańsk catapult into modernity], „Głos Wybrzeża„, No. 306 of 24, 25, 26 December 1958, p. 3.

13 P. Restany, Notes de voyage, „Cimaise“, January 1961, p. 78-80; quoted after: D. Crowley, Building the World Anew: Design in Stalinist and Post-Stalinist Poland, „Journal of Design History“, vol. 7: 1994, No. 3, p. 187.

Dream Cities and Ghost Towns

articles on the topic:
Nowa Huta. Oranges just for Looking At
Nowa Huta, which roughly translated means “New [Steel] Mill”, is the location of a vast steel working plant founded in 1949, just to the east of Krakow. Growing up in here, everything was perfectly normal, until you reached puberty. Nowa Huta revisited.
projects on the topic:
The Futurism of Industrial Cities – 100 Years of Wolfsburg/Nowa Huta
[ Exhibition project ]
Unwanted Heritage/Moderne Heimat Leipzig
[ Views of architectural modernism in Gdańsk, Sopot and Leipzig, Exhibition project ]
The Mousetrap
[ An international conference on dealing with institutions in contemporary curatorial practice ]
Ewa Partum: The Legality of Space
[ Works 1965–2005 ]