This little-known conurbation in south-west Poland is in fact the largest municipality of the eastern EU, with a sometimes eccentric architectural mix that includes Gothic, Neoclassical and Modernist buildings, writes Owen Hatherley
A piece of Euro-trivia. What is the largest city in the European Union east of Berlin? The answer is not Warsaw, Bucharest, Riga, Sofia or Athens, but somewhere you almost certainly haven’t heard of: the Upper Silesia Metropolitan Area. Built around a coalfield in the far south-western corner of Poland, it spreads into the north-eastern corner of the Czech Republic, centred on two de-facto local capitals: Katowice in the former, and Ostrava in the latter. Defined at its widest extent, including dozens of Polish and Czech cities and industrial towns, it has a population of more than five million, making it the largest urban settlement between Berlin and Moscow.
For the purposes of this article, however, we’ll concentrate only on its Polish half, which unified a few years ago into a single municipality known as the ‘Silesian Metropolis’ and remains the largest municipality in post-Communist ‘New Europe’, as Donald Rumsfeld once christened it. Take a train from one end to the other, and you’ll see 19th-century tenements and water towers, mines, small farms, gigantic steelworks, and above all, block after block of prefabricated high rises. It’s the Ruhr or West Riding of the east, but it’s not inundated with visitors, having a notable lack of ‘Central European’ coffee houses, Jugendstil or historic cathedrals. So it’s one of the biggest ‘cities’ in Europe, but what is it exactly?
Recent history here is tortuous. You can still get postcards here of a once-famous landmark just outside of the town of Mysłowice, in the middle of the metropolis. It’s a little patch of land, by a river, that used to be called the Dreikaisereck, or Three Emperors Corner. Circa 1914, this was the point where the German, Russian and Austro-Hungarian Empires met across occupied and partitioned Poland. The Hapsburgs built little industry here, but the Prussian and Russian chunks of Silesia boasted a massive density of mines, steelworks, and the quickly built tenements and Neo-Gothic churches that served them. The Silesian Metropolis includes the westernmost towns of the old Tsarist Empire, such as Dąbrowa Górnicza and Sosnowiec, which became part of Poland when it was resurrected in 1918. Mixed Polish-German towns such as Katowice, Chorzow and Tychy were brought into Poland via a series of uprisings in the early 1920s, much celebrated here in monuments and street names. Gliwice, Zabrze (formerly, ‘Hindenburg’) and Bytom were only annexed after 1945, with their overwhelmingly German populations forced out. Most of what you’ll see here now, however, is a mixture of the architecture of Imperial Germany and post-1945 Communist Poland – red brick crenellations and concrete panels, the latter recently painted a variety of pastel shades.
Get out of the train at Katowice and you’ll find the finest architecture of interwar Poland
Get out of the train at Katowice and walk south, however, and you’ll find the finest architecture of interwar Poland. If that doesn’t sound particularly exciting, bear with me. This area, centred around Zwirki & Wigury street, is a grid of interwar Modernist apartment blocks, which favour an ingenious solution to the problem of attempting clean, smooth Modernist geometries in a climate that is (still) thick with pollution and soot. The colour scheme consists of various shades of brown, and the entrance lobbies are lined in dark marble. This even extends to the Italian Rationalist-style church, with its slender rectangular belltower. The usual Moderne touches – ‘steamboat balconies’, glazed stairwells, Mendelsohn curves – are emphasised by the dramatically stained and murky colour scheme. ‘Black Modernism’, Agata Pyzik calls it. The centrepiece is a block called Drapacz Chmur (ie ‘skyscraper’), designed by Tadeusz Kozłowski in 1929 and finished five years later. The whole area is one of the most unusual works of interwar Modernism, creating a Gotham effect purely through its use of colour and geometry.
Let’s try and be vaguely chronological, so before continuing around Katowice, pop back into the forgettable, mall-like railway station – pausing to note the inverted concrete fans of the original Brutalist station, built in 1972 (it was demolished a few years ago, but these fragments were left at the entrance as a curious ‘tribute’).
Head on the rickety old trains that are the metropolis’s nearest thing to a metro, and make your way southwards to Tychy, a town built around the brewery that produces the bafflingly popular lager Tyskie. The brewery itself is a handsome piece of Wilhelmine brick Gothic, its spiky skyline aligned with huge steel vats. Mostly, however, Tychy is a new town, built largely for miners after 1948, and arranged into sequential estates.
As soon as you’re out of the station, you’re in ‘Osiedle A’, estate A. Slightly folksy tenements are arranged around open, tree‑filled courtyards, with pitched roofs, arcades, and Neoclassical communal doorways. Above, each of these has a little relief of a different animal – frog, pig, magpie, a bear carrying a chisel. Much bigger artworks are on the corner buildings, sgraffito depictions of insurgent workers of the 19th and 20th century, or of workers ‘constructing socialism’. On the central thoroughfare of this axial complex is a single statue of a female building worker, holding aloft her tools and staring meaningfully towards a small park. Look closely at some of this lot, and you’ll find the workmanship isn’t spectacular. There is a lot of cement and render covering up the cheap materials, and it is dilapidated and sad in places, but on its own terms it works – there are cafés, libraries, and people. This Neoclassical style carries on in a simplified vein in Osiedle B, without the sculptural programme, but with a lovely square in front of the former Andromeda cinema (remodelled as a local cultural centre), with fountains and glazed towers to the tops of the tenements in the shape of miners’ lanterns – a reminder, in its cute semiotics, that Socialist Realism invented Postmodernism.
After this, the later estates – built right up to the late 1980s, reaching the letter ‘U’ – don’t have much in the way of anthropomorphic references, but they do continue the programme of enlivening artworks, established in the 1940s. The open spaces get bigger and more sprawling, the buildings get much taller. Once defined by the grey of the concrete panels, these are now a sometimes alarming experiment with coloured Styrofoam render, whose bright blues, reds, pinks and greens are going to get a hammering from the industrial microclimate – something the architects of interwar Katowice knew well. However, each of these complexes contains the most wonderful little abstract sculptures, bizarre creatures suggesting interstellar travel and unknown, non-human life forms. We saw one of the best, Stefan Borzęcki’s cosmic sculpture in Osiedle D, being clambered over and through by children, which is as it should be.
Opposite is a recent statue of Tychy’s planners, the husband and wife team of Kazimerz Wejchert and Hanna Adamczewska-Wejchert – that extremely rare thing, a monument to architects. You can see why they’re held in such esteem, as this level of sustained attention to creating pleasant open spaces and attractive, strange, individuating details was as unusual at the time as it is now. Their Tychy does, however, lack a real city centre. There’s a villagey square near the brewery with a pleasant Baroque church, and there’s the central park, whose trees and bushes frame the high-rise town hall and a similarly towering local variant on the ‘Worker and Kolkhoz Woman’, where the male and female revolutionaries are suspended by a crossed concrete arch.
When you return to Katowice station, you could go west, to the more conventional architectural pleasures bequeathed by the Weimar Republic – Erich Mendelsohn’s former Weichmann store in Gliwice, or Dominikus Bohm’s Expressionist church in Zabrze. For urban ensembles rather than individual works, the gigantist approach of the Polish People’s Republic provides greater thrills, so the eastward train, or the bus, will take you to Dabrowa Gorniczna, through a startlingly horrible landscape of megamalls, stunted housing of various eras and the (often still working) fragments of heavy industry, such as the Huta Katowice steelworks, Poland’s largest, now downsized and run by ArcelorMittal. The chimneys still smoke around here.
When you arrive in Dąbrowa Gornicza (‘Miners’ Oaks’), disembark at the central square and you’re surrounded by the usual stuff: brightly rendered slabs and points, Neo-Gothic spikes, and an EU-funded bus interchange – clearly not the sustained planning effort achieved by the Wejcherts in Tychy. But there are two truly great things. One is the Monument to the Heroes of the Red Banner, a gloriously crass concrete and granite monster in honour of the revolutionary ardour of the local workers (this is one of the only places in Poland where Communists ever won elections). Next to it is the reward for those heroic deeds: the Palace of Culture. Designed in 1951 by local architect Zbigniew Rzepecki, it is among the most opulent buildings in Poland. Its double-height foyers are lined with purple marble, black granite and terrazzo floors, with doors in rare woods bearing bronze handles with sculpted hammers and stars. But unlike much Socialist Realist architecture, it isn’t derivative, but a more personal kind of eclecticism. Like so much here, it deserves to be a lot better known.
Back in Katowice, you can choose from two versions of modernity. The tram can take you from the station to the fabulous Thousandth Anniversary Estate, at the border of Katowice and Chorzow. Built from 1966 onwards and known locally as the ‘corns’, it consists mostly of intersecting cylindrical towers – recently renovated, mercifully without any pink or green render – and a remarkable, fanciful cylindrical church resembling a Hanseatic-Brutalist remake of the Great Mosque of Samarra. As much as it is architecturally gestural and flamboyant, it’s green and quiet, in the Ville Radieuse manner.
But walk north of the station, and both the traffic and architecture are thunderous. The city’s ‘Rynek’, or market, is a wide space, framed by late-Modernist department stores, such as the Galeria Skarbek with its faceted metal screen and pod-shaped lifts shunting up the facade, several clunky hotels still with 70s neon signs. There is also a long slab block of flats known as the ‘super-Unit’; the heavy metal of the Silesian Uprisings memorial, a monumental effort in heroic abstraction; and finally the Spodek concert hall, the city’s most famous building. You can, should you wish, get a T-shirt with this daringly engineered sloping saucer on it. Twenty-five-storey towers with star-shaped plans stomp off from here along the urban motorway that ploughs through the metropolis. There seems to have been a collective decision by Katowice’s 1970s architects that the industrial city needed a big, barbarous, bracing architecture. On a busy day, this crowded intersection of people, buildings and traffic is tremendous.
Contemporary Poland, despite being a relative success story in the EU (largely, it should be noted, through exporting its unemployed and taking full advantage of the union’s abundant grants for infrastructure), hasn’t been much of a patron of architecture. But just off Spodek is an exceptional new ensemble, the most ambitious to have been built here since the 1980s. A curving concrete walkway rises past Konior Studio’s stark, minimal, brick-clad new Radio Orchestra building, towards the former Warszawa Colliery. Around the winding gear are frosted glass cubes, which provide top lighting for Riegler Riewe Architekten’s new underground Silesian Museum. This contains a mix of interactive ‘mine experiences’, a decent art collection and, best of all, a permanent exhibit of local ‘outsider art’, apocalyptic, surreal and erotic. Evidently, the local mines employed dozens of Silesian Stanley Spencers. It’s all very impressive indeed, and Katowice is evidently proud of it – there were long queues to visit on the day these pictures were taken. It’s unusual for a Silesian industrial complex not to be replaced with a shopping mall. Around each town in the metropolis is a tight belt of wasteland, retail parks, big sheds and careless housing, and as it absorbs each closing factory, it closes in on the roughly eccentric towns.
Date entered EU2004 (UK: 1973)
Population 38.5 million (UK: 64.1 million)
GDP $526 billion (UK: $2.678 trillion)
National debt (percentage of GDP) 45% (UK: 89.4%)
Unemployment rate 7.9% (UK: 5.4%)
Life expectancy 76.8 years (UK: 81.5 years)
Political leader President: Andrzej Duda (Law and Justice party)
Population 2,039,454 (city) 5,294,000 (metro)
Head of council Piotr Uszok
Density: people per km2
Silesian Metropolis: 1,700
(Data source: Wikipedia)