Architecture | Poland

Prefabricated buildings and floating columns

Spectacular buildings were designed in Poland both under socialism and after the fall of communism. Five outstanding examples of Polish architecture of the past seventy years.

A cityscape at dusk. The streets and buildings are illuminated. In the centre is an imposing tall building in the shape of a cake.

The Palace of Culture in Warsaw


1. Palace of Culture in Warsaw

In the midst of the ruins of Warsaw, this mighty building rose up at the beginning of the 1950s. In height, it surpassed only Moscow's Lomonosov University, built to the design of the same Soviet architect: Lev Rudnev. What the Palace of Culture has in common with the university is the pie-like shape of the staircase, which is modelled on Manhattan's skyscrapers. Of course, this source of inspiration was not mentioned at the time, but instead it was emphasised that the palace was "socialist in content, national in form". Socialist because it was supposed to serve the people - it housed cinemas, theatres, museums, banquet halls and conference rooms, cafés and even a swimming pool. And national, because its design quotes Polish architectural history - there are Gothic pointed arches, Renaissance attics, neo-classical porticoes. Some felt an almost holy emotion at the sight of it, others saw it as an unabashed symbol of Soviet rule. Shortly after the fall of communism, people toyed with the idea of demolishing the palace. Today it is undoubtedly a Warsaw icon - slowly but surely disappearing among all the skyscrapers and office towers erected around it, the latest of which, the Varso Tower, reaches a height of 310 metres, overtaking the Palace of Culture with its 237 metres as the tallest building in Poland.

2. Spodek in Kattowitz

This gigantic sports and events arena is located in Katowice, Upper Silesia. At the time of its construction, Upper Silesia was the richest region in Poland with the strongest industry, and the ambitions of architects and local dignitaries were reflected in numerous experimental buildings. The hall in Katowice speaks the international language of late modernist architecture. Its name "Spodek", "saucer", was the unofficial title for a long time. The poppy shape came about almost as a side effect in the search for a solution to the tricky technical problems during construction. The hall was built on unstable ground that had been undermined by mining. And the roof with a diameter of 126 metres is supported by a steel construction based on the tensegrity concept: Here, the individual bars do not touch each other and are only connected by supporting cables. This was a world first at the time. The Spodek is an impressive reminder of the 1960s - a time of unshakable faith in the power of technology.

3. Housing estate in Grundwaldplatz, Wroclaw

In 1969, the production of prefabricated elements for house building started in Poland. With the spread of prefabricated components, however, dissatisfaction with the increasingly anonymous architecture grew. In addition to housing estates made of system elements, more individual buildings were then created, such as the estate in Wroclaw called "Manhattan". The six apartment blocks, each 55 metres high, rest on a common platform with garages and a shopping promenade. The organic lines of the concrete balconies lend them a special charm. Architect Jadwiga Grabowska-Hawrylak explained that she was inspired by the Art Nouveau lines of the nearby Grundwald Bridge.

4. Assumption Church in Warsaw

A paradox of communist architecture in Poland was the building boom in churches. Between 1976 and 1989, around 2,000 new places of worship were built. The Roman Catholic Church gave the architects a unique opportunity: those who were tired of the omnipresent standardisation could express themselves in post-modern forms. The Church of the Ascension in the Warsaw housing estate Ursynów was designed by the same architects who had planned the surrounding prefabricated buildings. In the design of the nave, they took up folk architecture, but they also allowed themselves a joke: the whole row of columns floats above the floor and, instead of supporting the vault. The irregular brick colours are evidence of the building industry in the People's Republic - often the material was delivered in small batches and came from different, often illegal sources.

5. Philharmonic Hall in Stettin

The year 1989 also meant the end for the socialist-modernist housing programmes. Commercial investors built office towers, hotels and shopping malls. It was only after Poland's entry into the EU in 2004 that cultural buildings were again planned and erected throughout the country. One of these is the new philharmonic hall in Szczecin. It was designed by the Estudio Barozzi Veiga from Barcelona. The design of the roof refers to the Hanseatic and Gothic tradition of the city. The façade of white sheet metal and the pure white, icy entrance hall are intended to cool the emotions of music lovers, whereas the concert hall with its warm golden acoustic panels reignites them.

Translated by Lisa Palmes and Jess Smee