We have already presented Krakow to you in detail in a separate article with its most beautiful sights (by the way, here you can find our practical Krakow tips). In addition to all the magnificent churches, synagogues and castles in the Gothic and Renaissance styles and the many attractive Art Nouveau buildings, there is another building phase that has left its architectural mark in Krakow architecture, the modern era. And that’s exactly what we want to introduce to you here in more detail and show that under socialism not only ugly and uniform prefabricated buildings were built.
The history of Kracow modernism
Krakow, as the former capital and the most important cultural metropolis of the country, has always been of great importance for the realization of new architectural philosophies. Already in the interwar period, several ambitious building projects were implemented in the city, which came to an abrupt end due to the Second World War and the German occupation. After the Second World War, the city planners set a completely new district in the landscape with Nowa Huta, which was initially dominated by buildings in the style of Socialist Realism. We’ll introduce you to these in a separate post soon, but here we’ll focus on the socialist buildings of Krakow’s modernism.
Rediscovery in the 1950s
The move away from Socialist Realism took place around the middle of the 1950s in the Thaw period, and consequently completely new opportunities arose for architects. Many of the master builders who were to shape the following years had received their training in the interwar period and were therefore already familiar with the formal language of Modernism, which was also influenced by the West, for example by the modular theories of Le Corbusier.
They developed a style all their own, which caused quite a stir internationally and earned the Kraków architects numerous architectural awards. Also special was the inclusion of works of art, which, according to government directives, always had to comprise a small percentage of the total construction costs. Reason enough to present the 20 most beautiful buildings in more detail.
Henryk Reyman Stadium
Wisła Kraków is one of the most popular soccer clubs in Poland, even though they did not play very successfully in the last few years. The club plays in the Henryk Reyman Stadium at ul. Reymonta 20. The stadium was opened in 1953. Wojciech Obtułowicz was responsible for its construction, who wanted to give it the atmosphere of a theater. It has a capacity of 33,000 spectators and was designated as a reserve venue for the 2012 European Football Championship. Now gone are the two so-called Brandenburg gates through which admission was made. There is not much left of the old modernist stadium, but the two stands behind the gates pick up on the old architectural concept. The old running track around the pitch is no longer there, which is fortunate for Wisła fans.
Residential building “Bankowy”
The Bankowy building realized by Tadeusz Gawłowski in the mid-1950s is certainly one of the most exciting buildings of Kraków’s modernism. This is mainly due to the fact that many developments were already anticipated here that were later taken for granted for apartment blocks. It has three characteristic elements: a detached first floor, a raised living area, and a setback attic. There are also several balconies on the courtyard side, while the front is distinguished by its relief-like exterior. The black color of the cornices provides a nice accent to the otherwise white facade.
The so-called Swedish Block was a joint project of Marta and Janusz Ingarden. Janusz had already been involved in Socialist Realist buildings here in Nowa Huta, but made the leap into modernism effortlessly and had this style icon realized together with his wife between 1956 and 1959.
Over 200 meters in length, the Swedish Block is the longest building in Nowa Huta. But where did the building get its strange name? Concrete produced under Swedish license was used in its construction. But besides all the concrete, the apartment block is a real eye-catcher mainly because of its many windows and balconies. Downstairs on the first floor there are several stores and workshops. This structural unity of living and working became exemplary for the whole of Poland and dominated the socialist prefabricated buildings of the following decades.
Near the Swedish Block, another large residential unit was built at the same time. The 74-meter-long building is the first entirely factory-built structure in Krakow and, like the Swedish Block, features a combination of residential and commercial areas. Even today, the French Block is very popular. It also seems to have aged much better than the Swedish Block, where the different color scheme of the facade as a whole seems somewhat “strange” today. The French Block, on the other hand, has successfully made the leap into the present after extensive renovation and is in no way inferior to contemporary residential units.
House of the hundred balconies
Admittedly, I have not counted whether this building really counts exactly 100 balconies. It was built between 1957 and 1961 and was designed by Bohdan Lisowski. The checkerboard arrangement of the balconies at the front of the building creates an impressive structural ensemble. The impression is further enhanced by the fact that the balconies protrude very far from the facade and almost seem to float in the air. A refurbishment a few years ago restored the building to its original blue and yellow façade. The building’s location is also unusual, as it is not in the “modern” Nowa Huta district, but is just a stone’s throw from the old town in western Krakow.
More than any other building in Krakow, the Construction District office building, often called Biprocemwap for short, features elements of Le Corbusier’s work. With its slightly bowed corpus, widening pylons and bent roof, it is still a real eye-catcher today. The facade is characterized by recessed construction, with individual blue steel elements providing visual accents. After the biprocemwap was also restored in recent years, it now looks exactly as it did when it was built in the early 1960s.
The exhibition center, which everyone in Krakow knows only as “Bunkier Sztuki” (Art Bunker), is a modernist building with brutalist elements. Particularly beautiful is the rough gray facade designed by sculptors, which has an irregular structure. The entrance was designed to function as a footbridge to the Planty, a green belt surrounding Krakow’s Old Town. The building also incorporates a 17th-century granary that protrudes from the concrete structure.
Kijów is the Polish name of the city of Kyiv, which we have already introduced to you. It gave its name to this cinema, which forms a structural unit with the neighboring Hotel Cracovia. At the time of its opening in 165, the Kijów was the most modern cinema in Poland. The building was designed by Witold Cęckiewicz, who left his architectural mark on the city like no other from the 1960s onward.
The simple building with its curved roof has a large glass facade that runs over two levels. Here you can particularly understand the use of art in construction, because inside there is a huge mosaic that has its counterpart on the outside, which shows a red sun.
Cęckiewicz was also responsible for the Cracovia Hotel. It used to be the longest hotel in the country with 150 meters, but today it is unfortunately closed. The chessboard-like facade with various glass and aluminum parts is unfortunately no longer visible since the Cracovia is used as a gigantic advertising space (but you can still see it at the back of the building). This was the first time in Poland that large slab construction was used for a hotel. Actually, a huge labor union center was supposed to be built here. However, this did not happen and Cęckiewicz turned the ruined building into one of the most modern and best hotels in Europe at the time.
St. Anthony’s Church
The church dedicated to St. Anthony of Padua is a good example that even under socialism exciting church buildings were realized in Poland. However, it took quite some time before it could be consecrated, because the construction was already planned in the 1950s. However, the church, penned by Antoni Mazur, was not completed until 1984. The church is characterized by its skeletal, freestanding bell tower, but also by the two-story roof and the jags above the windows. The pillars tapering towards the ground create further exciting visual accents.
The most impressive mosaic in Krakow can be found on the exterior of the headquarters of the Biprostal company and the National Economic Forum. 1.6 million colorful individual mosaics adorn the facade of what was once Krakow’s tallest building. Actually, they were supposed to be removed a few years ago in the course of thermal insulation, but this provoked resistance from the population. The building was erected in 1964 under the direction of Marek Wrześniak and Piotr Czapczyński, and the artist Celina Styrylska-Taranczewska was responsible for the impressive mosaic work. Especially in combination with the glass facade, this creates an interesting overall impression.
Monument to the victims of fascism
Many Jews were deported during World War II to the Płaszów concentration camp, located in a suburb southeast of the center. Here, the camp commander Amon Göth, known from the movie Schindler’s List, led a regime of terror, thousands of people died in an agonizing way. Today, a huge concrete monument showing people with lowered eyes reminds us of this place, which unfortunately is not very well maintained and is still waiting for a real memorial. The 7-meter high monument is named “People with their hearts torn out” and impressively points out the sad past of this place. A crack runs across the five men standing with their heads bowed, their facial features only dimly visible. Witold Cękiewicz was also responsible for this project.
The Lord’s Ark
There is no church in Poland for whose construction the population had to fight as hard as for the Lord’s Ark in Nowa Huta. The communist rulers wanted to avoid at all costs the erection of a place of worship in their ideal socialist city. Nevertheless, some courageous people managed to erect a cross at first, around which bloody fights broke out. In the end, however, the government had to bow to the will of the people, and in 1969 the then Archbishop Karol Wojtyła, later Pope John Paul II, laid the cornerstone.
The building, realized by Wojciech Pietrzyk in the following years, is inspired by Le Corbusier’s Notre-Dame-du-Haut de Ronchamp and is characterized by a high mast with a golden crown placed in its center. The entire building is full of Christian symbolism, exemplified by the figure of Christ trying with all his might to break away from the cross – a clear sign that the people were trying to break away from communism.
Błekitek, the “sky blue”, is also the name of the K1, and when you look at its color, it immediately becomes clear why. The building used to be called Cracovia Business Center. It was constructed from the beginning of the 1970s under Janusz Ingarden. It is easy to understand the changes that socialist buildings have undergone over the years, because Ingarden was already responsible for the Swedish Block, and the K1 really doesn’t have much in common with that building anymore. By the way, it originally had a golden façade, and the slanted roof was also created later. At 105 meters, the twenty-story K1 is still the tallest building in Krakow.
Janusz Gawor designed this courageous building in the Zakrzówek district in the early 1970s. The most striking appearance feature is the front of the church with its massive strut support pillars. They are said to be reminiscent of the facade of a factory, and the interior also contains many references to the industrial character of the district at the time with its limestone quarry. The windows cast in cement and the colored mosaics inside create an interesting atmosphere that varies depending on the time of day due to the incidence of light.
The older ones among you may still know the series He-Man and The Masters of The Universe or the action figures from the series. The villain Skeletor, Polish: Szkieletor, was the namesake for this ruined building, which was started in the mid-1970s and was described by Mateusz Wtkowski as “hell gone bust”. Four years after construction began, the money for the building had run out and for decades the Szkieletor slumbered, sometimes being called an eyesore, sometimes a modern landmark of Krakow. I took the pictures in 2016. It’s almost a shame that the Szkieletor was completed in September 2020 and is now a normal office building as Unity Tower. How it looks today, you can see here.
Hotel Forum is another impressive building by Janusz Ingarden and also the cover of this post. It has a crooked facade and stands directly on the Vistula River opposite the Wawel. Unfortunately, an advertising canvas (the longest in all of Poland) obscures the facade of the late modernist hotel, which had to close its doors back in 2002. Due to its proximity to the Vistula River, simply too much water penetrated the foundation. What will happen in the future to the hotel, which has interesting room loggias on its side, is not sure.
Church of St. Jadwiga
Jadwiga’s Church combines several geometric shapes and is visually composed of squares, cylinders and triangles. Due to the intelligent positioning of the windows, the interior of the church looks bright and friendly. I find this Church one of the most exciting buildings of the 80s in Krakow, also because here the wave-shaped facade creates such a restless overall impression. Inside, by the way, coffered ceilings were used, a classic feature of Renaissance buildings, of which there is no shortage in Krakow, as is well known. And so here, too, it was possible to combine the old with the new.
St. Albert’s Church
What a facade! Standing in front of St. Albert’s Church which was begun in the mid-1980s and not completed until 1994, one is somehow reminded of the Flat Iron Building. This church is also located in Nowa Huta and here the shape of the building clearly overshadows its function. Witold Cęckiewicz was again responsible for the reinforced concrete structure, and he still created some sensational church buildings even in the now democratic Poland. By the way, the wedge-shaped impression of the facade is created by the clever arrangement of the arch elements; actually, the building is almost square!
This bank building was also completed after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The massive rotunda, in combination with the glass elements and accentuated entrances and staircases, forms a coherent overall picture that is somewhere between airy-light and massive. The bank building was, in a sense, an anticipation of later postmodern buildings in Krakow and forms the final building in our Top 20 Most Beautiful Modernist Buildings in Krakow architecture.
Book recommendations for Krakow architecture
Great overview of modernist architecture in Poland in general.
This tour guide depicts some of the most unusual places in the city, including many icons of Krakow architecture.
- Smith, Duncan J. D. (Author)
Last but not least: This classical tour guide helps you to get around Krakow and presents all of its beauty in detail, giving you a lot of practical information at the same time.
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