This blog was first posted on the Planning Resource website on 28 November 2011.
Nowa Huta was a showcase development by the communist government in Poland in the 1950s. Today, on a bright, cold central European winter afternoon, I took the bus from the old town of Krakow, and rode out to see the place that in 1949 promised poor people “a better future”. In this homage to socialist realist town planning and architecture I was also retracing my own past. In 1970, during my first year teaching in the Department of Town and Country Planning at Heriot-Watt University/Edinburgh College of Art, I came here on a study visit with my students.
An imposed city
Nowa Huta was a centrally planned city. It had an economic and a political purpose. It was to industrialise a region of southern Poland where peasant agriculture was the main activity at the end of World War II. Even when I was here in 1970, this was still a landscape of animals and bended figures working the land. In villages wooden cottages were painted in a traditional blue, and hens strolled across the lanes that ran through the settlements.
By planting the huge Lenin Steel Works at Nowa Huta, the regime hoped to jump from field to factory in the space of a few years, and to halt the drain of people from the region by anchoring them in a new city able to provide services needed by growing families. As Nowa Huta is now home to some 200,000 it can be said to have worked. The basic economics were deeply flawed. The region lacked all the pre-requisites for a steel industry – coal, iron ore and a local market. But, still the agglomeration has spread.
The development of Nowa Huta was highly specific to place and time. Part of that specificity was the political agenda. Nestling below hills, far from Warsaw’s factories or the Baltic shipyards, Krakow, a university town of less than half a million, was seen as bourgeois in social composition and conservative in outlook. It was still redolent of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Nowa Huta would be its workers’ counterpoint, looking to the future not the past, and embodying the spirit of the new proletarian order.
It was planned as a free-standing city, a few kilometres east of Krakow’s historic churches, palaces and castle. However, from the outset the two settlements began to coalesce, and within a couple of years a tram connection had been put in and was well used. Today, riding the bus out there, then the tram back, so as to see two different routes, it is clear that Nowa Huta is an industrial suburb, not a separate town. Post-socialist infill is also very evident, particularly a large retail park that seems about half-way between the two.
Built by heroes
There was ideology as well as politics. Not only would Krakow have a political rival on its doorstep, it would have a grandstand view of the building of new lives and a new society just down the road. The propaganda in the genesis of Nowa Huta was captured in the film Man of Marble by Andrzej Wajda in 1976. It depicts the fabrication of a hero, the Stakanhovite bricklayer Matheusz Birkut, who literally sets the pace in building Nowa Huta. Though Birkut is a fictional character, Wajda was able to weave in archive propaganda film from the days when men were drafted in from outlying villages, to live in tents and construct the promised land.
Of course, the design itself had to be heroic. But in the nascent communist block that meant a very formal “city beautiful” grandeur. What would it look like on a late November afternoon in a different millennium?
I stay on the bus as we pass the high-rise system-built blocks from the 1970s and 80s. I know them well: similar schemes were rolled out on the urban fringe across the Soviet Bloc. They were a doomed attempt to secure popular consent by tackling chronic frustrations about housing, out of a constrained budget. Then I see the lower blocks of the 1960s, with their neighbourhood centres still recognisable, but with uses such as casinos and internet cafes never dreamt of in those far off days.
Finally we reach our terminus at Palc Centralny. The few remaining passengers are mainly pensioners like myself. Might they actually have been amongst the lucky ones who got allocated one of the brand new flats in that New Dawn? It wasn’t just here that new houses were like gold dust in the early 1950s: that was true across most of war-ravaged Europe. In the centrally planned system, where wage differentials were narrow and rents low, housing was a means to reward those loyal to the regime. It could scarcely be otherwise.
So, I stand in the circle that is Palc Centralny, literally the hub of the earliest phase of Nowa Huta. Behind me a low winter sun, dipping away behind Krakow, still catches the upper levels of a crescent of shops, and sheds the last of its light into the radial avenues that focus here. The circus where the trams turn is now named in honour of Ronald Reagan.
I stroll across and into Aleja Ró?, a long, wide paved avenue. Lenin’s statue strode confidently in the middle, until he was pulled down in the uprising of 1989. Through one of the arched gateways I enter area B from the original plan. It looks shabby and weather-worn. The narrow street is crammed with small old cars. While the idea of car ownership would have seemed exotic here in 1949, this streetscape remains familiar with ones I knew a generation ago in this part of Europe.
Similarly, on a cold afternoon, people still stroll the streets and walkways or sit and chat in the public space and the children’s play equipment has been renewed. The general impression is of an area that while not well off, is also at ease. Not far away across Palc Centralny there are new hotels, but here in the heart of the socialist realist city the sense of being in a time warp is pervasive.
Heroes, hope and memory
Part of that time warp is the narrative that labour has dignity and that workers in the abstract are heroes. It is a story that nourished my own growing up, giving me confidence and determination when I most needed it. As night creeps in on this Sunday afternoon, the facades and their grand avenues shrink that story to a ponderous repetition of the town planning motifs of an even earlier era. In the Brecht play, Galileo says “Pity the land that needs heroes”. In Nowa Huta’s twilight, that line resonated for me more than ever.
The light died. The temperature dropped. I stood before the memorial to Solidarity. The long, straight axis focused on the steel works, and designed for orchestrated processions, now carries the name of Solidarity. It was the site of confrontations between the union and the riot police. Just like Wajda’s film, the monument connects Nowa Huta to the shipyards in Gda?sk. I got on the number 15 tram, and left behind the monument that is Nowa Huta itself.