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Wrocław: Rediscovered avant garde

Over 100 years ago, this European Capital of Culture broke new ground in modern design. A stroll past Wrocław’s architectural treasures.

The Market Square, with its restaurants, cafés, horse-drawn carriages, buskers and art dealers, is the focal point of Wrocław’s old town. The tourist’s eye may wander up along the gabled patricians’ houses ranging from Renaissance and Baroque to Art Nouveau styles, eventually to be caught by a towering hulk of a building. The sandstone-colored office high rise sticks out like a sore thumb, its façade of shell-limestone plates dispensing with any hint of decor.

“A Socialist achievement” might be the first explanation to come to mind, but it would be quite wrong. Most of the historical buildings on the Market Square were destroyed in World War II and later rebuilt, but this one is among the very few to have been spared. Originally designed for the municipal savings bank by Heinrich Rump in the early 1930s, it was one of only two high rises in Wrocław – something still quite novel for the time.

Solutions for an Overcrowded City

Now, Wrocław’s year as European Capital of Culture has at last brought its Modernist architecture back into the international spotlight. Once before, in the early 20th century, it played a role almost as important to the development of the Modernist Movement as that of Berlin or Frankfurt. Long is the list of innovative architects who were active in Wrocław at that time, among them, Hans Scharoun, Theo Effenberger, Hans Poelzig, Erich Mendelsohn and Max Berg.

“Wrocław has a great tradition in Modernism. And not just in terms of esthetics but of the philosophy,” says Zbigniew Macków, the European Capital of Culture’s architecture curator. “It’s about the quest for a better life.” The proximity to Lower Silesia’s mining region and a newly opened rail link to Berlin contributed to Wrocław’s transformation into a bustling center of commerce. Germany’s fifth-largest city at the time was already crowded, and within a very short time, the population doubled to half a million, confronting the city with urban planning challenges and social problems.

Entirely new solutions were needed, and the Modernist architects had them. In particular Max Berg, the urban planning commissioner from 1909 to 1925, and Hans Poelzig, director of the arts college from 1903 to 1916, left their marks on Wrocław’s cityscape. And they built up a network of architects, most of whom knew one another from their studies at the Technical University of Berlin. Beside the two office high rises, they designed and built a number of housing developments in and around Wrocław, complete with single-family homes, day care centers, schools and post offices. Many set new standards as reference buildings.

This creative construction boom came to an abrupt end with the Nazi takeover. Innovative projects were axed in favor of the Third Reich’s prescribed norms. Barely 12 years later the defense of “Fortress Wrocław" against the Red Army’s onslaught resulted in the destruction of many of the city’s buildings, old and new. The Nazis vowed to fight to the last man long after the real battle was lost. Around 70 percent of the city’s buildings ended up in ruins.

A Domed Masterpiece

One building survived unscathed: the Centennial Hall by Max Berg, the arena that ushered in the Modernist Movement in Wrocław. Inspired by the Pantheon in Rome, Berg designed a vast reinforced concrete dome with an inner diameter of 67 meters. The monumental structure was completed in 1913 after just two years and even now retains a look that’s refreshingly timeless.

Almost miraculously, it dodged the war’s devastation. The Red Army is said to have used it to set their sights when bombarding Wrocław and hence spared it. Later, Poland’s Communist government realized the Centennial Hall’s cultural and practical value and, in spite of its German origin, had it restored. In 2006, it was declared a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site. Since then, the various extensions that had been added on over the years have been removed to restore the hall to its original condition.

Exhibition: Experimental Living

Not far from the Centennial Hall is another architectural monument: the Werkbund exhibition, known by its German abbreviation WuWA. In 1929, the Werkbund, a German association of architects and designers, followed up its Weissenhof settlement in Stuttgart with another experimental settlement in Wrocław including single-family homes, apartment blocks and a day-care center.

For many decades, these Modernist gems languished in obscurity, ignored, misunderstood and neglected. Wrocław’s designation as a European Capital of Culture has prompted restorations of many of these buildings faithful to historical detail. “The WuWA is part of our DNA. It’s our genetic code, and Wrocław’s architects are in a way duty-bound to keep building upon this foundation,” says Zbigniew Macków. Complementing the restoration, the Museum of Architecture has assembled a unique exhibition, bringing together the Werkbund’s designs for settlements in Stuttgart, Brno, Prague, Vienna, Zurich, Stuttgart and Wrocław for a pan-European perspective on the early 20th-century pioneers.

The Polish Architects have picked up on the spirit of this legacy. Nowe Zerniki is a new large-scale settlement conceived in the spirit of the Modernist Movement. “With these Modernist living units, we’re trying to make the WuWa ideas a reality 85 years later,” as Macków explains the project aimed at furnishing affordable living space for 10,000 people. He sees the timing as ideal: “Wrocław being a European Capital of Culture is only going to happen once. And the high value placed on architecture is, in my opinion, a one-of-a-kind opportunity for the city.

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