Beautifully illustrated book explores fascinating architectural heritage of trendy Gdańsk suburb
A stunning new book sets out to explores the fascinating architectural heritage of Gdańsk’s up-and-coming Wrzeszcz district.
Titled Przewodnik Architektoniczny po Wrzeszczu, and featuring English and German-language translations, the project is the brainchild of Jakub Knera and Natalia Koralewska of Fundacja Palma, an NGO committed to increasing the visibility of Wrzeszcz.
Explaining the idea behind the guide, Jakub Knera told TFN that the book was an organic continuation of the institute’s ongoing activities: “For the last four years we’ve been organizing different cultural and social happenings dedicated to this district,” he says. “It’s a special area. When you think of Gdańsk, most people imagine it in ruins at the end of the war, but whilst this was true of the centre, Wrzeszcz managed to survive more or less intact.
“As such, you’ll find everything from 19th century villas and inter-war modernist structures to architecture more associated with the PRL era. That makes it quite inspiring; you can really touch and see the history.”
But whilst these unique architectural elements live in plain sight, the story behind them has gone largely under-the-radar. This publication, hopes Knera, promises to change that.
“You could argue that Gdańsk deserves a book of its own about its architecture,” he says, “but we saw enough in Wrzeszcz to merit its own guide. There’s already an increasing amount of interest in the area because of its new wave of bars, cafes and cultural institutes, but we felt that a book about its architecture would reveal another layer.”
Set between the city centre and the leafy suburb of Oliwa, till now Wrzeszcz has possibly been better-known as the childhood home of Nobel prize-winning author Günter Grass. However, its patchwork of architectural styles also offer a telling glimpse into the chronology of the city.
“The architecture reflects the changing function of the area,” continues Knera. “Back in the 19th century, we saw a lot of elegant villas built in what is now the north of the district, and these largely served as ‘holiday escapes’ for the affluent residents of the centre.
“The lower part of Wrzeszcz, meanwhile, was more angled towards factory workers. I’d describe it as having commonalities with working class Manchester.”
The area’s diversity, though, is further mirrored by its rich abundance of 20th century buildings, including examples of inter-war modernism as well as signature post-war structures.
“When you think of modernism in the Tri-City you tend to think of the white cubes of Gdynia,” says Knera, “but in Wrzeszcz we also have several instances of modernism, only delivered – quite often – in brick. There’s also some striking examples of Socialist Realism, like Grunwaldzka Dzielnica Mieszkaniowa.”
Reminiscent of Warsaw’s legendary MDM district, the Grunwaldzka Dzielnica Mieszkaniowa was also built in this dehumanizing Stalinist style, though unlike its counterpart in the capital, it never came close to completion, thereby making it a teasing preview of what could have been.
Beyond this era, it’s scant surprise to find the district’s defining landmark, the Olimp, also highlighted.
Inaugurated on New Year’s Eve, 1969, the 17-floor, chessboard-patterned tower became a symbol of untouchable luxury: among the nicknames it earned, some referred to it as Dolarowiec as apartments could only be reputedly bought using foreign currency – dollars in particular. Others, called it Burdelowiec due to its popularity with prostitutes and visiting sailors.
Featuring a Pewex store selling Western goods, as well as apartments touting oak parquet, refrigerators and gas cookers, it was a tempting glimpse into a world unfamiliar to most Poles. Now something of a cult building, it was built on land first intended for a miniaturized tower in the style of Warsaw’s Palace of Culture & Science.
Nearby, another legend of the era also survives, albeit looking markedly different. Opened to the public in 1961, the Cristal was marketed as a gastronomic extravaganza, a glass and concrete pavilion capable of seating 200 people.
Serving up to 2,500 meals per day, people flocked from across the city to enjoy not just the Swedish-style buffet, but also fashion shows, cabaret acts and music performed by the Hungarian band Covery.
“It’s changed dramatically since then and today houses PZU offices and a casino,” says Knera. “In my opinion it hasn’t changed for the better.”
Even so, readers are invited to picture the past thanks to striking illustrations provided by Michał Pecko that show all of the buildings in their original form.
“For us the illustrative side was crucial,” says Knera. “We live in a picture-driven society so we wanted the visuals to really engage people.”
Opting for a pictorial style redolent of an architect’s sketchpad, the imagery is beautiful in its aesthetics.
“If something looks good, then people will naturally pay more attention,” says Knera, “so we’re really happy that Michał’s renderings do such a good job of leading people into the story.”
Beginning with a detailed foreword by eminent architect and local history enthusiast Dr. Jakub Szczepański, and followed by accompanying architectural texts compiled by Aurelia Bladowska, Anna Półtorzycka and Klaudiusz Grabowski, the book leaves few stones unturned with the contributors sourcing their information from archives in both Berlin and Gdańsk.
Yet despite the ultra-specific nature of the subject matter, the feedback received so far has demonstrated the general appetite for the project. Hailed in the national mainstream press, as well as spotlighted in a slew of Polish design and lifestyle titles, the initiative has been met with a wave of enthusiasm.
“We’re a bit surprised by the attention,” admits Knera, “but I think it shows that people are deviating from the norms when it comes to sightseeing. When people visit the likes of Berlin or Lisbon, more and more are doing the main sights first and then seeking something a little more hidden – that’s definitely why we’re also including German and English texts, as we want to show visitors from outside the city limits this different side to the city.”
With over a month still left to run on their crowdfunding campaign, over 80 percent of the PLN 25,000 target has been reached making publication a near certainty.
“Aside from budgetary reasons, we wanted to create a community around the project,” says Knera. “That’s why we chose to take the crowdfunding route. That we’ve already gained so much support shows how much interest there is.”
Moreover, the book promises to cement Wrzeszcz as a place to know, something that causes Knera to bristle with visible pride.
“You’ve got to realize that Gdańsk is forged from a collection of districts that each have their own soul,” says Knera. “If someone from Wrzeszcz is going into the centre for a beer, they don’t tell their cab driver to take them to the centre, they’ll ask to be taken to Gdańsk.
“Of course we are part of the wider city, but we definitely have a strong feeling of separate identity. It’s great that such a small district in a modestly-sized European city can achieve such support.”