Iconic stadium left to wrack and ruin to be ‘saved from oblivion’ with stunning multi-million renovation
One of Poland’s most iconic stadiums is to be rescued from oblivion after ambitious plans were announced for its three-stage redevelopment.
Found in central Warsaw, Skra was first opened to great fanfare in 1953 – in a city still bearing copious scars of wartime devastation, it was hailed as a pioneering venue and the most modern sports facility in the country.
Prior to the outbreak of WWII, the plot had been marked out to become a multifunctional sports complex by the city’s visionary Mayor, Stefan Starzyński, but much like his bold plans for a metro the idea was thwarted by the outbreak of the war.
Though falling under entirely new governance in the peace that followed, the appeal of a quasi-sporting district was not lost on the city’s Communist authorities and they charged two architects by the names of Jerzy Wasilewski and Mikołaj Kokozow with the task.
Having cleared the area of war-related debris – the grounds had previously been used by German anti-aircraft batteries – at first the area was initially occupied by a speedway track.
But despite some high-profile meets, for instance, a thrilling contest held in 1948 between Poland and Czechoslovakia (Poland triumphed 75-73), speedway failed to gain widespread popularity in the capital and it fell to Wasilewski and Kokozow to find an alternative.
Together, the duo came up with a solution: among other elements, they oversaw the construction of horseshoe-shaped 35,000-capacity stadium surrounded by training pitches, as well as volleyball, tennis and basketball facilities.
Designed in modernist style (when sketching their blueprints, Socialist Realism had yet to be introduced as a default architectural principal), the striking stadium soon captured the hearts of the public.
In 1955, it hosted various athletics events as part of the 5th World Festival of Youth & Students, a propaganda event seeking to promote the concept of ‘peaceful co-existence’ between socialist nations.
Although participants mostly hailed from behind the Iron Curtain, proceedings were lent an exotic twist by the appearance of Shirley Strickland, an Australian that had won gold at the 1952 Olympics.
For Skra, this was just the beginning of a glorious history. Upgraded the following decade, in 1966 The Polish Sports & Tourism Museum was shifted here and three years later its became the first place in the country to install a modern artificial running track. Its advanced facilities were not lost on Poland’s Olympic committee who opened a training centre here.
As part of this, a hotel was added as too were a canteen, sporting clinics and a sporting rehab centre.
Given the state-of-the-art nature of the facilities, it was little surprise to learn that Poland’s most legendary athletes of the day trained here: immortalised for his defiant ‘up yours’ gesture delivered to the crowd at the Moscow Olympics, these athletes included the legendary pole vaulter Władysław Kozakiewicz.
Neither was Skra off-limits to the everyday public. In 1973, five swimming pools designed by Wacław Zarębski, Stefan Hołówka and Sławomir Głowiński were unveiled and immediately caused a sensation.
Occupying an area of seven hectares, two of these were equipped with water slides and though these were modest by today’s standards they became enshrined in local lore not to mention an essential part of summers spent in Warsaw.
But Skra’s fortunes were closely intertwined with the regime – when Communism collapsed, so too did its funding.
The pools were soon abandoned and the stadium itself was also allowed to slide into decline.
Emerging later as a favourite stamping ground of so-called urbex photographers, the dried-out swimming pools soon became buried under vegetation and a somewhat eerie and surreal point on Warsaw’s map. Disappearing under tangles of thick undergrowth, visiting them was soon likened to exploring lost and forgotten worlds.
Neither did the athletics stadium fare much better. Though it remained in use, it was defined by its atmosphere of dereliction and decay. When it was discovered that “the greatest hammer thrower of all time”, Anita Włodarczyk, was training here, the media erupted in fury.
Long subject to rumoured redevelopment, false dawns became common, not least when, in 2008, an Irish property developer revealed plans for their ‘Park of Light’, a project that envisaged a modern sports centre flanked by 200-metre-tall skyscrapers.
The subject of various legal disputes, failed takeovers and empty promises, Skra became a calling card for urban rot – something made all the starker by the sparkling views offered of Warsaw’s nearby glimmering contemporary skyline. It had, to all intents and purposes, become an embarrassment to the city.
Finally, this stands to change with this week’s news of a long overdue rehaul. Signing a PLN 52 million deal with a contractor – a consortium consisting of Tamex Obiekty Sportowe and Gardenia Sport – stage one will see the development of a rugby pitch, athletics training facilities and green areas.
The other stages, meanwhile, foresee the development of a 25,000-seater stadium taking the place of the existing one and the construction of a six-to-seven thousand capacity basketball and volleyball arena.
Though questions about funding still remain moot (Warsaw’s City Hall has estimated the entire cost could climb to as high as PLN 500 million) with regards to these final two stages, the city assured those present at yesterday’s ceremony that plans were already afoot to implement the second stage.
Based upon concepts devised by the BeMM Architekci studio, private sector funding is expected to play a significant role in these other phases.