Katowice’s Spodek ‘flying saucer’ celebrates 50th birthday
Commonly likened to a flying saucer, Katowice’s iconic Spodek building celebrated its 50th year of life this weekend.
Now considered symbolic of the PRL era, the idea for a multi-purpose arena had first been floated in 1955, a time when Katowice had been temporarily renamed Stalinogród in honour of the Soviet leader.
Slowly, this campaign gathered pace and in 1959 the Provincial Committee of Physical Culture in Katowice approached the Silesian branch of the Association of Polish Architects (SARP) to organize a competition to find a design for the facility.
Four studios were invited to take part in the competitive process, with the winning entry designed by Maciej Gintowt and Maciej Krasiński. The structural engineer, meanwhile, was Wacław Zalewski, an innovative designer whose portfolio included the country’s first ‘self-service supermarket’, Warsaw’s SuperSam; the Torwar Hall in the capital; and Katowice’s train station.
Employing the principle of tensegrity, their pioneering design envisaged a wheel-like object whose dramatic, tilting silhouette would be held in position by a complex system of load-bearing cables.
Originally earmarked to be built in neighbouring Chorzów, the avant garde design impressed local authorities so much that they instead moved the project to the centre of Katowice so that it could become the city’s calling card.
Their ambition, however, was tempered by reality. Set on the site of a former coal mining dumping ground, when labourers broke ground in 1964 they found themselves digging through coal rather than earth. More concerningly, it was revealed that the site had been given a 2A safety classification, meaning that cave-ins were not to be unexpected.
Soon, rumours were rife that any prospective building was doomed to collapse, and these were fanned not just by public gossips but also envious architects with no involvement in the project.
As the grand opening approached in 1971, the army was called in and approximately 4,000 soldiers were handed the undesirable task of testing the facility’s safety by marching up and down the aisles as well as shouting, stamping and clapping in unison.
With no guarantee that the structure would hold, those that took part in these trials later spoke of their trepidation as they entered the hall for the first time.
Happily, all tests were passed with flying colours, and on May 8th, 1971, the arena was opened to national fanfare: in a ceremony attended by First Secretary Edward Gierek and President Józef Cyrankiewicz, those that gathered were treated to performances by the song and dance ensemble Śląsk as well as the popular hits of Anna German and Ewa Decówna.
Despite that, the Spodek was by no means the finished article. Opened hurriedly for the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Third Silesian Uprising and Victory Day (a holiday actually celebrated in the Eastern Bloc on May 9th), the moment the podiums were dismantled workers’ re-entered the complex to complete their job – it was to be another few months before the Spodek was truly ready.
Hosting the European Classic & Freestyle Championships the following April, this was to become the Spodek’s first legitimate large-scale event, and months later it would cement its status in local folklore after the visit of Fidel Castro.
Although Leonid Brezhnev (1974) and Lech Wałęsa (1980) also famously spoke here, their oratories paled in comparison to the marathon monologue delivered by Fidel Castro in June, 1972.
Afforded a welcome more in line with a visiting rock star, Castro had earlier received the title of Honorary Miner of People’s Poland and turned up to the Spodek appropriately dressed as a local coal miner. Preceded by local dignitaries, El Comandante then took to the stage where he lectured the gathered thousands for nearly six hours.
Quickly, the 11,000 capacity arena became known for the sheer diversity of its offer. Housing what was reputed to be the largest cinema screen in Poland (22 metres by 14), huge crowds flocked over the year to watch films such as the Godfather, Apocalypse Now and Star Wars.
Also striking a cord with the public was the debut of the Fiat 126p; affectionately known as the Maluch (“the little one”), the pocket-sized car would later become a cultural phenomenon. Going on show in the Spodek before being rolled-out en masse, over a quarter of a million people are said to have filed into the Spodek to catch a first glimpse of the car.
Sport was also to become one of Spodek’s staples, and in 1976 it played host to what is regarded as the greatest ever moment in the history of Polish ice hockey. Having been mauled 16-1 by the USSR just two months previously, Poland’s beleaguered team avenged their humiliation by pulling off a remarkable 6-4 victory that fans dubbed The Miracle on Ice.
On a more tragic note, four years later the United States amateur boxing squad were scheduled to fight against Poland’s boxing team in a host of exhibition bouts to be held at the Spodek; infamously, they never made it – flying from New York to Warsaw, their plane crashed just outside the Polish capital killing all those on board.
Later established as the spiritual home of Polish volleyball (it was here that the national side clinched the World Volleyball Championships in 2014), the Spodek has become equally associated with music.
Among others, Pearl Jam, Depeche Mode, Sting and Deep Purple all played here, whilst the Smashing Pumpkins were sufficiently impressed enough to shoot the inside cover photo of their Adore album inside the arena.
But while the question of Spodek’s “most famous gig” is open to fierce debate, many point to the 1984 visit of Elton John as being one of the arena’s biggest highlights. Jumping around on stage in his trademark flamboyant outfits, those that were there recall the event as being like “a trip into space for those of us trapped behind the Iron Curtain.”
Though lean years followed during which the Spodek felt like an ill-fitting reminder of Communism, more recent times have seen it regain its relevance and luster thanks to the revitalization of the wider area, sensitive restoration work on the facility itself and a busy programme of cults events such an annual techno festival and huge esports tournaments like the Intel Extreme Masters.