The new King of cool, superlatives don’t do Katowice justice
It’s not rare for me to use this platform to sing the praises of Łódź, so it’s a bit of a mystery why I’ve remained silent for so long when it comes to Katowice.
Almost like twins separated at birth, whilst these two towns may have found themselves divided by the hand of geography, both their fortunes and personalities continue to share distinct similarities; glorying during the Industrial Revolution, their fall from grace was swift, proving particularly emphatic in the aftermath of Poland’s post-Communist transition.
Unwanted and unloved, they came to define the domestic image of urban decay. Likewise, however, their subsequent rebirth has been almost unfathomable in scope, and seemingly embodied by the raw creativity of their resident populations.
Good things are happening in both, and you see that the moment you step from the train: in the case of Łódź, the staggeringly beautiful Fabryczna, and in Katowice, by way of a modernist pearl once notorious for its roaming band of addicts, but today miraculously spliced into a 21st century shopping centre.
And from there, it just gets better.
Now, I could freely rattle on for hours about what I got up to when I was in Katowice last weekend, but doing so would risk sinking into pub tales sourced from my favourite bar in the country: the Biała Małpa, a warming craft beer den set inside a courtyard adorned with deckchairs and a huge overhead mural.
You don’t need to hear about that, so let me instead talk for a moment about what else I really loved: that’s the architecture of the city.
First, let’s get this straight, on this topic I’m no expert, but what I do know is it’s really quite something. In the centre, that means a big bang of Art Nouveau tenements that teeter over busy pedestrian streets such as Mariacka – a nightlife hub that throngs in the evening as shouty teens descend on the strip’s shot bars and hangouts.
Making it all the more exciting, outbursts of wall art flash out at random just to keep you alert. Subject to much TLC in recent years, the care and precision awarded to the restoration of these pre-war buildings has been impressive, but few standout more than the mighty Monopol Hotel.
Incorporating neo-Gothic exterior details, it was completed in 1904 to a design authored by Ludwik Goldstein and in the 30s famously hosted singer Jan Kiepura and the Hungarian screen siren Marta Eggerth – with excited crowds building outside, it’s said the pair performed a duet from their balcony to the adoring fans gathered below.
And it’s as good now as it was then; sporting a tasteful, Art Deco fit-out, today the hotel has welcomed the likes of David Beckham and Paris Hilton. Put basically, staying here, you’re in good company.
To think, though, that the centre is one uniform assembly of Art Nouveau would be veering from the truth, and this becomes apparent when venturing to the Rynek. This is as far you get from the characteristic Polish square, a point underscored by the presence of a so-called beach – in actuality, a water feature fringed by sun loungers and some great, big palm tree plonked all around them.
Then, anchoring it all, keep your eyes from exploding at the sight of Skarbek – opened in 1975 as a department store, this 62,000 sq/m colossus comes joyously decorated with a skin comprised of 4,000 aluminium shells that glisten in the sun.
Startlingly, this is a precursor of the insanity that’s to come. It’s unknown whether Polish architects of the PRL era experimented with dangerously high doses of LSD, but that’s the only reasonable explanation for much of Katowice – for Exhibit A, for example, let’s wheel out the Superjednostka (The Super Unit).
Topping out at 17-storeys, and measuring 187.5 meters in length, this monster continues to be home to 3,000 people, and was designed to be a self-sufficient “machine for living”. When Charles de Gaulle visited the city in 1967, he was compelled to compare it to Le Corbusier’s Unite d’habitation down in Marseilles.
Capped for decades with a rousing socialist slogan planted on the roof, it embodied the Brave New World of Communist Katowice in the same way that the nearby tower blocks that popped up like toast.
Reshaping the city’s skyline, these soaring concrete towers likewise became symbolic of the city on account of their quirky shapes – some reminiscent of vertical corn cobs, and others star-shape in their form. Set against patchy, empty wasteland and decrepit pre-war tenements occasionally adorned with magnificent out-sized murals, they still have the capacity to deliver a high visual impact.
Of course, this is all leading up to the one EVERYONE will know. Celebrating it’s 50th birthday just recently, the Spodek is a marvel of cosmic engineering. Resembling a flying saucer, rumours that it was structurally unsafe spurred authorities to draft in 4,000 soldiers to march and clap their way around the arena to check the thing wouldn’t tumble down.
Pure in its simplicity, crazy in its dimensions, visionary in its design, today it forms the cornerstone of a cultural complex that has come to include the Silesian Museum. Set on the site of a former mine, today one passes glass blocks and restored industrial structures sprinkled around manicured gardens before reaching a museum that signals its intent with an interior more redolent of a giant white cube gallery.
Superlatives do not do this institution justice and you wander past detailed displays and time-freeze dioramas that present such scenes as the living conditions found in post-war workers’ hostels (think of a jail cell but with an Audrey Hepburn poster) or a groovy PRL living room.
Mind-blowing to the point of being overwhelming, it’s one of the essential reasons to visit Katowice – that said, there’s also many others.
For instance, there’s the Drapacz Chmur (Cloud Scraper), a 60-meter construction that pioneered the use of rubbish chutes in this nation. Premiering in 1934, for a time this cuboid corner tower was ranked Europe’s third tallest building, while closer to home it was rated Poland’s highest until being surpassed by Warsaw’s Palace of Culture and Science in 1955.
Though now looking a little drab and smudged, it doesn’t take too much imagination to picture the times when the city’s fashionista would pull up in chauffeur-driven cars.
Clearly, there is much more, but with my time crunched by piffling matters such as curry house visits and football matches, I found my list of ‘must sees’ trimmed and edited to culminate with an Uber ride east to the suburb of Nikiszowiec.
As it transpired, I’d saved the best for last.
Specifically constructed to house miners working in the Giesche mine, Nikiszowiec took its form between 1911 and 1919. Consisting of a warren of interlocking redbrick housing blocks – each with red-painted window sills – it became something of a city within a city. To an extent, it remains so to this day.
Home to 8,000 people, it’s been so perfectly preserved that only the proliferation of cars parked tightly onto the pavement reminds you as to the century you’re in. A place of swooning archways, shaded courtyards, fluttering laundry lines and prowling cats, it is nothing if not a trip through time – exploring, it is with a sense of dumbstruck surprise at the sheer beauty of it all.
And yes, while a couple of decent cafes and restaurants can be found lurking, it is the untouched authenticity that you visit for – gentrification remains far off, and the menacing graffiti (Ruch Terror appears the local catchphrase) is a pointed reminder. Perhaps a microcosm of Katowice itself, it’s an area of gritty back alleys and spirited locals, of curious details and deliciously dark atmosphere.