Wish you were here? Photographer captures haunting images of abandoned Communist-era holiday resorts
Once seen as evidence of the collective ambitions of the Communist system, today they stand as haunting, empty shells – an eerie reminder of a political order that would ultimately come crashing like a house of cards.
Built at the height of the PRL era, a string of holiday resorts were created up and down the country as part of a campaign that sought to grant every worker a break to remember.
Featuring a subtle but ever-present ideological narrative, these were rife with symbolism and the collective character of these holiday spots was emphasized by the proliferation of group activities.
Entwined in all of this was the Workers’ Holiday Fund, an organization established even before the final shots of the war had rung out. Playing a key role in the management of free time, it was under their direction that these resorts were later built to help fulfil an entry in the 1952 constitution that declared that every citizen had “the right to rest”.
Looking to propagate ideas of happiness and joy, what followed was a carefully orchestrated government campaign to engineer a new society – a point perhaps reflected by the modernist character of the resort buildings themselves.
Often buried deep in the mountains or forests of Poland, they made for an incongruous sight, their concrete form slapped in places of outstanding natural beauty.
Allowed to slip into decline following the dramatic events of 1989, these resorts have largely vanished from the memory of the public.
This, though, is changing, and much credit for that rests with Marcin Wojdak.
Working under the Instagram handle of Cosmoderna, he has become one of the leading lights in Polish urbex photography with his specialty being none other than the former vacation resorts of the PRL times.
Speaking to TFN, Wojdak says: “It’s the atmosphere of these that I find the most interesting. These are open-air museums of a former epoch, and for a system that pushed for a completely different set of values than the capitalism we have today.
“Because these holiday centres never had to compete for clients they weren’t run for profit; neither did their construction have to go through environmental or management approvals and that served to really benefit their architecture,” he continues.
Currently the subject of an ongoing exhibition in Kielce, Wojdak’s images have captivated viewers by taking them into the heart of these now forgotten resorts.
“Often they had large and atypical glazing and roofs,” he says, “not to mention mosaics, frescoes and metal ornamentations. The kind of things you’d only see in an expensive hotel nowadays were once available to ordinary people.
“Additionally, a large proportion of these centres were built in really beautiful places – along the shores of lakes, right up against the seaside or high up in the mountains. Nowadays, it would be really difficult to obtain approval to build in such locations, so I think there is a sense that you’re visiting a completely different world when you see these places.”
Though many have largely been hollowed out, others offer a surreal glimpse into the past.
“Practically every centre I’ve visited has had some unique and unusual feature,” says Wojdak. “For instance, there was a stunning place I visited called Wilga, near the village of Rudno. There, I discovered an amazing ceiling in the former canteen decorated with dozens of lamps – it reminded me of a UFO!
“I’ve also found a bowling alley in one of the centres I’ve visited in the Łódź region, and that would have been seen as a huge luxury during the PRL times. More recently, up in the mountains, I discovered an old post office building decorated with a mosaic featuring lots of pigeons (the symbol of the mail service).”
As if frozen in time, another mountain jaunt led to the discovery of boxes filled with unpacked mugs and plates featuring the logo of the resort.
“They’d probably sat there in their box for the last 30 or 40 years,” says Wojdak.
Defined by their artistically natural aesthetic, Wojdak’s images are a welcome departure from the overly-processed photographic styles so commonly favoured by other urbex photographers.
Notable for their nuance and ethereal atmosphere, these are images that lead people to thought.
“I don’t spend hours in Photoshop to present an effect,” says Wojdak, “I prefer a photo to be as close to the truth as possible. I want it to present what I saw ‘live’ with my own pair of eyes.
“Additionally, I like to treat these buildings as if they were a model, and as such I try and capture them from their best side. Often, I focus on details and look to express their natural beauty.”
With his fanbase ever expanding, Wojdak’s success has been underlined by the forthcoming release of a book documenting his intrepid explorations.
“It’s scheduled for release in May 2022,” he say, “but while I was writing my texts I came to realize how many places I’ve visited in the last four or five years have totally vanished.
“If you’re interested in this architecture from the PRL period, I’d advise you to hurry and get out there and visit because, to use a football analogy, your ninety minutes are up and the referee has only added a few minutes.”
For more on Marcin’s works, see: www.instagram.com/cosmoderna
This article was first published in December 2021.