With Nowa Huta looking to become UNESCO landmark it should no longer be seen as Krakow’s ugly sister
Living in Poland you learn to expect the unexpected, but even so news that Nowa Huta was stepping up its campaign to be recognized as a UNESCO landmark caused something of a collective splutter over the nation’s morning coffee.
Certainly, taken at face value, the very notion of UNESCO and Nowa Huta getting it together seems just about the oddest coupling since Homer married Marge. But despite the raised eyebrows and initial misgivings, it’s a fact that Nowa Huta has done much to lend its case credence. Once known for its borderline lethal personality, its spent years learning to love itself again, with both time and money spent on smartening up its act and the promotion of its history.
And what a history it has! Built from scratch in the immediate post-war years, the place was born from the immediate need for a mammoth steelworks to feed the general rebuilding of Poland. Chosen for its proximity to water and raw materials, the plant that sprung up was accompanied by a neighbouring city designed by a team headed by Tadeusz Ptaszycki.
More than just a dormitory and dumping ground for the workforce, it was intended as a prototype town that would be home to “the new man”: an idealistic Stakhanovite whose world outlook would be shaped by Communist doctrine.
With that in mind, Nowa Huta wasn’t just a city, it was a social experiment beyond the realms of even Orwell’s imagination.
Taking just a decade to complete, its masterplan was based on the American 1920s concept of ‘the neighbourhood unit’. Housing estates were specifically designed to function as self-contained worlds complete with shared green space, nurseries and community stores that would encourage social interaction.
Designed for 100,000 people, from an architectural perspective what arose was both bombastic and dehumanizing in equal measure. Mixing Baroque and Renaissance-style flourishes to a resolutely Socialist Realist template, everything was designed so as to be easily fortified in the event of war.
And damn right, should the globe spin any further off its axis then you could do worse than resettling here. Still primed to protect itself in the event of the world going BOOM, Nowa Huta was constructed with WWIII specifically in mind.
Over 250 nuclear shelters were built under the city, and whilst most of these have long sat behind padlocks, others have been opened for your intrepid exploration: for instance, the Światowid cinema.
Opened in 1957, its primary function as a place of amusement cloaked an ulterior use as an atomic bunker.
Now operating as the Nowa Huta Museum, you visit to traipse down into a labyrinthine basement that unravels to reveal a warren of tunnels and chambers decorated with artefacts from these paranoid times: command posts, fallout posters, first aid kits and mannequins dressed in doomsday garb.
Intriguing, creepy and totally disturbing, it’s a powerful exhibition that will spook you right out.
Neither does the sense of tripping back in time fade when you emerge back into the daylight. Of Nowa Huta’s more recent triumphs has been a campaign to rid its centre of advertising billboards, and that’s had the effect of returning it to a semblance of its original look.
Bereft of many of the plasticky trappings that have come to define many modern Polish cities, walks pass in a foggy daze of nostalgia. Like stepping inside some vintage archived film, you tread past hunched old men playing chess in the park or by antique old milk bars whose torrid, evil odours waft outside.
Naturally, most will gravitate towards the principal pedestrian artery, Al. Róż, and having done so yourself it’s practically compulsory to visit Stylowa.
Opened in 1956, this cult bar was once packed with local apparatchiks and black-market currency traders enjoying Bulgarian wines, chilled shots of vodka and ersatz coffee.
Today, it thrives anew with its Golden Oldie nights attracting an indiscriminate mix of romancing pensioners, track-suited yobs, glam Krakowians on a retro night out and curious tourists taking covert selfies.
Known as the “Hobbler Bar” by its more silver-haired patrons, the nickname stems from an incident in 1970 when a protestor called Andrzej Szewczuwaniec attempted to blow up the statue of Lenin that once stood outside.
Rigging the charge to his feet, the explosion succeeded only in shattering every window in the vicinity and blowing a portion of Lenin’s heel off.
Comical as it was, the episode was tainted by tragedy – it’s said that one local was so startled by the blast that they keeled over dead.
Removed from his plinth in 1989, Lenin was eventually purchased at auction by a Swedish buyer, though seven years back a miniature copy of the monument returned to Al. Róż as part of a modern art project.
Painted yellow and depicting a urinating Lenin, it scandalized party loyalists and was removed soon after.
But then, Nowa Huta has always been something of a battleground of protest. Though built as a Socialist showpiece, anti-authoritarian dissent became a local trait of Nowa Huta and its Arka Panna church a conduit of demonstration.
Intentionally omitted from the city’s original plans, the campaign for a place of worship became one of the persistent demands of the people, and after decades of conflict one was finally unveiled in 1979.
Named Arka Pana, its an extraordinary piece of design, and one whose aesthetic quirks are complemented by no shortage of curiosities: for example, a rutile crystal retrieved from the Moon by the crew of Apollo 11, not to mention a figure of Our Lady made using shrapnel removed from Polish soldiers during the fighting at Monte Cassino.
Yet for all this talk about the communist past, there are other sides to Nowa Huta as well – a Cistercian monastery gearing up to celebrate its 800th birthday next year; a modern art gallery dedicated to the works of Zdzisław Beksiński; and a House of Utopia unveiled over summer.
Dubbed “an international centre of empathy”, this state-of-the-art cultural hub has done much to portray Nowa Huta as a place shedding its former reputation as a bleak, desolate district.
Having previously failed in its bid for UNESCO recognition, this time around Nowa Huta is better positioned than ever before, a point underlined by the supposed enthusiasm of the Ministry of Culture and Heritage.
Whether it succeeds or not, one thing is apparent: no longer should it be considered an embarrassing, ugly wart on Krakow’s behind.