Wrocław has a lot to offer, but the tale behind its Iglica spire is an odd one, as Webber’s World finds out
From the visitor perspective, I’m not sure that there’s another city in Poland that enjoys such unanimous approval ratings as Wrocław.
In fact, if there’s a reason I tend to avoid writing about the city, it is because it feels like such an obvious place to choose.
Captivating on every level, the only way I would improve it would be by ordering a merciless cull of all those blasted gnomes – what began as an eccentric amusement has grown into an epidemic of meretricious kitsch. But then again, maybe I’ve just become miserable and jaded.
Anyway, I digress. Wrocław’s beauty is undisputable, and so too its character and endlessly good mood. Yet whilst that is commonly accepted by all that visit, it’s startling to learn just how many people see so little beyond the Old Town plopped into the centre.
I mean, I don’t blame them for that at all, but for me some of the city’s biggest attractions can be found way out east. In this regard, you have the historic WuWa district, one of six such model housing estates constructed around Central Europe towards the late 1920s.
Built with the ideas of ‘social function’ at its core, the area was seen as visionary for its architectural form, spatial layout and overall philosophy – a bold project, it became almost symbolic of the Brave New World that many Europeans thought that they were on the verge of entering.
Today, the collection of buildings holds great curiosity value for architecture boffins, and while this appeal may seem limited to others, the wider area holds a motherlode of sights and sounds. Among these, a Japanese garden opened in 1913 under the patronage of Baron Fritz von Hochberg.
With a design executed by a gardener by the name of Arai Mankich, it became one of the city’s prime attractions – losing about 70 percent of its inventory during the Great Flood of 1997, it has recovered well and today serves as one of my favourite spots when looking to recover from the strange sickly illness that seems to visit me every Sunday.
I could, also, mention the fountain park and the award-winning Afrykarium that takes day-trippers through underwater glass tunnels whilst being eyed by hungry-looking crocs hailing from the Nile.
But doing so, however, would ignore the area’s biggest pull – the UNESCO-listed Centennial Hall and its accompanying spire (the ‘Iglica’).
Though often cited as the city’s defining landmark(s), I never fail to be flabbergasted at how few of my friends have seen these first-hand. If I had the power, I’d happily punish them for this with twenty-five lashes.
Authored by the architect Max Berg (whose ideas for what was then the city of Breslau included a 20-storey skyscraper in the middle of the square), the Centennial Hall was built to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Frederick William III’s victory over Napoleon in the Battle of Leipzig.
Built to outwardly demonstrate the economic might of Silesia (and, similarly, to warn future generations not to mess with the region), Berg’s project was selected over 42 other entries and constructed at the staggering cost of RM 1.9 million.
No other building at the time had made such use of reinforced concrete, and critics openly questioned the sanity of Berg’s ambition. Shaped almost like a bowler hat, its 65-metre diameter and 42-metre height made it the largest dome in the world.
The breakneck speed at which it was completed was also impressive; built to hold 10,000 people, the staggered media described it as “a melody of modernity”.
Ceremonially opened on May 20th, 1913, its ribbon cutting was one of the biggest events in the city’s history, and attended by ladies in ballgowns and immaculately attired gents. Among the prominent dignitaries present were Prince Frederick William of Prussia.
Accompanying the launch was the so-called Exhibition of the Century, which in essence presented a sea of captured Napoleonic swag – including battlefield souvenirs captured from France’s vanquished forces at Waterloo by Marschall von Blücher.
An enthusiastically Nazi city, the coming of the Third Reich opened a new chapter in the hall’s history and Hitler addressed a packed crowd of fanatics here in 1933. It’s said that the route back to his hotel, the Monopol (which likewise exists to this day) was lined entirely by rows of torch-wielding followers.
After the war, the Polonization of Breslau began in earnest. Shedding itself of its German heritage, the city was renamed Wrocław and the Centennial Hall was rechristened the Hala Ludowa.
Escaping the widespread destruction that had resulted from the brutal siege of Festung Breslau, the hall was picked out to host the 1948 Recovered Territories Exhibition and the World Congress of Intellectuals for Peace.
Events of huge status, the latter was attended by luminaries such as Bertolt Brecht and Graham Greene. That Pablo Picasso was persuaded to fly for the first time in his life in order to speak underscored its importance.
The former, meanwhile, was a 100-day exhibition designed to show that Wrocław – and Silesia – had always been spiritually Polish. The cost of it was enormous – in the lead-up, remaining anti-tank barriers and minefields had to be cleared, and over 147 kilometres of pavements were laid to ensure ease of access.
So that visitors would not see the city’s broken soul, thousands of workers were shipped in to work hastily on its repair.
Anti-imperialistic in its content, the exhibition was finally opened on July 21st, 1948 by President Bierut.
In all, it was visited by two million people – not least for the funfair that operated outside until midnight each day. More than an exhibition of recovered territories, it was, to some, an exhibition of a recovered city.
Yet this is only part of the story, and brings me to why I’m writing about it in the first place.
You see, this weekend signals one of Wrocław’s stranger anniversaries. Aware of the hall’s undeniably German credentials, planners decided to build a spire next to it that could become a symbol of Polish Wrocław.
Topping out at 106-metres, it was designed by Stanisław Hempel (credited with the reconstruction of Zygmunt’s Column in Warsaw), it was promoted as a victory of Polish technology.
But if all that sounded too good to be true, it soon proved that it was. In their contorted wisdom, engineers crowned it with a spike that held eight rotating mirrors. This “umbrella of light” was to create stunning visuals in the moonlight.
However, just one day after these were raised a storm passed over Wrocław and the Iglica was hit by lightning.
For weeks, authorities were left grappling with what to do next – with the exhibition in full-swing, the mirrors threatened to fall on the people down below.
Unable to reach it with their ladders, the fire brigade were redundant. As the city’s embarrassment grew, wacky ideas were floated: some suggested army snipers could be sent in to shoot the mirrors down. Others pressed for a hot air balloon to be put into action.
Eventually, though, two students from Kraków stepped forward to the rescue. Arriving to the scene on October 15th, 1948, Zbigniew Jaworowski (majoring in medicine) and Wojciech Niedziałek (sociology) volunteered to climb up – as they began inching their way up at 11 a.m., the daredevils soon found their progress broken by strong winds.
Refusing to back down, they remained on the spire. As news broke, crowds of thousands descended on the scene to watch them – some with telescopes and binoculars. Local newspapers, it is said, found their lines overwhelmed with calls from foreign news agencies.
Finally, the following day, they were able to cut the mirrors down. Approximately 36-hours after they had first set off, they were back on firm ground and were touted as heroes.
The Iglica’s story ends not there – subsequently, it’s been scaled a few times: once during Martial Law by a protestor, and more recently in 2008 and 2018: first by a Pole with a Free Tibet flag, and then by Marcin Banot, a free-climber nicknamed ‘the Polish Spiderman’. In the same year, climbers with guitars also conquered the spire to mark the opening of the city’s guitar festival.
Correspondingly, the hall has also rarely been out of the news. Now renamed Hala Stulecia, it has continued to attract some of the planet’s biggest names including Pope John Paul II.
Though not Wrocław’s most beautiful building, it is perhaps its most interesting – you miss it at your peril (and at the risk of twenty-five lashes).