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Office Wawel drowns in concrete

22 of January '21

Krakow has waited almost half a century for the completion of Skeletor. However, the complex transformed according to BE DDJM 's design into Unity Centre disappoints in many respects. The attention to detail ends with the skyscraper towering over the whole. Everything around - remains a mediocre development, unsuited to the stature of the investment. Most disappointing, however, is the public space, the design of which sets back the discussion of such places by several decades.

Half a century of efforts

Szkieletor

photo by Mateusz Giełczyński / Wikimedia Commons

The skyscraper at the Mogilskie traffic circle, colloquially called "Szkieletor" for years, is the tallest building in the city. Erection of the structure, which had been unfinished for forty years, began in 1975, based on conceptual work and an architectural competition already underway since the mid-1960s. Prepared by the team of Zdzisław Arct, Krzysztof Leśnodorski, Ewa Dworzak and Ludwik Konior, the project included the construction of a new headquarters of the Supreme Technical Organization, along with conference facilities. Since 1989, the unfinished edifice has changed owners several times. It fell into the hands of the current investor in 2005. Two years later, the first concepts for completing the "skeleton" by Hans Kolhoff were presented. It was designed to raise the building to 130 meters, in several variants - with soaring domes, stepped finials, or Greek temple-like superstructures. Eventually, after efforts to obtain permission for such a high building failed, the project was entrusted to the DDJM studio from Cracow. In the meantime, the city drew up a local zoning plan for one particular plot of land occupied by the "skeletor," which allowed the project to go ahead, including raising the building by 10 meters.

From interwar modernism, to New York art deco, to new social realism

fot. Wikimedia Commons

photo by Zgymunt Put / Wikimedia Commons

We came to the conclusion that this complex of buildings, which I call the Wawel of offices, also has an eclectic style, in which one can find modernist order, art-deco elements, a certain discipline of social realism, etc. It seems to me that this diversity was advisable for the tallest building in Krakow. After all, I don't expect a taller skyscraper to be built in our city in the future. And this is an object that has a history. (...) People are close to this building. The construction of this Office Wawel is a socio-economic event.

Marek Dunikowski, source: Dziennik Polski

An extremely prestigious investment required an exceptional design. Visible from many places in the city, the tallest and at the same time one of Krakow's few skyscrapers in Marek Dunikowski's concept was to be dressed in a neo-modernist style costume. Such aesthetics, in the designer's intention, was both a reference to the local traditions of the interwar period, but could also be associated with New York art deco. The dimensions of the plaza in front of the building, the proportions of the various parts of the complex recall the development around Rockeffeler Plaza. In numerous press materials there were announcements of carefully developed detailing and modern form, enriching the structure of the downtown area. New aesthetic values were presented in visualizations depicting snow-white masses with richly articulated and tectonic facades finished with stucco, elaborate stonework of the first floors and the golden dome of Unity Tower towering over everything.

Unity Tower Unity Centre

Photo by Kacper Kepinski

In the end, the visualizations and mock-up of the premise, presented even at a later stage, differed significantly from what was created in the center of Krakow. The proportions, divisions and type of windows were changed, the masses were flattened and deprived of many decorative elements, and the whole was finished with the simplest materials. Ultimately, the architectural expression of the complex is stylistically closest to Socialist Realism, with its scale and proportions. In fact, it can be compared to the neighboring PKP Construction Board Office Building. Erected between 1952 and 1954, the edifice designed by Witold Ceckiewicz is, however, far from the class of contemporary buildings. Carefully elaborated facades, deep tectonics and rhythms of the facade, complemented by plasters of different textures are something that Unity Centre failed to achieve. Instead, similarities can be seen in the general composition - vertical divisions and rhythms shaped by pilasters, the lowering of the prominent cornice by one floor, or the arcades on the first floor.

The skyscraper stands up for itself.

Unity Centre z lotu ptaka

photo: Wikimedia Commons

The meticulousattention to detailing and finishing is evident in the skyscraper. An elaborate portal leads to a wood-finished lobby, where part of the (hidden under new cladding) structure of the former "skeleton" is exposed. In contrast to the lower buildings, aluminum cladding with distinct tectonics was used on the facades. The superstructure floors received glazing and a version of the gold finial, somewhat limited in scale. The reduction of glazing on the office floors, in addition to aesthetic considerations, is also worth reading in an environmental context. Even if dictated by other considerations - it is a positive solution to reduce building overheating and the use of air conditioning. Walls between windows and a clearly defined mass are also important from the point of view of birds, which in the case of glass skyscrapers often crash into the facades of an obstacle they cannot identify.

Concrete canyon

Unity Centre Unity Centre

photo by Kacper Kepinski

What proves to be most disappointing, however, is what lies between the buildings. Designed by the same team of architects, they don't seem to have kept up with the discussion that has been going on for at least two decades about the parameters of user-friendly urban space. While it can be assumed that certain amenities, such as benches or pots with small greenery, will appear on site with the first tenants, the biologically active area is unlikely to increase any more. The main streets and the plaza in front of the high-rise are mostly finished with stone slabs. Lone streetlights illuminate the cold in winter and the warming in summer concrete desert, with the only lawns appearing at the edge of the lot. Part of it, by the way, has been earmarked for bicycle parking. A great initiative, the only question is whether the grass will survive the intensive use of the racks installed on it. The only detail that individualizes this extremely generic non-place are.... manhole covers of sewage manholes decorated with the investment's logo.

Against nature, next to the city

Unity Centre Unity Centre

Sewer manholes, by the way, are a detail that will be crucial in this location. The almost entirely paved plot stands in complete contrast to what constitutes responsible design that takes into account climate change and the effects of exacerbating extreme weather events. One won't find in Unity Centre areas that would retain excess water or trees capable of absorbing it. The situation is only slightly improved by the partially green roof of one of the lower buildings.

Unity Centre Unity Centre

Photo by Kacper Kepinski

A place that is difficult to stay in will also be difficult to get to. There is a lack of connections to the surrounding buildings, and the existing ones have a number of shortcomings. Due to the nature of the development of the neighboring Officers' Estate, the longer side of the plot is fenced off on the eastern side with a fence. To the north, accesses to the underground parking and supply were located, which gives this part of the establishment a purely technical function. The western wall is the border with the University of Economics campus, and here again the pedestrian collides with a 100-meter-plus barrier made of system betafence. The main access from Mogilskie Roundabout is no better. First of all, there was a lack of investor-city cooperation here. The square on the Unity Centre site is separated from the street by a bicycle path, a strip of gravel and greenery. There is no designated access to the public transportation stop located in the immediate vicinity. The main access to the representative square in front of the "unity tower" is, moreover, preceded by monumental stairs. All those who cannot use the stairs must take another, longer route.

A thrilling series with a disappointing ending

Unity Centre

photo by Kacper Kepinski

Cracovians watching an unfinished skeleton in the center of their city for decades can certainly breathe a sigh of relief. The show of impotence and economic problems, which lasted far too long, has ended with a happy ending - the building is finished. It's a shame, however, that such an important building for the city received such a common setting. Apart from the skyscraper, which stands out architecturally above the new parts of the complex, the Unity Center does not represent the new architectural quality that was announced.

Kacper Kępiński

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