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Rapid and ad hoc change process

21 of January '20

Katowice is undergoing a vibrant process of change. Demolitions, reconstructions, renovations. The pursuit of quick profit and the attempt to convince Silesians that the city needs renewal are evident. Just isn't this rapid revitalization just an ad hoc effort? Is there a plan for the city's expansion?

If one were to ask passersby during a walk through Katowice how to get to the city center, there would probably be several conflicting answers. Katowice today is looking for a new identity. New buildings have sprung up along Wojciech Korfanty Avenue: hotels, office buildings, restaurants, the headquarters of the National Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra, the International Congress Center or the Silesian Museum, located a little farther away on the site of a former mine. The Katowice authorities' plans include the idea of a modern city center with the modernization of Korfantego Avenue and the market square.

Social-modern buildings along Wojciecha Korfantego Avenue in Katowice

photo: Paweł Błach


In order to address the changes and current redevelopment of Katowice's city center, it would be necessary to briefly review its post-war history. Its German pedigree, capitalist roots, Soviet influence, decaying tenement houses and communication and functional inefficiency became the reason for the communist authorities to comprehensively rebuild the downtown. Katowice's downtown underwent a real metamorphosis in the 1960s and 1970s. In place of dilapidated buildings, large modernist edifices, fashionable at the time, were erected. The architects' vision was to break the dominant axis (east-west) and move the city center to the vicinity of the General Jerzy Ziętek traffic circle. To this end, the northern frontage of the square was demolished and Korfantego Avenue was widened, creating a space based on social-modernist paradigms: more sun, greenery and air, and free vehicular traffic. Party comrades also needed a parade avenue among buildings full of socialist content. This is how Korfantego Avenue was created, whose axis is crowned by a dominant landmark in the form of Spodek.

Korfantego Avenue - view toward Spodek

photo: Pawel Blach

modernization for our times

In 2006 the authorities of Katowice decided to hold a competition for an urban-architectural concept for the center of Katowice. The first prize in the competition went to a daring project by Konior Studio, completely changing this area of the city. The architects decided to fill Korfantego Avenue with dense buildings contrasting with the earlier assumptions of modernist artists, as well as to create a market and reduce traffic congestion in the central area. The project was not implemented and was treated rather as a study, while the Katowice authorities repeated their efforts a few years later. The second competition for the development of an architectural concept for the development of public spaces in the area of the center of Katowice did not result in the first place. The current appearance of the market is the result of cooperation between the GPP Grupa Projektowa studio and the EKSPO Architecture Design Agency - they won second place in the competition and, as a result of a compromise with the city authorities, implemented their project.

through the keyhole

A new building serving as the city gate leading to the market square in Katowice - closing the northern frontage

photo: Justyna Boduch

The idea to erect yet another building in the market, closing the space from the north, appeared as early as the 1960s during a meeting with General Jerzy Ziętek on the assumptions of the redevelopment plan, when Katowice's center was undergoing a real revolution. It was immediately protested by the architects of Miastoprojekt, who had a vision of Korfantego Avenue as a representative and scenic part of the city in the spirit of the then post-war modernism.
Architects from the consortium GPP Grupa Projektowa and Agencja Projektowa Architektury EKSPO returned to the idea of closing the avenue from the northern side. They proposed a "City Gate," marking the clear edge of the designed square and the view closure. The result, however, instead of an open gate to the city, was a building limiting the space and obscuring the view of the square and Korfanty Avenue at the same time, with the entrance to the center resembling a keyhole rather than an entrance gate at this scale.

Steel structures of the new streetcar shelters

photo: Justyna Boduch

According to the project, the streetcar shelters have been successfully realized. The huge steel structures stood at nearby stops. Their appearance was to refer to the post-industrial character of the agglomeration. The shelters, despite their dimensions, unfortunately do not serve a specific function, their canopies are too narrow and do not protect people from the rain.

A river swept under a concrete carpet

The Rawa, a river flowing through the center of Katowice, which is the largest tributary of the Brynica River, feeding into the Vistula, consists of sixty-five percent sewage. Fish have been found to be completely extinct in it.

As Filip Springer writes in one of his reports on Polish space included in "Book of Delights," "If you wanted to recreate its composition at home, you would have to take one bucket of spring water and nine buckets of sewage from Ruda Śląska, Świętochłowice, Chorzów and Katowice. Then you'd have to mix it all thoroughly, throw in some garbage, an old tire and a used condom."

It is the Rawa River that the authorities have no heart for, which is a pity, because a river in a city is an element that enlivens the space. Architects know about this factor, which is why they have tried to address this problem in competitions, symbolically emphasizing the place where the river flows. Unfortunately, the solutions were reduced to a symbol only. The Rawa River was hidden under concrete slabs during the reconstruction of the center, with only a trace of its presence to be reminded by a fountain built over its bed. In the summer the fountain enlivens the space, you can see children playing there and people relaxing on the benches, in winter the area becomes empty.

The fountain symbolizing the Rawa River in summer

Photo: Justyna Boduch

small Champs Elysees

One can risk saying that Korfantego Avenue is one of the most interesting streets in the capital of Upper Silesia. Katowice-based architect Mieczyslaw Król risked even more when he said that it is such Katowice's little Champs-Élysées. During the communistera, when people lined up in long lines to go to the stores, the first modern-for-that-time department stores, such as Zenit and Skarbek, were already appearing in Katowice along Korfantego Avenue, attracting customers from all over Poland, and certainly from neighboring cities. Today, commerce flourishes in front of Skarbek. Wooden booths in... Zakopane style in the run-up to Christmas put the local community in an existing holiday mood. But at least you can see people there, unlike in Flower Square, which was intended by the designers from GPP Grupa Projektowa studio to play the role of an attractive meeting place.
One may ask why there are no people in the recently renovated space, while a step further on, on the opposite side of the streetcar tracks, the square is teeming with life. Well, the function of the square seems ill-considered, lacking a specific purpose and services that encourage interaction and urban activity. Flower Square was supposed to be the city's green, games, sports and play zone. As a separate space with a more intimate character, it was supposed to serve as a respite from the urban hustle and bustle amidst the greenery. Unfortunately, there was a lack of consistency in the realization of these objectives.

Kwiatowy Square - view toward Wojciech Korfanty Avenue

photo: Justyna Boduch

history lesson

The expansion of Korfantego Avenue between the modernized center and the socmodernist fabric of the city is still ongoing. Today, the space between Katowice's market square and the General Jerzy Ziętek traffic circle is one of the most interesting examples of what modernists envisioned for modern cities. It is a vivid example of both bold urban planning efforts or the power of the ideas of the time, as well as misguided utopian postulates for cities and the people living in them. Korfantego Avenue is an excellent history lesson. The modernists may have been wrong on some city planning issues, but they had a coherent plan and vision for it. Meanwhile, the development principles of modern Katowice and the direction of the center's expansion still seem to be unknown and shaped not by architects, but rather by developers dictating terms to the city authorities.

View of Theater Square from Kwiatowy Square

photo: Paweł Błach

The links between architecture and politics and government are obvious, but decisions on common public space should be made by specialists, based on public consultation. Meanwhile, architects and planners seem to be just a tool in the hands of the authorities. It takes a lot of knowledge, persistence, strength, determination and cooperation of people to skillfully shape a people-friendly environment - an active, attractive space that integrates the community, while trying to preserve the identity of the place and urban order. It is important to remember that we are dealing with physical space, and the events and investments taking place in the city are not hypothetical assumptions, but a real and irreversible reality that affects each of us.


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