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Krakow now faces an important question

24 of March '22

Interview with Kuba Snopek - urban planner and urban researcher - from issue 12/2021

New Wesoła - the city planning process should be reversed. As part of the process of shaping the post-hospital area of Wesoła, a centrally located part of Krakow that is undergoing a process of transformation, an urban planning workshop was held with the participation of Krakow and non-Cracow architects, planners, officials and researchers. Among the guests of the International Architecture Biennale in Krakow were Bartlomiej Kisielewski, an architect from Horizone Studio, Lukasz Maślona, an urban activist and councilor of the City of Krakow, Kuba Snopek, an urban planner and urban researcher, and Jan Pamula, president of ARMK, the company established to manage Wesoola. I talk to them about their reflections from the workshop work during the Biennale and their personal vision for Wesoła.

Katarzyna Jagodzinska: What reflections came to you when you first came to Wesoła?

Kuba Snopek: Wesoła is a large green area in the center of the city, which is mostly private. Krakow is a city of private lots, with compact, well-defined public spaces in between. The railroad embankment has influenced the creation of a breach in this defined space that is quite different from the rest of Krakow - loosely built up, less defined, with more greenery. The development structure of this piece of the city reminds me more of smaller cities that are less designed than Krakow.

Krakow is now facing an important question: whether to transform this area in such a way that it resembles the center of Krakow, or, on the contrary, to create a space with a completely different character and preserve this informal jitteriness, lack of frontage, little spatial chaos, and plenty of greenery?

Three groups worked at the Biennale workshop and there were different answers: to define the area as much as possible, to create legible squares, and not to build it up and design it with non-architectural means.

grupa III podczas warsztatów

Group III during the workshop

photo by Lubomir Nikolov

Katarzyna: Which solution will be better for Krakow?

Kuba: For the challenges of greenery, climate change, air quality that all cities face, the answer is clear - you need a lot of green areas in the centers. In my opinion, no new volume should appear on Wesola. I believe that public space and undeveloped space in the center of a large city is a finite and extremely valuable resource. In the case of Wesola, the matter is all the more clear that these are green areas with old trees, quite loosely built up. No new volume is needed there, neither on the ground nor underground. Often architects say: we will not build up, but we will make a huge underground parking lot. In my opinion, this will be a crime - it will disturb water conditions and make the uniqueness of this green area destroyed. The parking lot also generates traffic and should not be invested in it.

Katarzyna: During the workshop you worked in an interdisciplinary team, on top of that a team consisting of Krakow residents well versed in the area and the discussions going on here, and people from outside who looked at Wesoola with fresh eyes. Did these different perspectives make themselves known in the discussions?

Kuba: In our group, which included myself and two architects from Warsaw from the outside, there were no major rifts. The only time we had to discuss with each other was about the underground volume - one of the Krakow architects proposed building a parking lot and tunnels, which would have been very capital intensive and would have destroyed nature. It was one in eight and was voted down. On the other hand, there was no dilemma in our group about whether to make this part more similar to the rest of Krakow or not - both Krakow residents and outsiders were on the same side. Perhaps if the group had included architects from the older generation, it would have been different. Other groups were more dominated by architects than ours, and they were the ones proposing architectural solutions.

Wesola development project prepared by group III

Katarzyna: When I was listening to your presentation, I had in front of my eyes your story about the Dnieper Stage [A&B No. 9/2021], where you were also keen on the least possible interference.

Kuba: This stems from my concept of design. In Poland, the term "design" is commonly understood as architectural design, i.e. creating a volume. In my opinion, this is a very narrow view. In Scena, we designed not only the volume, but also how to finance, how to manage, how to draw in the community. Now in my design practice I design everything except architecture. The Krakow group allowed itself to be persuaded by this approach. It is especially correct when you have historical buildings, because - especially in a city like Krakow - historical buildings are under strict conservation protection, and there you can't get rushed with design. The best approach seems to be full preservation, treating these historic buildings as a resource of rooms of a certain size and designing everything else - the landscape, the management, the financing.

Poland fundamentally has a problem with spatial planning. It's a multi-layered problem, and one of those layers is spatial law, which gives cities or municipalities few tools to shape space proactively. Usually it's a local plan that designates functional zones, plots get sold and control is lost. Wesoła is an interesting case, because the city owns the plot and the buildings standing on it, so it can plan in much more detail what will happen there. It can create an institution to manage it. It can define in detail the rules for the operation of that space. It can design in detail how the place will function, rather than just specifying in color on a map the functions to be found there and handing the plot of land over to someone else. Wesoła can become a prototype of a completely different way of shaping the city than the one we have seen in Poland so far.

Group III during the workshop

photo by Lubomir Nikolov

Catherine: Your idea is to divide existing buildings into rooms that could be temporarily inhabited by different entities. It's just not possible to do this with all the types of entities that are mentioned in the context of Wesola - temporary doesn't fit, for example, the nature of a library with a huge stock of books or a museum with a stock of objects that are not very mobile.

Kuba: At the two-day workshop we proposed a certain scheme, without including details. They should be designed later, by the city. We propose not to erect new buildings (especially since there are old ones, which we don't know what to do with), and where a new building is allowed on the local plan, we propose to leave a park. We have been told that large institutions have buildings in the city, while there is a shortage of medium- and small-sized places, such as a rehearsal room for students at the Academy of Music, or a place where residents could paint or sculpt. It is possible to divide existing buildings into a pool of rooms and use some of them commercially and some non-commercially. The city could create an agency that would curate these spaces - it would, on the one hand, create a calendar of events and rent them out to institutions and residents for various uses, on the other hand, make money so that the balance comes out to zero, and on the third hand, monitor the whole thing, checking what kind of functional program is really needed. So we turn the city planning process upside down: instead of first designing the shape of the urban fabric and then finding its functions, we propose to use the spaces that already exist to see what functions are needed. We propose to rent them out for various needs, invite various micro-institutions, NGOs, universities (we know that there are quite a few small functions that are looking for a "home") and introduce criteria for evaluating the operation. Well-designed evaluation criteria would give the opportunity to monitor what is needed and provide the residents of Krakow with what the market has not provided. There is a group of needs related to art, music, development, for example, that the market does not answer. It seems to me that the city could carry out such cultural activities.

Catherine: Do you know if somewhere in the world a similar process has taken place and worked well? Something like a model that policy makers and planners could look at?

Kuba: Something exactly like that doesn't exist, because there is no other city like Krakow anywhere, while there are worldwide trends that you can look at and look for analogies. Similar things are happening in the private market. Very often developers do "animation" before building apartments or commercial buildings. Post-industrial buildings are used so that people come there - foodtrucks stand, art activities are carried out - and get used to the fact that there is such a place in the city. Then something is built there that will sell more expensively due to the fact that people have become accustomed to the place. The result of this action is an increase in the value of the property. The city of Krakow, as a public entity, could carry out a very similar process and use tools familiar from the private sector, but without the mercantile goal at the end - animation not to increase the value of real estate, but to increase the well-being of city residents.

Another example is the Soho typology in China - these are huge private complexes with a huge podium and towers, divided into a multitude of rooms of identical size, which do not have their defined function. A private building is created that has housing, offices, small cafes, services on one floor. There is a lot of freedom there. Another example is the corner shop in Amsterdam, a building with small services on a street corner, which the city was giving away to new businesses. If someone wanted to open a bicycle store or a cafe, that's where he could do it. If the business managed to flourish within a certain period of time, it was moved to another room with a commercial rent, and this public room acting as a gas pedal was used further.

Rem Koolhaas ' unrealized OMA project in St. Petersburg - the reconstruction of the Hermitage - comes to mind. The Hermitage received a new building that consisted of eight hundred rooms. It was a 19th century office building with small rooms and corridors. The OMA's proposal was not to demolish these rooms and make typical museum open spaces, but instead to make a micro-exhibition in each room and later organize tours in the footsteps of a particular theme, not requiring going through the entire museum.

All these activities, whether public or private, are united by a nuanced approach to space that assumes flexibility and being an active curator of a large resource of small spaces.

Group III during the workshop

photo by Lubomir Nikolov

Katarzyna: How do you assess the process by which the new Wesoła is being created?

Kuba: I can't evaluate it because I don't know it. I was invited to one step among probably a thousand other steps. What caught my eye was the city's openness to new ideas. On the other hand, I don't know Krakow from the institutional side, I don't know what forces are at work here, and that's what makes a city. There are specific players with specific interests, and urban planning, it's the politics of how to bring those interests together.

Catherine: Should the process of working together with specialists from many different fields that played out at the Biennale continue? Is two days of work not enough?

Kuba: Two days is certainly not enough, but also enough to wring out some ideas. On the other hand, the question is how this process will continue, what will happen to them.

Catherine: Thank you for the interview.

interviewed by Katarzyna Jagodzińska

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