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What's going on in Wroclaw's Manhattan?

02 of February '21

Wroclaw public opinion was electrified by the news reported late last year in the local press regarding Manhattan, a complex of skyscrapers located on Grunwaldzki Square. The complex, designed in 1967 by Jadwiga Grabowska-Hawrylak, quickly became a landmark of the city, an icon of the post-war years, a symbol of modernity and an avant-garde approach to design "in concrete."

The sight of six residential point-blocks with distinctive prefabricated facade detail "... grew deeper and deeper into the mental map of Wroclaw every year," delighting architects and experts on modernism from all over the world. The press release, however, was not about the residential buildings, whose facades were insulated and renovated in 2016, but about their surroundings - what sits on the elevated pedestrian and commercial slab to the second floor level and below it, in the open garage ground floor.

prace uzgodnione są z konserwatorem zabytków stan
techniczny ciągu pieszego stanowi zagrożenie dla użytkowników

Photo: Beata Stobiecka

Unfortunately, five years ago there was no longer enough money to renovate and modernize this part of the famous complex. So while the "upstairs" - the facades of the landmark buildings shine with freshness, although their original idea has been completely changed, the downstairs is disfigured by dirt, moisture, cracks in the concrete slabs and "(...) a cacophonous cluster of advertising banners, displays, signs and colorful films"¹. Moreover, and perhaps most importantly, the technical condition of the pedestrian thoroughfare even poses a danger to users. Mainly due to this very bad condition of the slab known as the esplanade, the Piast Housing Cooperative, which administers the buildings and part of the area, decided to "do something about it," i.e. demolish a section of the two-story establishment.

{Image@url=,alt=esplanada on Grunwaldzki Square,title=esplanade on Grunwaldzki Square}

esplanade on Grunwaldzki Square

photo: Beata Stobiecka

renovation and restoration

In January, public emotions reached their zenith when heavy equipment drove up to Manhattan and began dismantling the terrace adjacent to the Biedronka store from Nauczycielska Street. Fortunately, the matter was quickly cleared up, although shocked residents, local media and Wrocław activists stormed the City Hall and SM Piast with demands to stop the destructive activities.

When asked about the legal side of the project,Piotr Fokczynski, City Architect, explains:

The permit for the entire renovation of the esplanade was issued earlier, its most drastic part is what you see now - the demolition of a section of the slab. It resulted from an examination of its technical condition: structural columns, stringers, a tilting balustrade, all of this was not suitable for repair with reinforcing elements. The verdict was unequivocal - dismantle and reconstruct.

remont esplanaderemont esplanaderemont esplanade

esplanade renovation

photo: Beata Stobiecka

When asked about the extent of the dismantling of the slab, the architect replies:

The demolition is designed to allow the front of the work to reach the most important parts of the esplanade. From there, its renovation is to be carried out further. - And he reassures - This first stage of the work is agreed with the conservationist. It is also in accordance with the plan and engineering logic, as it is difficult to clapboard and patch superficially such a structure advanced in deterioration and a large area of the pedestrian thoroughfare. This is functionally and architecturally a very important element, and it is difficult to repair it with half-measures after half a century of use. This must be done solidly, so that the esplanade acquires its full functional and technical value - for years to come.

A postponed concept

At the same time, Piotr Fokczynski recalls the concept for the overall modernization of Manhattan, made in 2012 by the Wroclaw-based Vroa studio and consulted, among others, with the author of the complex, Jadwiga Grabowska-Hawrylak.

The work of architects: Marta Mnich, Mark Lamber, Natalia Rowińska, Łukasz Wojciechowski and Agnieszka Hałas,

included (...) not only insulating and renewing the facades of the skyscrapers and pavilions, but also assumed - while respecting the original assumptions - significant functional transformations. The area dedicated to retail and services was increased. A pavilion, never realized, was added on the side of the Grunwaldzki Bridge, as well as commercial spaces on the side of Nauczycielska and Michal Wroclawczyk Streets, improving one of the main shortcomings of the complex - the functional asymmetry, which makes the zone of contact with the historical buildings today function as the technical back of the estate².

architektoniczna, widok z góry

architectural concept, top view

© Vroa

This concept, unfortunately, was not properly taken into account in the modernization of the skyscrapers, but today the question can be asked - will it be used this time for the current activities related to the renovation of the esplanade?

It was done at the request of SM Piast, but it never entered official circulation as design guidelines or additional findings of possible conservation protection, says the City Architect. - Unfortunately, it also did not translate into implementation measures, although the cooperative, modernizing the high-rise buildings, used the Vroa study to some narrow extent.

architektoniczna, widok od ulicy Nauczycielskiej

Architectural concept, view from Nauczycielska Street

© Vroa

He stresses that the most important thing about the concept was a new, creative approach to the subject of developing the ground and ground levels, giving the residential complex additional commercial space. And although the idea has so far not been put into the implementation plan, according to Piotr Fokczynski, it is still an open topic, possible to be addressed during the current renovation of the esplanade.

costs and who will cover them

The element that needed investment fine-tuning was finance. While the modernization of the apartment buildings carried out four years ago was paid for by the cooperative (that is, all residents), the cost of renovating the slab, with all its elements, is beyond the means of Manhattan residents. Friends who live in high-rise buildings say that every month they feel the renovation fund rates raised several years ago.

This is a different subject, a different scope of work and different money," explains Director Fokczynski. - I had hoped that part of the cost of this project could be covered by the owners of commercial spaces, organized in the first floors of the complex. Although such an option was envisaged, the opposite happened. So the cooperative tried to get the city interested in the topic, for the reason that it has its shares in the area to be renovated. The city should also be interested in the topic because the esplanade has always served as an important urban public space and has remained so in the perception of Wroclaw residents, although in terms of ownership it is different.

esplanada needs renovationesplanada needs renovationesplanada needs renovation

esplanade needs renovation

photo: Beata Stobiecka

Although the city does not have an unlimited budget, it has recently favored the expectations of residents, and the prestigious Manhattan is also at the heart of the local government. The mayor of Wroclaw sent a letter pledging financial participation in the renovation, which gives the investment a chance to continue successfully.

The municipality has offered to subsidize the work with up to PLN 6 million. This satisfies us and represents more than half of the estimated costs," Marcin Milosz, vice president of SM Piast, told www.wrocł

public value

The cooperative's radical action stirred an avalanche of voices and the corresponding loud buzz around Grunwald Square forced the acceleration of certain key decisions. But what stirred and outraged public opinion may become the beginning of a good and expected reversal of the situation.

Paradoxically, the renovation that has begun has shown good prospects for the place," concludes Piotr Fokczynski. - The Esplanade, in terms of services, fell victim to the Grunwald Passage - a shopping mall built 13 years ago in the closest vicinity of Manhattan. Now it appears that galleries are in retreat, and the pandemic has told us to return to stores that function traditionally, along streets and open, public walking routes. What has begun to be done with the transportation and services flyover may very well fit into the new economic conditions.

This also shows that Manhattan is a timeless complex, not only because of its unique architecture. It is a solution of great public, city-forming value, still important because of its service functions.

Beata Stobiecka

¹ Michal Duda "Patchwork. The Architecture of Jadwiga Grabowska-Hawrylak," Museum of Architecture in Wroclaw, 2016, p. 192.
² Ibid, pp. 195-196.

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