Art is changing (a) place

Zabłocie – a perfect example of revitalisation?

It is not enough to raise new buildings in order to create a new city, not just to fill the space with people, but to provoke them into interaction with each other.

Za błotem, “Behind mud” – such is the origin of the name Zabłocie, part of Podgórze, a right bank district of Krakow. The history of this place goes back to the middle ages, when a river dock functioned here, used for shipping salt mined in nearby Wieliczka. Another important period in the history of Zabłocie is the time not long after the second partition of Poland and the founding by the Austrians of the town Podgórze, which gradually became an industrial and storage hinterland of the city. And in the early twenty-first century Zabłocie came to life for the third time, unexpectedly becoming a strategic area, one of the most important for the future development of the city.

Zabłocie is also an authentic record of the development of industry and trade in Krakow, and a place rich in cultural heritage, very far removed in its character from what is usually associated with the city at the foot of the Wawel. Former factories and warehouses are reminders of events which are hardly present in the main historical narratives of this city. So it is all the more striking how important a role is played by this quarter, which a decade ago was remindful of a monumental set for a war film. The present role of Zabłocie and the fact that culture plays an increasingly significant role in its development stems from a number of factors, which say a lot about the fundamental change in the model of development now occurring in the majority of large cities in Central Europe.

Korngold and Rosner Factory
© Rafał Sosin, courtesy of MOCAK

Wanting to understand the origin and direction of these changes, we should first take a look at the basic information about this place. Zabłocie is an almost rectangular area on the right bank of the Vistula, about as large as the historical Krakow within the Planty. It is adjoined by the river from the north and the three remaining sides are circumscribed by dual carriageways. The history of Zabłocie streches back at least to the mid fourteenth century, when in 1357 Casimir the Great sold the village here to the town of Kazimierz. Soon afterwards the King issued a separate edict in which he regulated the principles of production and trade in the royal salt mines, of strategic importance for the budget of the Crown, and the development of the port on the Vistula became crucial. Today only some scant relics, mostly in place names, remind us of this original reason for the emergence and development of Zabłocie, showing at the same time that the dominance of industry and services here goes back much further than the mid nineteenth century, when the development of the district gathered momentum.

After the first partition of Poland, when the Austrian army occupied Galicia and set the border on the Vistula, the river, separating two states, cut Krakow off from its right bank hinterland, as well as from Wieliczka and the salt dock in Zabłocie. In 1776, opposite Kazimierz, at the foot of the Lasota Hill, the Austrians opened a custom house to collect custom duties and control the passage of produce from Poland to Galicia. Soon after, in 1784, a new town was founded nearby, based on a charter issued by Joseph II and intended to be the new administrative centre for the western part of the annexed province. These plans were thwarted by the incorporation of Krakow in Austria after the third partition. But already in the eighteenth century an important trade route joining Bohemia with Lviv was running through Podgórze. In the second half of the next century the main Galician railway line was built through the eastern part of the city, running from Krakow to the capital of the province.

The tracks, which have remained intact, form the dividing line between Podgórze and Zabłocie. In the period of Galician autonomy the first industrial plants and warehouses were built along them. While Krakow had been turned into a fortress, where it was imposibble for industry to function, Podgórze and Zabłocie developed according to completely different rules. The growth gathered impetus in the early twentieth century, when the Austrians started to regulate the banks of the Vistula. Within the ambitious plans for building a network of canals joining the Danube, the Oder, the Vistula and the Dniester, Krakow, and Podgórze and Zabłocie in particular, were assigned an important role in the development of the Imperial river transport. The project launched a few years before the outbreak of World War I resulted in the emergence of a complex of delivery ramps and loading docks stretching alongside both banks of the river, from the railway bridge on the eastern side of the city to a bend in Vistula near the mouth of the Wilga to the west. Podgórze, Zabłocie and Dąbie played an important role in the planned development of the port. A shipyard and a modern inland port, with a railway terminus, were to be created here.

Historic buildings in Dekert Street
© Rafał Sosin, courtesy of MOCAK

The outbreak of World War I stopped the implementation of the project in its tracks, but the construction of a broad ranging system of regulating the Vistula banks had been started. Ordering of the river and building the promenades were continued in the interwar period. The completed eastern sections of walls reached the railway bridge and the area of the by then extinct historical salt dock. Meadows stretched further along, previously serving as flood relief terrain and now forming an ideal site for the further development of industry. In the twenties and thirties Krakow literally ended at Zabłocie. At the turn of the twentieth century a building materials factory, a slaughterhouse and a power plant for Podgórze were built here. The Grzegórzki quarter on the other side of the river was also developing, and the Zieleniewski company launched a plant producing metalware there. The two districts gradually merged with each other, a process completed after the final incorporation of Podgórze into Krakow in 1915. The development of the industrial hinterland of Krakow in the eastern part of the city continued in the interwar period. Sweet factories were set up in Grzegórzki, while Zabłocie saw the construction of Czesław Śmiechowski’s cosmetics plant and the Enamelware Factory “Emalia”, which belonged to Oskar Schindler during World War II. The area also contained grain elevators and in the nearby Dąbie the long planned shipyard was built, with loading docks for coal and other cargo alongside it.

During World War II the Germans created a Je¬wish ghetto in Podgórze, and a concentration camp in nearby Płaszów. The planned extermination of the Jewish community of Krakow was accompanied by a programme of further development of industry in this part of the city, with a new railway line and a new bridge in the eastern part of Zabłocie as part of the project. The area described, now within the broadly conceived centre of the metropolis, at the end of World War II was located on the periphery of Krakow, while the urban development of the city changed its direction when the idea of building Nowa Huta emerged. The previous model of a city growing along a railway line was abandoned and Zabłocie, lying in the centre of the expanded city, lost its strategic role, becoming one of few industrial districts.
The plants listed above were active until the end of the twentieth century. One of the most important postwar investments was the factory complex of the telecommunication devices enterprise Telpod. The monstrous seven storey building, stretching seemingly almost to infinity, with offices and warehouses, is both a gloomy relic of the communist period, and the most characteristic architectural feature of the district. Another complex of a similar size, for the cosmetics company Miraculum, was begun. New plants and warehouses emerged alongside the prewar factories, never to be completed. Just a few years ago the dilapidated structures offered a haunting sight, worsening the negative image of Zabłocie, associated with a neglected and abandoned industrial district.

The implementation of these projects had been halted by the crisis in the early eighties. Since that time Zabłocie remained frozen in its incomplete form, presenting a chaotic ensemble of industrial buildings from various epochs. Alongside the relatively modest factory floors from the early twentieth century one could see there monumental edifices from communist times, the Telpod building and the Miraculum plant. In the early years of transition after 1989 most of these plants lost their functions. The companies foundered or cut their production. The incomplete investments remained without any vision for the future. The district was empty, without inhabitants, of which there had never been many, and without the people who had previously worked in the factories. It was turning into a set of ever more haphazardly scattered warehouses, wholesalers and shops.

Entrance to the new office of the Przekrój weekly
© Rafał Sosin, MOCAK

The impression of abandonment and isolation of Zabłocie from the rest of the city was strengthened by the relatively weak links with the urban transport system. Curiously enough, the means of transport most frequently seen here were cargo trains and river barges. The first changes in the urban space of Zabłocie occurred in the late nineties and were connected with investments in road infrastructure. Before that Krakow and Poland heard about Zabłocie thanks to the former “Emalia” factory and Oskar Schindler, the main protagonist of the famous film by Steven Spielberg. The premiere of Schindler’s List in 1993 coincided with the collapse of the Zabłocie industry and the laborious beginnings of mass tourism in Krakow, which was rapidly opening to the world.

Already in the early nineties an important factor of the development of the tourism industry in Krakow was the recovery of the Jewish identity and a city memory, hitherto successfully suppressed. With the increasing number of tourists arriving in Krakow the new forms of economic activity connected with accommodating them started to move beyond the city centre, reaching ever more distant areas, first Kazimierz, and later also Podgórze. In 1991 Krakow was visited by fewer than two million tourists, with only a quarter of them from outside Poland. Like Poland as a whole, Krakow was struggling with the problem of unemployment, which was relatively low compared to other cities, but still amounted to twenty-two thousand people. Tourism offered a chance to overcome this predicament. Just eight years later, in 1999, Krakow was visited by more than four million tourists, spurring investment in restaurants and hotels. In the late 1990s the city was also becoming an ever more attractive centre for foreign capital. New outside investments which came to the city in the first decade of transition are estimated at almost 2.3 billion dollars. For the still relatively impecunious city, with the budget for 1999 set at 1.2 billion zloty, it was a huge development impulse.

Ever more frequently one could see in Krakow investments not only in small hotels and restaurants in the centre, but also in large structures of the first commercial centres and the first office buildings. The city, which already had one hundred and twenty thousand students in the late nineties, was increasingly perceived as a potential centre for various accounting and IT services for global corporations. A quantum leap occurred after the Polish accession to the European Union. In 2008 Krakow was visited by more than seven and a half million tourists, turning the city into a virtual honeypot and provoking questions about the directions of its future development. The unclear urban planning situation emerged as an important obstacle to growth. A law passed by parliament caused Krakow – and other cities – to lose its zoning plan. The city was obliged to prepare local plans. But this process is very slow, and eight years on from the expiry of the previous plan the new ones cover just about thirty percent of the city!

The Garden Residence apartment blocks Garden Residence
© Paweł Mazur

This damaging and dangerous legal situation coincided with an intensification of investment after 2004, connected with the construction of new residential estates and commercial buildings, including office buildings. The fast growth of residential space meant the arrival of chaotic and unsightly new districts on the peripheries of the city, while in the centre there was increasing pressure for office investments, including high rise buildings. The inflow of tourism and new investments in post-industrial Krakow also created a growing demand for new investments to make the life of inhabitants and visitors more comfortable. The densely built up city centre did not provide any scope for the municipality to meet this demand. The new Opera House by Rondo Mogilskie (relatively close to the centre), which was forced into a very small plot, shows clearly that the city should determine where meeting long term demand for an enhanced quality of living is possible.

The potential for such development was perceived relatively early in Zabłocie, which in 2000 was brought closer to Krakow by the temporary Lajkonik Bridge, borrowed from the army. Stretched between Grzegórzki and Zabłocie, it made it easier to access the previously isolated district. In the same period the municipality started to build a permanent structure across the Vistula in the vicinity. Completed in 2001, the Kotlarski Bridge is the widest and most accomodating bridge in Krakow, as well as being part of a broader strategy of creating a road system in the eastern reaches of the city. The bridge, designed by competition winning Witold Gawłowski, soon became a visual attraction and a dominant feature of the quarter, also making it easier for the inhabitants of Krakow to reach the green areas along the banks of the Vistula, which had been developed earlier.

In the space of a decade the bridge became part of a fast route through Płaszów, which joined the city at its southern bypass. One of the most important sections of this system runs through Zabłocie, bringing the district previously isolated from the city into its centre in every sense of the word. The invasion of cyclist and walkers on the river bank promenades enlivened the area. A quantum leap in the number of people visiting this part of the city occurred when the shopping centre Galeria Kazimierz (with 40.000 square metres of retail space) was opened in 2005 in Grzegórzki, on the site of the historical municipal slaughterhouse. The route to the shops and cinema in the Gallery leads across the new bridge and through Zabłocie. The centre soon attracted other commercial investments, luxury apartment blocks, large network hotels, and office complexes. In under a decade a completely new centre of Krakow life sprouted on the Vistula in the eastern part of the city, annexing the abandoned post-industrial areas.

In his Harvard Design School Guide to Shopping, published in 2002, Rem Koolhaas said that in the twentieth century the city was twice humiliated by the suburbs: first when it lost some of its inhabitants to them and later when they returned. In this pithy manner he characterised two basic urban processes, witnessed by American metropolises in the last century: the postwar urbanisation, and the revitalisation and gentrification of post-industrial districts close to historical city centres, started in the seventies. In the last two decades Krakow, along with other large cities in Central Europe, was catching up with the urban reality described by Koolhaas. The difference being that both of the development trends mentioned above were occurring simultaneously. For twelve years since then the city has been ringed with suburbs built up with single family housing. We are also observing the phenomenon of gentrification, often with luxury investments raising the living standard in neglected, often post-¬industrial areas. The new leaders of economic change bake root here. It is with these in mind sociologists from Krakow coined the term “new urban middle class”.

Zabłocie 2011: lofts in the rebuilt mill and the Miraculum factory building awaiting a new function
© Paweł Mazur

And here we observe a return to Zabłocie, where, as has already been noted, the potential for new investment was perceived quite early. It is worth noting that Zabłocie is the only part of central Krakow with a local zoning plan. A small number of property owners with relatively large plots, along with a major participation of the municipality in the ownership structure made it easier to introduce clear principles of development and the effects of that are already noticeable. In just a few years we have seen an investment boom, with both new apartment blocks and commercial buildings emerging. The first large complex of this type was the campus of the Andrzej Frycz Modrzewski Krakow Academy, one of the largest local private colleges, opened soon after the completion of the bridge. Thanks to this campus, students appeared in Zabłocie for the first time. The new residents arrived to live in the new houses built in the district. The investments are targeted at the wealthier social groups, and fencing and security guards have become visible elements of the perceived or real status of a place. Also in Zabłocie, the new housing estates have the character of gated communities. The Garden Residence estate is of special note here, a monstrous ensemble of buildings connected to each other and situated on the site of the former Miraculum factory buildings. The commercial – but unfortunately not aesthetic – success of this investment suggests a demand for this type of construction, which is a phenomenon typical for the majority of big cities in Poland. An even more interesting manifestation of this problem is the creation of luxury lofts in the former grain elevators building.

Today, Zabłocie is to a large extent a construction site, with cranes frequently dominating the landscape. To make this growth of investment permanent, it is necessary to endow this place with some character, to introduce services which would consolidate the life of the community. Noticing these needs, the municipality took steps aimed to revitalise the post-industrial district. The first manifestation of a new way of thinking about right bank Krakow was the renovation of Bohaterów Getta Square, an important public open space on the border between Podgórze and Zabłocie. It was from here that, in 1943, the Krakow Jews from the liquidated ghetto in Podgórze were transported to the concentration camp in Płaszów. In 2003 an architectural competition for developing the square was announced. The winning entry by Piotr Lewicki and Kazimierz Łatak, introduced a symbolic monument to the degraded space of the square, which had served as a bus terminus. The monument consists of a geometrical grid defined by chairs cast in bronze, expressing the void left by the people murdered there during the war.

The war time past is deeply engrained in the urban fabric of Podgórze. Fragments of the characteristic wall of the ghetto were preserved as a monument and warning. One of the more important symbolic places is the former Enamelware Factory “Emalia”. Ever since the premiere of Schindler’s List one can see tourists making their way towards the modernist building in Lipowa Street. For many years their journey ended before the gate of the decommissioned plant. The situation changed in 2010, when in the former office building, a new branch of the Historical Museum of the City of Krakow was opened, endowed with a mission to present the history of the city under occupation. It is also the first Krakow example of a narrative museum, which instead of showing preserved relics of the past aims at engaging the viewer, taking them on a journey through time, which would fully activate the senses. The first year of the museum in Lipowa Street was undoubtedly a huge success in terms of attendance, confirming the status of Zabłocie as an important tourist attraction in Krakow.

Lipowa Street: MOCAK and Oskar Schindler’s Factory with the Telpod building in the background
©Rafał Sosin, MOCAK

The tragic heritage ceased to be just a problem reawakening the district’s dark past, it also offered a chance for a reinterpretation and acceptance of this place both by the tourists and the new residents. And thus the heritage was absorbed in the process of the symbolic vindication of the place. In the Spring of 2011 the Museum of Contemporary Art MOCAK was opened in the former production buildings of the factory. Besides a narrative historical museum we have one commenting on contemporary reality, with the first exhibitions devoted to dialogue with history and its role in the life of individuals and in the collective imagination. The designer of the MOCAK building, the Italian architect Claudio Nardi, adapted the existing factory buildings, repeating the characteristic shape of their roofs in the new part. Krakow MOCAK is the first Polish museum for a long time to have been established and built in order to create and present a collection of contemporary art. The preserved industrial architecture is accompanied by a subtle new form harmonising with the whole complex. The opening of the museum is a culmination of more than a decade of processes occurring in Zabłocie, and reflects many issues connected with the future development of Polish cities.

Obviously, it is not enough to raise new buildings in order to create a new city, not just to fill the space with people, but to provoke them into interaction with each other. Zabłocie now stands at the threshold of the latter, probably more difficult process. The people are there, drivers take the new route, students are at the local college, residents live in the new apartments and tourists follow in the footsteps of Oskar Schindler. Will it be possible to create a lasting relationship between them and to create a living social fabric? There is no clear answer to this question. Zabłocie is still overshadowed by a huge question mark. But the number and character of new investments offer a chance for a permanent change, which would not be just an episode produced by short term political and economic needs. A spark reawakening this place may be provided above all by a reinterpretation of its rich history. Nothing will achieve this better than art, the best platform for interaction between the widest possible groups. Opening two museums is a step towards change. We may only wish that Zabłocie after the physical change, will be transformed mentally by art, and new character formed.