Nowa Huta: Poland’s Unfinished Utopia – Katherine Lebow

Dubbed Poland’s “first socialist city” in Stalinist propaganda, the new town of Nowa Huta was meant to transform not just Poland’s physical, but its social and psychological landscape. Was Nowa Huta a utopian project? Two visions of utopia, those of Karl Popper and Zygmunt Bauman, suggest some surprising answers.

In 1949, an energetic young architect named Tadeusz Ptaszycki was chosen to oversee the planning and construction of a major new town outside Krakow, Poland. Nowa Huta – or “New Foundry” – was to become one of the largest planned cities in Europe. Projected for an initial population of 100,000, and built simultaneously with the massive Lenin Steelworks that would employ a majority of its male breadwinners, Nowa Huta was, and is, one of the most contested symbols of Stalinism in Poland.

Stalinism, the political and ideological formation that held sway throughout East Central Europe from the late 1940s to the mid-1950s, avowedly aimed at the wholesale transformation of the region’s social, political, and economic landscapes, drawing on models from Stalin’s Soviet industrialisation drive of the 1930s. This involved, among other things, bringing millions of impoverished and underemployed rural Poles to the depopulated cities and to new employment centres created by the “Six-Year Plan” (1950–1955) of industrial development. According to the flood of propaganda that accompanied its construction, Nowa Huta (and the Lenin Steelworks, which was the Plan’s premier investment) would open new horizons for thousands of Poles: building the new town, they would also be “building socialism” – building a better life both for themselves and for Poland. Nowa Huta would thereby forge enlightened, conscious “new men”, both the builders and the beneficiaries of a new kind of socialist modernity.

And, indeed, young, poor, rural, and uneducated Poles flooded to Nowa Huta’s construction site in their thousands, many hoping to secure long-term housing and employment in the city. Far from the grey and regimented landscape we associate with Stalinism, however, the fledgling city was colourful and anarchic. It was a place where the formerly disenfranchised (peasants, youth, women) hastened to assert their leading role in “building socialism” – albeit rarely in the ways that authorities had anticipated. Nowa Huta became, in fact, a place where the meaning of socialism itself would be contested, with significant long-term consequences for the Polish Communist project.

But let us return to Ptaszycki, who faced a dilemma: propaganda aside, what was a Stalinist new town, a socialist city, like? Official sources referred to the Soviet city of Komsomolsk as a model and inspiration, but also insisted that Nowa Huta would reflect Polish traditions; socialist realism would determine its aesthetics, but what this meant in practice was far from obvious. In short, the architects had been given no clear directives about how the city should look or what it should contain. And yet, they knew their plans would have to withstand close scrutiny by the Party. Lest they should forget this, the security officer who sat silently in the corner of the office of Miastoprojekt, the state firm where Nowa Huta’s plans would be developed, served as a daily reminder.

Blueprint for utopia

Ptaszycki travelled regularly to Warsaw to discuss the progress of his team’s plans with Party officials. One day, he was summoned to make a presentation to President Bolesław Bierut. Guessing that the president would have no idea what to make of architectural sketches and blueprints, Ptaszycki brought along a cardboard model of Central Square, painted in bright colours and vivid details like a child’s toy. The strategy worked; on returning from Warsaw, Ptaszycki announced that Bierut had approved the plans. He had stressed, however, that no church should be built in the new town – but rather, that some kind of “tower” should be included in the plans, because “it might remind people of a church.” The architects thus planned a tall tower for Nowa Huta’s town hall. Among themselves, meanwhile, they designated two secret locations where churches might be built at a later date. This anecdote, related by one of Ptaszycki’s collaborators, provides rich material for reflection on the  dynamics of planning and utopianism under Stalinism. Was Nowa Huta – which official propaganda claimed would utterly transform the surrounding social and economic landscape – a “utopian” project? If so, in what sense? Two visions of utopia, those of Karl Popper and Zygmunt Bauman, offer heuristically suggestive models for addressing these questions. Because Popper’s understanding of utopianism had at its heart a metaphor of the “blueprint”, it seems particularly apt to consider his theories when thinking about a planned city under Stalinism – where literal blueprints were, of course, the order of the day.

For Popper, utopianism was the attempt to usetechnêto develop a complex, detailed building-plan – a blueprint, if you like – for a better world. Despite such seemingly benign beginnings, however, the  distinctive feature of the utopian blueprint, for Popper, was that it necessarily took on the characteristics of a sacred text. Popper concluded that utopian thinking must inevitably lead to violence: over time, tensions would develop between those wished to modify the blueprint in accordance with changing historical realities, and those who would see any alteration as heresy, to be stamped out by any means necessary.

Whether or not we accept Popper’s argument in full, his broad conclusions retain a wide currency in contemporary thought. Our age is sceptical of what anthropologist James C. Scott, for instance, calls “schemes to improve the human condition,” which he associates with those large-scale projects of social and economic engineering that littered the 20th century with corpses. Among such “schemes,” Scott, like many commentators, includes new towns – citing cases from the outsized, windswept Brazilian capital of Brasília to the Gorbals high-rise tenements of Glasgow, described by one inhabitant as “filing cabinets for people.” Writing of a French new town in the 1960s, the Marxist philosopher Henri Lefebvre insisted that “the text of the [new] town is totally legible, as impoverished as it is clear, despite the architects’ efforts to vary the lines.

Surprise? Possibilities? From this place, which should have been the home of all that is possible, they have vanished without trace.”Here again are echoes of Popper’s “blueprint”: architects may not diverge from its dictates; improvisation, adaptation, response to conditions “on the ground” – all are banished in favour of abstract ideals and rigid principles.

And yet, the metaphor of the blueprint applies little to what we know, with the benefit of archival access and oral history, about Nowa Huta’s planning and development. Let us return to Ptaszycki and his team of architects. Fresh from supervising the reconstruction of Wrocław when he arrived at Miastoprojekt, Ptaszycki – a former champion athlete and Scout leader – was a man of not only tremendous energy but great personal charm. He was also a risk-taker, and surrounded himself with talent, hiring collaborators without regard to political record or social background – at a time when having fought in the underground Home Army in the Second World War, or having studied in the West, could mean persecution and / or imprisonment. Protected by the powerful mediator figure of Ptaszycki, Miastoprojekt was what sociologist Janine Wedel identifies as aśrodowisko– a community based on traditional social, class, and in this case, professional solidarities, psychologically protecting members from ideological pressures on the outside. “There were no ideologues” at Miastoprojekt, insisted Bohdan Bukowski, a draughtsman who worked for Ptaszycki; for Stanisław Juchnowicz, another colleague, Miastoprojekt was “an island of happiness in those hard times…where we felt, to a certain extent, free.” Meanwhile, infected by Ptaszycki’s energy and enthusiasm, the architects stayed up all night, sketched plans on improvised drawing-boards in the field, and savoured the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to build a city from scratch. In 1950, Ptaszycki enthused to the  magazineSztandar Młodychabout providing built-in radios in each apartment and a telephone in every entry stairwell; preschools, shops, cultural centers, sports halls, cinemas, libraries, and theatres; “the complete range of recreational opportunities, to allow [working people] to improve their physical fitness, ensure the best possible conditions for health, enable their intellectual development.” Apartments were to have parquet floors, elevators, and domestic conveniences such as cooling cupboards and common laundry areas. To achieve this, Ptaszycki and his colleagues were willing to accommodate Warsaw’s occasional intervention. Far more frustrating was that Warsaw wanted Nowa Huta to be “monumental,” yet built on the cheap. “You can fool people with ideology,” Ptaszycki supposedly fumed in private, “but to take away people’s dreams of a comfortable home is criminal.” Indeed, the architects were increasingly fighting a losing battle with cost-cutting, which would force many of their visions into the filing cabinet.

Miastoprojekt completed Nowa Huta’s general plan in March 1951; a final version was confirmed by Warsaw in 1952. And yet, construction had already begun in 1949; Nowa Huta’s symbolic significance for “building socialism” meant that work could not tarry, even for the architects. The first districts were thus built using borrowed plans from Warsaw – just one example of the piecemeal approach to planning that were legion in Nowa Huta’s construction. Blueprints for the steelworks, for example, arrived from Moscow in dribs and drabs, but work had to go forward, with or without plans in hand; completed excavations or finished roads had to be torn out when new plans stipulated the construction of another object on that spot. In Popper’s model, following conventional wisdom, blueprints are first developed, and only then is utopia built. In Nowa Huta, the conventional temporality of plans and actions was frequently inverted.

Following Stalin’s death in 1953, Warsaw’s interest in the new town waned. Building utopia had turned out to be costly, both literally and metaphorically – every time a problem was uncovered in Nowa Huta (and there were many), the yawning gap between the promise and reality of Stalinist modernity made itself all too readily felt. Already in 1951, then, Nowa Huta had been incorporated into Krakow, the city it had originally been meant to overshadow and transform – making it, strictly speaking, no longer Poland’s “first socialist city” but, rather, its first socialist district. Then, in 1953 – a mere year and a half after its adoption – the general plan was eviscerated. The large main theatre and House of Culture; the obelisk in Central Square; and the entire ensemble of administrative buildings (including the town hall tower, possibly reminiscent of a church steeple) were scrapped.

Arguably, now that Nowa Huta had been demoted from municipal status, it no longer needed a town hall; a church itself would have to wait another 24 years. Meanwhile, extensive cost-cutting in construction techniques meant ersatz materials and lowered standards: stone façades were replaced with plaster; only one in three apartments would have a balcony; lifts were eliminated, as were parquet floors. “In conception palaces,” regretted a critic, “and in reality a dormitory for the working class – unfulfilled dreams of a beautiful city. That is Nowa Huta today.”

From planning to challenge

Pace one historian’s claim that “the plan was everything” under Stalinism, then, planning as conventionally understood was not much practiced in Nowa Huta, that most Stalinist of planned cities. Much work was unplanned in the sense of being spontaneous; some plans (like the architects’ secret localisation of Nowa Huta’s churches) never appeared on any blue print; and many, many blueprints were unrealised. In any system, plans are fragile things, and visions more so. Yet according to cultural theorist Vladimir Paperny, unrealised designs, demolition of completed structures, and construction according to constantly changing directives were typical features of Stalinist building culture. This suggests that Stalinist violence cannot be explained through Popper’s trope of a rigid and unchanging blueprint – sadly, perhaps, as it could have provided us with a certain moral comfort about our own, very unplanned age.

Today, Nowa Huta is unfinished. Incompleteness, of course, is a feature of any landscape – landscapes evolve continually, and can be said to have no end-point. But a planned city is unfinished in a different way from a more seemingly organic, unplanned urban environment; a planned city’s incompleteness draws attention to itself. In the best of scenarios, such incompleteness serves as a stimulus to civic debate, as visible gaps in the landscape prompt inhabitants to consider which visions of community are worth pursuing and how to do so.

Such a conversation may be underway in post-Communist Nowa Huta where, after the first shocks of transition, something unexpected happened: the new town’s old districts began to seem interesting, unique, even charming. Contrasted not only with the dreary, substandard, pre-fab housing that had been such a familiar part of the landscape in former Communist countries from the 1960s onward, but also to the chaotic, unregulated sprawl that has covered so much of the urban landscape since 1989, Nowa Huta’s “planned-ness” looked better and better. Nowa Huta even became a bit bohemian, attracting young people and artists; long-time residents, meanwhile, put tremendous efforts into the district’s cultural revitalisation.

For many residents, this more positive story was meant to combat the negative image Nowa Huta still evokes for many Poles, its persistent reputation as a “Communist city without God.” Such counter-narratives have stressed Nowa Huta’s history of vibrant anti-regime protest, including the 1960 “Struggle for the Cross” (a two-day riot following the government’s cancellation of permission to build a church) and its key role in Solidarność and the pro-democracy movement of the 1980s. Residents have also insisted on their own right to determine Nowa Huta’s semantic geography, for example, protestingen massewhen Krakow’s city council voted to rename the district’s Central Square for U.S. president Ronald Reagan in 2004.

Over the last decade, then, residents of Nowa Huta have increasingly expressed pride in their “little fatherland” and sought ways to preserve its genius loci. Ironically, after efforts by generations of protesters to deface and destroy the enormous statue of Vladimir Lenin on Nowa Huta’s Rose Avenue, some residents say they wish the statue would be brought back – not in homage to Lenin, but as a reminder of Nowa Huta’s past – and because the remaining pedestal, now colonised by skateboarders, seems empty. Others suggest that Nowa Huta should finally build its unrealised city hall; Nowa Huta has many churches now, after all, but residents still await their chance for self-government.

Utopian thinking, according to Zygmunt Bauman, hinges upon a feeling of incompleteness: the better world it envisions must be “felt as still unfinished and requiring an  additional effort to be brought about.” In this sense, today’s Nowa Huta is a utopian endeavor: the early visions of the town’s planners and builders, only partially realised by an ambivalent sponsoring regime, are felt by many of Nowa Huta’s partisans as an ongoing challenge – and ones that will never be fulfilled, in Bauman’s words, “unless fostered by a deliberate collective action.”

That challenge has only intensified, arguably, with the transition to market capitalism, since Nowa Huta now conforms all the more to another of Bauman’s conditions of “utopia”: in echoing the state socialist past, it tangibly represents “a system essentially different from, if not antithetical to, the existing one.” It remains to be seen whether Nowa Huta’s unfinished utopia can serve as ongoing inspiration for critics of the present social and political order, and for puttingtechnêin the service of human needs.

The article first appeared in the journal IWMpost, 2013/2014, no. 112, published by Institut für die Wissenschaften vom Menschen.

Katherine Lebow – obtained her PhD at Columbia University and is an Elise Richter Fellow at the Vienna Wiesenthal Institute for Holocaust Studies and serves as associate professor of history at Christ Church collage, Oxford University from October 2016. Her teaching and research focus on the history of East Central Europe and 20th‑century Poland. Lebow’s first book,Unfinished Utopia: Nowa Huta, Stalinism, and Polish Society, 1949–56(2013), won the Barbara Jelavich Prize of the Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies. Her current research focuses on autobiography, testimony, and transatlantic social science c. 1914–1950.

The text comes from "Herito" nr 22-23.