Pałac Kultury Zagłębia. Noc. Fasada budynku oświetlona jest kolorowymi lampami. Przed budynkiem zaparkowane dwa samochody.

Magical socialist realism?

Fantastic Socialist Realism: The Zagłębie Palace of Culture in Dąbrowa Górnicza

Publication: 31 March 2023

NO. 38 2020



The Polish architecture of the early 1950s is most often perceived through the prism of the catchphrase “socialist in content and national in form”. So we are very much surprised when the decor of a building representing this period does not match either of these terms.


Its is difficult for us to consider fantastic creatures as fulfilling the doctrinal assumptions of socialist-realist construction. Such a surprise can be found in the Zagłębie Palace of Culture in Dąbrowa Górnicza. Full of fantastic animals and flowers, vines and many other elements, the ceilings of the palace astonish with a peculiar horror vacui. Sophisticated forms, unusual stuccowork motifs emphasised by wall decoration, stone linings and floors leave no doubt that the noun “palace” in the name of the institution is not accidental.

The idea of building a new cultural facility in Dąbrowa Górnicza emerged as early as 1945,[1] but it was only with the promise of financing the investment by the provincial authorities, which came three years later, that the initiative took real shape and people started thinking about a functional programme. The following year brought the inclusion of the Dąbrowa Górnicza investment in the six-year plan and the initial spatial concept of the building, developed by Zbigniew Rzepecki. At that time the architect was employed in Miastoprojekt Katowice, but he had moved to the region as early as in the 1930s, when he worked for the Katowice City Council and the Silesian Voivodship Office. At the moment of receiving the commission, he was very experienced and had completed numerous designs with various functions, from schools to office, exhibition, religious and residential buildings.

His concept for the new cultural centre quickly run up against various obstacles. As it turned out later, they were only a prelude to another series of difficulties. The Investment Project Assessment Committee of the Ministry of Culture and Art, which included Piotr Biegański, Stanisław Brukalski, Jerzy Hryniewiecki, Jan Zachwatowicz, and Marcin Weinfeld, considered the project too big, too expensive and not meeting local needs. It was also pointed out that “a community centre is not a monument” and recommended that the new building should be included in the overall concept of the new city centre as part of the larger layout.

And so it happened, at least on paper. Successive proposals for the development of the immediate vicinity of the planned building, already with significantly reduced cubic capacity, included a new town hall and administrative buildings. This gave a pretext for reordering the urban layout of Dąbrowa Górnicza – a city composed of industrial and agricultural settlements – and creating a new imposing space. The designs of the palace’s surroundings evolved from symmetrical and monumental to more casual, but none of Rzepecki’s ideas was implemented.

Numerous committees at the provincial and national level criticised subsequent versions of the project: some were averse to pilasters on the side walls, others to turrets, still others believed that the architecture of the building should be characterised by noble simplicity, and the richness of form should be concentrated on the portal.

The final version of the project was completed by Rzepecki in 1952, which did not prevent the construction from starting a year earlier. It soon turned out that the cost estimate was unrealistic and did not correspond to the actual needs of the project. Five years after the start of construction, i.e. in 1956, the building was still not finished and chances for completion were small, because the budget had been significantly exceeded. Numerous technical defects also quickly came to light – structural faults, damp cellars. No wonder, then, that the authorities started to look for savings. The first victim was the decor of the palace, which for economic reasons proved the most controversial. It was also then that the bureaucratic struggle between the central and provincial authorities began – nobody wanted to take responsibility for introducing a specific direction of change.

The economic factor became a pretext for the idea of changes in the decor. In 1956, the investment, which a few years earlier had been considered one of the most important in the region, also for propaganda reasons, and promoted as an icon of socialist realism, became a thing of the past. It did not fit in with the post-Stalinist liberalisation narrative. Interior design simplification would suit the authorities much more, especially since in the case of other buildings such procedures were applied successfully.

The matter was concluded only at the meeting of the Provincial Urban-Architectural Commission, during which possible changes in the project were discussed. Due to the fact that the internal works were already quite advanced, abandoning them would entail additional costs. Architects Henryk Buszko, Jerzy Gottfried and Wojciech Soboń, who, while refusing to assess the concept, character and quality of the interiors, suggested introducing only minor alterations, and thus keeping the design of Zbigniew Rzepecki in force, presented a supplementary report on this matter. The finishing works lasted several more months and the House of Culture was opened in January 1958, i.e. thirteen years after the idea had been conceived and seven years after the first shovel had been driven into the ground.

“Yes, it is a the palace! There is no exaggeration here”[2] – this is how a journalist from the local press reported his visit to the building, announcing the planned opening. The journalist had no doubts and already at that stage called the building a palace, although the institution didn’t change its name to the Zagłębie Palace of Culture until 1964. There were two reasons for this: the first was a propaganda narrative in which the term “palace” was used to describe a building for cultural purposes from the early 1950s, when the construction of the Palace of Culture and Science in Warsaw began; the second was the character of the interiors of the building itself.

So what do these decorations, whose development had been a big question mark, look like? It is impossible to answer this question briefly, because the multitude of rooms, the variety of arrangements, styles, materials and colours used is so large that it is not possible to describe them in a few sentences or paragraphs, and even the monograph on the building has not exhausted the subject.

Let us therefore focus on the decoration of ceilings and the set of three rooms called Agora. From among the splendour of details and ornaments, after a short observation, zoomorphic representations emerge, which at first glance escape the viewer. Most of them, however, are not realistic images, but stylised mythological animals. Chimeras – with lion heads and goats’ torsos – have pony tails, from which sinuous snakes grow. Other creatures, composed of the head of a goat and the body of a lion, are arranged on symmetrical rosettes. Hippocamps – half horses, half fish – decorate the next room. Added to this are sea snakes, lizards, fancy flowers and vines, and even cones and beans, completing segments of the decoration. Some pieces bring to mind the South American natives’ ornaments, others resemble Moorish patterns, still others are difficult to define, because art history does not know such forms and has not given them names yet. These decorations are not polychromed, they are kept in high key that contrasts with marble wall coverings and panelling.

Apart from stuccowork, the hall is decorated with painted faience tiles with motifs taken from the region. You can find there a miner and a metalworker, a park, a smelter, mine shafts, coal heaps, smoking chimneys, a goat, a pair of people on a boat, anglers, as well as a still life with flowers and fruits and a harbour. Differences in the line and brush strokes suggest that the tiles came from the hands of several people, probably employees of the Faience Factory in Włocławek. Such provenance is also indicated by the chandeliers, sconces and plafonds by Helena and Lech Grześkiewicz, who cooperated with the Włocławek factory.

The images of miners, metalworkers and their workplaces practically exhaust the working class content of the palace. Their small size makes them visible only on closer inspection. It cannot be said that they are the main theme in Agora’s rooms, because due to the size of individual images and their number, they are perceived rather as a colour pattern of wall cladding than as a carrier of an ideological message. There are no sculptures of workers, mothers with children, representatives of various nations, banners or doves of peace in the palace. So the question immediately comes to mind, “Why is that so?” The answer has been given by Aleksandra Sumorok, a researcher of socialist realist architecture, who noticed this pattern in other Polish interiors from the beginning of the 1950s. She put forward a rather interesting claim that they were supposed to create a joyful mood. This effect could be achieved by acting on the viewer’s senses with strong stimuli, for which rich ornaments were an excellent medium. However, in order to make the decorations universally comprehensible, classical details were employed, using elements straight from historical patterns. These architectural details were often transposed, simplified or modified in such a way that the viewer versed in art history could see the changes and the unprepared viewer could see in them quotations from antiquity or classicism. The lack of ideological elements was a deliberate procedure. Sophisticated and rich interior decoration was not supposed to be a carrier of propaganda, but rather a background creating the right mood and a great setting for words and songs.[3]

In his project of decorating the palace in Dąbrowa Górnicza, Zbigniew Rzepecki not only invoked classical patterns, but even went one step further and reached for mythology, and more precisely for the images of fantastic animals taken from it. The question arises: was such a choice dictated by the desire to introduce individual features into the concept of the interiors, or to wink at other architects? After all, his colleagues designed buildings in similar conditions and their drawing boards were used to create designs with manneristically and architecturally ornamented decor transforming patterns known from history. Was the use of fantastic animals a kind of joke, or was it only a result of the desire to stand out? Years later, Rzepecki’s collaborators from Miastoprojekt in Katowice recalled that they had not designed socialist realist architecture. Aleksander Franta defined the operating mode of designers in the conditions of socialist realism as follows: “Our designing was the result of the clash between pre-war modernism and the emphasis on introducing Polish motifs. The designers of the time perceived socialist realism as a kind of transplantation of a foreign tendency, which caused resistance. The remedy for this seemed to be classicism, which some architects fled into.”[4] In Rzepecki’s case, the remedy was the excess of ornaments, which were a conglomerate of forms of various origins and invented patterns.

Today we can only speculate. After its completion, the Zagłębie Palace of Culture was not discussed in design magazines. It was put into operation too late to write about it proudly on the pages of Architecture. It would certainly have been called a model cultural centre, and its interiors, stone floors, chandeliers and stuccowork would have been praised. Maybe the reviewers would write about mythological creatures, maybe they would look for references to them in literature, they would probably compare the building to the Palace of Culture and Science in Warsaw, and maybe also to other culture centres built in the region.

The palace was appreciated a little later, in 1979, i.e. only twenty-one years after its opening, when it became the first socialist realist building in Poland to be listed. This was done without much publicity or protest. Today, after complex conservation works, one can again admire the unusual effect planned by Zbigniew Rzepecki. His extraordinary ideas for the decoration of the palace interiors can be characterised by one adjective, which refers not only to mythological creatures, but above all to the impression they make on those entering the building: fantastic!

Translated from the Polish by Tomasz Bieroń



[1] See Tak, pałac! Pałac Kultury Zagłębia 1958–2018, eds. Anna Syska, Zdzisława Górska-Nieć, Dąbrowa Górnicza 2018; numerous documents illustrating the history of the Palace’s construction together with architectural and urban designs can be found in the archives of the institution.

[2] “Aleksander Zawadzki weźmie udział w uroczystościach otwarcia Domu Kultury w Dąbrowie”, in: Wiadomości Będzińskie-Czeladzkie-Dąbrowskie 90 (1958), 1. Quoted in: Arkadiusz Rybak, “Szkic historii pałacu – instytucji: od hali fabrycznej do Pałacu Kultury Zagłębia”, in: Tak, pałac!, op. cit., p. 31.

[3] See Aleksandra Sumorok, “Socrealistyczne domy kultury od wnętrza: architektura szczęścia?”, in: Studia z Architektury Nowoczesnej 6 (2018), 167–187.

[4] See A. Syska, “To nie był żaden socrealizm”, in: Socrealizmy i modernizacje, eds. A. Sumorok, Tomasz Załuski, Łódź 2017, p. 115.

About authors

Anna Syska

A researcher and populariser of architecture, she deals with the cultural heritage of the Silesian Voivodeship, especially the architecture of the 20th century. She is the author and editor of numerous articles and publications on pre-war and post-war architecture, such as “Styl gotycki wyklucza się: międzywojenna architektura w województwie śląskim” [The Gothic style is banned: interwar architecture in the Silesian Voivodeship] and “Tak, pałac! Pałac Kultury Zagłębia 1958–2018” [Yes, it is a palace! Zagłębie Palace of Culture 1958–2018] with Zdzisława Górska-Nieć.


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