Art Is Changing (a) Place
Zabłocie – Is It a Perfect Example of Revitalisation?
Publication: 27 August 2021
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It is not enough to raise new buildings in order to create a new city, not just fill the space with people, but provoke them to interact 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 Wieliczka. Another important period in the history of Zabłocie is the time not long after the second partition and 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 its main historical narratives. So it is all the more striking how an important role is played by this quarter, which a decade ago was reminiscent of a monumental set for a war film. The present career 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.
Wanting to understand the origin and direction of these changes, we should first take a look at the basic data concerning 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 reaches 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 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 products from Poland to Galicia. Soon after, in 1784, a new town was founded nearby, based on a charter issued by Joseph II and intended as the new administrative centre for the western part of the annexed province. These plans were thwarted by incorporating 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 the functioning of industry was impossible, Podgórze and Zabłocie developed according to completely different rules. The growth gathered impetus in the early 20th century, when the Austrians started to regulate the banks of the Vistula. Within the ambitious plans of 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 the First World War , 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 Vistula bend and 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.
The outbreak of the First World War 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 no longer existing historical salt dock. Meadows stretched further along, previously serving as flood relief terrain and now forming an ideal site for 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, 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 in Krakow in 1915. The development of the industrial hinterland of Krakow in the eastern part of the city continued in the interwar period. Confectionaries 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 the Second World War. 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 the Second World War the Germans created a Jewish ghetto in Podgórze and a concentration camp in the 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 the Second World War 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 a 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 complex of the telecommunication devices factory Telpod. The monstrous seven-storey building, stretching almost to infinity, with offices and warehouses of this company, 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 started. 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 stopped by the crisis in the early 1980s. Since that time Zabłocie remains 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 monumental edifices from the 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 uncompleted 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 even more haphazardly scattered warehouses, wholesalers and shops.
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 1990s 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 premier of Schindler’s List in 1994 coincided with the collapse of the Zabłocie industry and the laborious beginnings of mass tourism in Krakow, which was rapidly opening to the world.
In the early 1990s already, an important factor of the development of the tourist industry in Krakow was the recovery of the Jewish identity and the 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 less than two million tourists, with only a quarter of them from outside Poland. Like the entire country, 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 over 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 planned at 1.2 billion zloty, it was a huge development impulse.
Ever more frequently one could see 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 with over one hundred and twenty thousand students already in the late 1990s 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 tourist factory 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 the Parliament caused Krakow – and other cities – to lose its zoning plan. The city was obligated to prepare local plans. But this process is very slow and after eight years from the expiry of the previous plan the new ones cover just about a dozen percent of the city!
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 very chaotic and unsightly new districts on the peripheries of the city, while in the centre there was an increasing pressure on office investments, including high-rise buildings. The inflow of tourism and new investments in the postindustrial Krakow also created a growing demand for new services making the life of the inhabitants and visitors more comfortable. The densely built-up city centre did not provide any scope for meeting this demand by the municipality. The new Opera House by Rondo Mogilskie (relatively close to the centre), which was forced into a very small plot, shows vividly that the city should clearly determine where meeting long-term demand for an enhanced quality of living is possible.
The potential for such a development was perceived relatively early in Zabłocie, in 2000 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 comfortable 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 a decade the bridge became a part of a fast route through Płaszów, which joined the city with its southern bypass. One of the most important fragments of this system runs through Zabłocie, bringing the district previously isolated from the city to its centre in every sense of the word. The invasion of bikers 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 metres square of shopping area) was opened in 2005 in Grzegórzki, on the site of the historical municipal slaughterhouse. The way to the shops and cinemas in the Gallery leads through the new bridge and through Zabłocie. The centre soon attracted other commercial investments, luxury apartment blocks, large network hotels and office complexes. In less than 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 1970s. In the last two decades Krakow, 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. Since a dozen years 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 strike roots here. With them in mind sociologists from Krakow coined the catchy term “new urban middle class.”
And here we observe a return to Zabłocie, where, as already has been said, the potential for new investment was perceived quite early. It is worth noting that Zabłocie is the only fragment of central Krakow with a local zoning plan. A small number of property owners with relatively large plots and 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. Since a few years ago we have been seeing 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 the campus students appeared in Zabłocie for the first time. The new residents arrived in the new houses built in the district. The investments are targeted at the wealthier social groups. 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 with each other and situated on the site of the knocked down 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 being a frequent element of its 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 at revitalising the postindustrial district. The first manifestation of a new way of thinking about right-bank Krakow was the renovation of the Bohaterów Getta Square, an important open public 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 of Piotr Lewicki and Kazimierz Łatak introduced a symbolic monument into 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 here during the war.
The war-time past is deeply ingrained in the urban fabric of Podgórze. Fragments of the characteristic wall of the ghetto were preserved as a kind of 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 of presenting 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 him or her for a journey through time, which would fully activate the senses. The first year of the functioning of the museum in Lipowa Street undoubtedly was a huge success in terms of attendance, confirming the status of Zabłocie as an important tourist attraction in Krakow.
The tragic heritage ceased to be only a problem reawakening the 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. 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 author of the design 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. The Krakow MOCAK is the first Polish museum since a long time which was 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. Opening of the museum is a culmination of more than a decade long 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 fill the space with people, but provoke them to interact with each other. Zabłocie is now standing at the threshold of the latter, probably a more difficult process. The people are here, drivers taking the new route, students at the local college, residents of the new apartments and tourists following 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 today. Zabłocie still is 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 it better than art, the best platform for interaction of widest possible groups. Opening two museums is a step towards change. We may only wish Zabłocie that after the physical change art transforms this place also mentally, forges its new character.
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