Wrocław: Rediscovered avant garde

Over 100 years ago, this European Capital of Culture broke new ground in modern design. A stroll past Wrocław’s architectural treasures.

The Market Square, with its restaurants, cafés, horse-drawn carriages, buskers and art dealers, is the focal point of Wrocław’s old town. The tourist’s eye may wander up along the gabled patricians’ houses ranging from Renaissance and Baroque to Art Nouveau styles, eventually to be caught by a towering hulk of a building. The sandstone-colored office high rise sticks out like a sore thumb, its façade of shell-limestone plates dispensing with any hint of decor.

“A Socialist achievement” might be the first explanation to come to mind, but it would be quite wrong. Most of the historical buildings on the Market Square were destroyed in World War II and later rebuilt, but this one is among the very few to have been spared. Originally designed for the municipal savings bank by Heinrich Rump in the early 1930s, it was one of only two high rises in Wrocław – something still quite novel for the time.

Solutions for an Overcrowded City

Polen Breslau Bauhaus Architektur Mohrenapotheke von Adolf Radig

Now, Wrocław’s year as European Capital of Culture has at last brought its Modernist architecture back into the international spotlight. Once before, in the early 20th century, it played a role almost as important to the development of the Modernist Movement as that of Berlin or Frankfurt. Long is the list of innovative architects who were active in Wrocław at that time, among them, Hans Scharoun, Theo Effenberger, Hans Poelzig, Erich Mendelsohn and Max Berg.

“Wrocław has a great tradition in Modernism. And not just in terms of esthetics but of the philosophy,” says Zbigniew Macków, the European Capital of Culture’s architecture curator. “It’s about the quest for a better life.” The proximity to Lower Silesia’s mining region and a newly opened rail link to Berlin contributed to Wrocław’s transformation into a bustling center of commerce. Germany’s fifth-largest city at the time was already crowded, and within a very short time, the population doubled to half a million, confronting the city with urban planning challenges and social problems.

A gigantic cupola that seems to levitate - the Centennial Hall of 1913 wrote architectural history. The landmark arena, which was built when Wrocław was the German city of Breslau, can accommodate as many as 10,000 people. Architect Max Berg called his construction "dome of democracy." It has been named a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.

The 37 buildings, ranging from detached and terraced houses to apartment blocks, were constructed in just three months. The eleven participating architects included Theo Effenberger, who designed cubic residential buildings with plain coarse plaster. Effenberger was made professor of architecture at Berlin's University of Arts in 1950. He had been banned from working under Nazi rule.

WuWa was only one of many experiments in "New Objectivity" in modern architecture. So why not gather all the examples in one place? This year, Wrocław is hosting an exhibition of architectural designs from Stuttgart, Brno, Vienna, Zurich and Wrocław/Breslau. Here you can also admire furniture and interior designs that were part of the architectural concepts.

The municipal savings bank building is the second and last high rise from that era in Wrocław. Architect Max Berg, back then serving as the city's urban planning commissioner insisted this design was ideal for businesses but could not overcome the public's skepticism. This high rise was supposed to mark the beginning of the Market Square's re-design - which ultimately never happened.

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The Market Square, with its restaurants, cafés, horse-drawn carriages, buskers and art dealers, is the focal point of Wrocław’s old town. The tourist’s eye may wander up along the gabled patricians’ houses ranging from Renaissance and Baroque to Art Nouveau styles, eventually to be caught by a towering hulk of a building. The sandstone-colored office high rise sticks out like a sore thumb, its façade of shell-limestone plates dispensing with any hint of decor.

“A Socialist achievement” might be the first explanation to come to mind, but it would be quite wrong. Most of the historical buildings on the Market Square were destroyed in World War II and later rebuilt, but this one is among the very few to have been spared. Originally designed for the municipal savings bank by Heinrich Rump in the early 1930s, it was one of only two high rises in Wrocław – something still quite novel for the time.

Solutions for an Overcrowded City

Polen Breslau Bauhaus Architektur Mohrenapotheke von Adolf Radig

Now, Wrocław’s year as European Capital of Culture has at last brought its Modernist architecture back into the international spotlight. Once before, in the early 20th century, it played a role almost as important to the development of the Modernist Movement as that of Berlin or Frankfurt. Long is the list of innovative architects who were active in Wrocław at that time, among them, Hans Scharoun, Theo Effenberger, Hans Poelzig, Erich Mendelsohn and Max Berg.

“Wrocław has a great tradition in Modernism. And not just in terms of esthetics but of the philosophy,” says Zbigniew Macków, the European Capital of Culture’s architecture curator. “It’s about the quest for a better life.” The proximity to Lower Silesia’s mining region and a newly opened rail link to Berlin contributed to Wrocław’s transformation into a bustling center of commerce. Germany’s fifth-largest city at the time was already crowded, and within a very short time, the population doubled to half a million, confronting the city with urban planning challenges and social problems.

Entirely new solutions were needed, and the Modernist architects had them. In particular Max Berg, the urban planning commissioner from 1909 to 1925, and Hans Poelzig, director of the arts college from 1903 to 1916, left their marks on Wrocław’s cityscape. And they built up a network of architects, most of whom knew one another from their studies at the Technical University of Berlin. Beside the two office high rises, they designed and built a number of housing developments in and around Wrocław, complete with single-family homes, day care centers, schools and post offices. Many set new standards as reference buildings.

This creative construction boom came to an abrupt end with the Nazi takeover. Innovative projects were axed in favor of the Third Reich’s prescribed norms. Barely 12 years later the defense of “Fortress Wrocław" against the Red Army’s onslaught resulted in the destruction of many of the city’s buildings, old and new. The Nazis vowed to fight to the last man long after the real battle was lost. Around 70 percent of the city’s buildings ended up in ruins.

First milestone

A gigantic cupola that seems to levitate - the Centennial Hall of 1913 wrote architectural history. The landmark arena, which was built when Wrocław was the German city of Breslau, can accommodate as many as 10,000 people. Architect Max Berg called his construction "dome of democracy." It has been named a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.

Stylish exhibition grounds

The World Heritage Site around the Centennial Hall includes the Four Domes Pavilion, both originally constructed in 1913 as part of the city's exhibition grounds. The pavilion was designed by German architect Hans Poelzig, who was a teacher and director at the Breslau Academy of Art and Design. After extensive restoration work, the Pavilion is to house a museum for contemporary art.

An exercise in creating new housing standards

How can housing improve the quality of life in overcrowded cities? In 1929, several local architects, mainly members of the Werkbund association, participated in creating an exhibition in which 37 different types of buildings were presented to serve as "standards." This formed what is known as the WuWa, short for "Wohnungs- und Werkraumausstellung" or living and work space exhibition.

A home for any budget

The 37 buildings, ranging from detached and terraced houses to apartment blocks, were constructed in just three months. The eleven participating architects included Theo Effenberger, who designed cubic residential buildings with plain coarse plaster. Effenberger was made professor of architecture at Berlin's University of Arts in 1950. He had been banned from working under Nazi rule.

Community is paramount

Architect Hans Scharoun responded to the growing isolation in large cities by designing this hostel for singles. The building made up of small apartments provided community space for the resident singles and young unmarried couples to meet and mingle. These days, this prominent WuWa building serves as a hotel.

From children to architects

The experimental new buildings also provided a day-care center in the part of the residential areas planned for families. As it was conceived to be a temporary display within the exhibition, it was constructed using simple wooden structures. The building however survived and has now been carefully reconstructed by the Lower Silesian Architects Association to serve as its headquarters.

European look

WuWa was only one of many experiments in "New Objectivity" in modern architecture. So why not gather all the examples in one place? This year, Wrocław is hosting an exhibition of architectural designs from Stuttgart, Brno, Vienna, Zurich and Wrocław/Breslau. Here you can also admire furniture and interior designs that were part of the architectural concepts.

New meets old

German Modernist architect Adolf Rading also left his mark on the city of Breslau, as here on the re-design of the Mohrenapotheke pharmacy. In 1928 it was the first modern building in the old town center. In 1990 the facade with its emphasis on horizontal lines was carefully reconstructed according to its original design.

Expressionistic bricks

When the main post office building was constructed from 1927 to 1929, it was only the second high-rise east of Berlin. Today the listed building is home to the Polish Post and Telecommunication Museum. The eleven-story steel-frame building structure was covered with bricks and expressionistic trim such as cornices and decorative door frames.

High flying

The municipal savings bank building is the second and last high rise from that era in Wrocław. Architect Max Berg, back then serving as the city's urban planning commissioner insisted this design was ideal for businesses but could not overcome the public's skepticism. This high rise was supposed to mark the beginning of the Market Square's re-design - which ultimately never happened.

Inner city momentum

On the other hand, in the 1920s and early 1930s, the city center experienced a veritable building boom: Before the Nazi party took power, ten department stores were constructed. This one for C&A Brenninkmeyer was designed by Sepp Kaiser. To this day, the building has been preserved in its original design.

Escalators for Silesia

This department store, designed by Hermann Dernburg for the Wertheim consortium, was the biggest in the city and the first in the region to use escalators. The Jewish Wertheim consortium was expropriated in 1937, and the store was badly damaged in the fighting in Breslau in 1945. It was re-opened in 1948. In 1977, it was added to UNESCO's World Heritage list.

A Domed Masterpiece

Polen Breslau Bauhaus Architektur Jahrhunderthalle von Max Berg

One building survived unscathed: the Centennial Hall by Max Berg, the arena that ushered in the Modernist Movement in Wrocław. Inspired by the Pantheon in Rome, Berg designed a vast reinforced concrete dome with an inner diameter of 67 meters. The monumental structure was completed in 1913 after just two years and even now retains a look that’s refreshingly timeless.

Almost miraculously, it dodged the war’s devastation. The Red Army is said to have used it to set their sights when bombarding Wrocław and hence spared it. Later, Poland’s Communist government realized the Centennial Hall’s cultural and practical value and, in spite of its German origin, had it restored. In 2006, it was declared a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site. Since then, the various extensions that had been added on over the years have been removed to restore the hall to its original condition.

Exhibition: Experimental Living

Polen Breslau Bauhaus Architekturmuseum Ausstellung - Der Weg in die Mordernität

Not far from the Centennial Hall is another architectural monument: the Werkbund exhibition, known by its German abbreviation WuWA. In 1929, the Werkbund, a German association of architects and designers, followed up its Weissenhof settlement in Stuttgart with another experimental settlement in Wrocław including single-family homes, apartment blocks and a day-care center.

For many decades, these Modernist gems languished in obscurity, ignored, misunderstood and neglected. Wrocław’s designation as a European Capital of Culture has prompted restorations of many of these buildings faithful to historical detail. “The WuWA is part of our DNA. It’s our genetic code, and Wrocław’s architects are in a way duty-bound to keep building upon this foundation,” says Zbigniew Macków. Complementing the restoration, the Museum of Architecture has assembled a unique exhibition, bringing together the Werkbund’s designs for settlements in Stuttgart, Brno, Prague, Vienna, Zurich, Stuttgart and Wrocław for a pan-European perspective on the early 20th-century pioneers.

The Polish Architects have picked up on the spirit of this legacy. Nowe Zerniki is a new large-scale settlement conceived in the spirit of the Modernist Movement. “With these Modernist living units, we’re trying to make the WuWa ideas a reality 85 years later,” as Macków explains the project aimed at furnishing affordable living space for 10,000 people. He sees the timing as ideal: “Wrocław being a European Capital of Culture is only going to happen once. And the high value placed on architecture is, in my opinion, a one-of-a-kind opportunity for the city.