Birth of the Modernism
Most of the major cities we live in are chaotic. What started as small villages a very long time ago - over centuries and additions of new streets, quarters and neighbourhoods - have grown into centres of our present lives. You can read their history through urbanism and buildings that underwent distinct changes through all the architectural eras.
Only at the beginning of the XX century was the era of modernism born with the revolutionary theories of functionalism, human perspective in the urban space, and buildings by prominent thinkers and architects such as Le Corbusier or Walter Gropius. It could be very interesting to see how a city would look, if built from scratch with these new principles in mind. Fortunately we don’t have to use our imagination, because we can walk through the streets of one such city today, Gdynia, established 92 years ago.
Before there was a seaport, 1915 - Image courtesy of @gdynia1926
How did it happen that a new city was built from ground up in close vicinity to one of the major economic hubs of the Baltic sea, Gdansk? We have to touch a little upon the history and the situation in Poland at that time. With the end of the WWI, Poland regained independence and with it, access to the sea as granted by the Treaty of Versailles. Then City of Gdansk was a semi-autonomous city-state under the protection of the League of Nations. Although Poland could use its harbour, growing tensions and the fact that over 90% of the inhabitants were German limited in fact the access. Inevitably, a decision was made by the Polish government that the country needed its own seaport. The construction begun in 1925, on a land previously inhabited by fishermen. The inflow of workers, engineers and officials meant that a new city followed soon after, the birth of a new city.
City Centre - Image courtesy of @salatowskimarek
In a short period of just 10 odd years, the city’s population skyrocketed from just 1.000 to 120.000 in 1938. That meant unsatisfied demand for housing, infrastructure, communal and administrative buildings. Architects, planners and engineers saw it as a unique opportunity to implement new ideas and technologies that the world had to offer. Many students and recent graduated came from Warsaw to realise their aspirations with newly gained knowledge and inspiration from the West.
Image courtesy of Museum of Gdynia
Despite rapid growth, the urbanisation was kept within city planning. In the city, three axes developed. The representative axis (10 lutego street) led from the entrance to the city centre all the way to the sea and even onwards, thanks to reclaimed land from the port. It represents its origins which come from the sea. Second, commercial axis (Swietojanska street) crosses with the first one and is the heart of the city an equivalent to a city square. The last axis is formed from the oldest street in the city, Starowiejska which remembers times when Gdynia was just a small fishing village. This planned urban project, together with the seaport and the modernist architecture is now officially recognized as a Polish national landmark as there is just few such coherent modernist city centres in Europe.
Museum of Gdynia - 30's Modernism (above)
Photography of Michał Malinowski (below)
Moving on to the main topic, the architecture of an infant city, we can distinguish few short periods of it’s evolution. The first buildings were styled still in reference to the old days of the previous century, with its historicising details and ornaments. Soon, the ornaments changed form and became more geometric and subtle, marking the influence of Art Deco movement in the world. It didn’t last long, as the functionalist ideas from the West, mainly Le Corbusiers’s principles, stripped down the buildings to it’s pure form, directed by the function which it had to play for a human. They are geometric in form with large widows and spacious interiors. A world crisis of the 20’s facilitated the popularity of these new pure and simple forms.
However, moving through the 30’s the world was getting up from it’s knees, business was gaining speed, a new fresh air of optimism and money made it’s mark in the architecture of Gdynia. Better materials showed up on the walls and braver ideas found their place in the notion of expressionism. A new look, nicknamed 'stream-line' marked it’s presence in the most prestigious corners of the city. You can mainly distinguish it through rounded corners that gave reminiscence to the transatlantic ships that started operating between Gdynia and the rest of the world during those years.
The form of the building also evolved from cubic to a more structured one. Architects were highlighting horizontal lines through long sections of windows. Also, as a symbol of pure form almost all of the buildings were white in colour, because it was the light and shade that ‘decorated’ the structures, not colours and ornaments. Gdynia even got a nickname of “White City”. The most stunning modernist buildings we know from today are from those years and we can admire them to this day as Gdynia was not really destroyed during the war.
Fortunately, after decades of communism, socialist ideology and deterioration of all those striking buildings, we once again have started to appreciate them and even fall in love with them. The city started renovating the architectural landmarks, which in this case means e.g. refreshing the facades and restoring the original details. The city museum initiated many educational initiatives towards citizens of all ages, from publishing illustrated books or organising workshops for the youngest ones, open lectures by architecture professors to architectural walks through the most interesting streets of the city which are attended even by the elderly.
On a bigger scale, there are annual architecture weekends and International Conference on Modernism in Gdynia and in the World. All these activities make a real impact on people and new project that are being developed in the city. You can notice reference to the city’s modernist architecture in majority of the buildings currently being built in the city centre.
Image courtesy of @muzeum_miasta_gdyni
Inspiration for the New Generation
But how does it all influence an ordinary citizen of the city? It’s not that apparent on first sight, but it does have an impact indirectly. More and more people are interested in the aesthetic of the city. More actions are undertaken to clean up the publicity mess that has accumulated over years of indifference. Although old generation is still lured by this style of flashy promotion, the new generation regards it as clutter and kitsch. After learning the basics of modernism, people start to look up to the skies to find the rounded balconies or horizontal rows of windows, instead of constantly lurking at their phones.
From my own perspective I can tell that years of interest in the architectural history of Gdynia and all that is being done to promote it has had an effect in building my local business. I remembered what was worth preserving or even exposing from the interior and exterior of the building which remembers the great 30’s. I’m not alone because modernism has in fact become cool and looking at the energy and effort of young people I’m sure that the next golden age of the city is still ahead of us.
Image courtesy of @gdynia.mylove
Mind you, this article wasn't written by someone who studied architecture or urbanism. Nevertheless, I tried my best to be accurate with the specific architectural terms. My knowledge comes from a deep interest in the history of my city, lectures organised by the local museum, books, and architectural walks around town.
Words & Photos by Michał Malinowski
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