Returning the Centralny Square to the Residents

13 December 2022

The square is really a roundabout – but could it be turned into a park?

Text: Ryszard Kozik

That’s one of the questions being asked by students at the Institute of Landscape Architecture at the Kraków University of Technology. Their works comprise part of the exhibition Central Square. In Search of a Centre at the Nowa Huta Museum (until 8 January 2023), revealing the great potential of this space.

The Centralny Square was first sketched out as a pentagon marking the centre of the new city whose construction started in 1949. The authors of this architectural design were Tadeusz Ptaszycki and Marta and Janusz Ingarden. However, some of the plans never became reality. Social-realist housing estates Centrum A, B, C and D were built spreading away from the square; however, of the D estate, only the block adjacent to the square follows this architectural style. The proposed theatre on the side of the Nowa Huta Meadows and the obelisk in the centre of the square were never built, and Nowa Huta became an official district of Kraków just a few years later.

The Nowa Huta Cultural Centre was finally built in 1983 opposite the Centrum D estate, while the post-Modernist Centrum E estate, designed by Romuald Loegler, was built between 1988 and 1995 opposite Centrum A. It stirred controversy: although the author reached for elements such as balconies, arcades and glass brick found in earlier estates in the district, he was seen as overusing them. The bright colours of the new blocks also raised eyebrows.

And so the Centralny Square remains an unfinished project, tempting architects with ideas on how to close the line of buildings on the side of the Nowa Huta Meadows.

Why did people visit the square?

I was born in Nowa Huta and I spent most of my life living in different estates in the district. When I was a kid, the Centralny Square was a true heart of Nowa Huta. Whenever I used to say “I’m going to the centre,” that’s where I had in mind. If I was heading to the Main Market Square (Rynek Główny), I’d say “I’m going to Kraków”. And I still think this way, even though I worked on Szewska Street for over 20 years and now I’m based at the Krzysztofory Palace at the Main Market Square.

So why did we use to go to the centre? To fashion shops, the stamp-collectors’ shop, the Skarbnica bookshop, stationery shop, smoothie bar, and then a bit farther along the Róż Avenue – frequently mistaken for a part of the square – to a big toy shop and a scout depot. Of course we’d always glance at the window of the Cepelia shop selling traditional arts and crafts, pop into book fairs and watch cycle races hurtling along Nowa Huta’s streets. The streets weren’t wide for the convenience of drivers – architects originally assumed just one car per thousand residents! – but to provide plenty of space for great parades celebrating national holidays and anniversaries of revolutions. Travelling circuses and funfairs erected their big tents and merry-go-rounds nearby.

Today it lives a different kind of life

I’ve lived on the Centralny Square for over three years, and I know very well it’s still teeming with life – a different kind of life, though. We fill most of our shopping and entertainment needs at shopping malls and online, and of the places I mention above, only Cepelia and the stationery shop remain. The florist’s and shoe shop have also been here forever.

The very centre of the square which I can see from my fifth-floor flat in Centrum D is usually empty. Sometimes someone sits on a bench, a cyclist goes past, maybe a guided tour stops in the middle where you can see all the estates and avenues stretching away from the square. There are the occasional screams at night. And that’s it. Well, not quite – in December a huge Christmas tree stands in the middle, admired by kids and adults alike.

Most of the life comes from transport – the square is a major roundabout and bus and tram interchange.

How do we encourage locals to come here?

There are two other nearby spaces. The first is the section of the Róż Avenue between the estates of Centrum B and Centrum C, closed to traffic and currently undergoing renovations to return it to the form before the Lenin monument. The concrete road surface will be replaced by greenery – lawns, shrubs and flowers, and new trees. The other is the Budowniczych Nowej Huty Square between the Nowa Huta Cultural Centre and Centrum E, directly in front of the Nowa Huta Meadows. The spaces are intersected by several streets and tram tracks, so getting around the square using a wheelchair or pushing a pram is virtually impossible.

Stanisław Moryc, Chairman of the District Council and City Councillor, presented a controversial proposal a few years ago, suggesting building footbridges crossing from the Róż Avenue to the middle of the Centralny Square. This would never get past the conservation board, since Nowa Huta’s architectural layout has been included on the historic register. So what could be done to revitalise the centre of the district – to make it more friendly to visitors and to attract locals?

I’ve been thinking about it for a while, and I came up with the idea of inviting students from the Kraków University of Technology to come up with ideas.

Architects are always short of time

The idea was simple: we asked for solutions which would “return” the square to the local residents. We really wanted to provide space for walking and recreation.

“We didn’t impose any limitations on the participants,” says Dr. Miłosz Zieliński, co-host of the design workshops with Dr. Przemysław Kowalski. “Had we imposed conservation limits, we would have received 18 very similar designs. Instead, we wanted to showcase the potential of this space and think about how to make it more pleasant for the locals,” he adds.

The workshops were a simulation of design work from the outset. The three weeks were very intense for the students. First, they worked in teams of two or three to develop the foundations of each design, and then they continued to develop them individually.

“Architects are always short of time. They work under great pressure, so we deliberately put similar pressure on the students,” Dr. Zieliński says. “We like working on commissioned projects, because they are the most realistic – there is a client, they have specific expectations and needs, and there’s an opportunity for evaluation.”

And why not?

The result of the workshops is 18 designs, forming part of the exhibition at the Nowa Huta Museum. They all feature plenty of greenery, but they also differ greatly in their approach to transport. Some preserve the current form, others offer certain limitations, while the most extreme put roads and tram tracks underground. The authors also came up with ideas making it easier to walk between the Róż Avenue, the middle of the square and the Budowniczych Nowej Huty Square. They also had very different ideas for the middle of the Centralny Square itself.

“The breakthrough moment was when two students approached me with the idea of turning the Centralny Square into Centralny Park,” says Dr. Zieliński. “My first thought was, ‘but how?’. The square has other functions and we all know this. But, a while later, I reflected: why not? If the square is a roundabout now, why couldn’t it become a park? And why should today’s format be more attractive? It turned our thinking about the designs upside-down.”

Level Up

Level Up, reinterpretation of the obelisk in the Centralny Square as an observation tower, visualisation, author: Magdalena Marasik
Courtesy of the Museum of Krakow and University of Technology

Who benefits – the student or Nowa Huta?

Both local residents and tourists have expressed a wide range of opinions about the designs. We’ve had comments praising bold and attractive ideas, as well as those feeling strongly that the Centralny Square should stay the way it is. All visitors to the exhibition vote for their favourite design, and the Nowa Huta District Council has funded a prize for the winner.

“I’m particularly impressed with the most far-reaching designs,” reveals Stanisław Moryc. “I’m delighted that the students have come up with such a variety of ideas. The project has been a great opportunity to continue discussing the future of Nowa Huta and its centre. If we’re making changes to the Róż Avenue, maybe the Centralny Square could become more than just a roundabout.”

Would such projects stand a chance? The most conservative, yes, but the more extreme…

“I see three potential obstacles,” says Dr. Zieliński. “The first is legislation, which imposes serious limitations on changes made to historic spaces. The second is money, since moving roads and tracks underground would be very expensive. Finally, convincing the locals, since we wouldn’t want to introduce changes against their wishes.”

However, he’s delighted that the designs have launched a discussion on the future of the Centralny Square. “And I hope it will be more than just a discussion – that some of the ideas will be implemented, here or perhaps elsewhere. In any case, preparing the designs has been very valuable for the students, and I hope that Nowa Huta and the Centralny Square will also benefit.”

I look out of my window at the Centralny Square. In recent days the traffic is even heavier than usual – roadworks on Bieńczycka Street mean twice as many trams pass through here. Changing the Central Square into a Central Park is so tempting, especially bringing nature into the heart of Nowa Huta. It would also be a nice nod to another project which never came to be – the idea of converting the Nowa Huta Meadow into a reservoir.

Ryszard Kozik
Great fan of Cracovian culture, author of numerous publications and veteran journalist at “Gazeta Wyborcza”. He currently works at the Museum of Krakow. He is a Nowa Huta native and lover.

Photo: Nowa Huta – Central Park, perspective takes, visualisation, author: Weronika Zielińska
Courtesy of the Museum of Krakow and the Kraków University of Technology

The text was published in the 4/2022 issue of  the "Kraków Culture" quarterly.


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