Blog: Nowa Huta – New towns and old religion

Nowa Huta is the largest district of Poland’s former capital, Kraków, but has little in common with the picture postcard medieval city centre. An entirely pre-planned socialist realist city (one of only two such projects ever brought to fruition), built around the massive steelworks from which the town took its name, today Nowa Huta has the feel of a communist theme park – all overblown finialled façades, mammoth blocks of flats and wide avenues. Somewhat surprisingly, given this grand, imposing feel to the town’s fabric, Nowa Huta has much in common with a place less associated with architectural impressiveness – Basildon. I’ve written before on Basildon, in the context of the fan cult surrounding Basildon born and bred Depeche Mode, but visiting Nowa Huta last month highlighted unexpected parallels between these two town building projects, some 1,000 miles apart. Nowa Huta also holds a second point of interest for me as a historian of popular religious culture, since the history of the town’s churches, or rather lack of them, is a story which tells us much about modern Polish Catholicism and its relationship to the freedom movement in that country.

Both Nowa Huta and Basildon were in fact built with the same vision for modern living in mind – the neighbourhood unit. This idea from the US is perfectly explained in a highly entertaining British government information film from 1948, Charley in New Town. The idea was to build self-contained, largely pedestrianised units of housing with their own amenities, separated from other such units by arterial roads, with jobs provided by on-site industrial units and plenty of green space in between. In post-war austerity Britain and communist Poland alike, this concept was adopted as the ideal for building much-needed new housing stock. The Basildon Development Corporation was formed in February 1949, the building work began in Nowa Huta in June the very same year, and for the following four decades the two projects at Nowa Huta and Basildon were built in parallel. While the splendour of Nowa Huta’s central square, Plac Centralny, and the wide main boulevard of Aleja Róż do not have their parallels in Basildon, the housing estates have a very similar feel as you walk along the pedestrianised pathways through wide, open areas with a soundscape that is so free of traffic noise that it jars (these photographs at the website of the small but excellent Nowa Huta Museum give some idea of Nowa Huta’s character today).

The similarity between Basildon and Nowa Huta in terms of the experience of being in their public spaces is surprising given the fact that, while the form is similar, the motivation in building these two towns differed significantly. While Basildon was built under the 1946 New Towns Act to ease a post-war housing crisis in the East End, Nowa Huta was intended, as a town for workers built in an architectural style embodying communist ideals, to be one in the eye for the decadent elite of elegant, ancient Kraków. While British New Towns were frequently linked to Soviet authoritarianism by their detractors, both because of their aesthetic and the way in which they were often imposed on unwilling existing communities (Conservative Environment Secretary Patrick Jenkin dubbed Basildon ‘Little Moscow on the Thames’, while horticulturist Clarence Elliott called Stevenage (the much-opposed  first British New Town) ‘Silkingrad’ after Lewis Silkin, the Minister of Town and Country Planning and father of the British New Town project), despite this drawing of parallels between the two ideologies under which such projects were built in post-war Britain and Soviet Bloc Europe, the degree of freedom their residents were afforded was of course rather different. This is starkly indicated in Nowa Huta by the communist authorities’ refusal to provide churches in the town, an amenity explicitly mentioned in Charley in New Town (one wonders whether they also lacked an enthusiasm for providing ‘plenty of pubs’, which seems to have been a key selling point of the New Town plan for the British government). Nowa Huta was to be an ideal socialist realist, and therefore religion-free, city. But the locals weren’t standing for it…

It was around the issue of Nowa Huta’s lack of churches that political dissent first came to be expressed in the town and Nowa Huta began to mark itself out as a centre of the fight for freedom in communist Poland. While the town became central to dissent in the period after the founding of Solidarność in 1980, staging protests and focussing on the huge statue of Lenin on the main avenue as a key target (it was variously blown up, set on fire and covered in paint on regular ‘let’s put make-up on Lenin’ days), the locals had already been using the fight for a church in Nowa Huta as a focus for protest for some two and a half decades. The authorities vainly sought to supplant Catholicism with pagan folk tradition, naming everything in sight after the eighth century Krakovian princess, Wanda, but the locals didn’t buy it and petitioned right from the earliest days of Nowa Huta for a Catholic place of worship to be built. After the 1956 political ‘thaw’ the authorities agreed to build a church near the town’s People’s Theatre, and a large wooden cross was erected on the site, but in 1960 the plans were suddenly halted. When the authorities tried to take the cross away, the workmen were chased away by local people and the cross defended fiercely (a situation later mirrored by another ‘cross controversy’ in 2010 when protesters staged a vigil outside the presidential palace in Warsaw to prevent the removal of a cross erected there after the Smolensk crash). Tensions increased, the town was cut off and the notorious ZOMO riot police were called in. At least 200 people were injured and 500 arrested in the ensuing riot. The locals were far from silenced, however, and with prominent backing from one Karol Wojtyła (Archbishop of Kraków from 1963), work on the first church in Nowa Huta was allowed to begin in 1967. The Church of Our Lady, Queen of Poland (Matki Bożej Królowej Polski), otherwise known as the Lord’s Ark (Arka Pana), was consecrated by Wojtyła himself in 1977, and it is one of the most incredible places of worship I have ever visited. A significant piece of post-Vatican II architecture, it is also testament to the role of religious devotion in the downfall of communism in Poland.

Arka Pana is so named as the architect, Kraków-based Wojciech Pietrzyk, intended the church to look like Noah’s Ark resting on Mount Ararat. As Polish art historian and Nowa Huta authority Maciej Miezian has put it in his great little guide book on the town, ‘For people who wished to survive the heavy times of communism, the metaphor was very clear.’ The church was in fact largely inspired by Le Corbusier’s chapel of Notre Dame du Haut in Ronchamp, eastern France, and the architectural parallels are clear. Constructed by hand, since the authorities would not make heavy machinery available for the project, the stones on the church’s façade were collected by parishioners when they went to the countryside on their holidays. The sheer spectacle of Arka Pana isn’t restricted to its external appearance, however, and the general impression inside the cavernous main body of the church is of a set from a 1970s sci-fi series. Black and red pews, a crumpled metal ‘sky’ and a tabernacle resembling a pock-marked planet and containing a piece of moon rock brought back to Earth by the Apollo 11 crew and donated to the church by Pope Paul VI (he also sent a stone from St Peter’s tomb for the church’s foundations) all create this Blake’s 7 feel. The statuary in the church is altogether less futuristic, but no less jaw-dropping. The half-metre tall statue Matki Bożej Pancernej (‘Our Lady of the Armoured’) appears as a piece of naïve religious folk art, but in fact has a far more complex meaning – it was made from shrapnel removed from the wounds of Polish soldiers who fought at Monte Cassino to liberate Rome, and is a (almost literally) visceral testament to Poland’s historical allegiance to the Catholic Church. The church’s huge ‘crucifix’ is similarly unsettling. Highly original since there is no cross present, with the elongated metal body of Christ instead pinned to the wall, the sculpture was intended by its creator, Bronisław Chromy, to show Christ not suffering but about to fly to Heaven. Here the Crucifixion is emphasised as liberation not victimisation – a message of clear importance to Nowa Huta.

Arka Pana’s architecture, artefacts and artwork tell us something about both post-Vatican II religious visual culture and the relationship between Poland’s modern history and its religious life, and indeed the church’s physical role in Nowa Huta’s protests during the 1980s was emblematic of the position of the Polish Catholic Church in the freedom movement – a position at its very centre. The open space around Arka Pana saw some of the heaviest battles against the ZOMO during the period of Martial Law and the years that followed – just one example of Catholicism forming a focal point for anti-communist resistance, as it did across Poland. When a 20 year old steel worker called Bogdan Włosik was shot by a Secret Service agent during one such disturbance in October 1982, giving Nowa Huta a martyr for freedom, it happened directly across the road from Arka Pana, and the monument to Włosik marking where he fell is a reminder of how tightly bound the fortunes of the Church and the people were in that era. While Nowa Huta is unique in Poland, it shares its post-war striving for the new through the shaping of urban space with Basildon and, in its history of resistance and endurance of the old religion in the face of oppression, it speaks of the Polish experience of modern times.