CITIES

Brutalism and Modernism on a foggy winter night in Katowice

An unexpected one-day January trip to Poland

Slava Shestopalov 🇺🇦
5 a.m. Magazine
Published in
8 min readJan 18, 2024

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© All photos by Slava Shestopalov

Recently, my wife and I visited Katowice for a medical appointment. Our trip was short and purely utilitarian, without any plans for sightseeing to say the least. But with my trusty Ricoh GR camera always in tow, I couldn’t pass up the chance to photograph some architecture once our tasks were completed and we awaited the return trip.

The Spodek arena in the afternoon.

During daylight, we didn’t have much time, so I only snapped two objects — the Spodek and Superjednostka. The Spodek was built between 1964 and 1971 as a multipurpose arena complex able to accommodate up to 11,500 people; it used to be the country’s largest indoor venue.

“Spodek” means “flying saucer” in Polish and refers to the stereotypical shape of a UFO. Since it was built on a mining waste dump, construction workers excavated through coal instead of soil, sparking rumors of the building’s potential collapse.

Winter sun sparsely illuminates the faceted Spodek’s surface.

The massive inclined roof of the Spodek is supported by a network of cables, a testament to the innovation of structural engineer Wacław Zalewski, known for designing grand roofs in Poland, Venezuela, and South Korea. I liked the Spodek’s original shape, but it might’ve seemed really astonishing fifty years ago.

On the opposite side of the square stood the so-called Combined Housing Unit, or the Superjednostka (1967–1972).

The humongous concrete Superjednostka complex.

The Superjednostka, one of the largest residential estates in Poland, draws attention from a distance. Since I had seen it several times on Instagram pages devoted to the Brutalism style, I immediately recognized its distinctive profile. This gigantic building, designed by Mieczysław Król, can accommodate up to 3000 residents in 764 apartments.

The 15-story Superjednostka is almost 190 meters long.

After a short stroll, we had to switch to other tasks. The next opportunity to capture Katowice through my lens appeared late in the evening, well past 11 p.m., following our visit to friends. The weather turned freezing cold and humid, but I was happy I had put on thermal underwear.

So, we found ourselves in the Tysiąclecia district, a development from the 1960s dedicated to the Millennium of the Polish State. It was pretty far from the city center, on the northwestern outskirts. We almost left, but then I saw them — incredible Modernist skyscrapers.

One of five Corn Houses at night.

The Kukurydze (1988–1991), or “Corns” in Polish, are the tallest residential buildings in Katowice. They have a signature corncob shape inspired by twin Brutalist skyscrapers, Marina City (1959–1968), in Chicago. There are three tall and two mid-size Corn Houses, able to accommodate up to 4000 people. While searching for a nice angle for pictures, I noticed that these stunning houses were pleasantly devoid of the usual car congestion, thanks to underground garages.

One of 3 tall and one of 2 short Corn Houses in the Tysiąclecia district.

The Tysiąclecia district featured numerous other Modernist residential buildings, though not as striking as the Corns; there was more to explore closer to the city center.

The fog became thicker, and I was afraid I wouldn’t take any decent pictures. However, my concerns proved unnecessary. It turned out to be a perfect setting — reminiscent of the neo-noir ambiance seen in the “Blade Runner 2049” sci-fi movie.

Garrison Church of St. Casimir the King hidden in the night fog.

Although I didn’t have this building on my list, I couldn’t resist getting closer. The Garrison Church of St. Kazimierz the Prince (1930–1933) was built in the Functionalist style according to the design of Leon Dietz d’Army and Jan Zarzycki. One of the earliest examples of Functionalist Catholic architecture in Poland, this church may not appear very large at first glance, but it’s undeniably impressive.

The impressive 40-meter-tall tower of the Garrison Church.

The tower, crowned with an illuminated top, reaches a height of 40 meters, while the church’s body stands at half that height. Later, I learned that the Garrison Church boasts a well-preserved Art Deco interior with altars, sculptures, benches, and stained glass windows. Of course, during my nighttime visit, I couldn’t get inside.

As for the next building, located just across the street, it was on my must-see list. The Drapacz Chmur (1928–1934) was the second high-rise built in Poland after the First World War, and its colloquial name literally means “Skyscraper” in Polish.

The Drapacz Chmur was one of the first skyscrapers in Poland.

Quite impressive for the early 20th century, wouldn’t you agree? Regarded as one of the finest illustrations of Functionalism in Poland, the house is 60 meters tall and has 14 above-ground stories.

Interestingly, the modern definition of a skyscraper often implies buildings surpassing 100 meters in height, although it’s not strictly limited.

When you look up, you see a majestic pattern of right angles.

This was luxurious housing with spacious apartment plans for white-collar workers and governmental officials. It was even equipped with garbage chutes — a rare convenience for that era.

Minimalism and symmetry.

Then I went further, but not far from the Drapacz Chmur, I stumbled upon another example of Functionalism. Not as famous yet elegant. The corner building in the picture below embodied all the typical features of its architectural style, with a harmonious blend of rounded and rectilinear forms, rows of uniform windows, and risalites — protruding parts of the building.

A corner building in front of the church.

I also noticed that Katowice has lots of houses considered more conventionally “beautiful,” like the Neo-Gothic one below. But this aesthetics was pretty mainstream for the edge of the 19th and 20th centuries, providing a stark contrast to avant-grade styles like Functionalism.

One of many vintage buildings from the end of the 19th — beginning of the 20th centuries.

And here is a masterpiece I was searching for — the Archcathedral of Christ the King (1934–1955). I felt so lucky to have captured it in the fog, immersed in this eerie atmosphere.

The front facade of the cathedral with the Latin inscription “Soli Deo Honor et Gloria” (To God alone be honor and glory).

This is such a unique blend of Classicism and Modernism, plus Art Deco elements! And mind the size, too: it’s the largest cathedral in Poland, encompassing 120,000 cubic meters of space.

To put it into perspective, St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, the largest church globally, boasts an over 10 times larger volume.

The cathedral has an interesting construction story. It started in the interwar period, but progress was halted by the upheaval of the Second World War. Only several-meter-high walls and stairs had been completed by September 1939. Nazi Germany’s occupation authorities prohibited further construction. After the war, when Poland got under the influence of another evil empire, the Soviet Union, and communist authorities mandated a reduction of the cathedral’s dome by 38 meters so that it didn’t dominate the cityscape. That’s why the cathedral ultimately reached only a 64-meter height instead of 102 meters.

One of the identical side doors of the cathedral.

The cathedral is faced in stone but constructed from brick. Its interior furnishings were designed in 1973 by Mieczysław Król, the same architect behind Superjednostka, which I introduced at the outset of this article.

Now that you’ve seen an interesting example of Modernized Classicism, let’s turn back to Brutalism again. Look at this beauty in the fog! It’s the city’s main railway station. It was completed in 1972 as a replacement for the old 19th-century station.

The only visible Brutalist corner of Katowice’s main railway station.

The signature element of the station was its 20 concrete cup-shaped pillars, four of which are well-visible nowadays. This design by architects Wacław Kłyszewski, Jerzy Mokrzyński, and Eugeniusz Wierzbickiwas was a brilliant example of 1960s modern architecture. Since the station arose on the former mining site, it was engineered to withstand tectonic movement.

Massive concrete “umbrellas” of the station.

After three decades of operation, the building seriously degraded but, fortunately, was redeveloped in the 2010s instead of being completely demolished (as it often happens with Brutalist creations). The concrete pillars were reinforced, and spaces in between were glazed, while a huge shopping mall appeared in front of the station, hiding most of its original facade. If even the visible corner is impressive, I can only imagine how strikingly the entire structure in its original state should’ve looked!

It seems so light that you wouldn’t even believe it was made of concrete.

It was well past 1 a.m., and I was nearly dozing off. The last segment of my camera’s battery indicator was alarmingly blinking. I thought, “Ha! Both I and my Ricoh GR are about to run out of energy!”

The hotel was just a 10-minute walk away, so I decided to conclude my photo walk with the Superjednostka. Having seen it in the afternoon greyness, now I was curious to observe how it would appear in the nighttime ambiance.

And I was not disappointed. Here are my favorite pics of the day.

The fog beautifully disperses the light of a neon logo on Superjednostka’s roof.

The fog veiled the block, hiding its farther edge from view. Only the neon sign marked its dimensions.

The housing complex gradually disappears in the thick fog.

Interesting fact: Superjednostka’s architect, Mieczysław Król, likely found inspiration in the renowned “Unité d’habitation” (1952) by Le Corbusier, a top figure in 20th-century architecture and a pioneer of Modernism. Both buildings embody the concept of a “vertical village”; they are elevated on pillars and patterned by long rows of balconies. However, the Polish variant is notably less luxurious than its French counterpart in terms of space, materials, and conveniences.

But you know what? Despite such a strong resemblance, I genuinely liked the Superjednostka’s minimalist uniqueness.

Another neon sign marks the top of the building.

As I made my way to the hotel, thoughts about modernist architects’ utopia of high-density urban housing filled my mind. I knew I wouldn’t get enough sleep due to the early 6 a.m. flight, but did it really matter after such an awesome photo adventure?

Like historical architecture? Then follow my Instagram with architecture photos every day — from 🏰 Gothic to 🏢 Modernism.

P.S. And this is us at the airport, trying not to fall asleep.

Waiting for the flight back

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Slava Shestopalov 🇺🇦
5 a.m. Magazine

Design leader and somewhat of a travel blogger. Author of “Design Bridges” and “5 a.m. Magazine” · savelife.in.ua/en/donate-en