Modernist Centre of Gdynia — the example of building an integrated community

Date of Submission: 26/09/2019
Criteria: (ii)(iv)(v)
Category: Cultural
Submitted by:
Permanent Delegation of Poland to UNESCO
State, Province or Region:
Pomorskie Region
Ref.: 6431
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Description

Gdynia is a port city located on the Baltic Sea, with its Modernist Centre which is a uniform urban complex developed as a result of a unique and dynamic process of city construction. The area covers ca. 88 ha and encompasses several hundred buildings and building complexes.

Modernist Centre of Gdynia was built as the core of the newly designed city. It followed the consistently implemented urban plan which had taken shape in the mid-1920s and evolved in subsequent years, until the present day, while maintaining the main premises of its original concept. In an innovative way, it combined the features of traditional urban composition (an orthogonal street grid inscribed into the fanned landscape, frontage development) with buildings that incorporated progressive solutions in housing (ensured access of light and air). The design was based on an important idea to open the city to the sea with its main compositional axis concluded with the iconic fill-founded Southern Pier serving as a promenade and with general-access open port spaces (a marina, a passenger and short sea shipping harbour).

The complex includes various types of public buildings, each with its own architectural flavour, and big-city residential buildings. Townhouse-type residential buildings with business establishments on the ground floor are the most abundant type, but there are also less frequent apartment blocks. The most important public buildings include the court building, City Hall, sacred buildings, the hospital, school, post office, hotels, railway station, banks, office buildings and the Market Hall complex. The buildings represent various architectural styles, with a predominance of Modernist and Functionalist forms subjected to the regulations that resulted from the urban plan. They were created by a large group of architects, diverse in terms of both age and origin. The core of the development was completed in the 1930s, with the subsequent stages continuing up until the 1960s.

Due to the provisions of the Treaty of Versailles, in 1920 part of the Baltic Sea coast became incorporated into the revived Polish state, but without Gdańsk that received the status of a Free City with a port in which, contrary to the Treaty, Poland was unable to pursue its interests. As a result, the authorities of the newly restored Polish state had to make a decision to build their own port from scratch. The village of Gdynia, which at that time had about 1200 inhabitants, was selected as the location. The construction of the naval and commercial port and, subsequently, a railway trunk line to connect the port of Gdynia with the mining area in the south of Poland, were decisive in the dynamic growth of the city. The first urban plan for the Modernist Centre of Gdynia was designed by Roman Feliński and Adam Kuncewicz in 1925-1926. The plan was based on city zoning with designated functions: residential, administration, services, industry and recreation. The rapid growth of both the city and the port attracted wealthy individuals from all over Poland and necessitated multiple and essential changes to the urban designs. In a period of over a dozen years, Gdynia grew more than a hundredfold: in 1939, its population was ca. 120,000. By then, Gdynia had already taken a very important place in the public awareness of the people of Poland by becoming a symbol of modernisation and the maritime ambitions of the young state. However, its intensive growth was halted by World War II, with the city captured by the Third Reich and most of its Polish inhabitants displaced. But the urban fabric suffered damage only to a minor degree. In the period of the communist government after 1945, architecture continued the forms which had taken shape previously, owing to which Gdynia city centre has maintained the Modernist character that it gained in the 1920s and 30s. With the political transformations after the fall of communism in 1989, the awareness of the importance and value of the city’s Modernist architecture gradually grew as well, to recently become an important part of local identity.

Justification of Outstanding Universal Value

The Modernist Centre of Gdynia is unique as a heritage site of European town planning and architecture in which the ideals of Modernism have been confronted with the changing needs of a growing city and port, in consequence creating a place with a clearly modern character but at the same time without any doctrinaire traits. A special role is played here by the streets going towards the sea, in particular 10 Lutego Street: an axis which connects the railway station with the Southern Pier, jutting far into the sea. This solution, with not only a functional but also symbolic significance, represented Poland’s opening to the sea and the world at large. The city’s predominant Modernist aesthetic, with its simple, economical and functional buildings, emphasised the modern character of the place, while expressing the spirit of entrepreneurship and the pragmatism of its people.

Gdynia’s uniqueness is also determined by the fact that its building process was decidedly inclusive in that it recognised the interests of a variety of stakeholders. This makes Gdynia fundamentally different from other similar cities built from scratch where, usually, growth was determined by a homogenous public force (for example Brasilia) or individual force (for example Zlin). Gdynia’s growth had a special and socially very important trait: its urban fabric was not built in areas that had been previously expropriated. It was built on the land owned by the local people of mainly Kashubian origin (Kashubians — indigenous Slavic people, currently with the status of a language minority in Poland). Owing to this, the original inhabitants, who were mainly farmers and fishers, were not marginalised but instead became rightful participants in the process of building the city, due to the possibility of freely selling the land to the newcomers from various parts of Poland and through their own investment projects.

Downtown Gdynia has a unique value because it maintains the memory of these processes in a material form. It has preserved the overall, generally uniform character of the city space — a result of the individual entrepreneurship which had come to mark the entire development process. The character of Modernist Centre of Gdynia expressed itself in predominant frontage development in which nearly all the privately-owned buildings had business establishments on the ground floor. New architectural forms, not burdened with nationally-tinted associations, were at the same time an asset with which the new inhabitants of the city were able to identify with relatively greatest ease, regardless of which part of the country that had been divided until 1918 they came from.

On the one hand, the modern forms were an expression of the modernising tendencies in the Polish state and society of the time, while on the other hand being a tool to integrate the new and highly diversified population of the city. The population mix consisted of newcomers from all the areas of Poland united after World War I, having previously been part of the German Empire, Russian Empire and Habsburg Empire during the Partitions period (1772-1918). These people were raised and educated in three different languages, three education systems, and were used to living in three legal systems. They used different weights and measures, while their way of thinking was shaped by Protestant Prussia, Orthodox Russia and exceptionally Catholic Habsburg Empire. All the problems of stitching together a uniform Polish state out of those very different components focused in Gdynia as if in a lens. On top of that, several percent of the people were Poles who came from outside of Poland’s borders, mainly from Germany, France and the USA. Jews, at the peak of the development of this community in the mid-1930s, constituted ca. 4.5% of the city’s population. To all of them, regardless of what social system they had come from, Gdynia offered a new way of life. To many of them, who came from villages or small towns of the poorly industrialised country, which Poland was at the time, living in a large and modern city was a complete reversal of the life they had known before. Others, less numerous, came from cities but with different historical, cultural and architectural traditions. To a great extent, Modernism was here to integrate and stabilise, not just to express change.

Criterion (ii): Gdynia’s spatial layout and buildings are some of the most interesting examples of 20th century European town planning. Gdynia was based on Modernist ideals intertwined with the classic European tradition. Modernist Centre of Gdynia is a unique heritage site of European town planning and architecture in which the ideals of Modernism have been confronted with the changing needs of a growing city and port, in consequence creating a place with a clearly modern character but at the same time without any doctrinaire traits and with a rational attitude.

Prototype solutions were used when building the Port of Gdynia, while at the same time contributing to the development of architecture and technology. Simultaneously, Gdynia became an important location to implement new ideas and a place where young architects were able to gain experience and hone their design skills in practice.

In consequence, the city became a space for a completely new community to live: created by people who, for the most part, shared a common language and religious denomination, but differed in their way of thinking, education, the legal systems in which they had lived, their aesthetic habits and many other factors. For a vast majority of the people, both the locals and those who came to Gdynia from all over Poland, the Modernist forms used when building the city were a universal value with which everyone could identify easily. The simple, economical and functional buildings emphasised the modern character of the place, while expressing the spirit of entrepreneurship and the pragmatism of its people.

Criterion (iv): To a large extent, the buildings of Modernist Centre of Gdynia make up a characteristic and compact complex of Modernist architecture with strong individual architectural expression. Many buildings are of significant architectural value and are an example of construction and engineering solutions that were typical for their era. It is a uniform urban complex which, in a innovative way, combines the features of a traditional town-planning composition (an orthogonal street grid inscribed into the landscape and frontage development) with the progressive ideals of Modernism (city zoning, form follows function, sparsity of detail, ensured access of light and air).

The urban design was based on a division into zones with designated functions: residential, administration, services, industry and recreation. A special role is played here by the streets going towards the sea, in particular the main axis which connects the railway station with the Southern Pier, jutting far into the sea. This solution, with not only a functional but also symbolic significance, represented the opening of both the city and Poland to the sea and the world at large.

The city centre complex includes various types of public buildings, each with its own architectural flavour, and big-city residential buildings. Townhouse-type residential buildings with business establishments on the ground floor are the most abundant type, but there are also less frequent apartment blocks. The most important public buildings include the court building, the City Hall, sacred buildings, the hospital, school, post office, hotels, railway station, banks, office buildings and the Market Hall complex. The buildings represent various architectural styles, with a predominance of Modernist and Functionalist forms subjected to the regulations that resulted from the plan. They were created by a large group of architects, diverse in terms of both age and origin. The city’s predominant Modernist aesthetic, with its simple, economical and functional buildings, emphasised the modern character of the place while expressing the spirit of entrepreneurship and the pragmatism of its people.

Criterion (v): Modernist Centre of Gdynia is a unique example of a contemporary port city built on a new foundation in response to the needs and ambitions of a newly formed state. The layout of the Southern Pier with Kościuszko Square (Skwer Kościuszki), which together with the Sailor Basin (Basen Żeglarski), Pomorskie Quay and the short sea shipping harbour constitute an opening and at the same time an exposure of the city to the sea, are a telling and dominant feature of the urban landscape. Gdynia is a unique result of a new order of the world shaped after World War I (the restoration of the Polish state connected with a deliberate maritime education programme) and reform-oriented trends in public life, urban design and architecture.

Gdynia’s uniqueness is also determined by the fact that its building process was decidedly inclusive in that it recognised the interests of a variety of stakeholders. The memory of these processes has been maintained in a material form. Gdynia has preserved the overall, generally uniform character of the city space — a result of the individual entrepreneurship which had come to mark the entire development process. 

New architectural forms, not burdened with nationally-tinted associations, were at the same time an asset with which the new inhabitants of the city were able to identify with relatively greatest ease, regardless of which part of the country that had been divided until 1918 they came from. On the one hand, the modern forms were an expression of the modernising tendencies in the Polish state and society of the time, while on the other hand being a tool to integrate the new and highly diversified population of the city.

Statements of authenticity and/or integrity

The Modernist Centre of Gdynia covers the part of the city which makes up a compact building complex, shaped in terms of urban planning and architecture in the 1920s and 30s, preserved despite the destruction of World War II and supplemented in the post-War period with respect for the principles adopted before the War. Both the spatial layout and the buildings of the city are authentic in both substance and form, and permanent in their functions. The maintained functions and timeless structural solutions have caused the property described here to be used in a continuous, permanent way without any far-reaching modifications.

The buildings which make up a characteristic and compact complex of Modernist architecture with strong, individualised architectural expression, have been preserved in an unchanged form until today. New buildings erected after World War II generally fit in with their scale but also their Modernist character with the spatial and aesthetic blueprint defined in the 1920s and 30s. It is worth emphasising that the ownership and land division structure from the period when the city was built has been preserved, while maintaining the principle of public ownership of common areas and the private ownership of buildings, which in the majority belong to the same owners as in the period when they were built.

The authenticity of Gdynia is not only about the urban layout and buildings but also about the intangible sphere, especially as regards the names of buildings and streets which, to a large extent, are still the same. The integrity of the buildings is also determined by a strong relationship between the architecture and the preserved interior design in both public buildings and townhouses (entrance halls, stairwells, doors, balustrades and handles, mosaic floors, lifts, letterboxes etc.).

Established and maintained by the current local authorities, the complex’s protection regulations determine that any refurbishment of the buildings in the proposed area is subject to monument conservation restrictions, which to a large extent contributes to their visual and material integrity being preserved. The contemporary buildings, filling in the empty parcels, are also Modernist in form, creatively referring to the 1920s and 30s Modernism that predominated in the period when the city saw its most dynamic development.

Comparison with other similar properties

The World Heritage List does not include many urban complexes from the time of Modernism which resemble the proposed Modernist Centre of Gdynia. Modernist urban layouts on the List include: Brasilia (1987 inscription), Le Havre (2005 inscription), Tel Aviv (2007 inscription) and Asmara (2017 inscription). The said urban layouts are comprehensively designed and consistent as adaptations of the ideals of the Modern Movement to the geographical, cultural and climatic conditions of the areas in which they were built. Modernist Centre of Gdynia, in turn, is an example of a certain breakthrough in the Modernist paradigm. Its current form is a result of a city-building process at the point where an idea met reality (the changing needs of the port that was growing in its close vicinity brought about corrections in the city development plan). Characteristically, Tel Aviv, Asmara and Brasilia have stand-alone buildings. Meanwhile, Modernist Centre of Gdynia refers to classic European town planning characterised by a quarter-based layout and frontage development, yet materialised in Modernist architectural forms. At the same time, the generally traditional urban model underwent a telling modification towards modern hygiene: instead of 19th-century deep and narrow courtyards with annexes came spacious courtyards which were used by the residents and ensured good lighting, ventilation and greenery for leisure. There is a similar reference to classic urban planning in Le Havre but, in that case, we are dealing with the reconstruction of the historical city which had existed in that location but was destroyed during World War II and was re-designed by a single architect, whereas the way Modernist Centre of  Gdynia looks now is a synthesis of a collective effort of many architects, builders and investors. Therefore, the continuation of traditional solutions has a different source in the case of Le Havre and a different one in the case of Gdynia.

In the case of Modernist Centre of Gdynia, the relationship between the city and the sea symbolically emphasises a solution that is unique in terms of urban planning and landscaping: the pier (Southern Pier) situated on the extension of the layout’s central axis.