Friday, January 18, 2008

Nowa Huta

Nowa Huta's Plac Centralny (main square) im. Ronalda Reagana

With the weather turning to spring-like temperatures (30s and 40s instead of the teens), I decided to take a break from writing exams. We hopped on a tram to visit Krakow's largest suburb, built from scratch after the war as a large industrial (Nowa Huta means "new steel works") and residential complex. The Soviets planned this city as a means of producing steel in great quantities to help rebuild the nation, but did so in a way that would send an architectural message in direct contrast to that of Krakow. It was meant to be the communists' idea of the perfect city - one of only three built outside the Soviet Union - to showcase socialist ideals. Apparently the experts still disagree on whether this planned community deserves to be studied as an important example of urban planning. Large boulevards radiate out from the central square (recently renamed for Reagan in a strange piece of irony), which is a huge hexagonal space ringed by large, grey Socialist-Realist buildings with grand arched galleries on the ground floor. Before everything became covered in soot and grime from the steel mills, this was supposedly a beautiful (if architecturally boring, compared to the wonderfully varied buildings in Krakow's old city center) community: each large apartment building covered the whole block and was a self-contained unit with its own inner courtyard, school and shops. Though today the steel mill operates at just 1/4 its previous capacity (with significant reductions in its harmful emissions, so we're told) 200,000 people still live in Nowa Huta - most of them in large, nondescript apartment buildings nothing like the buildings pictured above on the central square.

One of the more interesting buildings in Nowa Huta is the antithesis of all that the city was supposed to be: the Arka Pana (Ark of the Lord) was the city's first church and was pieced together by volunteers. In keeping with the anti-religious policies of the postwar government, churches were not included in the original plans for Nowa Huta. After years of intensive lobbying (and open-air Masses held in fields by Krakow's archbishop Karol Wojtyla - who later became Pope John Paul II), the Catholic population eventually received reluctant permission to build the Arka Pana in the 1970s. The resulting building (designed to resemble Noah's ark - symbolicly encouraging Poles to persevere through the "floods" of communism) is an amazing building.

The Arka Pana is a concrete structure encrusted with mountain pebbles. There are many very interesting design elements to this building, including the support for the bell tower, below, which is surprisingly reminiscent of a Jewish menorah.

The interior of the church is no less spectacular - and controversial: Instead of a high altar, there's a figure of Christ flying to heaven positioned half-way down the aisle.

One tour book ends its description of the Arka Pana this way: "While architecturally interesting, the church is mostly significant as a symbol of an early victory of faith over communism: you'll be hard pressed to find a more powerful testament to the resilience of a persecuted modern Polish nation."

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