KWK Promes digs beneath Szczecin’s history for this subterranean museum in Solidarity Square
Descending beneath Solidarność (Solidarity) Square into the Centrum Dialogu ‘Przełomy’ (translating as ‘Dialogue Centre “Breakthroughs” or “Upheavals”’), you are confronted by a striking panoramic illuminated artwork. Even for the day-tripper this is clearly Szczecin, with its distinctive brick towers ringed by Art Nouveau haloes of lit globes; but a very different Szczecin, one of mangled steel trusses and neo-Renaissance architecture draped with Nazi flags or billowing black smoke. Like the city itself, this is a collage of points in time, albeit a brutal one: rubble fills the foreground; smashed photographs of city vistas, a typewriter, a wrecked piano, a man kneels awaiting his execution, bomber planes circle, tanks advance and a ‘Polska’ border sign is uprooted (or erected?) by three soldiers.
‘It is a history of Szczecin, but at the same time a history of Poland, and even of Europe as a whole’
Szczecin’s history is one of dramatic change, accelerating rapidly from 1939 onwards, and it is this recent history that the museum aims to tell. As Robert Konieczny, of architect KWK Promes states, ‘it is a history of Szczecin, but at the same time a history of Poland, and even of Europe as a whole’. Shortly after bombing raids destroyed the tenement block that once stood on Solidarity Square, the 1945 Nazi evacuation prompted a virtually comprehensive population change as borders were redrawn and the city became Polish: Stettin became Szczecin. Following a period of Stalinism and the city’s ship-building peak, at the museum’s heart are the events of December 1970 (above left and above), in which 16 people were killed in and around Solidarity Square during anti-Communist protests that took place across Poland in response to massive and sudden price rises in basic foodstuffs.
To be confronted by this literal collage of history while Konieczny is describing the ‘interpretive’ view of history that the museum sought to adopt, I cannot help thinking this figurative approach has been left at the door. Yet there is something about the sheer chaos and loudness of Das Ende der Träume/The End of Dreams, Stettin, ’45, by Polish artist Kobas Laksa (detail, below left), that renders its meaning not entirely straightforward. In his series for the Polish Pavilion at the 2016 Venice Biennale, The Afterlife of Buildings, similar collages saw several contemporary Polish buildings photoshopped into an early grave – dilapidated or adapted into post-apocalyptic farms – and both the nature of Szczecin’s patchwork pastiched urbanism and this latest undulating addition to its urban fabric gel with the uneasiness of Laksa’s works.
‘KWK Promes approach architecture as a series of seemingly irrefutable snap-judgements’
KWK Promes could itself be considered a stranger to a figurative approach. Founded in 1999 by Konieczny and Marlena Wolnik, their private houses for Poland’s newly rich – by turns bombastic, monolithic and playful – all approach architecture as a series of seemingly irrefutable snap-judgements. This is not to suggest a lack of thought, rather a response to site that appears as confident as it is deft, rendering other solutions seemingly illogical, be it in the Bjarke Ingels-esque sweep of a road that wraps around a house on its way to a jetty, or a residence that satisfies a client’s somewhat dubious desire for a gated home using a series of James Bond-worthy sliding walls and concrete shutters.
KWK Promes is perhaps not the practice you would expect to see dealing with a context – both physically and historically – that would quickly and obviously reject too brash an approach. Tabula rasa rolling green hills this is not, and even for Szczecin’s often bizarre contrasts, the setting of Solidarity Square is uniquely varied. At the northern edge, on the former site of a Neoclassical Konzerthaus destroyed in the Second World War, now stands Barozzi Veiga’s Mies van der Rohe Prize-winning Filharmonia, abutting the police station that served as a Gestapo headquarters under the Nazis. To the east, the Church of St Peter and Paul is Szczecin’s oldest, and opposite this to the west is one of the Royal Gates built in the 18th century to celebrate the seizure of the city by Prussia. The absurdly wide, six-lane road divided by a grass island at the southern edge is an echo of the city’s 1880s Haussmannian roots, and completes this site’s condition as a rather intense place simply to be in, let alone build in.
‘KWK Promes’s competition-winning solution posed a dramatic overhaul, building on the success of Barozzi Veiga’s Filharmonia’
Until the 2009 competition call by the municipality and National Museum Szczecin for a pavilion to mark the site, all that stood here was the Angel of Freedom, unveiled in 2005 after Szczecin’s Mayor rejected the more abstract winner of an earlier memorial competition. Remembrance ceremonies would take place on the square every year, but otherwise its slightly peripheral condition – mainly evoked by the main road – left it largely forgotten. As such KWK Promes’s competition-winning solution posed a dramatic overhaul, building on the success of the Filharmonia, the first major public project commissioned in the city for 30 years, as a means of reinventing Szczecin’s image post-industry and confronting a piecemeal past in which each new era to some extent – and occasionally quite literally – overwrote the one before.
This project, then, digs beneath Szczecin’s history, simultaneously reanimating its surface: an exercise as archaeological as it is topographical. These are dubious times in which to create a National Museum, and I ask Konieczny whether there was any conscious statement to be found in forcing it underground, some deliberately anti-iconic gesture, perhaps, not least in deference to the literal icon of the Filharmonia opposite. ‘The municipality really trusted architects, and the head of the museum was very wise’, says Konieczny, ‘it was treated almost more as a piece of art than a building.’ Fundamentally it was about connecting the disparate surroundings of the square and drawing people in, so that required the square remaining just that. ‘We didn’t at first realise how much the project could give to the city, but as we learned we started to fight for these possibilities. It was a process of learning, and then fighting for what we had learned.’ Intentions aside, the new museum winning the World Architecture Festival’s Building of the Year Award, alongside other accolades, and its proximity to the Filharmonia, have made Szczecin the unlikely home to quite the award-winning piece of city.
‘A simple shift in a common urban condition between architectural form, infrastructure and landscape makes it a deceptively intriguing place to be in’
Characteristically, the new museum has a simple diagram: the route across the square between the church and the Filharmonia was to remain level while the remaining corners swept up, creating a raised and undulating form in a gesture that, as Konieczny puts it, means ‘you cannot tell where the square ends and the roof of the museum begins’. This is in many ways the project’s greatest success, a simple shifting in a common urban condition between architectural form, infrastructure and landscape that makes it a deceptively intriguing place to be in, and a particularly inviting one for the cyclists and skateboarders that many cities neglect or actively impede. Indeed, it was these very activities that KWK Promes fought for, requiring some reconciliation between those who had lived through the protests and the skaters who they perhaps felt would take over the square – a connection Konieczny celebrated by presenting the project’s European Prize for Urban Public Space to the Mayor on roller skates. The form’s coup is that it encourages these activities, although it has not been entirely without controversy: ‘on the day of the ceremony’, says Konieczny, ‘there was a scandal: the most important people were in front of the Angel of Freedom on the lowest level, while everyone else at the edges was higher up’ – perhaps one of the more unusual realisations about the square.
From the street, Konieczny desired a ‘monolith’, for the square to be an object rising out of the ground with sheer, solid walls rendering the museum’s presence all but invisible. These walls gradually rise to meet at the square’s two highest corners, presenting a blank elevation to the road and, opposite the police station, made permeable by a set of rotating concrete sections that form a double skin together with the glass wall into the museum. When closed, only the somewhat obnoxious CCTV cameras and small slits for ventilation signal the museum’s entrance, made far more obvious on the square itself by a ramp cutting down to a similar set of moving concrete shutters. Once inside, a small lobby, cloakroom and what will eventually be a café space occupy the small ground-level area underneath the north-eastern peak of the square.
After this brief muted ground-level condition, a staircase leads down to the permanent exhibition space, where the now familiar concrete panelling of the square abruptly gives way to the black walls of the exhibition space. These exhibits track, via an illuminated timeline on the floor, the history of the city 1939-1989, from the city’s wartime changing of hands to the revolutions of 1989 and Poland’s first non-Communist prime minister. Here KWK Promes took a back seat, or at least intended to (Konieczny does not believe architects necessarily make good exhibition designers), stepping in only when the design became too scenographic, including plans for mannequins of a German and a Russian soldier standing either side of the entrance. Instead there is a range of art, film and photography for each era, the most striking being a room full of photographs taken with hidden cameras during the protest to later identify those involved.
Some elements – such as model armoured-personnel carriers appearing to drive through the walls – remain as hangovers from the exhibition’s more scenographic original designs, and while at times these make the museum’s messages garbled and its audience confused, there is a lot packed into what unfolds as a Tardis-like sequence of spaces, including a lecture space and small bookshop area open to temporary exhibits and workshops at the permanent exhibition’s end.
‘The museum has seen innumerable visitors in its first year, but it is key that the square above is able to continue the precedent it has set for a multifaceted urban space’
Eschewing the competition brief for a pavilion in favour of a far more extensive project certainly demonstrated the vision of the municipality, but the budget wasn’t entirely capable of matching it. Effort and money have gone where they were most needed: into creating that smooth flow across the square’s surface, and in removing traces of the building underneath from the square above. Early damage to the concrete panelling used on the elevations and throughout the interior goes some way to undermining this monolith and the rather intense uses it was originally designed for. The museum has seen innumerable visitors in its first year, but it is key that the square above is able to continue the precedent it has set for a multifaceted urban space.
Szczecin has been invigorated by the addition of the Filharmonia to its skyline, its very own icon complete with Snapchat filter. Yet the Dialogue Centre is a fast shift from this icon-led approach to regeneration to something more intrinsically urban. Though the world and Europe is now quite a different place to what it was when this competition was awarded, there is something particularly pertinent about using a national museum project to reinvigorate a vital piece of public space, ready for sports, celebrations and ceremonies of remembrance, but also ready for demonstrations and protests. As one thing is for certain: we’re going to need it.
Dialogue Centre Przełomy
Architect: KWK Promes
Project architect: Robert Konieczny
Photographs: Tomasz Lazar