Conjuring Up a City


From villages and little towns, they come in carts
to build a foundry and dream out a city,
dig out of the earth a new Eldorado.
With an army of pioneers, a gathered crowd,
they jam in barns, barracks, and hostels,
walk heavily and whistle loudly in the muddy streets:
the great migration, the twisted ambition,
with a string on their necks-the Czestochowa cross,
three floors of swear-words, a feather pillow,
a gallon of vodka, and the lust for girls.
Distrustful soul, torn out of the village soil,
half-awakened and already half-mad,
in words silent, but singing, singing songs,
the huge mob, pushed suddenly
out of medieval darkness: un-human Poland,
howling with boredom on December nights….

Adam Ważyk, A Poem for Adults


The two banks – the years 1949 and 1955 – have already been connected by a giant bridge resting on six piers: the grand structure of the Six-Year Plan. A dream has been captured in a net of mathematical calculations – its image depicted in technical drawings. We say: Nowa Huta is growing.

The output of this new industrial plant is going to exceed the product of all industrial plants of the same type in Poland heretofore. Today, the Kraków flatlands are resounding with the clangour of creative construction. Tomorrow, they will fill with the buzz of a great working city.

With every brick, with every square metre of removed soil, people of a new era, unknowing poets, are writing the grandest industrial poem in Polish history.

It is on its unordinary stanzas that the further fast progress of basic industrial branches depends, production of machine tools, tractors, agricultural machines, transport means, etc.

It is not by accident that a large percentage of these unknowing poets, and knowing constructors of the new city are young.

The youth: the first rows of a classless society in the first socialist city in Poland. The most enthusiastic elements, best suited for development.

Sławomir Mrożek, “Młode miasto”, Przekrój, 22 July 1950, no. 276

I begin by juxtaposing excerpts from two texts about Nowa Huta, written only within five years. Placing Mrożek’s reportage side by side with Ważyk’s poem highlights the clou, the basic tension inherent in the message about Nowa Huta. The propagandist image feeding off the ideal, the want, projections of future, remains in constant friction with the real world with its ongoing, and incapacitating deficiencies, impotence, and people whose darker sides, or even ordinary ones, prove incompatible with collective happiness. Persisting in the troubled relationship these two pictures encounter yet another one – the story of the communist system, its structural contradictions, and the reasons why it failed. The sunlit squads described by Mrożek are formed in the period of Stalinist terror, veiled in obscurity by the authorities issuing coaxingly reassuring newsreels, and press articles to divert attention away from mass incarceration, terror, elimination of democratic opposition, while propaganda insists on the ever-lurking imperial foe, and saboteurs. Just like the language of communist propaganda has become part of our world, and some phrases fix the entire narration of the system, so Henryk Makarewicz and Wiktor Pental’s photographs of Nowa Huta contain a coded rhetoric related to working people, and optimism inspired by the building of a new world, and a new society. These pictures, however, carry much more than social realist poetry commissioned by the authorities does: a city is rising out of magma and mud, and what we see is a clash of two worlds – Little Poland’s countryside, with horses and carts, and a big city broadway; we see huge furnaces and metallurgists’ daily toil. There are green trees, and a nursery as pretty as a picture, but there is also mud, and a rubbish heap instead of a pavement. Winter light and long summer days, and many shades of grey.

Let us take another look at Mrożek’s reportage written in a language that is one of the means employed to convey immense propagandist enthusiasm for establishing a new order, the construction of a city to fulfil the dream of a fairer world. Although Mrożek’s style is strikingly grandiloquent (many years later the writer will strongly distance himself from the text), the young journalist gives a concise sketch (on the centrefold in the Przekrój weekly) of a fairly complete project of the new reality. It shows Nowa Huta as a component in a bigger scheme for state reconstruction (the Six-Year Plan), a new industrial centre (industrialisation of Poland), offering tools for the rearrangement of the whole country; it also shows the new men of the future – junaks assembling a scale model of new estates right by the tents they live in during the construction. Educated still by pre-war masters, they are supposed to be the flickering embers of a brand new classless society. Mrożek’s piece is brimming with ardour: the youthfulness of the city, the youthfulness of its constructors and architects, and a tremendous sense of optimism, faith in a better tomorrow. The new man also emerges in many documentary photographs by Pental and Makarewicz, as well as in newsreels filmed when Nowa Huta was built. The sun is shining, causing geometrical shapes of the new city to cast sharp shadows, while builders’ muscles escalate their poses, their bodies captured in motion, at work. The meticulously composed picture must not have imperfections, difficulties are surmounted for the sake of the “bright days of tomorrow,” emphatically announced by a voice-over in a 1951 newsreel titled Kierunek – Nowa Huta! [Direction – Nowa Huta!]. The objective of Nowa Huta is clearly outlined in an article by Roman Dzięciołkiewicz, an editor with the newspaper Budujemy Socjalizm [We’re Building Socialism]: it ought to be “the most convincing token of the creative power of man altering nature to ensure happiness of the nation, erecting gigantic buildings.”i

Some images must have been taken in bad weather, in wintertime or on rainy autumn days, because they disagree with the vision developed to excite optimism and zeal, as well as – it could not have been different – a rosy future. In Andrzej Wajda’s Man of Marble (1976), the newsreel showing a concrete mixer bogged down in mud, gentle chiaroscuro, and an uproar over meagre food rations directed against the local party representative, is deposited in the archive, kept out of sight. A lot of such ‘waste’ documentary shots can be found in Pental and Makarewicz’s output, and it is these records that constitute perfect material for research on daily life, a contribution to uncovering the genuine picture of Nowa Huta, to replace its black and white image created in communism, and strongly promoted after 1989.

We shall return later on to discrepancies and tensions carried within the pictures, yet now it is the utopia that comes to the fore; the utopia present in the social realist vocabulary of Mrożek’s reportage, and in its contact with human lives, emotions, wants, and weaknesses, which tended to run counter to the design of a socialist new man. The article could easily replace the voice-over in Polska Kronika Filmowa newsreels, so strictly was the linguistic depiction determined by socialist rhetoric (however, the unbearable propaganda could not veil Mrożek’s major literary talent). Adam Ważyk, on the other hand, a celebrity in the party, a party member, a propagator of socialism, in 1955 takes a look at the gloomy reality, and points out it is a vast distance from propaganda. His tale is meaningfully addressed to adults. The very titles of the two texts present a significant opposition: the youth versus the grown-ups. The diagnosis made by Ważyk, whose publication in 1955 in Nowa Kultura was synonymous with public suicide (and presaged Gomułka’s thaw), implied that the new system, and its approach to people were marked by naivety, and indeed immaturity (or, perhaps, Gombrowicz’s replacement of fatherland: “sonland”). However, it should be remembered that the poem by the former socialist celeb ended with an invocation to the party (“we appeal through our Party”). It was hence the party that was to effect change, and Ważyk may have been suggesting that the objective pursued by the system was right, but the idea underwent deformation, and it was time to return to the source to repair the world, and the city. In both literary visions, we see a frozen image of Nowa Huta in construction, assuming a regular shape, conditioned by technology, architects, and planners, as well as the more or less involved builders – junaks and the labour mass that brought “Frits” to Ważyk’s mind. The coming-to-be of a city has been recorded in Pental and Makarewicz’s photographs, revolving also around the very structure taking shape amidst empty fields, the geometrical power of cranes and scaffolding, as well as cubic skeletons of buildings, or boxes to contain human lives.

Nowa Huta is situated halfway between the ideal city, and utopia. It constitutes an attempt to create an urban ideal, taking into account the new order of the world after the Second World War.

Utopia has been known to humans since antiquity, although its name was coined by Thomas Moore who first used it in his novel under a rather longish title A truly golden little book, no less beneficial than entertaining, of a republic’s best state and of the new island Utopia, published by the English thinker and politician in London in 1516. So utopia is both a literary genre, and a political and social concept of a new order of interpersonal relations. The term “utopia” comes from Greek, and stands for a “non-place;” it is by definition impossible to be achieved, so it can be applied somewhat to everything – starting from distant blissful islands where the sun never sets, to human rights, emancipation of women, or universal education. An ideal social order has always been aimed for. The first comprehensive discussion of such organisation within the framework of city-state is Plato’s Republic, in which he criticises the orders he knew, and outlines a vision of the first utopian city avant la lettre – Kallipolis, governed by a philosopher king, and with commonly owned property. A picture of social and spatial relations is also found in Aristotle’s Politics; the author rejects Plato’s suggestions, and mostly the key aspect for all conceptions of urban transformations, the question of property. Plato advocates common property, while Aristotle claims that it would result in diffusion of responsibility; he speaks for diversification of classes, and hierarchy, rather than unification. He writes:

Below this spot should be established an agora, such as that which the Thessalians call the ‘freeman’s agora’; from this all trade should be excluded, and no mechanic, husbandman, or any such person allowed to enter, unless he be summoned by the magistrates. It would be a charming use of the place, if the gymnastic exercises of the elder men were performed there. For in this noble practice different ages should be separated, and some of the magistrates should stay with the boys, while the grown-up men remain with the magistrates; for the presence of the magistrates is the best mode of inspiring true modesty and ingenuous fear.ii

i R. Dzięciołkiewicz, “Z przeludnionej wsi – drogowskaz Nowa Huta”, in: Nowa Huta – Duma Narodu, Kraków, propagandist publication of the WKW Frontu Narodowego w Krakowie, p. 30.