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12 October 1999, Tuesday
1999 Photographs from Elblag and Malbork | Poland Site Index | Home

Tuesday morning I had breakfast at the house with a woman from Norway and a retired Welshman. She was in Poland to purchase amber jewelry to take back and sell at her arts store. The man had been traveling through eastern Europe for about 3 months and was considering staying in Gdansk for an extended time. He hoped to find a job teaching English at one of the local schools. When I finished my meal, I picked-up my backpack and got on the local bus to the train station. The train for Elblag departed in about an hour. Looking back, I wish I had stayed at the house for several days. I could have further explored the region of Gdansk, Sopot and the surround countryside towards Malbork. If in the future I ever need to escape from the world, I know I can do it here for about $20 a day.

The trip to Elblag took less than 2 hours. I arrived before noon. Stepping onto the platform, I had no map or sense of direction regarding the layout of the city. I consulted a local bus map, guessed where the project site would be located and headed off. After about 2km of wandering, I found the site.

The area of the Elblag reconstruction is much larger than the site in Szczecin but approximately half the size of Kostryn. At the heart of the area is a large central church, St Nicholas Church (Kosciól sw Mikolaja). The entrance faces west, towards an inlet of the Vistula Lagoon about a block way. The rear of the church is at a commercial plaza lined with recently reconstructed buildings occupied at the street level by banks and other high-profile tenants. The project area extends for 3-4 large blocks from the church in all directions.

The reconstruction seems to be moving right along with many large city blocks near completion and many of the buildings are already occupied. The construction materials and assemblies are a good quality. There are fewer buildings completely covered with stucco renderings and more brickwork is left exposed on the exteriors. The buildings using high quality exterior bricks and are coursed much more carefully. Most windows use extruded aluminum frames in various colors. This type of window and storefront assembly sees to be the de-facto standard throughout the country.

Still, there are certain architectural games the building designers seem to play on the facades of these buildings which do not always look correct, especially to my western-trained eyes, and much of the aesthetic is taken from the language of 1980's Postmodernism. For example, the entrance facade of a bank uses a multi-wythe masonry vault to mark the doorway. This vault is contained within an all-glass facade. Another building has engaged columns at the street level but the columns are not complete: the shafts have been replaced with sheets of glass. These are unusual architectural compositions.

Walking out of the reconstructed area, I found a church school with a relatively recent addition. I would guess that the original building was completed around 1900-1910. It's masonry construction and building overall building style is very similar to the other railway buildings and small homes built to the west in Pomerania. The addition had certainly been built within the last 10 years. It is colorful, has a pitched roof, brick masonry detailing at window and door openings and it does not use an abstract regulating module or pattern for the facade designs. It is definitely a post-communist era building.

Judging by the overall form and placement of the addition, it is a fairly successful design. Both parts of the building are able to co-exist without one totally overpowering the other. But the most interesting lesson the building offered to me is in the details. The original building is incredibly intimate in its masonry. These assemblies are not complex or difficult to understand and they give a sense of scale to the mass of the building.

The addition's larger forms imitate those of the earlier building but it fails at the small details. This is where the new addition can not compete with the beauty of the original. The size of the masonry units and mortar joints are different. The units are simple rectangular shapes and do not use a subtle variety of profiles. The coursing patterns are basic stacked bond or soldier courses. It is in these details that the addition gives itself away as an imitator. The various surrounds of the doors and windows are simple enclosures and are not designed or detailed at a level of intimacy or fine scale which approaches the older structure. To be certain, there has been an effort to integrate. But whether because of available materials, appropriately trained labor, economics, speed or a multitude of other reasons (many outside the realm of architecture) the brick surrounds are not completely satisfying.

Just up the road from the school building addition are two other churches. One is a small gothic church of brick masonry, St Mary's Church (Kosciól NMP). The other is a fantastic modern building, probably constructed in the late 1970s or early 1980s. Both are noteworthy architecture but for very different reasons. At the St Mary's Church, every element builds upon another as the structure reaches higher and higher towards the massive tower. At the modern church, standing seam metal roofs undulate across the building, topping out at a peak above the main gathering space. It reminded me of the comment Witold Karwowski made regarding communist era architecture: the only opportunities that allowed for true expression and design were churches. How right he is.

After only a short time in Elblag, it was time to return to the train station and travel to Malbork. If I did not make this train, I would have to wait until much later in the evening. Along the way to the station, I passed numerous concrete housing blocks. They sat on the landscape in a checkerboard pattern, each one built identically to its neighbor. The only element to differentiate one unit from the next was the color of the paint.

I arrived in Malbork with about 1 1/2 hours of sunlight remaining in the day. I walked to the hotel (one of the more luxurious accommodations I would experience), pulled out my camera bag and began to walk the perimeter of the castle. I found a pedestrian bridge leading across the river. The sun was dropping quickly and I sped up my pace. When I turned around to look back, the sun was shining over my right shoulder and illuminated the entire western facade of the main castle and its extensive walls. Everything was red: the sunlight, the bricks, the tiles on the roof. Dark thunderclouds rolled across the black and blue sky above. The dark water of the Nogat River sped by below. The image was like no place I had ever seen before.

I walked back across the bridge and continued along the perimeter of the remaining defensive walls. One area of a southern wall is partially buried by an earthen berm, allowing a climb up to the ramparts. After I climbed it, I could look down into the grounds between the rings of defensive walls and also see the main hall of the facility. I made a few more photographs as the sunlight passed through the intermittent clouds. This is a truly impressive site.

Walking away from the castle, I found a collection of several post-war housing blocks. All the buildings are designed in exactly the same manner: a central entryway and staircase is flanked on either side by standardized apartment units. Each unit used the exact same window units and balconies, always in the same position. All of the buildings rose to a height of 4 stories. But at the central staircase for each building, some small design variations are used to identify the buildings from one another. This occurs in the pattern of the glass block coursing. There were several different patterns using various stacked bonds, offset bonds, checkerboards, X-patterns, clear units or solid units. This is the one area the designers (or maybe even the on-site builders) were able to have some fun. They were able to make patterns.

It made me think about what I had seen earlier in the day at Elblag and I started to develop a hypothesis to understand the design of the various reconstructions I traveled to view. Throughout the post-war era, architects were trained to use a selection of key construction methods. Concrete framing and slabs with hollow clay tile infill or modular concrete infill panels are the most common techniques, whether for industrial standards, availability of materials, economics or knowledge of the trained labor force. No other method of construction or detailing is known as well. During the decades of post-war design, building types were fairly standardized. Only fenestration or other simple surface pattern was available as a design method to individualize and distinguish buildings. This technique is now applied to contemporary reconstruction, but in an effort to imitate historic forms.


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