26 April 2017
Interview with Director Jacek Friedrich of the Gdynia City Museum, part 1
Alan Lockwood: Let's begin with Gydnia. What are comparisons you suggest in operating your museum, to help visitors "wrap their heads” around Gdynia, which went from fishing village to the premier port city in interwar Poland, both rapidly and by concerted design. For non Poles, Brasilia and Washington, DC, could come to mind – yet both of those cities were newly built as governmental relocations, situated within their respective nations in view of political interests. Gdynia, though, was a very different project, opening up trade and passenger travel for newly independent Poland.
Jacek Friedrich: I think of Tel Aviv. That is for us much closer than Brasilia or Washington, DC. Because there was a new state [in Israel], as with Poland, and there is a harbor – the window to the world for both nations. For both nations, it was really a big issue to build something modern – very important for the national pride of both nations.
AL.: And for national ambitions.
JF: Exactly. As I mentioned, both towns are strictly modern, in their architecture, in infrastructure, and so on. So for us, Tel Aviv is probably the most similar example.
I have to add that for 2019, we have a plan with the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews and with Israeli partners to organize an exhibition about Gdynia and Tel Aviv. Which I hope will show the public how similiar the two projects were.
AL: In that this exhibition will follow activities in 2018, when there will be so much international Polish presence related to the centenary of independence in 1918, your timing seems remarkable. Follow up on the international exposure that centenary commemorations will bring Poland, with such a valid comparative project a year later.
JF: The project is still in early planning stages, but we're already after the official correspondence with POLIN. Now we must arrange all the official bureaucratic work, and to proceed thinking about it and organizing it intellectually and meritorically.
I hope that this will be something very interesting. I have visited Tel Aviv two times. Of course, two places are never the same and there are differences between the towns. But the similiarities are striking, I must say.
AL: How do you assess those similarities, beyond the surface level of their modernist architectural styles?
JF: Even if you think about the topography of the towns, they are not only towns on the sea – very, very on the sea, not like Gdańsk or Szczezin, which are five or seven or fifteen kilometers-.
AL: In from the shoreline.
JF: Exactly. They’re both directly on the sea, but what’s interesting is that both Gdynia and Tel Aviv are hilly. So it really looks very similar, I have to say.
And architecturally, both towns are really modern. Of course, we have some pre-modernist buildings in our town, which is the same with Tel Aviv – buildings from the pre-modern era [laughs], which look very strange in both towns! But over 90 percent of both towns are strictly modern architecture. Which I think will be the basis for our architectural interests.
Concerning our goals and our thinking for our institution, we are very in to architecture: design and architecture. First of all, Gdynia is a very, very good example of modernist architecture in Polish conditions, and in the field of Polish architecture. The second thing, modern architecture and modern design are the sign of modernity, the visual sign of modernity. It is something that is linked and connected to modernity very, very strictly.
AL: Isn’t Gdynia among the prime examples of comprehensive modernist architecture, in the worldwide context?
JF: It’s not easy to say…
AL: Yet it’s easy to see.
Agata Adamowicz: There are better examples. But still, in our feeling-.
AL: Yet with Gdynia's development from ground up, with the degree of national commitment?
AA: Making it monumental.
AL: Which occurred while developing the harbor facilities, of course. But which resulted in this architectural display, in which architecture functions the way architecture always functions: to reveal an impression of power.
JF: The difference with Brasilia, which you mentioned before, and with Chandigarh [India], which is another great example as a completely new town, is that Gdynia was built – I mean the town, not the harbor – not by the government, but with private means, as business. Of course, we have some buildings including the railway station and the courts of law, and other official facilities. But mostly it was built by private interests.
AA: For the government, it was more important to buy the area for building the port.
AL: Their focus was on the shipping facilities?
AA: Yes. And, actually, they were a bit surprised when private investors bought the land around the port. Then it was too late to design a governmental [planned] city.
JF: During the interwar period, there was a clash between the government and private investors concerning grounds and property.
AL: The government's interests then would have included other major projects – the Central Industrial Region and other infrastructure projects?
AA: Yes – those were the same [governmental considerations].
JF: And the town was growing so quickly that they probably didn’t realize it was working like that. So they were not smart enough.
AA: As we know, it takes time to make decisions at the government level – to make decisions about whether they will give money to build the city or not. Meanwhile, private investors are just buying and building.
AL: The photographic evidence is right there, in your exhibition: from one season to the next, buildings were going up.
JF: It’s a very interesting architectural history, in terms of architectural giants or stars. We don’t have anything like that [in Gdynia]. We don’t have Le Corbusier or Mies van der Rohe, or Oscar Niemier as in Brasilia or Auguste Perret as in Le Havre. Of course, some architects who were active here in Gdynia during the interwar period are important from the Polish point of view. But these are not international stars. Probably that's why Gdynia is not so important in a universal history of modern architecture, which is focused on individuals, on international stars. I think that’s why it’s not so famous as it could be. Or even should be, because as a complex, it’s really unique.
AL: It’s interesting to learn of that the clash you've described, which was happening at the same time. Because the overall success of the project – the complex – is so evident. Which then wouldn't face the catastrophic damage that other Polish cities faced during the war years.
AA: Only 16 percent of the city suffered like that.
JF: Which is not so much compared to Warsaw, Gdańsk, Wrocław.
AL: I’d like to focus on other topics around the interwar period. You’ve both addressed the government’s investment priorities during that period. What was the priority level here for the government, as development of Gdynia got started?
JF: It’s a very complicated topic. I think that, at first, the Polish government had hoped just to operate in the port of Gdańsk [then Danzig].
AA: Which was a free city.
JF: It was a historical port, very important on the Baltic Sea. After the Versailles Treaty, it was decided to create the free town – with very important Polish rights there. One of those rights was to operate in the harbor, in the port. But the practical experience of Poles was not very good. Practically, Gdańsk was German, in ethnic categories, and they were not happy to be a free town separated from Germany.
And politically it was very hard to cooperate in Gdańsk. I think that was the main impulse for the Polish government to build the civic harbor in Gdynia. It had decided to build the center for the Polish navy here in Gdynia, because the free town was demilitarized. It was impossible for either nation to have navies there. The decision to build the navy harbor was in 1920, as far as I can remember.
AA: First, the temporary harbor for fishermen had been created. But that was obvious: if we have the sea, we have to have a harbor for fishermen. And it was easiest, as a temporary harbor. Then came the navy one.
AL: Is that the familiar photo of the first big pier, jutting out off the shore?
AA: The wooden pier, yes, which was for fishermen. Then they started building the harbor for the navy.
AL: Was the navy harbor when excavations and dredging began, back inland from the shoreline?
AA: No, it was in Oksywie, north of that part of the harbor. There is an academy there for the navy. It’s just seven kilometers away, across the canal.
In our main exhibition, there's a large-screen animation near the beginning of the exhibition, the third or fourth "dock” [alcove], is about the harbor. Because it’s really complicated, and very detailed. Over twelve years everything changes. They began to build a harbor for trade, but there was a political and economic kick for our harbor, because of a dockers' strike.
JF: Britain's dockers.
AA: And Scandinavia needed to buy coal.
JF: Because of Swedish steel [industry].
AA: They decided to import coal from Poland. From Silesia, the railroad was built.
AL: From south to north, with this ready market because of the strike in the UK.
AA: That’s why they built this big basin, and why the port is this big.
AL: They recognized the opportunity for a rapid return on those substantial investments.
JF: Sweden needed big quantities of coal for the steel industry – which needs coal, of course. So this connection between Upper Silesia and Gdynia is basic. That’s the basis for the history of the harbor in Gdynia.
One of my ideas after the exhibition about Gdynia and Tel Aviv is to hold an exhibition about Gdynia and Katowice [capital of Upper Silesia, Poland's important mining district].
AL: In terms of what you’re doing with your institution and what's developing with the Silesian Museum in its new headquarters [see interview with Director Alicja Knast, here and here], renovated into the former Katowice Mine spaces – there seems a great potential there.
AA: The [modernist] architecture is another link. And I like Katowice a lot.
JF: Me, too. Let me mention something of an anecdote. Before the war, in the Free City of Gdańsk, some 5 to 7 percent of the population was Polish, with the Jozef Piłsudski Middle School, and they decorated the main school auditorium with frescos. On the ceiling was a big allegory of the Polish sky, really very fine in artistic terms. On the walls were two cycles of views of Polish towns.
One of those started with Kraków and showed historic towns on the Vistula River to Gdańsk. The other was another cycle of Polish towns, which started with Katowice and ended with Gdynia. The one side was titled "By the Vistula River to Gdańsk," the other was "By the Railway to Gdynia" – historical and modern Poland, on either side in this Polish school in Gdańsk. Which to me is fantastic, as a symbol of those two legs of Polish identity.
AL: Do these still exist at the school?
JF: The ceiling was destroyed, because of course the theme was politically incorrect after the war started, so we know the Germans destroyed it. As far as the views of the towns is concerned, we don't know. It's possible.
AA: It was covered over. It may be that it's preserved.
JF: This weekend, I have to create an expert opinion on this, because now ownership of the building has changed, and they want to make some decisions and new arrangements and renovations. They will probably be checking under the walls.
AL: This recalls the situation in Lublin with its exquisite 14th-century castle chapel – with remarkable fresco renovations to uncover them, with astonishing results.
JF: Of course, we know the photographs, which are really, really intriguing. But to have the originals would be a completely different story. The conservators of monuments and paintings are ready, waiting for the sign to start their research. So maybe in a year or more we'll see.
AL: A graphic presentation of these important axes.
JF: Exactly – it's great as a symbol.
AL: Ms. Abramowicz, you'd mentioned the immense size of the port facilities in the context of Sweden's need for coal in the 1920s. I had a question about the initial scale of development [of Gdynia]: what was intended, and what was realized in the interwar period?
AA: It's hard to say in numbers – perhaps it's most clearly seen in the exhibition's graphic presentation.
JF: One thing I have to add: we are both not historians, but art historians. So for us, the architectural aspects of the town is more–.
AA: And also the urban planning. For example, before this 1926 "kick" for our harbor, the harbor was planned to be smaller. As you know, it ends here on the city map, at the main pier. Before 1926, it ended to the north and the city area was bigger. Later, they knew they had to make the harbor bigger, because of the need for the basin to take the ships, load the coal and so on.
So they decided to change the plans that had been designed for the city, and the harbor began eating into the area for the city. So the city center now – let's say the center, or maybe the axis – is from the main station to the main pier. That's the spine – but it should have been more to the north. [Sketches] If you look, this is the axis, this is the main pier – but the main station is here. It's not the axis; the axis should be here. Here is the city hospital–.
JF: And the law courts. The market hall.
AA: Do you know the old street with rocks, not asphalt pavement?
AA: We have this here [sketches], the oldest street in the city – and it should be the axis of the city. Now we have the hospital and nothing, you might say – it's not a very interesting part of the city now. But it should have been the axis. Here is the square where fishermen in old Gdynia were drying their nets and so on, so it had been the center of the village. And was planned to be the center of the city, but then they had to build the port bigger and bigger.
JF: A kind of a paradox is that now, after almost a hundred years, there is a possibility to recreate or go back to this initial idea. Because this part of the old harbor will be changed into the new city center.
AA: The fishing industry is collapsing so we have these postindustrial areas. They've decided to build new housing, hotels, apartments and so on.
JF: So it may be possible to recreate–.
AA: Regain [laughs].
JF: –this primary idea.
AL: This is the area where the Sea Towers skyscraper complex stands now, and the new bank buildings?