If you don’t mind going off the beaten track while exploring the city, you are going to love this tour of Wrocław’s modernist gems and your memories of the city will take on a completely different dimension!
Since every journey has its aim, let me explain. I am taking you on a trip in a time machine! This is because modernist architecture in Wrocław spans decades – some buildings date back to the early 20th century, others to the Interwar period and the city of Breslau, while the most recent constructions with incredibly interesting shapes were go back to the 1970s. Seeing them all, however, requires going beyond Old Town, which is why – with a cup of PURO coffee in my hand – I am heading in the direction of Zalesie and Sępolno. To go there, take a taxi (a fast option) or a tram no. 4 from Rynek (a stop within a walking distance from PURO) and reach the destination in 15 minutes.
Let’s start with a bang! Centennial Hall (1) is one of the most recognizable buildings in the city – a physical manifestation of the power of technology in the 20th century. Named a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, the Hall – together with the adjacent Four Domes Pavilion (2) and the pergola (3) – was created for the purpose of Centennial Exhibition that took place in 1913 to commemorate a centenary of the liberation of Prussia from Napoleonic occupation as well as present the history and economic potential of Silesia. Designed by Max Berg, Centennial Hall was a visionary project completed in only two years, with its appearance believed to have marked the beginning of the concrete era in architecture on Polish territories. The hall is of the Greek Cross form and, like churches, has its main entrance facing the west. Its unique asceticism pays homage to the principle of functionalism. Crowned with a breathtaking dome – resting on four pillars and boasting six hundred windows – the hall has not ceased to amaze with its lightness.
Despite its location away from the center, Centennial Hall attracts crowds thanks to events that are organized here all year long as well as the closeness of such worth-visiting sites as Szczytnicki Park – one of the largest parks in the city – a branch of the National Museum located in the Four Domes Pavilion, and a zoological garden (4) dating back to the mid-19th century with the modern Africarium. As you can see, you can spend a whole day in the neighborhood enjoying a range of activities that suit your tastes.
An element that joins Centennial Hall with its natural surrounding is a semi-elliptical pergola crowning a faux pond (created in 1913) where a multimedia fountain was installed a few years back. The fountain shows are held on a regular basis from spring to autumn according to the schedule.
When it comes to Szczytnicki Park, its area covers 100 hectares of English gardens with multiple hidden gems. The park dates back to 1783, but it has changed considerably since then as a result of wars and floods. What hasn’t changed, however, is the fact that residents of Wrocław continue to hold the park dear to their hearts. Also, the park is the fourth European city park with the richest and most diverse tree stand. Among embankments and alleys lined with hundred-years-old trees, you will find a small wooden church from the turn of the 17th century brought to Centennial Exhibition from the city of Kędzierzyn-Koźle and a Japanese Garden – made for the same occasion – worth visiting in spring when everything is layered with flower buds.
If you’re interested in art, you should definitely visit the Four Domes Pavilion (designed by Hans Poelizg, completed in 1912) where the Museum of Contemporary Art has been operating since 2016. Its collection includes work of such eminent artists as Magdalena Abakanowicz, Paweł Althamer, Władysław Hasior, Tadeusz Kantor, Katarzyna Kozyra, Jan Lebenstein, Jerzy Nowosielski or Alina Szapocznikow. The east wing features a permanent exhibition on Polish art from mid-20th century onwards, while in the west wing you can see temporary exhibitions that change according to the schedule available on the museum website. Come to the museum on the weekend an hour before the closing to take part in a multimedia performance “Zobacz, usłysz, dotknij” | “See, hear, touch” and remember that the Pavilion is closed on Mondays.
Interestingly, Szczytnicki Park is surrounded by quite a few private possessions with beautiful buildings designed in the modernist fashion. One of the most unique examples is the WuWa (5) complex (the shortcut comes from German “Wohnungs- und Werkraumausstellung” meaning “Workplace and House Exhibition”) built in 1929 – one of the six model European housing projects designed by avant-garde architects in the 1920s, the purpose of which was to meet the needs of dynamically developing cities and respond to changing social structures. Wrocław’s WuWa is a treasure in that it is the only estate to have been preserved in an unchanged form and is currently managed by a curator of architecture. It can be divided into two parts, one with multi-dwelling units and the other with detached and semi-detached houses of different sizes and shapes – from simple and inexpensive designs to architecturally impressive forms. Back in the day, apartments came with custom-made, functional furniture and fully-designed neighboring areas with private gardens, recreational venues, and a kindergarten. Except for one house, the entire estate was connected to the gas supply – which means there are no fuming chimneys. Inspired by Le Corbusier’s ideas, architects prioritized spaciousness, light, and greenery. If you’d like to read more on the history and current state of WuWa, take a look at an e-book published by Wrocławska Rewitalizacja (in Polish).
If discovering cafés and restaurants appeals to you as much as modernist architecture, you are more than likely to enjoy a cup of coffee in a place located in WuWa. WuWa Café (6) opened last year in what used to be a tram stop waiting room and has been serving coffee from the local roastery Figa Cafe as well as homemade cakes. But if you’d rather have both sweet and savory options to choose from, go to Petit Fours (7) where you can try dishes with eggs, bagels, hummus with extras, or warm sandwiches, and then enjoy a sweet macaroon, puff, or a piece of cake. On the other side of Szczytnicki Park you will find a place worth visiting on a separate occasion, but also perfect to finish your day with Wrocław’s modernist legacy. I am talking about Grape Restaurant (8) whose chef, Mateusz Rosiak, prepares beautiful dishes with meticulous attention to detail – seeking inspiration in seasonal products and culinary past – and (fortunately!) takes modern culinary techniques with a grain of salt. As its name suggests, Grape takes wine seriously, which is why it’s definitely worth trying some of their pairings, for example lamb rump with pumpkin puree, stewed kale and carrot with mustard sauce and a glass of Chilean Syrah. You can also order a tasting menu or enjoy lunch at a special price during the day.
While Centennial Hall represents Wrocław’s early modernist legacy, its post-WWII symbol – Manhattan (9) – was raised in 1974. A housing complex is located close to Plac Grunwaldzki and you can see it on your way to or from the Hall. Designed by Jadwiga Grabowska-Hawrylak – a distinguished representative of modernism in Polish architecture – the complex consists of six sixteen-floor apartment buildings and three commercial pavilions along a pedestrian esplanade, with garages and storage rooms hidden under in an ingenious fashion. Misunderstood and deplored by some – those remembering the construction process refer to the buildings as bunkers while younger generations associate semi-elliptical shapes with lavatories – Manhattan is also loved by many. A subject of numerous publications, the complex was recently promoted as part of “Patchwork. The Architecture of Jadwiga Grabowska-Hawrylak”, an exhibition hosted by Center for Architecture in New York, and appeared in many films, including Netflix’s “1983”.
"Manhattan", photo: Chris Niedenthal / press materials
WuWa, photo: Agnieszka Szydziak
To feel the spirit of this futuristic architecture among historical tenement houses go to W Kontakcie (10), a joint with the best hummus in this part of the world, have a sip of coffee in Kawalerka (11), revel in delicious shrimp tempura from Shrimp House (12), or enjoy a street food classic at Wartburger (13). Whichever place you choose, enjoy the view of Manhattan after renovation (completed in 2016) and think about Grabowska-Hawrylak’s original, visionary idea, according to which walls made of white concrete with a hint of marble were to contrast with wooden windows and terrace walls covered with plants; grass was to grow on roofs, and shared spaces were to be arranged on top floors for inhabitants to enjoy. Unfortunately, the reality of the Communist era was quite different, the architect’s vision was nipped in the bud, and a poorer version of the original was constructed.
The richness and diversity of modernist architecture proves that Wrocław loves concrete, functional forms, and unadorned, monumental constructions. Isn’t it wonderful that we can still look at and admire the city’s legacy? I hope you have finished our walk awe-struck!
1. Centennial Hall | Hala Stulecia, Wystawowa 1
2. Four Domes Pavilion & the National Museum | Pawilon Czterech Kopuł z Muzeum Narodowym we Wrocławiu, Wystawowa 1
3. Pergola, Szczytnicki Park
4. Zoological Garden, Wróblewskiego 1-5
5. WuWa, located between Wróblewskiego, Tramwajowa, Dembowskiego, Zielonego Dębu and Kopernika
6. WuWa Cafe and WuWa info point, Tramwajowa 2
7. Petit Four, ul. Sienkiewicza 30d
8. Grape Restaurant, Parkowa 8
9. Manhattan, Plac Grunwaldzki | Grunwaldzki Square
10. W Kontakcie, ul. Benedykta Polaka 12/1b
11. Kawalerka, ul. Benedykta Polaka 12 /
12. Shrimp House, ul. Michała Wrocławczyka 37
13. Wartburger, ul. Benedykta Polaka 19
Text: Agnieszka Szydziak
Translation to English: Marcin Markowicz
Head photo: adam dronuje