Nowe Żerniki—The Housing Estate of European Capital of Culture Wroclaw 2016

Zbyszek Maćków

Curator of Architecture, ECoC 2016 

Zbigniew Maćków (1969), architect IARP. Founder and CCO at Maćków Pracownia Projektowa—established in 1995 in Wroclaw, currently employs over 60 architects and built over 30 significant buildings mainly in Wroclaw. Notable awards: “Life in architecture”—architectural prize, shortlisted in “Polityka Architectural Prize,” four times Grand Prix of “Beautiful Wroclaw,” four times finalist of World Architecture Festival, “Best Public Space” of Silesian Voivodship, two times Grand Prix DOFA, prize of the year SARP, Polish nomination and shortlisted for Mies van der Rohe Award, final ECOLA Award, Gold Medal Leonardo Award and over 40 prizes within architectural competitions. President of the local Chamber of Architects (2010–2018), visiting teacher at Wroclaw’s Polytechnic Faculty of Architecture, University of Wroclaw, Solvay Brussels School (1998–2008). Co-initiator of the Nowe Żerniki—new model real estate in Wroclaw (2011–), curator responsible for architecture at the ECoC Wroclaw 2016. Currently founding and leading “Gęsto”—architectural think tank and foundation dealing with new housing typologies and urban sprawl.

Since 1929, when the WuWa exhibition opened in the then Breslau, the realities of life have undergone a huge transformation. However, it has not been matched by equally great improvements in the standard of living. Today, 90 years later, a three-room flat with 48 m2 is again synonymous with luxury. It is a commodity just like a telephone or margarine, promoted by teams of marketing experts and sold by salespeople trained in deep-forest centres. It is a perfect match not to people’s real needs, but to their creditworthiness. Since price is a top priority, any area must be squeezed beyond optimisation, with tiny balconies, cramped stairwells, and a lonely wooden horse imitating the playground. Such pseudo-estates of pseudo-flats are nothing but night shelters. The notion of public space does not exist within such housing estates, while the notion of the city as an overarching value is gradually vanishing. However, these pseudo-estates shape today’s reality of Polish cities. Usually fenced off, in order to emphasise the nouveau-riche prestige and a false sense of security, they have become the hotbed of previously unknown pathological behaviours and social maladies. It was this product that became the point of reference for our actions.

Eight years ago, a group of over 40 architects from Wroclaw, aided by the municipal authorities, launched a project drawing on Werkbund’s exceptional tradition of experimentation and titled “Nowe Żerniki—The Housing Estate of European Capital of Culture Wroclaw 2016.” Known as “superoffice,” the team of architects, urban planners, and activists took upon the task of coming up with a master plan for the entire undertaking as well as the architectural concept for its future development. Although the adopted method of cyclical workshops seemed arduous and time-consuming, which was coupled with difficulties connected with working in such a large group, it led to the synergy effects and enabled the creative exchange of ideas. The workshops were accompanied by meetings with theorists specialising in related fields (sociology, urban planning, ecology, bioenergetics, transport, etc.) as well as with the inhabitants and investors, which was viewed as one of the elements of a genuine process of consultation and social participation. The local inhabitants who were invited to participate in the design process were very active at each stage of its implementation.

Figure 1. Nowe Żerniki, September 2019. photo: Maciej Lulko.

Bearing in mind the Werkbund imperative, we were determined to prove that it is possible to live better in the current socio-economic reality. To achieve this aim, we set up an organisational vehicle that involved architects, urban planners, municipal administration representatives, and decision-makers in order to come up with procedures for making such an ambitious and complicated project come true. Although they usually compete with each other, all the parties involved in the project agreed to abandon their particular interests in favour of a shared vision of a “good city.” The resulting housing estate, situated in a space with a complete set of public services and powered with sustainable technical infrastructure, would be based on the priority of pedestrian traffic. It would exploit new urban planning ideas, allowing for the construction of a culture centre as well as a local open-air market, catering to very dissimilar urban activities of young people and elderly citizens alike. It would come complete with a nursery, kindergarten, school, and a doctor’s surgery. Some buildings could be purchased from developers, others—rented out from the owners or from the Social Housing Association; there would even be a cohousing community—the first and so far the only one (!) in Poland. This accessible, safe and environmentally-friendly area would simply be a good place to live. In spite of the seemingly banal assumptions and huge numbers of flats being built, nobody has managed to build anything like that in Poland in the past decade or two.

Figure 2. Nowe Żerniki, September 2019. photo: Maciej Lulko.

Thus, instead of houses that look good in promotional materials, we wanted safe houses. Without fences or CCTV cameras, but with a well-thought over a sequence of intermediate spaces—from those fully private to semi-private, which are accessible to neighbours, semi-public and fully public. By providing a complete package of services available on the spot, we aimed to minimise the need to commute to other parts of the city. We also wanted to promote the idea of working from home or from places in its direct proximity. We are against ghettoes for the poor or for the rich, we are against gates and fences; what we wish to encourage is the maximum diversity of ages, social, professional, and other classes. We believe that this is the only kind of community capable of genuinely living in their own neighbourhood and improving it. The proposed solutions emphasise broadly understood issues connected with ecology and sustainable development. We insisted on implementing passive and low-budget solutions that minimise exploitation costs. Apart from enclosed structures, the plan includes public spaces, green areas as well as street furniture elements. The designs for public buildings were selected in competitions open to all architects.

Figure 3. Nowe Żerniki, September 2019. photo: Maciej Lulko.

The Nowe Żerniki housing estate is not supposed to be a monument. If we were to describe it in a nutshell, we would rather call it a testing ground, a workshop or a process. We are hoping neither to revolutionise housing nor to build an experimental estate of the future that would stun the world of architecture and reshape urban planning. We are aware that it is banks and their spreadsheets that still largely determine the purchase decision. We are not going to eliminate the currently crucial element of this decision—individual credit score, which has nothing to do with the real needs of people looking for a place to live. However, we do believe that we will succeed in raising social awareness (of the buyers and developers as well as designers and decision-makers). By offering a range of solutions, we would like to highlight their pros and cons, which will make the decision about which flat to choose more conscious and dependent on factors other than just the price. We do not want this housing estate to dazzle with its form or materials; we are deeply convinced that the stakes are much higher—creating a good space and a good model for building cities. The local community must be the subject while the local authorities must make the right decisions. We deliberately abandon icons of the past and we consider following them to be highly immoral. We reject such approaches. If we do not return to the tradition of experimenting today, in a few years’ time it will be us—the architects—who will be blamed for passivity and failure to address the growing housing problems. We will be blamed for not even trying while chasing lucrative contracts.

Figure 4. Nowe Żerniki, September 2019. photo: Maciej Lulko.

What does it have to do with beauty? We believe that the culture-shaping potential of architecture lies in responding to questions posed by the present day and anticipating those of the future. Meanwhile, beauty is not just empty forms whose contents are added by opportunism—it is all that sometimes happens in between the buildings.

doi: 10.18278/aia.4.2.15