Late last month some friends and I took a trip to the north Polish city of Gdansk. Why Gdansk? I have no idea, and neither do my friends; the idea presented itself and we all somehow agreed to it. The tourist in me—reacting to this uncertainty—wanted to wikipedia it and make a list of “notable sites”. Fortunately, I once had a wiry tutor, who on a weekly basis jammed my year into a dark stuffy room and bombarded us with endless slides of Situantionist imagery. It was a nonstop stream of psychogeographic agitprop, with a bit of Peter Zumthor thrown in for light relief. It worked well—I decided to stay naive, get lost and become increasingly more inebriated as each day wore on.
Quick note: the below sketches were all done from memory, so they may be liable to distortions and copyright infringements.
Getting off the plane, my first impression of Poland was how expansive and wide it was. This could be down to Ryan Air’s less than generous seating arrangements, but the place felt huge—like a grey sky Sergio Leone film on super widescreen. The trip from the airport was interesting, with particular attention being paid towards the innumerable amount of contemporary church spires, protruding from the trees. I could never see the actual church, just the various elaborately expressed crosses, echoing Robert Venturi’s description of Las Vegas casino signs. It is a hyperbolic style of architecture, perhaps the inevitable result of competing congregations, riffing on a single symbol.
Our hostel was based within the historic/tourist centre of Gdansk, which consists of large steroidal townhouses, lavishly decorated in an exhaustible array of ornamental detail. One building was souped up with cartoon serfs reenacting the last super; another was draped in multi-coloured criss-crosses, and my personal favourite appeared to have been fitted with a retro x-mass jumper.
As informed by a large poster pinned to the walls of a gate-house, Gdansk was bombed very heavily during the World War II, leaving a scattering of historic buildings lining the outskirts of the historic centre. Contemporary neighbours surround some of the relics, while others sat isolated in small parks.
The below building is a Trojan horse; a sly piece of commercial retailing that lulls your senses. It initialled appeared to be a historic mill capped with a quirky roof, but once inside we discovered that it had been completely gutted, and intravenously injected with cheap shops. The windows wore boarded over with adverts, and the whole place was artificially lit—it was like finding a bottle cap in an oyster shell.
In the non-historic centre of Gdansk resides a large perplexing tower, whose purpose and function remains—at least to myself—completely indiscernible. Its true name is unbeknownst to me, so I will christen it the Lotos Tower, after the large advert/logo stuck on its roof. The Lotos tower is stranded in the middle of a traffic island, and is decked in a checkerboard of green and grey windows, far too small for either residential or commercial purposes. On top, it is crowned by the Lotos logo, which almost hides a bed of metallic antennae, poking out like porcupine needles. With apologies to the local tourist board, I found this to be Gdansk’s most omnipresent and intriguing building, a large totem for conjuring up Ballardian fantasies.
Further up from the Lotos Tower, was the old shipbuilding yard that begat the Polish Solidarity movement, catalyzing the collapse of the Soviet Union. This therefore makes Gdansk one of the epochal places of 21st century Europe—and makes my ignorance of it very embarrassing. Objects of note included a large museum currently under-construction, a giant brawny memorial to the famous movement, and what looked like a Solidarity themed theme park. Curiously enough, there is a downsized Disney version of Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International situated within the park. Another pastiche of cartoon constructivism can be found in the London Olympic park—the ArcelorMittal Orbit.
Once again we had arrived at another random, seemingly origin-less decision—to go kayaking around the cities waterway. This was an excellent idea as it allowed us to leisurely observe everything that I found intriguing about Gdansk.
The first memorable observation was of the various contemporary redevelopment schemes being erected along the river. In Britain this usually means large-scale pseudomodernist banality; the most common feature being large plastic mosaics stuck on top of breezeblocks. Here the quality is a lot better—while not being particularly spectacular—serving up some fairly decent architectural units.
Further along the river we saw what the redevelopment schemes were replacing—large, brick clad industrial warehouses. One of the biggest of these derelict sites is located directly opposite the main historic waterfront, juxtaposed against the tourist-orientated facilities. Toyoto had managed to beat the graffiti artists, by commandeering a sizeable chunk of the building with a giant uncongenial advertisement.
Facing the derelict site was one of Gdansk’s most famous historic attractions—a muscular, medieval timber crane called the Zuraw. It’s a great piece of steam-punk architecture, featuring two huge wooden wheels—that I can only hope were operated by men running around like hamsters—to hoist up various maritime goods. When viewed from the river, it amusingly takes on the appearance of a small wooden rocket, as designed by Heath Robinson.
After paddling past other derelict sites, waving at tourists being floated along in a giant plastic pirate ship, we arrived at a large estuary filled with sinewy shipbuilding yards. All of sudden everything got bigger. The wind got harsher; the waves became brasher, and the ships made our already small kayaks look like Lilliputian rice granules. For someone who grew up in a bucolic, post-industrial Britain, these mammoth cranes arched over the hulls of their skeleton ships, are mesmerising—maybe even heroic, in their unabashed industriousness.
Leaving behind the clanking of the shipyards, we entered a stretch of water that according to the displays in the Zuraw, forms the cities early medieval defence system. These consist of a series of watery zigzags that curve round the northern side of the city, which we then dutifully meandered around. At the base of this Lisa Simpson hairdo of a defence system, were two crumbling ball-capped cylinders hinting at the origins of this now idyllic waterway.
Before disembarking from our giant plastic seeds, we passed a couple of radiant-tower blocks peeking above the tree lines of the hinterland. Their lightly coloured facades gave the impression that they had been hewn out of giant pastels, and then approvingly stamped with large san-serif numbers.
Another memorable event was the ascent and view from spire/tower of Gdansk’s the most prominent cathedral—whose name, unfortunately, was washed away by cheap alcohol. First, you ascend through a tiny, banister-less stairway, where I had not-so-divine visions of slipping and flattening half the group, like a giant human bowling ball. Then you arrive at the second stage of the ascent, a dark vertigo-inducing piece of Piranesian architecture. At this point I was paying the price for staying too long at the Café Absinthe during the previous night, and the spiralling concrete stairs—somehow supported by the ancient brick walls—did not help my condition.
After ambling up another flight of curvaceous stairs, we arrived at the pinnacle, where I could survey nearly all the previously mentioned sites. Everything from the all-pervasive Lotos Tower, to the colossal shipyards leaning above the rows of townhouses, framed by a jumble of pastel coloured tower blocks. This was to be my lasting impression of Gdansk: a complex, rich city filled with historical vicissitudes, and unexpected beauty.
After this epithany, I spent the next 5 minutes clinging to walls of the stairwell, trying hard not to slip and flatten my friends.