“Symbol of the 2nd Republic”, “great achievement of Polish modernism” and “monument to history” are just some of the descriptions used in Gdynia which appear in the context of recent activities safeguarding the city’s modernist architecture and urbanism. The modernist layout of the city centre was entered in the register of historical monuments in 2007. The decision was validated in 2015 by the Ordinance of the President of Poland, declaring Gdynia’s city centre a historical monument. Gdynia – “traditionally modern”, according to the city’s promotional motto – is an unusual, young monument to history. The local cultural heritage is protected despite being less than a century old. This special heritage of Gdynia is underpinned by a delight in modernity, going back to the city’s earliest days. The port erected on the Baltic, the sea reclaimed by Poland after the First World War, was to be the most modern ever, as was the city built alongside it as a strategic economic investment of interwar Poland. It’s no wonder that young architects who flocked to the city from Warsaw and further afield focused on modernism, since it was the perfect representation of everything that was new. Modernism was rooted in a powerful need for a social mission and a sense of social justice. The aim was to provide all residents with good living conditions and equal access to light, views and air. The fascination with technology and its scope resulted in the introduction of functionality and rationality of projects under development. The aim was always for form to follow function and never the other way round. The designers strove for simplicity. Concepts such as “less is more” and “ornament is crime” reformulated the modernist aesthetic and shifted the way of thinking about detailing. Diverting attention from ornamentation to objects laid the foundations of contemporary industrial design. Without a shadow of a doubt the modern thinking which brought significant changes almost a century ago continues to make a major impact on the present-day reality.
Gdynia is a child of these changes, this modernity. When we think about the city, instead of immobilising it as a bronze statue, we should see it as an “open work” whose key principle of development – as described accurately by Andrzej Szczerski – is not as much about endurance as it is about “constant and dynamic change.” Openness, including that of the representative district to the sea, also formed a part of the original urban designs. As stressed by Maria Jolanta Sołtysik’s research, this was largely due to the symbolism of Maritime Poland assigned to the young city.22 Although not all plans could be implemented, the concept of openness remained current, and the development of the young city was similarly dynamic and diverse. The rate of change was so rapid it was impossible for contemporary observers to meaningfully sum up the architectural efforts. Gdynia was frequently discussed by journals such as “Dom, Osiedle, Mieszkanie” and “Architektura i Budownictwo” [“Architecture and Construction” – trans.]. They featured postulates for the brand-new city to become a “monument to the entrepreneurship and culture of a great nation.” Meanwhile, the harsh reality and the rapidly growing numer of inhabitants kept bringing problems with accommodation and increasing numbers of impoverished districts. Gdynia was being compared to a dressmaking fitting or a nebula – something which is only starting to gain shape while emerging from chaos. And this clearly meant there were as many risks of bad decisions as opportunities provided by the right choices.
For residents and visitors of the day, Gdynia must have seemed like an equivalent of the American Dream. In a letter to Jerzy Stempowski, Maria Dąbrowska likened Gdynia to Klondike:
“Nothing can compare to the astonishment of seeing Gdynia after five years. Surely such a transformation can only happen on the boundaries of California. (…) The alleyway I walked along eight years ago, treading on sand among rows of thatched cottages, is no more – it has been replaced by a broad avenue filled with banks, hotels and tenement houses, surrounded by an entire city of today or tomorrow, a space for all kinds of experiments, giant blocks of cubist buildings (…) And there is a vast wind howling above it all.”
And the fact is that before the outbreak of the Second World War, in just thirteen years since Gdynia was granted city rights, the city centre was filled with contemporary public buildings such as the District Court at 5 Konstytucji Square and the Social Insurance Institution at 24 10 Lutego Street, private tenement houses at Świętojańska Street, and the luxury residential home of the Bank Gospodarstwa Krajowego Retirement Fund at 27/31 3 Maja Street. However, while Klondike became a ghost city after the gold rush had passed, Gdynia is as dynamic as energetic as ever and the modernist traditions are an indelible part of its identity.