Saturday 16 June 2018

Gdynia's Modernist Pearl - The BGK Building

Gdynia is an attractive city in northern Poland, on the Baltic coast. In 1870, just 2,500 people lived in the then small fishing village, but following the First World War and the free city status of neighbouring Gdansk, the Polish Government decided to develop Gdynia into a major, modern port city. Serious development began in 1928 and was so rapid that by 1939 over 120,000 people were living there. This necessitated a massive construction programme to house, serve and administer the city . Many of the new buildings were designed in the modernist style.

The apartment building of the Pension Fund of the Bank of National Economics (BGK) at 3 Maja, 27-31 (3rd of May Street) is perhaps the most iconic of these architectural treasures and is sometimes referred to as the pearl of modernism. Constructed in two phases, the first of which was completed in 1936 and the second in 1939, it is the tallest and largest residential building of pre-war Gdynia. The second phase was not quite complete when the Second World War commenced and the work was finished by the German occupiers who seized not only this apartment block but the whole of Gdynia, expelling all Poles from the city.

The tower and the older wing
The BGK dominates its corner position with the older wing rising to eight floors. The two upper levels are recessed adding interest to the design but it is the narrow tower that rises a floor further that most appeals to me. It suggests the nautical theme so typical of modernist architecture and so appropriate to a port city. The ground floor includes Cafe Cygernia which has beautiful curved windows and serves two kinds of cheesecake (I had both and slightly preferred the honey and cinnamon over the raisin!). The younger section is a longer structure, but with fewer levels defined by thick bands between the glazing. The rear of the building is almost as interesting as the facade and has a series of small balconies and thermometers or glazed stairwells. Still in the courtyard there is a series of two storey structures that may have been used as garages for the most important residents as well as housing their chauffeurs. Gdynia saw fighting between the Russians and the German occupiers at the end of the Second World War and bullet holes from the battle can still be seen in the walls at the rear.

Cafe Cyganeria
Rear courtyard balconies and glazed stairwells
The Bank commissioned architect Stanislaw Ziolowski to design the building. He was also to live there for a time at flat number seven. He did not survive the war, dying in Kharkov in 1940, but his brother Zygmunt, also an architect and a resident returned after 1945. The apartments were originally intended to house Gdynia's elite, including high ranking bank officials, lawyers and other wealthy and accomplished people. Ziolowski's designs spared no expense and included the finest materials, new technology and every modern convenience. Extensive use was made of high quality imported marble for the staircases and window sills,  coloured and patterned mosaics in the external lobby and copper detailing for  stylised detailing on the internal doors. Other modern facilities included a lift and a cyclops fitted to the door of every apartment. The cyclops was a small peephole  enabling those inside to see who was at the door without being seen themselves and to decide whether or not to be at home. The apartments were also very large, some in excess of 200 square metres with two bathrooms, several bedrooms, kitchen, salon and large hall.

Staircase - looking up
Staircase - looking down
Many luxury apartment blocks of the period offered residents 24 hour access to the services of a concierge and the  BGK was no exception. Less common was the provision of an underground car park whilst the worsening situation in Europe no doubt encouraged Ziolowski's inclusion of a basement bomb shelter. The shelter had a contraption for pumping in fresh air should the space need to be occupied. It still works today and was demonstrated to me when I visited.

The apartments in the older wing are larger and more luxurious than those in the still stylish second block and were built with living accommodation for servants. Additional spaces outside of the apartments were provided to enable these domestic workers to wash, dry and press the laundry of their employers. The technology available to the servants included a huge industrial style press of the kind used in a commercial laundry.

External lobby mosaics 
Residents name plat and cyclops on apartment door
Items from the Mini Museum
Much of the history of the building is preserved in a small museum housed in the former bomb shelter and lovingly curated and cared for by long time resident Maria Piradoff-Link. I was privileged to meet her during my stay in Gdynia. She very kindly showed me not only the museum but also the common areas of the building, pointing out the many remaining original features. What is now known as there Mini Muzeum began as a small collection of domestic items but now consists of many objects grouped under themes such as the living room, kitchen and bathroom. She explained that she had rescued many of the items from "rubbish" disposed of when apartments had been renovated. However now awareness of the museum has spread and regular donations arrive. The museum has recently won an award for an educational project related to cultural heritage whilst the national newspaper, Gzaeta Wyborcza featured Maria in a special series on influential Polish women in the 21st century.

Maria Piradoff-Link
It is not difficult to understand why the BGK has such iconic status. Not only does it have a  striking exterior and exquisite internal features it also has a fascinating, albeit at times dark history reflecting Poland's changing fortunes over eight decades. Its star is once again in the ascendancy as Gdynia's impressive built heritage becomes more widely known.

I must thank Witold Okun of the Agencia Rozwoju Gdyni for arranging a wonderful day of visiting many modernist buildings in the city including the BGK. Thanks also to Maria Piradoff-Link for hosting my visit and showing me the museum collection.

Useful links
Gdynia Modernism Facebook Page
Mini Museum Bankowiec (Facebook page of the small museum)
Gdynia Modernism Route 

Look out for another, more general post on Gdynia's modernism coming soon! 

1 comment:

  1. Great photos.

    As much as modernist architecture was functional and substantial, it probably didn't matter that it was missing softening, decorative elements. The Pension Fund of the Bank of National Economics building was very smart recessing the two upper levels, designing the narrow tower and adding the series of small balconies (I would have added more balconies, actually). Otherwise it might have been a bit too functional.