Katowice stands out from the rest of Poland as a city defined by great dynamism and constant need for change. The rhythm of its history is marked by bold visions put forward in defiance of previous achievements. Once every few decades, Katowice reinvents itself: the boundaries are moved, existing built-up areas are redeveloped, the inhabitants and their customs change. This constant flux determines the landscape of the city and its multi-faceted identity.
The exposition is devoid of the traditional historical narrative, which usually puts the focus on important historical figures, political events or wars. Instead, it uses diagrams, maps and data visualisations to illustrate the rapid transformations of Katowice. The city’s architecture plays an important role, showing the momentum and optimism of its creators, regardless of the period and political context. The studies presented by Medialab help tackle stereotypes and understand the current challenges facing Katowice, including the development of public spaces and quality of life in the city centre. In fact, the city’s history is just an excuse to consider the current status and future of Katowice.
In formal terms, the exhibition refers to the activities of the Isotype Institute and the universal visual language created in Vienna in the 1920s. Inspiration came particularly from a series of innovative museum exhibitions staged in Austria’s capital at that time, and also from Otto Neurath’s famed Modern Man in the Making (1939), a history book describing the story of mankind in an accessible way.
The exhibition is the result of a Medialab Katowice educational and research project which consisted of several lectures and workshops conducted under the guidance of experienced designers. The project included an interdisciplinary team, inter alia, cultural researchers, designers, architects and spatial planners. Their task was not to create a universal and objective story about the city’s history, but to look at Katowice from a new perspective through the use of tools for data processing and visualisation.
Katowice is perceived as an industrial city whose development cycle is determined by the boom and decline of heavy industry. The local steelworks and mines indeed generated wealth and attracted thousands of people to Katowice for long decades. However, a direct factor leading to the founding of the city was the rail, which came here by chance in the mid C19th, when Franz Winckler, owner of the village in the east of Prussia, convinced investors that the new line to connect Wrocław to the Russian border should run through his land. Many of the later unexpected turns in the history of Katowice were also a product of top-down policy decisions, rather than of any logical industrial development process. The shaky lot of the city is well demonstrated by the fact that its name changed five times in just a few decades.
Contemporary Katowice is an "agglomeration" of towns, settlements and villages which, as a result of the political decisions of the last hundred years, have fallen within one administrative area. Each of these areas had a different origin, impacting on its urban patterns. For a long time, these patterns were determined by agricultural activity and the distribution of farmland. Later, the decisive factor was the location and availability of mineral reserves as well as the process relationships and transport links within the local large-scale industrial conglomerates. An important factor for the city centre was the proximity to the railway station, which is why tenement houses and villas were tightly packed into clusters separated only by the streets. Although the buildings have survived, we are unable to see the logic of their origins or development.
Half of Katowice’s surface area is covered by green vegetation such as woods, parks, lawns, river valleys and former industrial wasteland undergoing rehabilitation. Not all residents, however, enjoy unrestricted pedestrian access to these areas due to their specific location, resulting from the history of local spatial development. The largest green complexes found themselves within Katowice’s city limits due to the incorporation of subsequent districts and rehabilitation of degraded land. The city centre, on the other hand, was provided with small lawns and green squares to complement the dense building systems. This situation affects the perception of contemporary Katowice city, so statistical and urban studies remain the only method to address the stereotypes of the "Black Silesia" and the "City of Gardens".
Periods of Katowice’s rapid growth have been inspired by enthusiastic visions or business interests of the city rulers. After the initial tenure of wealthy industrial magnates, came the authorities of interwar Poland with an ambition to build an avant-garde city. These, in turn, were followed by the representatives of the communist state of the 60s and 70s, who went on to create a new metropolis with even greater impetus. Dubbed the American City, it was not only a promised land giving people work, but was also made to undergo the most complex of transformations at breakneck speed and with no regard for own heritage. Katowice’s landscape and identity were largely shaped by mining and metallurgy. Currently, the city is looking for alternative ways of grow and find a new "Katowice dream" for the future.
In preparing the exhibition Appetite for Radical Change. Katowice 1865-2015 on the history of the city, we created a detailed map of Katowice buildings. Thanks to the data received from the Surveying Department of the City of Katowice we were able to present the addresses and commissioning dates of selected buildings. We are currently working on expanding the range of information available within the app, such as names of architects and descriptions of buildings. Try it out: katowickiebudynki.eu