Culture in Poznań



Reviving a saint

So it is possible. Saint Martin (or Święty Marcin in Polish, one of the city's most important streets) is awakening from its coma, after two decades of slumber, as the renovation of the first stretch of the street between ul. Gwarna and ul. Ratajczaka nears completion.

. - grafika artykułu
Święty Marcin Street, photo: Waldemar Wylegalski

The project prioritises pedestrians, who will be offered very wide pavements with dozens of lime and maple trees, and excellent new street lights with adjustable brightness. A tram stop near the intersection with ul. Ratajczaka is now back after four decades' absence. With benches and flowerbeds installed in February, it will soon be time for the fountains, scheduled to be turned on in the spring. Motorised traffic will be reduced to a single lane in each direction. As the surface of the street mimics that of the pavements, the broadest part of ul. Św. Marcin will look more like a city square, than the unfriendly thoroughfare it was before the renovation began.   

The street came very close to looking a whole lot worse. The previous city authorities left behind a deeply flawed design devised by road engineers, rather than architects or urban designers. If adopted, their proposal would have set in stone some of the biggest deficiencies of ul. Święty Marcin, limiting its main functions to enabling vehicles to either pass through or park.

Little thought was given then to street furniture, city greenery and lighting, the plantings and installations having been postponed constantly.

However, in mid-2015, the new city administration held a series of workshops in which it consulted the local community and a contest to generate ideas for remodelling ul. Święty Marcin its immediate surroundings. Architects were called upon to thoroughly redesign the city's key central streets of 27 Grudnia, Ratajczaka, Kantaka, Gwarna, Al. Marcinkowskiego and what little remained of the former Plac Gwarny in front of the Okrąglak building. This provided a golden opportunity to improve the neglected city centre comprehensively and consistently.

The winners prevail by wide margin

Although the competition produced 23 submissions from all across the country, there was little to choose from. Even the good, old, Poznań-based firms proved that designing public space was not their forte. The winning design stood head and shoulders above the rest. Studio ADS, which years ago gave Święty Marcin the arguably unappealing MM shopping centre, this time rose to the challenge. Its consistent well-thought-out concept delighted the jurors. Notice was also taken of the idea from Litoborski & Marciniak of turning the entire street into a grassed area, yet it was judged too radical to take first prize and ended up placing a creditable fourth, which it certainly deserved.

Ground was broken in September 2017. Heavy equipment stripped a wide central section of ul. Święty Marcin bare. Soon afterwards, the area became a pit, in whose depths the workers took their time replacing most of the underground infrastructure. The resulting disruptions hurt the business of local shops, pubs and food establishments, forcing many to leave.

A new lease of life for the Alfa buildings

The project didn't snuff out all life. Its precise mid-point marked the opening of the Altus Hotel in the original, and now renovated Alfa building, whose name was then popularly extended to the entire row of five towers constructed between 1965 and 1972. With renovation work coming to a close, the biggest challenge in the central section of Św. Marcin is this cluster of high-rise towers that have become unsightly since the 1970s. This is not to say they have never been refurbished. The office buildings changed owners and administrators many times, including in 1990. The middle Alfa tower ended up housing the Pekao S.A. bank, which renovated it in 1994. As the bank was about to alter its exterior, a sober intervention by the city architect Andrzej Kurzawski, and by Jerzy Liśniewicz, who designed the entire complex, prevented the fragmentation of the buildings' consistent design. In the end, it was only the bottom part of the building that was changed, not unexpectedly in the spirit of the 1990s. The stone and reflective glass finishing materials and a triangular incision into the arcade flanking the ground-floor entrance created an aesthetic and stylistic disruption. After more than a decade, the farmers' insurance fund KRUS upgraded its tower (second from ul. Ratajczaka). This time, the renovation extended beyond the front entrance and included a ground-level passage on one side, which was closed off by a rather ghastly entrance and stairwell.

Perhaps the most successful renovation is the Altus Hotel, which sports a dual-layered ground-floor façade and a contemporary interior perfectly matching the exterior. The former Miastoprojekt tower (second from ul. Gwarna) is now awaiting a renovation of its own. It is slated to become a student dormitory with rental micro-flats in the next two years. Another (lower-rise) part of the building may well be constructed in its spacious yard, currently used for parking.

Cult spots with a new face

Perhaps a bit more optimism comes from the owners of the tenement houses that line the street and their new business tenants. For several months now, things have been moving swiftly on ul. Święty Marcin, as new service establishments are opening. This coming April, two popular restaurants, La Ruina and Raj, are to move from the Śródka district to the still-to-be-renovated stretch of the street between ul. Ratajczaka and ul. Piekary. This neglected section of ul. Święty Marcin is now in the same shape that Śródka was in when the two restaurants were first set up. Also this year, we will see the Muza cinema upgraded and extensivelyremodelled. In addition to a new screening room, the movie house will feature two cosy rooms upstairs. The tenement house facing the street has already received a face-lift. A lit-up sign mounted on it will encourage passers-by to visit the cinema.

The large ground-floor spaces of the Alfa buildings, at a good distance from any residential homes, are the perfect location for dance and music clubs, whose presence elsewhere in the Stare Miasto is known to stir up controversies, a good case in point being the bubbly Blueberry Bar club on ul. Święty Marcin. While it is still unclear whether any clubs will come to Św. Marcin, the ground-floor space in the Alfa towers, now facing a vast pedestrian space planted with trees, clearly has enormous potential.

Even during the renovation, the former Raczyński Library building, which was purchased by a Poznań developer, hosted an exhibition that forms a part of the Mediations Biennale festival. The building is tried and tested as a cultural venue, and may well resume that role. For now, however, the owner is not revealing his long-term plans.

Cars to be cleared from the area in front of the Castle

Operating continuously near the Raczyński Library building is the Towarzystwo Wiedzy Powszechnej (Popular Knowledge Society), which has added colour to the street for years. Over two years ago, it was joined by the Atelier Łazęga Poznańska Association, housed in a former photography shop in the atmospheric courtyard building behind the tenement house on ul. Św. Marcin 75. The Association is known for staging a succession of professional exhibitions, concerts and lectures. A big part in invigorating the street is played by the Zamek (Castle) Cultural Centre, which is also metamorphosing. A renovation is under way of its western wing, which, unlike its eastern section, will be left physically unaltered and merely thoroughly refurbished. The most conspicuous difference, however, will be made by clearing the cars from the area in front of the Zamek. The area itself will be transformed into a vital urban space used daily by local residents, and inviting people into the cultural centre. The Zamek is considering filling the space with plants, street architecture, a water feature and even a small pavilion. These intentions are informed by a design workshop held in July last year. In Spring, the Zamek will hold an architectural contest intended to generate further ideas. 

New life will also be breathed into the former Collegium Historicum building of Adam Mickiewicz University (which historically housed the communist party committee). The edifice was later taken over and then abandoned by the University's historians and, more recently, renamed Collegium Martineum. The building will house the Enigma Cypher Centre and, perhaps, the University Museum, whose precise nature is yet to be defined.

The renovation wave is yet to reach the courtyards behind the southern frontage. Recently, the Czas Kultury quarterly set up shop there. New ideas are being circulated for improving the Pasaż Różowy (Pink Passage) - this highly successful shopping passage from the 1990s is now nearly deserted. The local residents, many of whom live in substandard housing under harsh conditions, could also use some improvements. Only then will the Święty Marcin project deserve to be called a "revitalisation". To make this happen, the thorough upgrade requires a range of "soft" measures to support the local community. The city authorities are speaking rather tentatively about further consultations and meetings with the inhabitants of the city centre, and much more confidently about remodelling further sections of ul. Święty Marcin. Work along the stretch between ul. Ratajczaka and ul. Podgórna may start as early as late autumn of this year, followed by a renovation of the western section. By 2022, trams are expected to be running along ul. Ratajczaka towards the Wilda district. 

Jakub Głaz  

translation: Krzysztof Kotkowski

© Wydawnictwo Miejskie Posnania 2019