Museum of the Second World War, Gdansk by Kwadrat


Poland has just opened it finest piece of architecture this century, but the Kwadrat-designed Museum of the Second World War in Gdansk is a battleground itself


Photography by Paul Raftery
Words by Herbert Wright

You can just spot the Museum of the Second World War from Gdansk’s tourist-thronged Old Town. The Motlawa river is lined with a picture-perfect parade of historic and faux-historic facades, but beyond them, above the roofs where the river bends, is a new shape — a distant triangle on the horizon. It is the museum’s tower.

Gdansk’s centre gives way to open spaces to the north. Once, wooden buckets were made here, in a dense, poor district called Wiadrownia, or Eimermacherhof in German.

The area was destroyed in 1945, and later, 17ha of the empty wasteland, beside a tranquil canal, were donated by the city to the museum project, set up by then Polish prime minister Donald Tusk in 2008. An architectural competition attracted 127 entries, and in 2010, the jury, headed by Polish-born Daniel Libeskind, came out strongly in favour of the design by Studio Architektoniczne Kwadrat, a practice based in the nearby town of Gdynia.

Works began in 2012 and were scheduled to take four years. As the erstwhile museum director Professor Pawel Machcewicz comments: ‘The most expensive part was digging 14m below the level of ground. Now, I think this is very worthwhile. But actually it cost more and took more time to build — this is the price you pay for world-class architecture.’

The museum is accessed from steps below the tower which cut down into the plazaThe museum is accessed from steps below the tower which cut down into the plaza

The museum opened 23 March, attended by Polish veterans. Tusk was not present — he is now president of the EU Commission — but nor was the minister of culture, Piotr Glinski. Since he was appointed by the nationalist-conservative Law & Justice party to the post in 2015, he has sought — to use Machcewicz’s word — to ‘liquidate’ the museum. But Glinski could not touch what is probably Poland’s best architectural achievement of the century so far.

The tower has a roof of two clear triangles and facades that are trapezoids, three of them clad with red concreteThe tower has a roof of two clear triangles and facades that are trapezoids, three of them clad with red concrete

The 40.5m-high tower is what strikes you straight away. It has been compared to a bomb striking the ground, but that doesn’t match its appearance. Monumental yet dynamically charged by the drama of its angles, it thrusts upwards at a crazy slant, as if breaking out of the hard-surfaced plaza across the site. It has four trapezoid facades. Of the three clad in terracotta-like red concrete panels, two are like irregular pyramid sides partially sliced away, one sloping as much as 45 degrees from the vertical. The third red side leans out, as does the adjacent fourth facade of glass. In a play of angles and perspective, these two facades loom over you when close up, appearing to widen with height despite their parallel sides. An inclined 11m-high trapezoid roof is inflected into two glass triangles. The tower’s distorted geometry is extraordinary, but it is merely the tip of the iceberg in terms of the whole 23,000 sq m museum.

Two massive staircases descend in the museum’s vast underground spaceTwo massive staircases descend in the museum’s vast underground space

The big architectural idea for that came from Jacek Droszcz, who co-founded the Kwadrat practice in 1989. He says that the museum comprises ‘three zones: The past — underground; the present — the square around the building; and the future — the tower, the modern dominant.’ As for the tower, he says it is ‘a kind of exclamation mark, which points out that there is something important here. On the other hand, we also wanted to avoid too literal associations and leave quite a lot of freedom in interpretation’.

Before entering the museum, what of the ‘present’ zone — the public plaza? Minimalist red benches march towards the entrance from the canal side, along which black metallic ventilation outlets stand like server banks. There are two other angular volumes clad in red concrete panels. The smallest is the entrance to the 132-space car park on a western corner — an open-ended wedge disappearing into the ground. On the other side of the tower is a long, low office building with a pitched roof sloping up to the site’s eastern side. In plan, it is like an arrowhead, broadening out to its southern end, where its corner is cut away under the roof to enclose a loading bay. A small, private interior courtyard is cut into it. Between this low volume and the tower is a full-length trench cutting down into ‘the past’ that Droszcz refers to, which has yet more extraordinary features.

The trench between the skewed forms of tower and office volume recedes towards the vanishing pointThe trench between the skewed forms of tower and office volume recedes towards the vanishing point

The museum is accessed through the tower. The southfacing solid facade, punctuated by a few small rectangular windows, has a door that leads to an exhibition about the site’s archeology, but this is not the main entrance. That lays below the glass facade. A bank of exterior stairs fans out as it descends 4.5m to its base at level -1, in which sit the lobby and information desk. Another set of stairs descends internally to it from ground level through an atrium behind the glass. From level –1, you first glimpse the void still further down. Natural light falls up to four storeys from the glass entrance facade, into a vast bunker that opens out under the plaza. A straight line of stairs descends from here, shadowing the staircase above, but longer and deeper, reaching into the two lower levels. These staircases are heavy — concrete structures with thick steel fins on their undersides — yet they float down like ribbons in free space.

Morning light casts beams across the sheer concrete wall that defines the axis of the permanent exhibitionMorning light casts beams across the sheer concrete wall that defines the axis of the permanent exhibition

The tower structure itself extends into this underground realm — effectively, it is nine storeys, with one facade continuous all the way to the bottom of the trench between it and the long, low, office volume. Levels –2 and –3 have a height of 4.75m. It is on level –3, with the largest floor area and 14m underground, where the heart of the museum lies.

Glass and steel give the atrium within the tower a high-tech aestheticGlass and steel give the atrium within the tower a high-tech aesthetic

Concrete columns rise up across the floor, almost trapezoid in form but for curtailed corners. Beneath the stairs is the ticket office, behind it the cloakroom, and ahead of it an area intended for a cafe and bookshop. The ticket office is parallel to a great inclined concrete wall climbing into the tower. Behind it is the children’s exhibition (of which more later), a 1,000 sq m temporary exhibition hall, a 115-seat cinema, and a conference room. This last facility is elliptical in plan, lined with wood and can host 303 attendees in terraced seating facing a stage.

Loft’s copper-painted elements in the central area at the lowest level include lampshades and vitrinesLoft’s copper-painted elements in the central area at the lowest level include lampshades and vitrines

The interior design of the non-exhibition space, including these, are by Loft, also from nearby Gdynia. As principal Magdalena Adamus says, they are ‘very austere’, using only concrete, black steel and some oak, which was ‘complemented with one dark colour, RAL 7043’. A good example of Loft’s approach are the balustrades of the great stairs, with wooden handrails mounted on the dark metal. But where the exhibition exits by the planned bookshop, Loft introduces copper-coloured elements — lampshades hung from two floors above, vitrine showcases and decorative details. The copper surfaces and constellation of bulbs add a subdued but warm radiance.

The museum is located beside a canal. Underground car parking is accessed through the wedge-shaped volumeThe museum is located beside a canal. Underground car parking is accessed through the wedge-shaped volume

The 5,000 sq m permanent exhibition dominates the floorplan. Perhaps the most dramatic subterranean architectural element is its 140m-long dividing axis. Along it, a corridor lies at the bottom of a great linear cut which narrows to a full-length skylight high above at ground level. The exhibition either side, creates a profoundly sombre mood, and the physical depth of this axis echoes the emotional depth, but light tells us we are not buried. One side is a sheer concrete wall across which, at certain times, sunbeams fall. As Droszcz says: ‘The architectural conception assumes that the entire evil of war is hidden under the ground, and the “light” of hope reaches within through a crack.’ A linear concrete bench, broken only by a few openings into the exhibition, runs alongside it, and beneath it is a line of cobblestones. These are from Grosse Gasse, the original main street of Wiadrownia, along which this axis runs.

The office volume, seen from the north, with the tower behind and aboveThe office volume, seen from the north, with the tower behind and above

Up in the tower, we are in Droszsz’s future zone. It should have a balcony cafe on level 5, the uppermost level, overlooking a restaurant on level 4 and connected to it by a spiral staircase — the museum’s only curved structure other than the conference hall and columns. Unfortunately, as with much else in the museum, political and budgetary uncertainty cast doubt on their future. They both lie under the glass roof and behind the glass facade, here double-skinned, in an upper atrium with a strong high-tech feel. The unparalleled view is over the entrance, plaza, canal and rooftops to the Old Town, dominated by the 15th-century, 80m-high Basilica of St Mary. The levels below contain offices and education rooms, with the library on level 2. These levels ‘are much lighter in both design and colour, with a lot of natural oak and white’, says Adamus. 

Most of the offices are in the long, lower building, where Loft’s interior schemes also have a lighter aesthetic. Five hotel rooms and three apartment suites were designed for academics and VIPs attending conferences, but now they may not be used. On the eastern side of this strip building, the vertical window apertures made in the facade are doubled in height by recessed black steel panels. The other side, facing the tower, has windows that cut deep into a sloping facade, and they look out on a final, remarkable feature. 

Beside the office volume stretches a wide surface of gabion basketing, into which is set the skylights that run above the permanent exhibition’s long axis. It is filled with red brick and terracotta rubble from Gdansk, and plunges into the trench between the offices and the tower in an extraordinary gabion wall. There is a clear symbolism about building from ruins here, and its colours match the museum exteriors. A long path slopes down along the trench, and a bridge links the tower to the offices. Seen from the south along the trench’s full length, the composition of the museum’s forms presents a surrealistic perspective — a physically expressed vanishing point with skewed forms on a plane. The views from and across the plaza are a psychic deconstruction of space itself. 

Is there any indication elsewhere in Kwadrat’s portfolio that it would design something as powerful as the Museum of the Second World War? Much of its work is for commercial residential developers. Brabank, a large, upmarket complex on the Motlawa river immediately downstream from the museum, is accomplished but could be anywhere. Other riverside projects have a crisp, contemporary take on the pitched-roof, waterfront-facade vernacular that runs along the thread of Hanseatic ports all the way to Belgium. But Kwadrat’s 2007 competition entry for the European Solidarity Centre in Gdansk gave some clues of what was to come — a gravity-defying volume, trapezoid facades and cuts, bringing light deep down into the building.

Large-scale items can be taken in through the southern end of lower volume (right), with plaza (left) and tower (central) behindLarge-scale items can be taken in through the southern end of lower volume (right), with plaza (left) and tower (central) behind

In terms of style, the museum has elements of high-tech in the revelation of the tower’s interior through glass, brutalism in the vast, massy subterranean concrete, and not least deconstructivism in the angular slicing and distortion of space.

A bridge connects the museum tower (left) and the officesA bridge connects the museum tower (left) and the offices

Rubble from Gdansk fills the gabion boxingRubble from Gdansk fills the gabion boxing

The tower is unique, but there are some shared aspects with others — the local brick solidity of St Mary’s Basilica, the monumental, angled solidity of Herzog and de Meuron’s Switch House, and even Philip Johnson’s dark-glazed Puerta de Europa in Madrid (1996) that is a precedent for skewed, straight-edged towers. Many more precedents lie in underground museums — Poland itself has only recently gained another exceptional example in the Robert Konieczny-designed Centrum Dialogu Przelomy in Szczecin (2015), completely under a public square.

The tower seems to loom over you on the plaza. Kwadrat also designed the benches (foreground) and ventilation outlets (left)The tower seems to loom over you on the plaza. Kwadrat also designed the benches (foreground) and ventilation outlets (left)

A Soviet T-34/85 tank on display in reproduced war-wrecked ruinsA Soviet T-34/85 tank on display in reproduced war-wrecked ruins

In the Time Travel exhibition for children, the same Warsaw room is recreated as war starts in 1939, during the Nazi occupation, and in May 1945In the Time Travel exhibition for children, the same Warsaw room is recreated as war starts in 1939, during the Nazi occupation, and in May 1945

Droszcz cites Herzog and de Meuron, Jean Nouvel, ‘and especially Rafael Moneo’ as sources of inspiration. He also offers Libeskind on this list, and not just because he chaired the competition jury. Resonances with Libeskind’s work can be sensed in the Museum of the Second World War, most obviously in his angled forms, although they are nowhere near as sharp and explosive as his museum projects in Denver, Toronto and Dresden.

In the Time Travel exhibition for children, the same Warsaw room is recreated as war starts in 1939, during the Nazi occupation, and in May 1945In the Time Travel exhibition for children, the same Warsaw room is recreated as war starts in 1939, during the Nazi occupation, and in May 1945

In the Time Travel exhibition for children, the same Warsaw room is recreated as war starts in 1939, during the Nazi occupation, and in May 1945In the Time Travel exhibition for children, the same Warsaw room is recreated as war starts in 1939, during the Nazi occupation, and in May 1945

More unusually, Kwadrat can also express profundity in the depths of internal space, as Libeskind does, for example in the voids in the Jewish Museum in Berlin (1999) — a work that Droszcz says ‘really impressed me’. As we descend into Kwadrat’s underground spaces, the crushing mass of concrete can feel like the weight of the world.

A recreation of a Polish shopping street before the warA recreation of a Polish shopping street before the war

An evocation of a London tube station used as an air-raid shelterAn evocation of a London tube station used as an air-raid shelter

The Museum of the Second World War’s architecture, above and below ground, is an astonishing holistic conceptual whole, a perfect Gesamtkunstwerk. The future of the museum itself is subject to the uncertainties of Poland’s political culture wars, but the architecture will remain as a masterpiece, unsentimental yet deeply emotional.

A German railway wagon is included, highlighting deportationsA German railway wagon is included, highlighting deportations

The exhibition
Telling it straight, at the deepest level

Museum director Pawel Machcewicz, dismissed in April, saw the entire project through and was responsible for the permanent exhibitions. The first is Time Travel, aimed at children. It focuses on the same bourgeois family room in a Warsaw apartment, first in 1939 (newspapers on the table with news of war), then in 1943 (the window looking out on the Nazi-occupied city) and finally in 1945 (windows broken, a wall smashed by shelling, bedding on the floor). It works just fine for adults, too.

The depth of the underground space enables a Junkers Ju-87 Stuka plane to be mountedThe depth of the underground space enables a Junkers Ju-87 Stuka plane to be mounted

The main exhibition is an epic — comprehensive, clear and sombre, and occupying 20 rooms. They lie either side of the long corridor axis, which itself contains displays of everyday life during the war. From the first room with a semi-circular screen showing the rise of totalitarian regimes across Europe, everything is legible, meticulously researched and presented. The entire story of the war in Poland, across Europe and beyond, is conveyed at the levels of the geopolitical, the military and the personal, and the objects it contains range from Stalin’s pipe to a Sherman tank, via keys to Jewish homes and an Enigma machine.

The scenography, by Brussels-based Tempora, includes recreations on a large scale, notably a Polish street of shops before the war, and a city’s ruined facades and rubble after it, with a Soviet tank in place. The exhibition lighting is subdued but the light in one room is so bright it almost makes you blink — this is about Hiroshima, with a bomb replica suspended at its centre. Photographs, such as those of resistance figures with brief lives, or the ruins of Warsaw shot by American photographer Henry N Cobb in 1947, speak silent volumes. And there are creative installations conveying tragedies in which it is frankly difficult not to feel utterly overcome when encountering them — a constellation of empty plates representing hunger, a wall of neatly stacked suitcases to represent Jewish deportation, and a black room titled People Like Us, in which portraits of 810 Holocaust victims, mounted in glass bands, reach to the ceiling.

Blueprint asked Machcewicz how the exhibition addressed a contemporary audience. In Poland, he said, it was felt ‘that
a good, modern museum would mean lots of multimedia. This was the understanding after the [2004] opening and… the great success of the Warsaw Rising Museum (about the 1944 Warsaw uprising). People were very excited about that. Of course, we have lots of multimedia [executed by Nolabel of Krakow] — 250 installation screens, a lot. But we deliberately focused on finding and integrating artefacts into the exhibition. We have around 2,000 artefacts in the permanent exhibition. The museum of Jewish history in Warsaw [POLIN, by Finnish architecture practice Lahdelma & Mahlamäki, opened 2013] is almost purely multimedia… It has only 150 original objects. We tried somehow to go beyond this horizon and we are very proud of collecting some first-class original objects. Out of these 2,000 objects, more or less half are gifts or deposits’.

Under Machcewicz, a museum was created that leaves you silenced and wiser. There is a detailed and honest thread of Poland’s war through its exhibition, but ultimately its message is about the universal value of liberty and truth. Ironically there is now a fight to preserve the integrity of its extraordinary presentation from a nationalist government whose view on history, at the expense of the civilian experience and international context, is somewhat narrower.





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