Robert Konieczny: Dialogue Centre Upheavals – an exceptional project

We have been involved in the Dialogue Centre Upheavals since the middle of 2009 when we decided to take part in the architectural competition for the exhibition building design. Our attention was first attracted by the location of the place in a prestigious part of Szczecin and direct vicinity of the new building of Mieczysław Karłowicz Szczecin Philharmonic. We liked the building, designed by Spanish architects from Studio Barozzi Veiga, from the very beginning and it was not a surprise that it became an icon not only of the city, but also of Polish architecture. At once there appeared an important thought that we followed until the end of the work on the project: being next to an object of such a strong architecture, we should not compete with it, but go down to the second plan. Only later, studying the competitions' regulations and other resources, we learned about the history of the place: that before the war there were buildings here, the City Theatre was located beside and the tragic events of December 1970 took place here.

 

We had no doubt that we had to take part in the competition. The task was not easy. Among the competition indications there was an “openness” of the Solidarity square with the visibility of surrounding historical buildings and the new philharmonic, that had been at a project stage at that time. Besides, we had to maintain the “Angel of Freedom” monument devoted to the Victims of December '70. The most difficult was the answer to the question how to build the place over not building it over? Beginning the concept work we had already done several projects, in which the buildings were integral parts of the terrain and became invisible.

 

Looking for the idea, we focused on interesting and dramatic history of this place. Before the war, elegant compact built-up tenement houses stood here. They were destroyed during the war. After the war the buildings were not restored, and when the ruins were removed, the area became an open place. We had to make an important decision whether the design should refer to the former, now non-existent square of buildings or start with an accidental city place where greenery appeared and which the citizens got used to.

 

We chose an intermediary solution – we created a hybrid of a square of buildings and a city place, on one hand closing the space like compact built-up design, on the other – retaining the features of open public space. In result we hid the majority of the cubature under the ground. In front of the philharmonic and the church, we retained flat terrain which makes a foreground of these buildings. In the places where this was not necessary we “pulled” the forgotten square up from the ground. It became the above-ground part of our building. On account of this we succeeded to create open space that is separated from a noisy street. A centripetal, open-air theatre form makes it possible to organize anniversary commemorative events that are traditionally held here. The above-ground part of the building was reduced to a minimum – it includes entrance hall joined with a cafe and a cloakroom and auxiliary rooms: offices and the cafe back-up. The building has two entrances with revolving panels, which, closed, make a continuous surface together with the elevation and are an additional protection of the building. The underground part includes exhibition and conference halls and technical back-up. Designing the installation in a way that makes it invisible was a challenge. The ventilation and air-conditioning installation is usually placed on a building's roof, what was impossible in our project, as the roof is a city place.

 

In order to obtain the assumed effect, with a very tight budget, it was necessary to choose the finishing materials very carefully. During the construction the building company was preparing mockups of the particular parts of the building. Each mockup had to be authorized and was a reference in the construction of the whole building. In result, the surface of the place, elevation, revolving panels and ground-floor interior seem as made of the same material, with the building and the place being one organism. As early, as at the competition stage, we were considering making the whole place of concrete blocks, divided by narrow slots through which the sunlight could reach the the interior during the day and the electric light could be visible at night. Unfortunately, we had to resign from this idea, as the solution was very expensive and the maintenance of it could turn out to be hard, for the technology had not been tested in such a scope so far. Eventually, we placed the light points in the flooring, making a regular mesh, which highlights the soft geometry of the place during the night.

 

The project included also moving the “Angel of Freedom” devoted to the memory of the Victims of December '70 which was difficult from the technical point of view. Setting it in a proper location had been preceeded by study works and consulting Czesław Dźwigaj – the author of the sculpture. The priority was to create a proper setting for the monument and for the ceremony space, therefore the monument was placed in a flat surface between two elevated areas. The moving was a large challenge – it was necessary to use sophisticated cranes and to make durability calculations. The monument was moved twice and we held our breathes each time, as we were afraid of a damage. Fortunately, it was all a success and the Angel happily reached its destination. 

 

During the design works, the ideas regarding the greenery also evolved. Firstly we assumed the removal of more trees, to show the clean architecture. There emerged protests, as the greenery was a vital element of this space. During one of our visits to Szczecin we went, as usually, to the Solidarity place to verify the design assumptions. We stood on the place, facing the castle, and we got to the conclusion that the greenery was a natural closure of this space. We changed the design, deciding to save as many plants as possible, transplanting the trees that collided with the building. It was important to protect the trees during the construction works, when the excavations for the foundations and the underground part of the building were done. To limit the interference with the root system, we used a temporary excavation retaining wall which provided additional stability of the ground. The trees required special care, therefore a specialist was employed to look after their condition. The excavation works were done under archaeological supervision and right after they were launched – as we had supposed – the excavators found the remains of pre-war buildings. They were the remains of cellar walls, under which there were concrete foundations stabilizing the buildings. After their documentation and demolition, the excavations were continued. A brick wall, running through the whole width of the excavation, was discovered. It was a remain of modern fortification – part of a moat that surrounded St. Peter's Bastion located in this place since the fortess was liquidated, that is, late 19th century. The remains confirmed the layout of the tenement houses known from designs saved in the archive. Two stones found during the excavations were placed on the exhibition inside the building. 

 

During the design works the idea of underground exhibition part also evolved. Firstly we thought about an exhibition hall as a continuation of the place and the ground floor, however, when we were preparing the design, the shape of the future exposition was still unknown. We decided, that it would be reasonable to create flexible frames for the exhibition and to extract it from our design. Dark colour of the flooring, walls and ceilings, contrasting with materials used for the city place, created excellent conditions for future exhibition. We succeeded to achieve an interesting effect: descending to the exhibition hall by dark stairs we “immerse in the history” and enter an entirely different reality. The exit, which is bright corner stairs, give the impression of the return to our reality. 

 

The building, which has been designed by us, is located in an important part of Szczecin, deals with its difficult history and naturally arises a lot of emotions. I believe, that with time it will become a natural element of the city, that the citizens will be proud of.

Robert Konieczny (KWK Promes)