A new book cataloging the boom in church construction in the atheist People’s Republic of Poland reveals a singular and unique contribution to the architecture of the twentieth century. Often built by amateurs using scavenged materials, these churches became the beating hearts of communities across the country. Paweł Wargan talks to the book’s authors and revisits his own family’s contribution to this communal phenomenon.
The exchange at the Church of the Holiest Heart of Jesus Christ was brief.
The church administrator handed my grandfather a price list for documents—birth certificates and baptism records needed for his wedding to my grandmother—whose price was supposed to be discretionary.
In the pecking order of Warsaw Pact bureaucracy, the printed page was a powerful lever, and this bureaucrat had mastered the art of passing the buck. Yes, the price is discretionary, but there’s a price list. My grandfather, a shipyard worker, would have been well-versed in the intransigence of public officials. Still, money then was scarcer than patience, so he stood his ground.
Suddenly, the rector’s voice boomed from a corner of the narthex in which they stood.
“Tadeusz doesn’t pay,” he said, turning to my grandfather. “He built this church.”
The Lord’s bureaucrat quickly relented. And that, really, was that—a few złoty saved, a marriage sealed, and a church standing where the war had left ruins. Even in the Polish People’s Republic, it turns out, the sanctity of the priestly word outweighed that of the stamped page.
My grandfather was thirteen or fourteen when, some ten years earlier, he first set foot on the grounds of the Church of the Holiest Heart of Jesus Christ, located in Gdynia on Poland’s Baltic coast. Back then, the church was housed in a temporary building put up to replace one destroyed in the war. “The church was built, as your grandmother says, from sticks—from these beautiful wooden bales,” my grandfather said. “Between the bales, there were walls made from a mixture of cut straw and concrete formed into rectangular panels.”
The structure was a fire hazard, so the rector ordered that it be rebuilt. For a few years, my grandfather would come here in his spare time, arranging the rebar that formed the church’s window frames, laying bricks, and mixing cement.
He came with his father and hundreds of parishioners from around the community who spent their weeknights and weekends on the construction site. “When we had time to help, we went,” my grandfather told me. “Everyone did. If you had to push concrete around in wheelbarrows, that’s what you did. If you had to pour molds, then you did that. You did what needed doing.”
Around the country, millions of Poles gathered on similar sites. They did their part to advance the history of Day-VII Architecture—Poland’s singular and largely unrecognized contribution to the architecture of the 20th century.
In 2013, Polish urbanist Kuba Snopek set off on a road trip around Eastern Europe with Max Avdeev, a photographer from Moscow. “Fifteen minutes after we crossed the Polish border, in the village of Orły, Max asked me to stop,” Snopek recalled. “There was this flamboyant, reinforced concrete church outside and Max started to photograph it.”
For weeks, Snopek, working with architect Izabela Cichonska, had been thinking about a project to submit to the 2014 Venice Biennale. That year’s theme, Fundamentals, encompassed three main exhibitions. One of these would explore the “sacrifice” of national identity to modernity. Rem Koolhaas, Dutch architect and curator of that year’s Biennale, wanted pavilions “to show, each in their own way, the process of the erasure of national characteristics in favor of the almost universal adoption of a single modern language.”
For Snopek, the church in Orły was a spark. “Suddenly, I understood that Catholic churches built in socialist Poland are a really original and syncretic heritage, something that can be found only in Poland,” Snopek said. “The research began!”
Cichonska and Snopek joined forces with architect Karolina Popera and began to catalog the churches. “We found this document—the List of Parishes in Poland 2016, published by the Statistics Institute of the Catholic Church,” Cichonska told me. “We put this list in Excel and started to build a database. At one point, we had fifteen people helping with the research.”
They found that more than three thousand churches like the Church of the Holiest Heart of Jesus Christ were built between 1944 and 1989, in the forty-four years between the end of the Second World War and the collapse of the Polish People’s Republic (PRL). In 1986, at the peak of construction, around a thousand churches were being built simultaneously.
Some of these churches had been studied in isolation in the past, but never as a distinct architectural phenomenon. So the team decided to give this body of work a name. They called it Day-VII Architecture, to set it apart from the industrial plants, social housing, and public institutions that were built during the six-day workweek (the two-day weekend appeared relatively late). “Day-VII Architecture refers to the one day of the week that was not organized by this purely rational way of thinking,” Snopek said.
The team quickly came against a taxonomic problem. “From the very beginning, we hoped to categorize these churches,” Cichonska told me. “We had this dream to find some aesthetic common ground between them. But instead, we found chaos.” The trio soon realized that not only did the churches have no common design language, but also there were very few similarities in how they were built. “The churches were colored by their local context,” Cichonska said, “and so we turned our focus to the communities that built them.”
That renewed focus brought them in contact with the churches’ architects. Although the submission to the Biennale was unsuccessful, the project quickly outgrew its ambitions. It evolved from a database into a website, which became the first ever complete catalog of Poland’s experiments in eccliastical architecture. And now it is also a book—Day-VII Architecture—whose English edition was recently published by DOM publishers.
‘The beating heart of a community’
In a broad clearing in my grandmother’s neighborhood, beside a patch of evergreens, the Church of Our Lady of Fatima is sharply contoured, cutting through the rigid geometries of the surrounding housing blocks. From above, it looks octagonal. From the front, it is a series of triangles arranged in recursion. The portal is framed by windows that echo its shape. The windows are framed by the first segment of its roof. And the roof angles upwards at the rear end of the church, where it forms the largest of the triangles. Each element ultimately points up; where the roof juts out towards the sky, it is tipped with a cross.
Like many Poles, I grew up on several of the many housing estates built in the PRL. Much of this mass housing was based on the model developed by French engineer Raymond Camus: a modular system that uses prefabricated concrete blocks. This building technique caught Nikita Khruschev’s eye in the 1950s and quickly made its way to the Soviet Union, inspiring a new construction boom. (In Russia, tenements built during this period are known as Khrushchevki). Soon, identical estates were sprouting up from France’s banlieues to West Berlin, Warsaw to Vladivostok.
For architects, rehashing templates of prefabricated concrete blocks was a dull enterprise. “They were using repeating blocks and patterns over and over again,” Cichonska told me. “Post-war Poland was built from Lego bricks.”
But, paradoxically, the anti-clerical PRL—which had resisted the expansion of the Church with varying levels of intensity throughout its brief history—enabled the boom in church construction. As Cichonska, Popera, and Snopek write, the state educated a generation of architects and engineers. State-led urbanization brought millions from rural communities into the cities. Industrialization paved the way for large-scale architectural projects. And the advent of the eight-hour work day and, eventually, free Saturdays gave workers time to devote to church construction.
“The really important thing to understand is that the very same people upheld both systems at the same time,” Cichonska said. “State officials would have their children baptized in secret, while criticizing the Church in public. But there were deep frictions between them.”
These tensions came to the fore in 1966. It was the millennium of Polish statehood, and of its christening—a historical dialectic that pitted two competing origin stories against each other. The state celebrated by building schools, factories, and housing. The Church celebrated by building churches.
By then, news of an eccliastical revolution was making its way across the Iron Curtain. Globalization, with all its homogenizing tendencies, was taking root and church attendance was in decline. So, between 1962 and 1965, the Church mounted a defense. It convened the Second Vatican Council and tasked it with modernizing liturgy by pulling it out of its mystical past—where priests held mass in Latin with their backs to the faithful—and recentering religious practice around the community. Mass was translated into local languages, and church arrangements were reimagined to foster a sense of participation.
“The old patterns and their spatial rules were removed from churches,” said Jerzy Gurawski, architect of the Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Queen of Poland, in Głogów, in an interview for Day-VII Architecture. “Suddenly it was possible to have a centralized layout with the altar in the middle, around which the worshipers gathered. The Council’s guidelines allowed us to experiment with the space.”
But Polish architects had no experience in church design. State education focused on social needs: schools, factories, and worker homes. So they sought inspiration elsewhere, drawing from the language of theaters and other performance spaces to realize the Church’s new vision. Gurawski, for example, was a well-known modernizer of theater spaces, and a long-time collaborator of Jerzy Grotowski, a key figure in modern Polish theater.
When architect Romuald Loegler was designing a church in Krakow, he spoke with Karol Wojtyła—cardinal, playwright and, later, Pope John Paul II—about its design in the language of narrative and performance. “We talked about the scenography of the project, the storyline that would, consciously, prepare worshipers for celebrating mass,” he said. “We talked about how the Church’s language must move closer to that of contemporary society.”
Here, socialist architects, interpreting the vague diktats of the Vatican Council, began to experiment. “You could see that they were looking for a new model—one that could accommodate the changes brought forward by the Council,” Cichonska told me. “All of that tinkering brought people together. It created a sense of shared purpose.”
But the projects encountered obstacles. The Polish government held a monopoly over both workers and materials, and provided neither for church construction. When it did issue building permits, often in the face of popular pressure, it allocated land that was unsuitable for construction—a bureaucratic sleight that allowed state apparatchiks to ingratiate themselves with the faithful while appearing devout to the state. So the architects worked with the labor and materials assembled—in many cases for free or through barter—by local parishes.
“Imagine our surprise when we learned that the construction was to be carried out by the brother of the parish priest, a highlander who arrived with a team consisting of several of his mates,” Marian Tunikowski, architect of the Church of Our Lady Queen of Poland in Świdnica, said in an interview for the book.
Many of the twenty thousand people in the Świdnica parish—most of them unskilled—contributed to the construction process, Tunikowski said. The roof was made in a nearby freight train factory. And, as the state refused to provide a crane to help raise the steeple, the “church emerged from a forest of timber scaffolding—just like in the Middle Ages.”
Across Poland, churches were being built in the same way: by parishioners young and old, using scavenged, stolen, and donated materials. My grandfather recalled that, during the construction of the Church of the Holiest Heart in Gdynia, the builders ran out of bricks. “A decorator who lived on my road had wanted to build a house—or maybe he didn’t, but somehow he had several thousand bricks,” my grandfather said. “And he gave them all for the construction of the church. We loaded them onto trucks and they took them off to the building site.”
Gradually, Poland’s vast housing estates began to acquire a local character. The churches injected a sense of identity—and spirituality—into the otherwise rationally-constructed landscapes of the PRL. They combined the language of modernism with a local vernacular—using traditional construction methods and materials like brick and stone to connect with Poland’s historical heritage. “The Church,” Cichonska, Popera, and Snopek write, “wanted to be seen as the guardian of national heritage and as a link with Polish history.”
Sometimes, the effects were subtle and unintended. When Loegler was pouring concrete for his church in Krakow, he lacked access to the industrially-built timber molds that were typically used for such projects. So Poland’s highlanders—experts in the use of wood—built one for him. By historical accident, something of their heritage found its imprint on a brutalist structure in one of Poland’s largest cities.
“Only when a church becomes the beating heart of a community of parishioners, is it truly a church,” Stanislaw Niemczyk, one of the architects interviewed for Day-VII Architecture, said. Built communally, with shared resources, the churches became the focal point of Poland’s housing estates—their sacred meeting ground. They have largely maintained that role to this day. From my grandmother’s tenth-floor apartment, you can see people gather every Sunday morning around the angular Church of Our Lady of Fatima. As mass begins, they crowd into the church and, for the better part of an hour, the promenade that runs through the neighborhood of housing blocks goes quiet.
The legacy of Poland’s church construction boom
The English translation of Day-VII Architecture is brief: in a 280-page book, just over forty pages include text. The rest are filled with architectural drawings and photographs, taken by Maciej Lulko and Kuba’s brother Igor Snopek, who travelled 8,540 kilometers by car and logged 264 kilometers of drone flights to photograph 117 churches. But it is a vital book; the first to catalog a unique architectural phenomenon that was, as the introduction says, “at once an expression of faith and a form of anti-government protest.”
When my grandfather was bending the rebar, laying the bricks, and pouring the concrete that would become the Church of the Holiest Heart of Jesus Christ, Poland was cosplaying Khruschevism and new political potentialities were gaining steam. One of these—the ecclesiastical—seemed truly revolutionary. It was of the people. It was, in an unspoiled sense, socialist—bringing communities together in solidarity to build for the commons.
“Paradoxically, the construction of the churches was socialist in spirit. It was communal. Everyone was a builder,” Cichonska told me. “At the same time, the projects were deeply individualist at a time when the country was dominated by prefabricated architecture.”
As most of the churches were built in the 1980s, many of their architects and builders are still alive today. Day-VII Architecture was their training ground—in architecture, project management, construction. Snopek and Cichonska told me that many of the architects and construction supervisors who built churches in the 1980s opened architectural and construction firms in the 1990s—this time working not with social capital, but with money.
Day-VII Architecture braided together many of the contradictory forces that had shaped post-war Poland: a reformist church and a secular state; the thrust of modernism and a yearning for tradition; central planning and the first inklings of the free market. By carefully navigating the gulf between the local and the global, Day-VII Architecture mounted an assault on two fronts: against the homogenizing forces of modernity and the oppressive tendencies of the pro-Soviet state. But the movement left no residue of revolutionary or communitarian potential. Instead, Day-VII Architecture concentrated social capital and political power in the hands of the Catholic Church. Today, its main legacy is a Church that is stubbornly intertwined with the Polish state.