By Robert Hirsch
The origins of the Port
With a population of a quarter of a million, Gdynia is the twelfth largest city in Poland and home to one of several Polish ports on the Baltic Sea. Established after World War I, the city is a consequence of the then political and economic situation. Having regained its independence as a result of World War I, Poland had been given a short stretch of the Baltic Sea coast. With no seaports along the Polish coastline, the state authorities decided to build one. In 1920 a site was designated, not far from the small village of Gdynia, followed by the Polish Parliament’s resolution in 1922 to build the port. Divided into several construction stages, the modern port was ready in the late 1930s. The original small village had turned into a city. Gdynia was growing fast and in 1939 reached a population of 120,000. As it is often said, Gdynia was “built at American speed”.
Photo (above): The Marine Station after its conversion in 2014.
The port of Gdynia is a very busy place. Since its inception, the port has seen a number of changes such as vessel parameters, handling technologies and new types of cargo. As a result, it has had to modernise its space continuously. But the port is also home to a number of historic modernist buildings, many of them erected in the 1930s. Efforts are taken to preserve the most interesting buildings and make them part of the present-day port operations. Legal protection was granted to modernist port buildings from the 1920s and 1930s such as the Rice Mill, Port Cold Store, Long-Term Warehouse and Grain Elevator. With their simple, yet modern shapes and structures, the buildings underline the importance of industrial architecture in those days. While some of them are still used in the original functions, others require work to survive.
The History of the Marine Station
The historic Marine Station is one of the port’s historic buildings which was successfully converted and adapted to contemporary needs between 2013 and 2014. Built to provide passenger and cargo services, the building was officially opened on 8 December 1933. Thanks to publications and numerous postcards, the Station became well-known all over Poland. Moored next to the Marine Station in the 1930s were Polish transatlantic liners going from Gdynia to America and the place itself became a symbol of Poland’s links with overseas countries. The building also played an important role in the pre-war Gdynia with its main hall becoming the city’s grandest interior. It hosted a variety of ceremonies and events, ranging from holy mass to New Year’s Eve parties. The front façade was decorated with Poland’s national emblem made from stone. Inside are the images of Ignacy Mo?cicki, President of Poland and Marshal Józef Pi?sudski cast in bronze.
Photo (above): Fragment of the port of Gdynia in the 1930s.
Built on a rectangular plan, the station has three main parts: Passenger Hall to the front, a hallway to the full height of the building and a two-storey extended part to the back with a warehouse on the ground floor and the original passenger check-in hall on the first floor. The building featured a very modern reinforced concrete structure. The objective of the design was for the building to have as few supports inside as possible and no supports in the walls from the side of the quay. The roof boasts a thin-shell reinforced concrete cover made under a patent from Zeiss-Dywidag. The structure was designed by Dycekrhoff and Widmann, a company specialising in thin-shell structures. The reinforced concrete layers are about 6 cm thick and made by spraying concrete on the reinforcement. The skylights provide plenty of light. With its cloister vault shell, the main hall features a pyramid skylight and each of the ten barrels over the check-in hall has a longitudinal skylight and windows at each end of the barrels. The construction of the station was covered in contemporary building magazines. Emphasis was placed on the technology and a record-breaking construction time. As an example, work on the transit warehouse and passenger hall began on 26 October 1932 and concrete on this section of the roof was laid already on 5 December.
Photo (above): Rice Mill buildings from 1927-28 -the port's first modernist buildings, circa 1937.
During World War II the Marine Station was used for the purposes of the German Navy base. During the occupation all of the Polish symbols were removed such as the low reliefs of the eagles and commemorative plaques in the hall. The building suffered extensive damage during an air raid of the Allied forces on 9 October 1943 which left the north-west part of the station severely damaged. The north part of the Passenger Hall was destroyed as were the rooms and internal galleries. The hall’s main roof was spared. While some parts of the building were rebuilt by the occupying forces, the original layout was never restored. Weakened by the explosions, the north side structure was strengthened using extra poles and brickwork on the existing supports. The damage inflicted by the war was most visible in the north-west corner with some of its sections left destroyed which led to an asymmetry of the front façade. There were no galleries in the hall or the cantilever roof over the entrance to the north section.
Photo (above): The Marine Station and transatlantic liner Pilsudski, circa 1936.
After the war the building was used for purposes similar to those it had before the war, for as long as Poland operated its ocean-going passenger ships. It had brief spells of activity hosting exhibitions and other cultural or even sport events. In recent years only a fraction of the old check-in hall on the first floor was used and it was not clear what it should house. Accessed from the quayside, the transit warehouse on the ground floor is still very much in its original use.
Conversion of the Marine Station
The building of the Marine Station with its adjacent area was listed in 1990. A few years ago Gdynia was inspired by the idea to set up the Emigration Museum to commemorate the people who left Poland for good in their thousands. Because at the time the Marine Station did not really have a function or future prospects, the authorities of Gdynia chose it as the seat of the museum. In 2010 next to the Marine Station the mayor of Gdynia and the CEO of the Port of Gdynia Authority, representing the owner, signed a letter of intent, in which they agreed to collaborate on the project.
Photo (right): The Marine Station before the project, in 2011.
The building’s historic nature meant that work on the project required in-depth historic and preservation studies. The Gdynia City Hall commissioned a number of conservation analyses. From the very start it was clear that the corner section which suffered severe damage during WW2 had to be rebuilt. Conservation guidelines were developed and used as the basis for the building’s conversion design by the architect Andrzej Bomerski. The intention of the author was to rebuild the building’s original shell ensuring a faithful restoration of the front façade. Deformed during the war, the originally symmetric façade with two eagles in low reliefs was well documented in old photography. Many people insisted that it should be restored due to its symbolic meaning. As well as reconstructing the front of the building, the designer proposed a fairly modern form for the side façade. The idea was to use a modern steel structure with a lot of glass. Inside the building the plan was to restore the original symmetry of the hall by reconstructing the damaged section and cantilever galleries in the north section. The additional supports put in during wartime reconstruction were to be removed. To achieve this aesthetics, however, serious construction problems had to be addressed first. With the original structure weakened by the explosion, it was no longer possible to use reinforced concrete. As a result, the designers decided to use a steel structure to be covered later. The end result confirmed that it was the right thing to do.
The design ensured that the museum functions correspond to the historic space as much as possible. The hall and the adjacent rooms can be easily accessed and are therefore home to offices, educational rooms, restaurant, shops, etc. The museum’s exhibition space is arranged on the first floor, in the former passenger check-in hall. The exhibition space is separated from the historic structure with an independent modular structure. As a result, all the installations are in the new structure leaving the hall’s construction exposed. The wide corridor running along the entire north façade provides access to a longitudinal terrace. In a bid to emphasize the spaciousness of the old interior and the structure of the vaults, the hall will be arranged within the first two compartments of the check-in hall. The warehouse under the check-in hall will continue to be used by the port.
The building design was developed in 2012 based on the concept and conservation guidelines. Listed building consent and planning permission were subsequently granted. Because of the significance of the project, the working plan was quite detailed with precise drawings of the historic elements of interior decorations.
Photo (above): Reinforcing the Marine Station hall in 2013.
The Maritime Station project is funded under the Jessica Initiative, part of the Pomorskie Regional Operational Program for the years 2007-2013. The funding agreement was signed on 14 September 2012 in the presence of central government and regional authorities. The event marked a symbolic start of the conversion project. On 24 June 2012 the Marine Station was visited by Bronis?aw Komorowski, the President of Poland, who was given a presentation of the Emigration Museum concept by the authorities of Gdynia. The visit may be treated as a reference to other visits by prominent guests before the war.
Selected in a tender, the general contractor of the project is Marbud, a Gdynia-based company. In 2013 the corner section was rebuilt and the reconstructed eagle low reliefs were mounted on the façade in early 2014. The conversion ended in early 2014. The next step was to arrange the exhibition. The official opening of the Emigration Museum is scheduled for early 2015.
The history of the Marine Station and its conversion are worthy of a separate monograph. This has been Gdynia’s most important conversion of a historic modernist building. The significance is twofold. The building will be home to a new cultural institution - the Emigration Museum. This will ensure that the historic site will have a new function and one that will be delivered in conformity with its historic layout and character. By having the City of Gdynia as its public investor, the building will be available to the public and the restored interiors and their design will provide the backdrop for the permanent exhibition and temporary exhibits. The historic features have now been enriched with new values which the building has never had before.
The Marine Station is an example of a successful conversion of a historic building which lost its original function. Many other historic buildings such as the Rice Mill, Port Cold Store, Long-Term Warehouse and Grain Elevator have been modernised and improved and still operate as they used to in the 1930s.
Photo (above): Delegates at the conference "Modernism in Europe - Modernism in Gdynia. Architecture of the 20th Century and its Assessment" at the Marin Station, September 20, 2014.
Robert Hirsch, architect, City Conservation Officer, Gdynia, Poland