Artists to teach empathy in Nowa Huta


Małgorzata Wach: Was Nowa Huta a good place to create Utopia Home?

Małgorzata Szydłowska,  Director of Utopia Home – International Empathy Centre: Perfect!


When people hear the word ‘utopia’, they often think of something unreal. Meanwhile, utopia – as envisioned by Thomas More – is simply a good place to be. One based on justice, solidarity and equality. The building of Nowa Huta was based on similar ideas. These were not just empty words. People were given a chance to have a home of their own. It may not have been a perfect one, but for many it was still a dream come true.

The key word in this project was, in my opinion, home.

Many people may claim that it was actually ‘socialism’.

Nowa Huta was built under the auspices of the communist government, but the builders were not inspired by the idea of socialism. In my opinion, most of them worked because someone promised them their own home.

Among the people who built it were those who had lost entire families during the war, repatriates from the East, and the inhabitants of poor villages who were given the chance to escape poverty. At one point there were 30,000 people building the district, and most of them remained in Nowa Huta. Today their children and grandchildren live here and they think it is a great place to be. Many of them cannot imagine living elsewhere.

It is worth adding that last year the British newspaper ‘The Guardian’ ranked Nowa Huta as the best district to live in Europe.

Let’s talk about Utopia Home the International Empathy Centre, which was established in the Szkolne 26 district. What will it be like?

It was previously one of the wings of Electrical School Complex No 2, which closed due to a demographic decline. The building remained empty for many years.

We proposed obtaining EU funding to allow us to revitalise it, so that it could serve the needs of the inhabitants. This is how the idea for the International Empathy Centre was born.

We felt that this was the right place to promote and develop this idea.

Dom Utopii from a bird's eye view


The idea of empathy and art has accompanied Bartosz and I since we began our artistic activities, which was over 25 years ago. The theatres we created, first in Kraków’s Kazimierz district and later in Nowa Huta, were not theatres in the traditional sense of the word. From the very beginnings we thought of them as places where culture as it is broadly understood could involve the local residents. They hosted not only performances, but also concerts, performances with crowd participation, film screenings, literary meetings, discussions and much more.

Over time, Łaźnia Nowa became a municipal theatre. Its main task was the production of plays. Other projects, obviously, had to take a back seat. We began to carry some of them out during an event known as Bulwar[t] Sztuki (‘Art Boulevard’).

neighborly singing

Tell us about this project.

Since 2016, over a two summer month period, we organised nearly a hundred different cultural events at the Nowa Huta Reservoir – from performances to concerts, film screenings, literary meetings and workshops. The pandemic thwarted our plans last year, but we still managed to produce a significant part of the programme. We did it in the safe space of Łaźnia Nowa’s garden. Bulwar[t] is addressed mainly to adults, but we also have something to offer children and teenagers.

You could say that in a sense Utopia Home continues the idea of Bulwar[t] throughout the year, yet at the same time offering something more.

What do you mean?

It will be the first place in Nowa Huta to offer artistic residencies, including the facilities for artists’ studios. It will be a place for the inhabitants of Nowa Huta to meet artists, amateurs with professionals from not just different parts of Poland but also from around the world.

Who will stay at Utopia Home?

Primarily artists representing various fields of art, including theatre directors, choreographers, musicians, visual artists and performers, those who are interested in interaction, the clashes between concept and reality. Together with the inhabitants of Nowa Huta, we will seek answers to the questions: what is the role of art today, do humans still need it? If yes, then what should it be nowadays, such that it can become part of everyday life?

I would like the works created as part of the residency to be deeply rooted in Nowa Huta, resulting from the spatial arrangements, history and meetings with inhabitants, so that the artists understand what is important for the people who live in Nowa Huta today.

Sounds utopian.

The search for deeper ties between art and everyday life is an interesting current trend that is developing all over the world.

One might say that Utopia Home is a return to the roots of the Łaźnia?

The idea is the same, but it’s somewhere that’s bursting with new energy.

We would like Utopia Home to become an artistic think tank, an exchange of competences between the viewer and the artist. The inhabitants of Nowa Huta, local non-governmental organisations as well as artists who can find here a place for their activities.

The key words while thinking about this place are: home, dialogue and trust.

In our activities we attempt to refer to the history of Nowa Huta, but doing so in a creative way. These references to history are evident both in the design of the interior and the façade of the building, which comprises, for example, steel and large windows offering views of the Nowa Huta Reservoir. Steel refers to the history of the Conglomerate.

Nowa Huta

What exactly does the Utopia Home building comprise?

Utopia Home has four floors, which at the level of ideas can be described as: acting, thinking, empathising and living.

There will be, for example, craft and multimedia studios, meeting rooms, as well as a fitness room and apartments for residents.

Utopia Home will also feature a usable roof with a minimalist garden and fountain.

Let us add that this will not be an ordinary fountain.

That’s true. This will be the ‘Fountain of the Future’ from 2014, the figure of a peeing Lenin, about which the foreign press has written so much.

I wonder how fitness rooms could be connected with artistic activities?

The concept of the space in Utopia Home refers to a holistic vision of human beings and their development. It combines spiritual and intellectual development with an awareness of the body and its condition. The awareness of shaping the quality of life should be a very important element of artists’ meetings with the inhabitants of Nowa Huta. We will seek deeper ties between art and everyday life.

There is no contradiction with the artistic activities here. On the contrary, I believe that movement can stimulate creative activities.

We want to develop a new language of art. Utopia Home is about to become a kind of laboratory for new aesthetic values, attitudes and relationships. It is to introduce elements of everyday life into contemporary art in such a way that the two spheres intermingle.

Let us return for a moment to Lenin and the Fountain of the Future, which will be located on the roof of Utopia Home. Where does this idea come from?

The figure of a peeing Lenin fits perfectly with the concept of a utopian project.

It is a metaphor that reminds us that we should read Nowa Huta anew. It cannot be constantly talked about as a relic of the Polish People’s Republic, which serves as a constant remainder of the idea of socialism, the Lenin monument and the Conglomerate.

The Lenin monument is associated with an oppressive regime, but by taking a humorous approach we give it new meaning. Pretending that it is not a part of Nowa Huta’s history makes no sense. The more we pretend that something does not exist, the more it affects our lives. The peeing Lenin is a metaphor for breaking free from the old traumas. It shows that we can tame the demons of history.

Fountain of the Future

One of the first decisions you made during the renovation of the building was to remove the fence. Why?

I want Utopia Home to become an open place. One that the people of Nowa Huta can visit during a casual walk, to sit on a bench, enter the building, read a book, drink a coffee, or have a conversation. Such a visit does not have to be connected with a specific activity or workshop. Fencing is a kind of barrier. It is inherently a physical barrier, but in some way it also becomes a mental barrier. It signals that the building has a strictly defined function and is therefore only accessible to a select few.

You mentioned that the key word in thinking about this place is the word ‘home’. What does that mean?

When creating this place, I was guided from the beginning by the slogans: ‘A home where you can feel. A home where you can think. A home where you can act’.

Home is a very specific kind of place in space. The point from which we set off and return. In my opinion, it is primarily a place to build relationships.

It is not only a physical space, but also an emotional one. A space where people come together and build a community, which cannot happen without empathy. I believe that empathy is the one condition for creating a home where we feel comfortable and safe. Without it, home is just a place. Like many other places.

On the other hand, a home should inspire, be a place for individual creation, as Oskar Hansen used to say: ‘Be an effective tool for visual impact’.

How do you understand this?

Utopia Home is intended to provide users with a variety of experiences, but also to give them the feeling that they are co-creators of this place, to which they can contribute their energy and ideas. That they can leave their own mark there. All ‘household members’ can enjoy equal rights during their visit.

Hansen’s vision of the ‘Open Form’ was at the heart of the thinking about the perspective of development for this place. It is primarily about stimulating the imagination. Showing that flexibility in space can be an area of human development.

In the history of Nowa Huta, there have already been such innovative projects in which all the ‘household members’ had equal rights. It can be said that the whole of Nowa Huta was such a project but, as we know, the pursuit of this vision ended in failure.

I think one of the reasons for this failure was the propaganda that promoted shock workers, which is contrary to the idea of personal rest after work. People wanted time for themselves, they wanted a space that was purely private, not shared.

Dom Utopii - view from above

Before the renovation began, the building served as a school of sorts.

That’s true. In February 2017, the project ‘School of Utopia’ was launched in abandoned classrooms, where the creators were Marek Chlanda and his son Marcin.

Marek is a visual artist. Marcin is a stage designer. Over several months the former school space was transformed from a vacant building into an object of research, material for recycling, an idea. A year later, Magda Szpecht directed the play ‘The Last Animals’ in this space. So it can be said that the building has been a living place since we took it over, not since the renovation began.

The visual concepts of Mark Chlanda and his son were used, for example, in the spacial arrangement of Utopia Home.

The first project you initiated 16 years ago in Łaźnia Nowa was called ‘I live here’. What will be the first project for Utopia Home?

In 2004 the inhabitants of Nowa Huta were encouraged to bring items that were of special importance to them to Łaźnia and to tell stories related to them. Based on these stories, five one-act plays were created and combined into a performance directed by Jacek Papis and entitled: ‘I live here’.

For the first project at Utopia Home we invited amateur actors from Nowa Huta, who have been working with Łaźnia since its inception. So we can say that in a sense we will repeat the invitation from 16 years ago. The project will be titled ‘Archaeology of Everyday Life’ and permanently included in the programme of Utopia Home.

Can we discuss it?

In the Archaeology of Everyday Life – as the name suggests – we will emphasise the discovery of everyday life. Finding in it new meanings.

The programme will include workshops in artistic studios, but an important element will also be going out into the city, meeting people who live here, then creating joint projects and art installations that will become a permanent element of the landscape of Nowa Huta.

I don’t want to say too much about what will happen in the first instalment of Archaeology, because the activity is supposed to surprise.

Another important project of Utopia Home will be the University of Looking Through Theatre.

Who will be the teachers and the students of this university?

We will use the experience gathered, from Łaźnia over the 16 years of its existence. During this time, almost 600 artists have contributed to its projects: actors, directors, stage designers, choreographers, musicians, lighting directors, and so on. Among them were such well-known names as Krystian Lupa, Jan Peszek and Jerzy Stuhr, but also very young artists who had only just begun their careers.

We want to use the potential and knowledge of these people to create a place for the exchange of experiences in the field of theatre craft. Expanding this concept in the context of contemporary art and new ways of communicating with the viewer.

What will such classes be like?

Łaźnia has fantastic technical facilities for using theatrical facilities. We are going to make use of them. The ‘students’ of the University of Looking Through Theatre will not only gain theoretical knowledge about the various artistic activities and the process of creating performances, but will also learn how these processes are implemented.

The curriculum of the University of Looking Through Theatre will be aimed primarily at stage designers, costume designers, lighting and video engineers, choreographers, wardrobe assistants, prop makers, grips, as well as producers and stage managers. The internship will be open to everyone, depending on their interest in any given field. We will start slowly and gradually expand our activities. Everything depends on what financial support we can get from the city to carry out these plans.

I understand that for this university the ‘students’ will primarily be people who are already active in the world of theatre and would like to broaden their knowledge?

Others will be able to join as well. People who love theatre who are not directly involved in theatre will also be able to take advantage of the university’s workshops and meetings. They will learn, for example, that theatre productions are not made by ‘magic’, but by the efforts of specific people using processes that can be defined.

I believe that these processes should be open and accessible. In this way, the audience gains knowledge that makes them more conscious receivers of art.

Can we reveal some names of lecturers of the University of Looking Through Theatre?

We will not limit ourselves to theatre only. The list of our lecturers will also include curators connected with Bulwar[t] Sztuki. The list includes Łukasz Maciejewski, who runs the Polish Film Academy, cinematographer and director Marcin Koszałka, director Michał Buszewicz, who runs a stage for young people, and Dominik Strycharski, who is a musician and composer of theatre music.

We will also invite to Utopia Home experts from fields that are not directly related to art. Such as scientists, philosophers and specialists in new technologies. I believe that theatre should go beyond its own framework and resonate with what is currently happening in the world, in a much broader context.

Utopia Home also has studios for artistic crafts, such as ceramics, upholstery and tailoring. Who will run these workshops?

The instructors will include both theatre craftsmen and artists who use crafts for creative activities.

Those who take part in the workshops can learn, for example, how certain artistic techniques may be applied to domestic needs. They can learn not only how to make their own tableware and ornamental prints, or sew curtains or a sofa bedspread, but also discover what contemporary art is all about and that they too can be its co-creators.

The workshops will also be open to people with motor, visual and hearing impairments, as well as those with intellectual disabilities.

How does the space at Utopia Home differ from that of Łaźnia Nowa?

Creating Łaźnia and adapting it to the needs of the theatre was a completely different process. We started to function there while the building was in ruins. We transformed the space gradually, simultaneously carrying out artistic activities.

Utopia Home is a whole new space. We began the transformation with a renovation. Although – as we have already mentioned – there were also artistic activities that preceded this renovation.

Łaźnia Nowa clearly evokes the atmosphere of the Polish People’s Republic. It contains, for example, furniture and artefacts from that period. Utopia Home does not evoke this atmosphere.

The Utopia Home building is not a historic one. It has a completely different vibe. The functions of the rooms are also different. Above all, there is no theatre stage.

In designing this place, I tried to ensure that both the inhabitants of Nowa Huta and the artists who come from different parts of the world feel comfortable there.

This place is intended to connect the past, present and future. That is why the question of what kind of a place Nowa Huta is today is so important to me. Who are the people who live in Nowa Huta today? Why did they decide to stay or live here? What are their expectations of this place? What do they miss, what do they dream about?

After 16 years in Nowa Huta, I still believe that it has a lot to offer. Kraków can envy Nowa Huta not only its green spaces, but also local activists and thriving NGOs.

It was the activists and NGO representatives you invited to Utopia Home in the first place. Even before the official opening.

I believe these people are Nowa Huta’s great asset. They have a real impact not only on how the district looks, but also on what is important for it. When we created Utopia Home, we wanted the NGOs to find here a space for their own activities. We are already thinking about the first joint projects. I hope the city will support these initiatives.

Aren’t you afraid that Utopia Home’s distance from the centre of Kraków might mean that it becomes a place only where the citizens of Nowa Huta and the artists you invite will be active?

When Bartosz and I started creating Łaźnia in 2005, we felt that Nowa Huta was an island which would condemn us to artistic isolation. And this is what actually happened. For the first four years, Kraków was far from us, but when the International Theatre Festival Divine Comedy appeared on the horizon, of which Bartosz is the artistic director, that distance ceased to matter. Suddenly we were visited not only by people from Kraków, but also by the most outstanding theatre artists from all over Poland.

I believe that thanks to innovative projects, Utopia Home will also become an important place on the cultural map of Poland, and the artists who come here will appreciate the creative potential of Nowa Huta and its inhabitants.

The culmination of the joint activities at Utopia Home will be the ‘Nowa Huta Biennale’. What lies behind this name?

We will reveal the details of this project in the autumn, when we present the DU programme. For now I will only say that we want to organise an international festival every two years, intended to present the effects of the work by artists and the citizens who work with them. The people of Nowa Huta will host this event.

The themes of the festival will be very varied – from simple stories of everyday life, describing life and initiatives originating from the blocks of flats, to large artistic projects, which I hope will get a lot of publicity and not only in Poland.

The inhabitants of Nowa Huta, under the guidance of professional artists, will prepare plays, films, exhibitions and various types of performance art. We will not limit our actions solely to the building of Utopia Home. We will also appear in the city space.

We hope that the Nowa Huta Biennale will attract not only the inhabitants of Nowa Huta, but also visitors from elsewhere.

How can you be sure that the inhabitants of Nowa Huta will want to get involved in your artistic activities?

From the very beginning we’ve tried to involve local people in Łaźnia’s activities, such as the idea to involve amateur actors in our performances. At the same time we initiated a number of artistic and social actions, which are still bearing fruit today. Some of the activists mentioned earlier became infected with a passion for social action during the ‘Łaźnioaktywni’ project.

People who are not very familiar with the history of Nowa Huta associate it mainly with the Conglomerate and workers. It is still little known that Nowa Huta was home to many artistic activities. In the 1950s, the first amateur theatre operated at the Szkolne 25 district, the address where Łaźnia is situated today. It was called the Nurt Theatre and was created by the workers who were building Nowa Huta. Together they built a block which could accommodate over 200 people. They sacrificed their free time to do so. The group was led by Jan Kurczab, who was also Nurt’s artistic director. The performances were so popular that there were not enough seats available.

There were many more such initiatives in Nowa Huta in the 1950s.

That’s true. I think we should remind people of the theatres, cinemas, cultural centres and artists who settled and created in this area. After all, courses in graphic design, the plastic arts and sculpture were organised here. There were ballet and recitation troupes. In the summer, film screenings and dance parties were organised within the city, with musicians from Nowa Huta. Many young men from the Voluntary Work Corps attended classes with students of the Academy of Fine Arts.

We want to recall this part of history and refer to it in our activities.  In order to do so, we have, for example, signed an agreement for cooperation between the Academy of Fine Arts and Utopia Home.

What do you expect from this place?

I would like to make use of all the experience that Bartosz and I have gained in Nowa Huta and elsewhere. Nearly thirty years of working in theatre shows me that there is a need for creative activity in every human being. When we’re children, it seems natural. Unfortunately, school doesn’t encourage us to develop this need. Later on we are constantly busy and we simply forget about the things we once dreamt about. Someone wanted to paint or make ceramics, someone else wanted to write poetry or short stories, yet another person wanted to try his or her hand at theatre. With time, most of these people decide that art is only for artists, while the rest are doomed to a mundane everyday life.

Utopia Home will try to remove this stereotypical thinking about art. It will not be a place solely for artists. The pleasure of art will be available here for anyone who feels a need to enjoy it. I believe that the number of people willing to visit will be much higher than the number of places we will be able to provide.

Małgorzata Szydłowska

Małgorzata Szydłowska – stage designer, Łaźnia Nowa Theatre’s Deputy Director for theatrical productions, Director of Utopia Home – International Empathy Centre. She is a graduate of stage design at the Academy of Fine Arts in Kraków She is also an author of an innovative concept of rebuilding and adapting the post-industrial space of rooms that once belonged to a local school for the needs of the Łaźnia Nowa Theatre and arranging its interiors and stages. She has created stage design and costumes for dozens of performances in drama, opera and music theatres in Poland and abroad. She creates art installations, exhibitions and multimedia projects. The originator and curator of the educational series ‘Myśląca ręka’ (‘Thinking Hand’), carried out at the Juliusz Słowacki Theatre in Kraków. Curator and author of the arrangement of the exhibition ‘Thinking Hand’, presented at the House of Theatre Crafts in Kraków.

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