Discovering the modernist architecture of Wroclaw, Poland

Did you know that Wroclaw has some beautiful examples of modernist architecture?

Wroclaw, Poland, is famous for its massive main square in the old town (Rynek), full of colourful buildings everywhere you look.

It’s the kind of buildings you’d put on a postcard and during my entire stay in Wroclaw I couldn’t get enough of them…

But if you want to view the city in a somewhat different light, pay attention to  the buildings you see when you step outside the market square.

There are some exceptional buildings on almost every street of the city.

You may overlook them (not all of them are in good repair), so it’s worth looking up to spot all the great styles and interesting architecture around Wroclaw.

Modernism in Wroclaw: time frame

Of all the architectural styles you’ll encounter in Wroclaw, this guide focuses on modernist architecture with its clean lines and minimalist facades.

Modernist architecture emerged at the beginning of the 20th century.

It gained more popularity after the First World War, especially in the Interwar period.

At that time, Wroclaw wasn’t part of Poland, but was still a German city by the name of Breslau.

After the Second World War Wroclaw became part of a communist state, the People’s Republic of Poland, under a strong soviet influence.

Many modernist gems were built in Wroclaw during the 20th century. It’s interesting to see how their varying styles represent the changes that the city went through.

Interesting modernist buildings to see in Wroclaw

Here’s my selection of some great buildings to see when you go outside the old town of Wroclaw.

The Centennial Hall and the Four Domes Pavilion

The two buildings are right next to each other and are two of the most famous landmarks in Wroclaw, so they should be on your Wroclaw bucket list.

They are located a short tram ride away from the city centre. There’s a lot to see in the area, so plan to spend about half a day there.

The Centennial Hall

Centennial Hall Wroclaw
Wroclaw’s Centennial Hall

The first landmark is the Centennial Hall (Hala Stulecia), designed by  Max Berg. It dates back to 1913.

The building has been recognised as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, described by UNESCO as “an outstanding example of early Modernism”.

The beautiful Centennial Hall dome is 23m-high. If you walk around the grounds surrounding the building, you’ll see how impressive it looks from every angle.

It was originally built to host the Centennial Exhibition and is now used as a conference centre and concert hall.

This video (in Polish with English subtitles) tells the story of the hall and has some wonderful drone footage.

You can visit the Centennial Hall to see what it looks like from the inside.  The visitor centre has an excellent  interactive exhibition about the hall and about many other related topics, such as architectural styles, housing in Wrocław, UNESCO sites and even other domes around the world.

I really enjoyed the exhibition and suggest you go there when you have plenty of time, it’s pretty comprehensive.

What I loved the most was the VR experience that’s part of the exhibition, especially flying above the dome!

The Four Domes Pavilion

Four Domes Pavilion Wroclaw Landmark
One of the four domes and the museum entrance

The second landmark to visit is the Four Domes Pavilion, by German architect Hans Poelzig.

It was completed in 1912 and these days it houses the museum of modern and contemporary art .

I highly recommend you visit the museum exhibitions to learn about Polish art, and at the same time get to see the building from the inside.

Next to the two buildings there is another local attraction, the Multimedia Fountain that runs hourly colourful shows.

A few steps from there you’ll find Wroclaw’s gorgeous Japanese Garden. I absolutely loved the garden. It’s a great place to chill after visiting the Centennial Hall and the Four Domes Pavilion.

WuWa

WuWa housing

After you visit the Centennial Hall, take a short walk (about 10 minutes) to WuWa.

One of the things that modernist architecture is known for is its functionalism.

Generally speaking, buildings were designed with the needs of the residents in mind. Among other things, they used natural light, provided a lot of green spaces and in some cases even furnished the apartments.

So what’s WuWa?

It’s a complex of buildings that served as a model housing project, back when it was built in 1929.

As cities in Europe were growing, there was a need to create new housing projects that could be constructed quickly and efficiently. WuWa was completed in three months.

WuWa is still in use as a residential area as it’s been preserved over the years.

If you’re curious about the acronym, WuWa is short for “Wohnungs- und Werkraumausstellung”, German for living and work space exhibition.

WuWa cafe
WuWa cafe

While you’re there, don’t miss the WuWa cafe with its cute retro design. It’s a good place to stop for coffee before taking the tram back to the city centre.

Manhattan housing estate

Manhattan Wroclaw Architecture

Built in the 1970’s during the communist era in the People’s Republic of Poland, Manhattan estate is a 6-block housing estate with its own quirky design.

It’s called Manhattan because it has tall towers that were associated with New York City.

Designed by Polish architect Jadwiga Grabowska-Hawrylak, this housing estate was meant to be a white modernist creation.

For some reason, what was built instead were grey concrete towers with a Brutalist look. Luckily, in recent years they were painted white, so the buildings you see today are as the architect intended them to be. 

Manhattan Wroclaw building

I really like the design, the curved balconies and the cool patterns that they create. They look both simple and complex at the same time.

Rumour has it that some locals don’t like these buildings at all and they’ve been given the name “Toilet Seat Buildings”.

When I took a guided city tour in Wroclaw, the guide told us that for him as a child, Manhattan was in Wroclaw. Later when he watched movies he was surprised to see Manhattan was actually in NYC…

Scientists’ House

Scientists House Wroclaw

Not far from the Manhattan estate, in plac Grunwaldzki 15, there’s another interesting building called Scientists’ House, built in 1959-1961.

You’ll recognise the soviet architecture style easily. Some like the style and some don’t, but I think this one has a nice facade.

It’s called the Scientists’ House because its residents were university scientists.

While you’re in that part of the city, wander around some of the contemporary university buildings in the area. It’s easy to spot some very unique designs.

Renoma and Kameleon department stores

Two large department stores, Renoma and Kameleon, both designed in the 1920’s, are beautiful examples of the modernist style of that era.

Renoma Department Store

This large building is hard to miss. It’s less than 10 minutes away from the old town. Its round corner is a wonderful modernist touch.

When you look up, you’ll notice gold plating and people’s faces. It’s not always easy to see, but they represent people from different places around the world.

The building opened in 1930 and has been renovated over the years. It has won many architectural awards.

Kameleon Department Store

Kameleon Wroclaw Modernism

Another example of early 20th century modernist architecture and also has a characteristic round corner.

It was originally designed by architect Erich Mendelsohn and the building you can see today is the renovated version of the historic building.

The Contemporary Museum

Wroclaw’s Contemporary Museum is well worth a visit for its exhibitions, but the building it’s currently housed in is also remarkable.

It’s an old  air-raid shelter from WWII, built in 1942.

You wouldn’t be able to tell that it was a shelter. Although it’s made of concrete, it has an interesting round shape and apparently it was designed to conceal its original purpose.

Dolmed

Dolmed Wroclaw Architecture

A short walk from the Contemporary Museum, you’ll find another modernist building called Dolmed. This one is from the 1970’s and is shaped like an inverted pyramid.  

More interesting places for architecture lovers in  Wroclaw

Here are some more recommendations for architecture buffs visiting Wroclaw. They’re all in the city centre and easy to get to.

The National Forum of Music in Wroclaw (Narodowe Forum Muzyki)

Wroclaw Music Forum postmodern architecture

This magnificent concert hall was built in a postmodern style and completed in 2015.

OVO Wrocław

Wroclaw OVO design

An exceptional building that’s hard to miss with a flowing oval shape and a striking, bright facade. It’s said to have been influenced by the historic Kameleon building.

The Museum of Architecture in Wroclaw

Wroclaw’s Museum of Architecture is located in the city centre inside a former church and monastery. It’s interesting to visit both for the exhibitions and the building itself. 

Wroclaw free walking tour

I took the Wroclaw free tour on my second day in Wroclaw (it’s always a good idea to take these tours as early as possible) for an overview of the history of the city and the local culture.

Because the architecture in Wroclaw is so unique, it came up quite often during the tour. I also took the opportunity to ask the tour guide questions about interesting buildings I spotted along the way.

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