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A home for empathy and artists, in a former socialist-realist district of Cracow

4 June 2021

Utopia Home – International Empathy Centre will provide a place of interaction, exchange and community for the artists and residents of Cracow in Poland. This new institution, which is set to open to the public in June, is the brainchild of Małgorzata Szydłowska and Bartosz Szydłowski, who co-founded the Łaźnia Nowa Theatre in Cracow 15 years ago.

‘The idea of empathy and art has been a matter of principle for us throughout all of our artistic activity, that is, for over 25 years,’ emphasises Małgorzata Szydłowska, who is deputy director of the Łaźnia Nowa Theatre as well as director of Utopia Home. ‘The theatres we set up – first in Cracow’s Kazimierz district and next in Nowa Huta – were not classic ones. From the very outset, we viewed them as places of broadly understood culture, in which we engaged local citizens. They hosted not only theatre productions, but also concerts, performances, film shows, literary gatherings, discussions and many other events.’

Utopia Home is located in a building that previously housed a school. For many years, the space was vacant. In 2017, the Łaźnia Nowa Theatre was granted funding from the European Union for a project to reconstruct and modernise the building. The works on Utopia Home lasted from April 2019 to December 2020. The completed building features a modern education centre, craft studios, meeting space, artist residencies and a movement and rest zone.

Utopia Home – International Empathy Centre, Cracow. Photo: Laznia Nowa Theatr

The facility – which can accommodate 600 people at a time – consists of four storeys, each endowed with its own symbolic function: acting, thinking, empathising and living. On the lower-ground floor are arts and crafts studios; the upper-ground floor is a meeting place, and the upper floor has been designed as activity space where the body can be set in motion. The top storey is the living space for resident artists.

The place is aimed at artists from various fields of art, including theatre directors, choreographers, musicians, visual artists and performers, who will engage the residents of Nowa Huta, the district where Utopia Home is located, in their artistic activities.

Nowa Huta is a place with a special history. Located in the eastern part of Cracow, it was conceived in the 1950s to implement the socialist-realist concept of the ideal, utopian city. The district, designed from scratch, was built for the workers of the Vladimir Lenin steelworks, which was to contribute to the post-war reconstruction of Poland in the spirit of progress and prosperity. The plant became the major industrial complex in Poland. Since the collapse of communism, Nowa Huta’s industrial role has waned – but the district’s unique urban layout has been entered in the register of historic monuments as a cultural asset and a representative illustration of socialist-realist town-planning in Poland. In 2020, Nowa Huta ranked alongside Moabit in Berlin and Howth in Dublin among Guardian readers’ selections of ‘the best city neighbourhoods in Europe’ to live in.

Laznia Nowa Theatre and Utopia Home in Nowa Huta, Cracow Photo: Laznia Nowa Theatre

‘In the activities of Utopia Home, we are going to refer to the history of Nowa Huta, but we will do so in a creative way,’ says Małgorzata Szydłowska. ‘This is why the question of what kind of place Nowa Huta is today matters so much for us. Who are the people who live here now? Why did they decide to stay or live here? What are their expectations of this place? What do they long for – what do they dream of?’

On the roof of Utopia Home, there will be a Fountain of the Future: a statue of Lenin urinating, painted fluorescent yellow and modelled on the historical monument that stood in the centre of Nowa Huta from 1973 to 1989. The sculpture, which was first presented by Małgorzata Szydłowska and Bartosz Szydłowski at the ArtBoom festival in Cracow in 2014, brings forth memories of the apparatus of communist repression – but through its humorous overtones it also serves as a reminder that Nowa Huta must not simply be viewed as an open-air museum of communist rule in Poland. Similarly, its founders emphasise that Utopia Home will resonate with the history and energy of Nowa Huta but will not focus solely on it.

Fountain of the Future, ArtBoom Festival. Photo: Tomasz Wiech

‘We would like Utopia Home to become a kind of artistic think tank, a site for exchange of ideas between spectators and artists,’ says Małgorzata Szydłowska. ‘Together with the residents of Nowa Huta, we will be looking for an answer to the question of what role art plays today. Does contemporary society need art anymore? If so, what should that art be – so that it can become part of everyday life?”

Łaźnia Nowa Theatre in Cracow is carrying out a project co-financed by the European Union under measure 8.1 Priority Axis 8 Protection of Cultural Heritage and Development of Cultural Resources under Operational Programme Infrastructure and Environment 2014–2020. Full project name: ‘Reconstruction and modernisation of a building in the Szkolne 26 housing estate, a so-called New Wing for the Dom Utopii Art and Education Centre’.