Willa Koliba-  Stylin’ A Nation (1892-1893)

Wanting to be remembered is probably innately human; we strive to mark this world in a way that it is tough to erase. For prominent architects, this takes on a different meaning. Eames is forever linked with his chair, Corbusier with his movement, and Mies with a phrase. I wander down this rabbit path precisely because I wonder if these architects would be proud. Eames’ chair is still coveted, and Mies stands by his philosophy, but Corbusier’s style is now a little ‘dated.’

While there will probably never be an architectural history class that fails to mention him, his style is a product of its time and its use now is more throwback than ‘modern.’ Would Corbu be proud? Maybe, probably even. But you can bet your dollar that Witkiewicz is forever proud to be linked to Poland’s first architectural style. (What? You have never heard of him?)

Some might say it has a few things going for it.

With all the Canadian fresh air recently flowing through my lungs, I have been dreaming of timber. Timber barns, timber lodges, timber teahouses next to a glacier. As I strolled through downtown Banff all I could think about was its similarity to Zakopane.

I will venture that when we normally see heavy timer, we don’t think of architectural styles. Instead our mind conjures ideas of Pa Ingalls creating his log cabin in Rocky Woods. We think of the everyday rather than design.

Stanislaw Witkiewicz thought differently. After settling in Zakopane, he came to love the traditional Goral huts and designs that proliferated in the area. In 1890, Zakopane was quite small, but in the next few decades it would gain significant popularity for skiing, health restoration and artistic endeavors.  Witkiewicz watched as hundreds of visitors came and observed the construction of Swiss and Austro Hungarian chalets all over his beloved town.

Stanislaw probably felt like I do when I see the domination of McMansions in the landscape, disappointed. But for all we know, he could have been outraged too. Whatever exact emotion he was feeling, he used it to fuel a new style of architecture. It was imperative that the style not feel Swiss or Hungarian, but Polish.

It’s a little different, isn’t it?


It’s important to note that his desire for a national style was rooted more deeply than just country pride. At the time, Poland had been robbed of her own sovereignty, a series of partitions and uprisings had led to Prussian, Austrian and Russian rule. So while Poland as a sovereign nation may not have existed, Witkiewicz was determined that the Polish style would.

Utilized the vernacular of the native Gorals (native highlanders found in Southern Poland and Northern Slovakia) and mixing it with a bit of Art Nouvea, Witkiewicz created the Zakopane style.

This trend towards the vernacular is not unique to Poland. The arts and crafts movement that took Europe by storm in the 1880 is not dissimilar. Both called for a return to rich design and decoration made before machinery and factory production. People had become dissatisfied by the products they were getting from their progressive factories, they yearned for the past. For Witkiewicz, it had the added bonus of being a return to a truly Polish craft.

Willa or Villa Koliba (because Ws are Vs in Polish) is the original villa linked to the creation of the style. With it, Witkiewicz had lofty aims to build “a home which would settle all existing doubts about the possibility of adapting folk architecture to the requirements deriving from the more complex and sophisticated needs of comfort and beauty. To design a home that would inherently withstand all common grievances and undermine all customary prejudices. To erect a house that would prove that one can have a home, a dwelling in the dominant style of Zakopane and yet be confident that this home will not disintegrate, that it will effectively protect one from storms, gales and the cold, that it will possess the full range of comforts yet simultaneously be beautiful in a fundamentally Polish way.” (“The Zakopane style in Polish Architecture”. )

It’s up to you to decide if you think he achieved that.

To do this he used soaring roofs reminiscent of their gothic brethren, chalet-like silhouettes, and the Gorals’ stone and wood carved decorations. He applied meticulous handcrafting but in a way that the Gorals never had before seen. Traditional wooden cottages were made from rough logs, but they flourished in delicately carved patterns and woodworking. Inspired by the practical, Witkiewicz was able to adapt the style to certain aesthetic needs, attempting to combine the folk architecture with complex and refined ideas of comfort and beauty. Throughout it all, Stanislaw believed the Gorals were co-creators of the Zakopane style, even as he shifted the purpose of the vernacular for his own aims. He broadened the geometrical and plant motifs often found in their designs to include the flora of the Zakopane region and in some instances he applied decoration on a more modern design in the way someone might apply a sticker. So all in all, there were pluses and minuses.

Sticker decoration or fundamental? Either way, it’s pretty awesome.

Willa Koliba (actually meaning shephard’s hut in Polish) was originally envisioned as a hut to store Zygmunt Gnatowski’s collection of ethnographic artifacts. Witkiewicz, a well known draftsman and playwright, convinced Gnatowski to award the commission to him. What he created went far beyond a hut. These stylish interiors you see are actually really grand for this time. This house was chock full of furniture and utensils, tiled stoves, cornics, curtains and cast elements for door handles and locks. It was ‘designed.’

The orginial building held five rooms. The dining room, drawing room, and bedroom occupy the first level, while Gnatowski’s room and the servant’s room can be found on the upper level. Since restoration, these rooms have returned to what they used to look like. Gnatowski later added an addition to the building, before dying without heirs. From there, the villa passed through a series of hands and wound up in the Nazi’s lap as a seat of the Hitler-Jugend during WWII. Following WWII, it became an orphanage until December 1981. When repairs were once again necessary, it was decided to restore the building and open a museum celebrating this lesser known style that really only ‘technically’ lasted for twenty years.

Whether or not he accomplished his personal, lofty aims, later designers would take these ideas and run with them. They further developed and added decorative shapes to the style. It began to spread, even though it would never reach all over Poland as Stanislaw hoped. It did end up making it to Warsaw though (which is actually pretty far away from Zakopane), where someone tried to adopt it for brick construction. The beginning of WWI would bring the style to a grinding halt. By the time Poland was ready to build again, advancements had left the design ideas largely abandoned, although some villas and homes are still incorporating elements today. Witkiewicz may not have gotten a truly national style, but he did initiate the development of regional architecture and applied art.

People believed the Zakopane style was a return to the golden age and it fit with their idealized romantic version of peasantry. It made them remember a united Poland, a soverign Poland. They adopted it because it was closest to the authentic traits of a nation that no longer existed. It was intended to express true Polish-ness.

And although some regions might lack a true ‘style’, Zakopane truly embraced its own.

A church made in a similar vein.

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