Rzeszów city is currently experiencing a real investment boom and perhaps the best period in its history
Rzeszów is plenty of cranes – the city of less than 200,000 inhabitants builds as many apartments as Łódź, which has four times more inhabitants, and the prices start reaching the Cracow’s level. This shows the extraordinary potential of the market (…). The cities located in the main transport junctions are doomed to organic growth and it is enough not to disturb them. The same applies to the whole of Poland – we have a gigantic, unused potential. As the Chinese say – we are an empire that has been dormant for 300 years – says Maciej Łobos, an architect, chairman of the board, MWM Architects.
For more than 20 years you have been observing the metamorphosis that Rzeszów is undergoing. Has the city been changing for better?
Maciej Łobos: It is difficult to answer for such question to someone who is at the heart of the events. It’s a bit like with your own children – you don’t see some changes until someone outside says “oh my God, how they’ve grown up over that time!”. However, both we and the people outside Rzeszów, especially those who return to it after years, see that from the provincial, forgotten “by God and the people” town, it has changed beyond recognition. The city is currently experiencing a real investment boom and perhaps the best period in its history.
It’s not just icons that speak about the architecture’s health. How do you assess the average level of architecture in Rzeszów, the so-called background architecture?
Maciej Łobos: As Prof. Stefan Kuryłowicz once observed: “architecture is different from construction in that point it is done not only to keep people’ heads dry”… and over this point we definitely have to work in Rzeszów. However, it must be acknowledged that the situation has changed for better over the last 2-3 years. There is growing awareness of the residents themselves, but also the investors who expect good architecture. There are also more and more customers who have ambitions to leave something beautiful and valuable behind.
Is the city currently experiencing a real investment revolution?
Maciej Łobos: Rzeszów is plenty of cranes. The city of less than 200,000 inhabitants builds as many apartments as Łódź, which has four times more inhabitants, and prices start reaching the Cracow’s level. This shows the extraordinary potential of the market. The office segment is gaining momentum, too. We are currently designing three A Class office buildings with a total area of more than 45,000 square meters. We are also working on two buildings that are more than 100 m high and these are not the only projects of this type that are planned in the city. Importantly, despite the uncertainty surrounding the lockdown, the investors are starting new investments. A lot of production facilities are located around Rzeszów, and in the industrial zones plots sell like hot cakes. There are also more and more logistics investments.
Where does this investment boom come from?
Maciej Łobos: The most important factor is geography. Before the war, Rzeszów was in the middle of the route between Cracow and Lviv and was one of many provincial towns. After the war, Rzeszów took over the position of a city being at the intersection of the main east-west and north-south transport routes. Additionally, it has a great airport. The cities located in the main transport junctions are doomed to organic growth and it is enough not to disturb them. The same applies to the whole of Poland – we have a gigantic, unused potential. As the Chinese say – we are an empire that has been dormant for 300 years.
The policy of the authorities strongly supports development. Pro-investment attitudes gave the city an incredible boost. Thanks to this, not only the local business can grow, but also more and more external investors appear. One can always point out mistakes and indicate that some things could have been done better, but on balance we really have reason to be satisfied.
And probably, this interest of business is also encouraged by speeding up the implementation of Via Carpatia route?
Maciej Łobos: Return of the Via Carpatia project has greatly revived the market. The very next day, after it became loudly in the media about the route, I got a call from a large nationwide developer looking for land for investment. In his opinion, Rzeszów has a chance to become a big intermodal hub within a dozen years and investments for the future have to be planned here already. Two years ago, one of the world’s largest retail company wanted to locate its distribution centre in Rzeszów. The maps’ analysis shown them that it was the ideal location for logistics services throughout Central and Eastern Europe. Almost 100,000 sq.m. construction supposed to be built, unfortunately, there was not possible to quickly find a large enough plot of land with a local spatial plan and the topic failed, but more similar projects appear.
In addition to Via Carpatia, we should also think intensively about the construction of a railway and road connection from Rzeszów via Przemyśl, Lviv and along the Carpathians, heading south through Kiszyniów up to The Romanian
Konstanca city. From there it is really close to Turkey and further to the Middle East. It is a strategic, international project, the assumptions of which were created even in the interwar period. Its construction is extremely important for military reasons, but such route will also have a gigantic importance for the economy, activating all adjacent areas.
In what way the city affect the entire region?
Maciej Łobos: Rzeszów works similarly to Warsaw – only on a micro scale. Just as the capital absorbs the inhabitants of the whole Poland, so Rzeszów attracts people from Subcarpathia region. Now an agglomeration around Rzeszów is formed, which affects the entire province. There are over 300,000 people in the city every day, who come here for work, school or shopping. The metropolitan railway slowly starts to run. The number of permanent residents grows continuously and according to all predictions this process will continue.
Do you still maintain the view that Rzeszów may have the status of a city that Lviv had before the war?
Maciej Łobos: Yes, although I remember what extreme emotions this statement aroused – from knocking on the head to words of congratulations and recognition that someone dared to say it out aloud. It is necessary to understand that it was a mental shortcut – after all, the cities do not have great universities and museums immediately. The status of a metropolis is not given as a gift. It’s just a statement of the fact, preceded by decades, and often hundreds of years, of organic development. However, in order for the city to develop, money is needed, and these do not come from the printing house, but from work. Work is where business is, and the business naturally concentrates around transport routes. Rzeszów has all reasons to achieve the status of an important economic centre. Rzeszów is currently experiencing its “five minutes” and it must not be wasted.
So how to use these “five minutes”? What can be done to make it even better in Rzeszów – in terms of investment and to make the inhabitants live well? What are the biggest maladies affecting Rzeszów – or, what happens in many Polish cities, is that urban planning often limps?
Maciej Łobos: The malady is that the suburbs are spreading. Allowing to construct housing estates on the suburbs of cities creates huge communication, social and economic problems. In the first place, existing urban areas should be complemented and revitalised and only after depleting them allow for the development of agricultural areas in the suburbs. Rzeszów, unlike other large cities, where in the city centre is no longer possible to find a free plot of land for development, has still large land resources. In the city centre, a second such city would easily fit. In the midtown, there is a huge post-industrial background waiting for the revitalization.
The problems with the lack of spatial planning affect all cities in Poland and they cannot be solved 100% locally. This requires a counter-revolution in law at the national level. A change is needed that would allow cities to dispossess and buy back land, merge them, prepare plans, redistribute and sell them. Once the local plan is enacted, the city should provide utilities for such land, provide a reserve for public services and sell prepared plots to developers. The whole process can be financed from the planning dividend resulting from the increase in the value of the land. Spatial planning, like environmental protection, should be considered as an overriding public objective. We must also move away from the paradigm of the ‘cars kingdom’. The city is either for people or for cars – it is unfortunately impossible to reconcile one with another.
Many architects point out that Polish cities do not have clear vision of development. Some of them state that, in formal terms, the position of the urban architect should be strengthened. This is happening all over the world, and in Poland this tradition has been lost.
Maciej Łobos: In Poland, we, de facto, do not have the institution of an urban architect – we have directors of the Departments of Architecture, who are officials operating within the existing law. They do not have formal instruments to create spatial policy on a city scale, not to mention about larger area.
If the institution of an urban architect were actually function, it is worth considering that this would be a position in the rank of vice-president or even a head of the department, who would be responsible for coordinating the work of offices such as the Road Administration, the Office of Urban Planning, the Board of Greenery, the Department of Architecture and in case of conflict matters would have the final decision. This is a situation similar to the one we are dealing with in the process of building design – the architect is at the forefront of a multi-discipline team and it is on him/her to make crucial decisions.
Why it doesn’t work in Poland?
Maciej Łobos: In Poland, there is no general awareness of the impact that space has on human life and the quality of social relations. We already understand that factories cannot let wastewater into rivers and fumes into the atmosphere and that filters are needed because the poisoned environment destroys us in a physical sense. It’s similar with space – poorly designed, degrades us mentally and disrupts the creation of social bonds.
We make the same mistakes that the so-called “west” committed 40 – 50 years ago. They know that they got into a dead end and learned the lessons. We stubbornly try to go the same way, hoping that perhaps we can make it. As a result, we let thousands of cars into the city centre, widen roads, allow suburbs to spread out and in program way we ignore the need for any spatial planning at all levels. We still have the principle of “the nobility get on horse (…), and – somehow it will be!”. This, in real life, regardless of the field, ends tragically. Whether we like it or not, all the valuable things we encounter every day are the result of someone else’s project and many hours of intellectual effort. The city, the same as the garden, must be taken care of constantly. Only weeds grow by themselves.
We must also stop treating the Building Conditions Decision as the final (and cheap) solution of the planning issue. It must be remembered that the Building Conditions Decision is only a prosthesis introduced ad hoc, in the absence of local plans, but after all, no one in his/her right mind will cut people’s legs, claiming that the prosthesis are better.
Your office has made a solid contribution to Rzeszów’s changes. You have been designing here for over 20 years. The range of your projects is very impressive. How do you evaluate these first projects over time – have they survived the test of time?
Maciej Łobos: We learn all the time. When we look at our first designs, today of course, we would have done it differently, but thanks God it is like that because it’s a sign that we are still developing. Nevertheless, from the perspective of these 20 years, we must immodestly admit that we have managed to leave some lasting trace in space.
And which project was the most important one?
Maciej Łobos: Most architects say that the most important project is still ahead of them. For me, however, the most important project was Galeria Rzeszów. This was our first (very) big project. 130,000 sqm that’s quite a lot even from today’s perspective. We started working on this topic in three people, and we finished in 20. It was a wonderful testing ground that taught us to manage the project, company, finance, etc. We jumped into the deep water and managed not to drown – I think it’s hard to get a better school.
We belong to a generation of architects born in the late 1960s and early 1970s, which hit a generational gap. In the 1980s and 1990s in fact, there were no design offices where we could learn the profession and how the architectural business looks like. We knew a little bit about how to design buildings, but we had to learn the practice ourselves. The project of Galeria Rzeszów fell for us from the sky, then there was the Arłamów Hotel and then it is probably a domino effect…
You probably like difficult projects?
Maciej Łobos: I would rather say that difficult projects like us!
Sometimes, some ideas cause protests even among our team. Because again we complicate life by inventing a difficult building, where each floor is different, and after all, the investor does not pay for it, or we create dozens of versions, most of which get to the trash. However, after years, I can say that the market appreciates such approach. We do not save ourselves, we are principled, we do not look for simple and typical solutions. Maybe thanks to this, the customers who come to us know exactly what to expect from us. These are people with very specific expectations and awareness, that they want something different than what is around.
Do you see that there has been a significant change in the investors approach to the projects? D they focus more on quality today?
Maciej Łobos: We are dealing with the evolution of the market, which proves the validity of Abraham Maslow’s theory. As you meet your basic needs, other, more sophisticated requirements appear. Unfortunately, Poland compared to Western Europe, is still a poor country, and the quality of architecture is determined by the purchasing power of the final customer. After all, the investors who come to us today do not prepare themselves up for a “cheap mass product”. Of course, we need to keep deadlines and control the budget, but savings are no longer sought at any cost. The quality of architecture begins to be noticed and becomes an important business factor. The Poles travel around the world and see that one can shape its surroundings much better than before. If “ordinary people” get annoyed when they see nasty buildings and start perceiving it as a violation of their personal interest, because public space belongs to everyone and does not end up on the boundary of the plot, it means that we are on the definitely right path.