Old Gdánsk Shipyards
The area of the former old shipyards of Gdańsk
, where much of the momentous history related to the Solidarność
movement played out.
There’s hardly any shipbuilding going on and parts of the complex are derelict, following the bankruptcy of the last shipbuilding company here. Some yacht-building and maintenance workshops remain, but other buildings are used for storage or are empty.
The area is undergoing an ambitious “revitalizing” scheme and will become a new modern district connected to the city of Gdańsk, but for now it offers an intriguing chance for exploring some industrial archaeology and visitors are allowed to almost freely walk around. The connection with Solidarność
is already commodified
in the form of various information panels, so there are things to read and learn as well.
More background info:
The history of shipbuilding in this part of Gdańsk
goes back to the time when the city, with its German name Danzig
, was part of the Kingdom of Prussia
. A first naval shipyard was established in 1844 under the name “Königliche Werft Danzig” (‘Royal Shipyard
Danzig’). Initially it was intended only for repairs to ships of the Royal Prussian Navy, but from 1853 new vessels were built and launched here too.
After the formation of the second German Empire in 1871, the shipyards were accordingly renamed “Kaiserliche Werft Danzig” (‘Imperial Shipyard’). Heavy investment in the industrial complex soon made it the largest employer in Gdańsk.
The ships built here were not only navy vessels but also civilian passenger ships. In WWI
production became entirely for the military, and apart from cruisers the shipyards specialized in building submarines.
This all changed after the war when Gdańsk
was declared a “Free City
” and demilitarized. This meant lean years and job cuts, and strike action by disillusioned workers in the 1920s. After some international investment, shipbuilding resumed and in 1929 the German government took over; production now concentrated on smaller vessels such as tugs and fishing trawlers.
and the takeover of Gdańsk by Nazi Germany
, the shipyards’ purpose switched back to military production, and large numbers of submarines
were built for the Third Reich’s Kriegsmarine. Towards the end of WWII
Gdańsk suffered from Allied aerial bombing and then the Soviets came in and plundered the shipyards.
After WWII, reconstruction began quickly, and in 1947 the two separate shipyards (the former Imperial Shipyard and the adjacent former Schichau Shipyard) were merged to form the single (state-controlled) company “Stocznia Gdańska
” (meaning simply ‘Gdańsk Shipyard’), the name that you still see above the historic Gate No. 2 on Plac Solidarności
. Shipbuilding became a crucial industry for Gdańsk again, and at its peak the shipyards had some 18,000 employees. In 1967, the communist authorities named the complex after Lenin
, and so it became known as simply the “Lenin Shipyards” (see under Sala BHP
There were strikes and protests
already before the formation of Solidarność
, especially in 1956 and in 1970. During the latter, clashes with the authorities even led to the deaths of workers. This is what the huge monument on Plac Solidarności
commemorates. It was built in 1980 – which was also perhaps the most momentous year for the Stocznia Gdańska. In August that year, renewed strikes broke out over falling living standards and triggered by the firing of crane operator Anna Walentynowicz, who had been an activist and distributor of underground publications. The strikes forced the authorities into negotiations and eventually the workers’ 21 demands were met. This was the official birth of Solidarność on 31 August – for more on this see under European Solidarity Centre
and Sala BHP
After the end of communism, the new market economy conditions brought hardship to the shipyards again. Converted into a joint-stock company it went bankrupt in 1997 and was taken over by the Gdynia Shipyards. These sold the shipyards on in 2006, and in 2007 a Ukrainian consortium took control, but that too went bankrupt. The main production had already moved further north and the historic former Imperial Shipyards were given up for good in 2013.
Since then the whole area has been in the hands of a property development firm who plan to convert the space into a combined residential and business district with improved links to the city centre and featuring cultural amenities and restaurants. It still has a long way to go, but fortunately some of the industrial architectural heritage is to be preserved. In the meantime, a few companies still use parts of the premises for small-scale industries like yacht-building and maintenance, while other formerly abandoned buildings have become art centres. Alternative concerts have also been staged in the former shipyards.
What the end result of the redevelopment
will look like is hard to predict. But I hope it won’t be as bland an architectural landscape as much of the redeveloped Granary Island opposite the Old Town of Gdańsk
(or other harbour redevelopment schemes such as the “HafenCity” in Hamburg
What there is to see:
When I first went to Gdańsk
in 2008, the shipyards beyond the historic Gate No. 2 at Plac Solidarności were still out of bounds. Since childhood I have always been drawn to harbours and old industrial architecture, so I felt a longing for exploring those off-limits areas. Now this has become possible.
For my return visit to the city in August 2019 I had planned to visit the new European Solidarity Centre
, and when on my first attempt the queues for tickets were intolerably long, I decided to come back the next morning and instead went to the nearby Sala BHP
and afterwards wandered off into the now freely accessible territory of the old Gdańsk shipyards. A dream come true, so to speak.
The impressions described below were from when the redevelopment of the area had only begun a few years previously. Over the coming years much building activity is to be expected and the look and atmosphere of this historic former shipyard is bound to change, with many new high-rises encroaching on the old industrial landscape. But when I was there I encountered this:
I followed the path from the Sala BHP
towards the northern end of the publicly accessible former shipyard area, across a new road and past a large red-brick edifice. This was an administrative building
formerly, including the office of the director
of the shipyards. It now houses some small businesses as well as the headquarters of the redevelopment firm that owns the area and is now (in 2019) called “Stocznia Cesarska
” (the Polish for “Kaiserliche Werft – see above
This has also put up a series of historical information panels in co-operation with the Maritime Heritage Association. They feature photos and short texts about the shipyard and its role in the development of Gdańsk, thus fulfilling its promise to not just redevelop but also “remember”. More panels are dotted around the complex and cover not just the political history but also the industrial heritage. Some explain the original functions of buildings (e.g. ship engine assembly) or provide background about the people involved and the political developments of the place. The panels also outline the plans for the future of their locations as part of the redevelopment scheme.
After passing underneath some remnants of overhead ducts (for cables or pipes or whatever) you reach some abandoned industrial buildings. Some you can peek into and see empty spaces, stairs, some graffiti, and electrical installations picked clean by looters.
By the quayside stands a large disused green harbour crane. Next to the crane is an old pier that is seriously crumbling away, and shrubs and trees grow from the rotting wooden planks. To the west and north you can see the still active parts of the shipyards and their cranes. Walking east I passed a ship moored at the quay on one side and abandoned industrial harbour architecture on the other. Here it felt the most uncommodified. I loved it.
A bit further along came some halls with open sliding doors so you could look in. Some were clearly used only for storage, while others were still active workshops. I saw yachts being worked on, even some welding and metal cutting was going on, setting fiery sparks fly.
Other buildings were silent and had clearly been abandoned a long while ago, going by the trees growing in them, the rusting-away pipes and broken windows. I for one find such dereliction highly attractive aesthetically …
I’ve meanwhile learned that part of the former locksmith building
has been used for exhibitions
about the shipyard’s history, Solidarność
and particular key figures. Since I couldn’t see any of that yet back in 2019, I can’t say much about that now, but you can get a good impression from the virtual tours on the stoczniacesarska.pl/en website (under >new stories).
Past another harbour crane and the former shipyard dock you get to the forge. It was open and inside I saw a wonderful piece of antique machinery: the main forging press or “hammer” with a pressure capacity of 800 tons. This was installed in the late 19th century during the Imperial time and bears a German manufacturer’s name. It was part of the engine construction plant. Industrial heritage at its best!
To the east of the forge and south-east of the shipyard dock is a wide open space with two slipways. On one of them stands a group of sculptures made from scrap and junk, some standing in the water, looking like a platoon of aliens emerging from the netherworlds of the harbour’s waters. Ducks cruised around them unfazed.
Further south-east still stands another large crane, surrounded by more open-air artwork, and in a detached three-storey brick building I found a proper underground art gallery with many intriguing installations and sculptures. Outside looking north-west there were yet more larger sculptures/installations as well as a mural that recalls the shipyard’s role as a production centre for submarines as it includes a depiction of the type of German U-Boat familiar from the movie “Das Boot”.
Speaking of submarines, one part of the old shipyards that I did not manage to see when I last travelled to Gdańsk
was the U-Boat Hall
. This is a large edifice on the southern edge of the shipyards and looks just like a large red-brick industrial building, but behind this inconspicuous facade is what allegedly was a reinforced bunker for the production of submarines. It was camouflaged thus so that it wouldn’t so easily become the prime target the Allied bombers would have liked to hit during their air raids on Gdańsk. The In Your Pocket Guide to the city mentioned a guide who they said has the keys to this otherwise inaccessible building, so you could arrange to see the derelict interior, and also apparently a small exhibition of historical objects and photos. As instructed, I emailed the guide in question well ahead of time, twice in fact, but never had a reply. And the associated website (dux.info.pl) I never got to work. So maybe he is no longer in business. But I just wanted to have mentioned this intriguing add-on that unfortunately I missed out on.
All in all, despite that latter disappointment, I found my visit to the old shipyards a fabulous extra. Of course you have to have a certain predilection for old industrial architecture and heritage as well as an interest in the origins of Solidarność to get anything out of this. It’s not for everybody, but I liked it very much.
Google Maps locators:
Access and costs: takes only a short walk to get to; free
If you’re visiting (and you should!) the European Solidarity Centre
and Plac Solidarności
then it’s just a few more steps to the old shipyard area. Coming from the Old Town of Gdańsk
, it’s a ca. 20-minute walk (see under Sala BHP
). If you’re driving you won’t have much trouble finding parking spaces here.
The open area is theoretically accessible for free at all times, though it wouldn’t make much sense after dark. The forge has the following opening times (for the time being): Monday to Friday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., at weekends and on public holidays to 6 p.m. in the winter season, and to 9 p.m. in summer (May to September).
Time required: One to two hours
For more see under Gdańsk
Combinations with non-dark destinations:
see under Gdańsk
- Gdansk shipyard 01 - cranes in the background
- Gdansk shipyard 02 - disused
- Gdansk shipyard 03 - derelict
- Gdansk shipyard 04 - largely gutted interior
- Gdansk shipyard 05 - old crane
- Gdansk shipyard 06 - crumbeld part that is off limits
- Gdansk shipyard 07 - still active dock, also off limits
- Gdansk shipyard 08 - ex-electric
- Gdansk shipyard 09 - old industrial architecture
- Gdansk shipyard 10 - sooty
- Gdansk shipyard 11 - rusting away
- Gdansk shipyard 12 - old lamp
- Gdansk shipyard 13 - hung-up shoes
- Gdansk shipyard 14 - glass in different stages of brokenness
- Gdansk shipyard 15 - with ventilator
- Gdansk shipyard 16 - greenery growing on teh roof
- Gdansk shipyard 17 - interior used for storage
- Gdansk shipyard 18 - still some welding going on here
- Gdansk shipyard 19 - old forge
- Gdansk shipyard 20 - inside
- Gdansk shipyard 21 - big machine
- Gdansk shipyard 22 - German-made
- Gdansk shipyard 23 - celing
- Gdansk shipyard 24 - art gallery
- Gdansk shipyard 25 - crane and art
- Gdansk shipyard 26 - open-air sculptures made from scrap
- Gdansk shipyard 27 - art and ducks in the water
- Gdansk shipyard 28 - mural with submarine
- Gdansk shipyard 29 - Solidarity Centre on the edge of the shipyards
- Gdansk shipyards 30 - in 2008 before they were open -