Seldom Said

Thursday, May 18, 2006


Tall devil

I first heard about Manufaktura before I arrived in Lodz. It's such a big deal here that my Polish colleagues can hardly believe that the whole world dosen't know about it. They first mentioned it when they were explaining why it was proving difficult for them to find a hotel for me. "There's a big event here next week," they explained. "Lots of people are coming and most of the hotels are already full."

The event in question was the opening of a new shopping and entertainment complex near to the centre of the city. Now, I must admit that I was a bit mystified by this. I struggled to remember if the Trafford Centre in Manchester, which was the nearest equivalent that sprang to mind, had thrown a launch party. Even if they had, I'm fairly sure that it wouldn't have attracted a huge influx of hotel guests. I obviously needed to understand what was so special about this Manufaktura place.

I learnt that the big launch party had been on Tuesday night - during all that rain! - complete with fireworks and VIPs, but that Manufaktura was now officially open to the public. There had been a plan for us to go en masse, but this rapidly evaporated. In the end, the tirelessly friendly and helpful Rafal took me along after work, picking up his fiancee (they are getting married on Saturday!) on the way, and we went along to find out what all the fuss was about.

The car park wasn't quite finished yet and there was a fair bit of wet concrete around, but as we approached the buildings it became clear that this was going to be something quite special. Rafal had explained that the project was a very deliberate exercise in urban regeneration, turning an old abandoned factory into a vibrant new cultural and commercial space. As we approached, encountering and admiring the wonderfully restored brick facades for the first time, he told me that an important feature for him was the new 'market square'. This was where we headed first.

Lodz has existed as a village since the Middle Ages, but it apparently leapfrogged townhood and became a city practically overnight with the sudden influx of a hundred thousand workers in the 19th century. Hence it lacks the natural centre of most other Polish towns and cities: the traditional market square. This new space at Manufaktura - more grand plaza than humble market square - will, Rafal hopes, become a new cultural heart for the city. It was certainly jumping when we arrived, with hordes of people and a huge stage and speakers filling the space with music.

There were more of the wonderful brick buildings surounding the square, now housing shops and restaurants, and an ultra-modern glass and steel shopping centre at one end. There were nice little touches that made it all feel very thoughtfully done. As the music ranged from rock to dance to classical, we watched stilt-walkers and other people in fancy dress, trying to get everyone dancing. A very enthusiastic chap up on stage was doing his best to lift the crowd's already fairly bubbly mood. Their palpable excitement was infectious and I couldn't help grinning.

We had a bite to eat in a newly-opened branch of Green Way (the veggie place on Piotrkowska that I'd eaten in earlier in the week) and sampled a drink that was apparently made from an (as-yet-untranslated) tree. Tasty, but peculiar! My newfound Polish friends confessed to being enormously proud of this new facet to their home city and I could easily understand why. Both of them had made a conscious decision to return to Lodz from Warsaw, in spite of its apparently grim prospects, and saw in this new development - as well as others like it all around the city - a real sign of hope for the future.

Later, after the soon-to-be-newlyweds had apologetically rushed off to finish their final preparations, I wandered around some more by myself. They'd been interested in the parallels that I (inevitably) drew between Manchester and Lodz, and I had quickly realised that my original comparison with the Trafford Centre had been hopelessly wide of the mark. I should have thought about how it had felt to see the heart of Manchester ripped out by the IRA bomb, only to re-emerge, phoenix-like, from the ashes to become the prosperous place it is today. Manufaktura certainly has more in common with places like the PrintWorks and the Triangle.

Granted, the shopping centre was as soulless as any other that I've visited (the Triangle included), although the structure itself is impressive and visually stunning in places. I hunted the place for an identifiably Polish shop without success, but I guess that's not really the point of a place like this. If Lodz does manage to attract hordes of foreign visitors, then they'll be right at home here, but I couldn't help worrying that this place, with its designer clothes outlets (and the occasional surprise) might be drawing too sharp a distinction between the haves and the have-nots.

As I reluctantly headed for home (resorting to using my GPS gizmo to figure out which way that actually was), I paused to marvel once again at how faithful the restored brick buildings remained to the neglected old shells that they'd once been. A lot of love seemed to have gone into this transformation, as evidenced by a bright and hopeful piece of informal art on the end of one of the buildings. And there's more to come too, apparently, with plans to turn the remaining empty structures into a hotel in a year or so's time. Good luck to them, I say.

Inevitably, I noticed yet another grand old building next door and couldn't help wondering what it had been and what it might yet become. In the end, though, it was the sight of the magnificent main entrance of Manufaktura that stayed with me in the taxi back to the hotel.


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