Poland’s White Gold: The Story Behind one of the World’s Biggest Adaptive Reuse Projects

The Central European Republic of Poland has many cultural and geographical areas that stretch back thousands of years. The country’s cities and towns are a mix of Romanesque architecture, Gothic Revival, and postmodernist residential or commercial structures. The country is home to 17 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, in addition to its unique topography. The country has been given a royal status because of one site that stands out. Just outside Krakow is one of the most important and oldest underground mines in the world. It has been transformed into an extensive, all-inclusive complex. This colossal adaptive reuse project includes a natural-healing hospital, a church, and an underground bungee jumping platform.

The Wieliczka salt mine, also known as “one the seven miracles in Poland”, dates back to the Mid-Neolithic. Prehistoric salt works were discovered by archeologists that date back to 5.5 thousand years ago. They showed how the inhabitants of Wieliczka extracted brine-like material from the surface springs and then evaporated it in their fires to make salt. The salty cooking of the saline springs led to their drying hundreds of years later. This forced people to create wells to extract more of what was left. The first block of rock salt was discovered by people shortly after digging the wells. This encouraged them to dig deeper into the ground and discover a new valuable and raw material.

The national treasure of salt was the Wieliczka underground geological structure. It is unique in the world. Wieliczka was the largest salt producer in Poland during the second half the thirteenth century. This is why it was called Magnum Salt (the Great Salt). The profits from salt sales accounted for a third of the total treasury income in Poland.

Courtesy of Wieliczka Salt Mine

These mines required a lot of creativity, ingenuity and labor. Salt was mined at 64 meters below the ground until the end the fifteenth century. This is Level I today. The mine grew larger with each century, and became one of Europe’s largest companies, complete with a canteen and other facilities for employees. The mine had been excavated on three levels by the 17th century and was designed with consideration for the urban planning above. A few decades later, new equipment and methods were introduced to the mine. This helped maintain the splendor of the complex through the 20th century.

The mine was difficult to maintain only after the Second World War when salt production had reached its highest point and people from all walks of the globe became aware of its history and cultural importance. While the mine was making a lot of money, the government and administration were determined to protect the site for future generations. This idea was becoming increasingly difficult. The now nine-level mine, which is 327 meters below the ground, was closed in 1964. Instead, industrial production of evaporated sea salt was used. The site was listed by UNESCO on the World Cultural and Natural Heritage List in 1978. In 1996, the decision was taken to stop industrial salt production in Wieliczka for good. This is how the site is now used.

Courtesy of Wieliczka Salt Mine

What is left of the salt mines? The salt has been stopped being mined in Wieliczka. However, the corridors and chambers of the old mine are being restored. They can be used for sightseeing, performance, healing, prayer and royal banquets. Today, salt miners are still on the site to preserve this historic landmark. 26 shafts have been carved in Wieliczka over the past 700 years. The labyrinth itself is so vast that visitors can only access 2% of it.

Each chamber in the multipurpose site has its own function and layout. This tells the story about how the mine was created and the lives of all those who have walked through it. Some of the chambers are used to host lavish chandeliers while others are transformed into remarkable chapels and taverns. The world’s first underground hot air balloon and bungee jumping location is located in a 36-metre tall chamber. There are two routes available to visitors. The tourist route takes them through the mentioned chambers, while the miners route allows them to explore underground salt labyrinths, and engage in mining activities.

Courtesy of Wieliczka Salt Mine

Walls and ceilings in chambers that were used as event venues, banquet halls, or chapels are preserved in their natural state and enhanced with crystal chandeliers. Salt sculptures and floor reliefs from centuries past were found in some chambers like the St Kinga’s Chapel.

Courtesy of Wieliczka Salt Mine

This ArchDaily feature is part a series called AD narratives. We tell the story of a chosen project and dive into its specificities. We explore new constructions around the globe every month and tell their stories. We also speak to builders and members of the community to get their perspective. ArchDaily values the opinions of its readers as always. Please submit any suggestions if you feel a project should be featured.

Courtesy of Wieliczka Salt Mine
Courtesy of Wieliczka Salt Mine
Courtesy of Wieliczka Salt Mine