WARSAW, Poland — The space once housed weapons and motorbike factories. Today, it is Warsaw's Soho Factory, a hip new space of exhibitions, offices and restaurants.
Taking inspiration from SoHo and the Meatpacking District in New York City, entrepreneur Rafal Bauer saw "soul" in a pile of dilapidated brick buildings sinking into the ground in Warsaw's gritty Praga neighborhood and transformed them into a creative space whose spacious buildings and lower rents have attracted artists, architects, web designers and others. It is now one of several former industrial spaces that have been transformed in recent years into enticing spaces across Warsaw as the Polish capital blooms after 25 years of economic growth.
"Nobody believed that you can start up your project with an old factory which lies in a very bad part of Warsaw, with a bad reputation— historically rather considered as a place not to go," Bauer said. "And we managed to bring life here."
"This is a very special space in Warsaw where everything is possible," Bauer said.
Today, the revamped buildings in the area at 25 Minska St. house museums, art galleries, a trendy clothing shop, restaurants and architects' offices, flanked by apartment buildings. Fashion shows, conferences and a photo exhibition featuring the work of a Chinese dissident have also been held there.
Originally, the space housed ammunitions factories that began production in 1925 and were significantly damaged in the German bombing of the city during World War II. After the war, the factories produced motorbikes and optical systems for tanks used by the communist-era Polish army. They were then abandoned and fell into disrepair.
Bauer said he first saw potential in the area in 1997, but that the time wasn't yet ripe to convince others of what could be done there, with Poland still in the early years of introducing a market economy. In the meantime, urban Poles have traveled widely and have begun transforming industrial spaces into chic lofts and taken other inspiration from what London and New York have done with industrial spaces.
When renovation of the area finally began in 2010, it was still a dumping ground for stolen cars in a crime-ridden district.
At the time the place was still "total rubbish, so nobody believed that an atmosphere like (this) could be achieved," Bauer said, sitting in a modern armchair on a central lawn surrounded by the refurbished buildings. Nearby some visitors to the area relaxed in hammocks, while others filed in and out of an international conference.
The creation of the Soho Factory area comes amid a larger gentrification of many other former rundown areas in Warsaw, including in the Praga district where it is located, an area across the Vistula River from Warsaw's historic center and business districts.
One quirky feature, and a draw for children, is a refurbished freight track which Bauer took pains to unearth with the help of historic maps. He said his inspiration was the High Line in Manhattan, an abandoned freight line on the city's West side that's been turned into an elevated park and is now a popular attraction.
If You Go... WARSAW'S SOHO: http://www.sohofactory.pl/en