Party Like it’s 1989 | We Went to a Rave in an Abandoned Communist Hotel

Poland's Unsound Festival brings cutting edge music to one of Europe's best brutalist buildings

by Grant Armour
Dec 12 2019, 1:02pm

This article was co-written by Sebastian Gabe.

The first chapter of David Byrne’s musical-manual-cum-autobiography How Music Works is devoted to the idea of space as the fundamental element governing creation. “The space, the platform, ‘makes’ the art, the music or whatever,” he writes. Different styles of music are created to work in different spaces; punk musicians wrote songs to be played a few feet in front of the crowd in small club venues, which explains the raw, fast-paced immediacy; U2 and Depeche Mode write songs to fill stadiums, hence the slower tempo and spacious use of reverb.

It makes sense then that futuristic, angular sounds should be played at Krakow’s Hotel Forum. A brilliant example of late-era communist architecture, this brutalist masterpiece – all but abandoned since 2002 – is the perfect place to host Unsound, an annual festival of progressive electronic music.

The brutalist facade of the Hotel Forum, a late communist-era masterpiece. Photo: Grant Armour

Built under the direction of the Polska Rzeczpospolita Ludowa (or Polish People’s Republic) between 1978-1989, the shape of the hotel, designed by modernist architect Janusz Ingarden, echoes the curve of the Vistula river. With windows angled toward the sun, each modular concrete level slides a little further away from the river to provide shading on the terraces.

“This brutalist masterpiece – abandoned since 2002 – is the perfect place to host an electronic music festival”

It’s a striking building, even in its current, rundown state. In its prime though, the Hotel Forum was the height of sophistication. With air-conditioned rooms, swimming pools, a casino and an advanced telephone system that allowed guests to call anywhere in the world from their rooms, The Forum wasn’t just luxurious by Communist standards – it was one of the most modern hotels in the world.

Abandoned rooms above, fitness classes below. The Forum Hotel in 2018. Photo: Grant Armour

“It’s [still] the most beautiful building in Europe”, exclaims the old caretaker, Stefan, opening doors with skeleton keys as he takes us on an urbex-style tour of the 300 or so abandoned rooms. “It was a really modern hotel. It was computerised, which was new to Poland”.

When we ask Stefan whether the idea of a luxury hotel clashes with communist ideals, he pauses for a long time: “During the communist era it was kind of unique for a place like this to exist. It was only for authorities, the elite, the richest of the rich. It was special.”

But if its past was less than entirely egalitarian, then The Forum’s present occupiers perhaps redresses the balance a bit. There’s a bar and events space, Forum Przestrzenie, which is open year round. Then every October the rest of the disused property opens up to house Unsound, which, with its uniquely curated programme and 70 percent international audience, welcomes all comers.

Unsound Festival takes over the space every October, welcoming all comers. Photo: Forum Przestrzenie

The festival sets up three stages in the ground floor ballrooms and the former kitchen, which provide a spectacular backdrop for the revelry. It’s an appropriate one too. Like the building, Electronic Dance Music is a ripe old age these days, and with that comes a sense of nostalgia and even retro-mania. Old production sounds, techniques and tools – Roland 808s, 909s or squelchy 303s – are very much in vogue, despite the fact that they first emerged in the 80s.

In the grand hall, Blawan’s modular techno echoes the repetitive architecture of the abandoned rooms above, while Hyperdub don Kode9 pays homage to hardcore and jungle in the chandelier ballroom, his old-school Amen breaks refreshing ravers’ palettes after an onslaught of four-four kick drums.

Awesome late-communist style interiors abound at the Hotel Forum. Photo: Grant Armour

The recent gabber / trance renaissance is represented by HD Mirror’s Tiesto-style hands-in-the-air performance in the old hotel kitchen – my favourite stage at Unsound. The standout set in there is from Gábor Lázár, whose modulating square waves seem to go straight through your body as they bounce off the tiled kitchen walls.

At Unsound, many of the artists are commissioned to perform works specifically for the festival, responding both to the space and a particular theme – this year’s is “Presence”.

Individual nights have names like ‘FOMO’ and ‘KEEP ME IN CC’ and the festival booklet asks questions like: “What does it mean to be present in a world of media saturation, where reality can be virtual or augmented, intelligence made artificial?”

“In the grand hall, Blawan’s modular techno echoes the repetitive architecture of the abandoned rooms above”

Ironically, the façade of the Hotel Forum is now covered by the largest advertising banner in Poland, featuring a giant mobile phone.

Ironically, the outside of the Hotel is now covered in Poland’s largest advertising billboard. Photo: Grant Armour

Back in the hotel’s interior though, the theme feels like it fits perfectly. Getting lost in the Kubrick-esque maze is like travelling back in time, with music that’s simultaneously futuristic and nostalgic soundtracking the ride.

We retreat downstairs to indulge in a relaxing ambient set in The 89 Club – a former gogo bar which has been preserved in its original glory. As the owners Arthur and Maciek, who run the Forum Przestrzenie events space from the building, tell me: “It looks like a bar from an old school Star Trek episode. Everything is circular and red.

“It’s hard to count how many movies and series have been filmed in the 89 Club,” they tell me “All the filmmakers who see it are like, ‘Oh my god this is the perfect space’”. Jim Carrey’s series Dark Crimes was apparently among the most recent to use it as a backdrop.

The interior of the 89 Club, a former gogo bar that’s been left in its original glory. Photo: Forum Przestrzenie

Of course, not everyone agrees that the abandoned brutalist aesthetic is beautiful. “Older generations remember the times when it was really, really bad in Poland,” says Dominika, a robotics student in Krakow who is volunteering at Unsound festival this year. “And for them, the Hotel Forum is a lasting symbol of the communist era. They say it’s ugly and it should be destroyed. But for us, for my generation it’s something new to discover”.

On his tour of the premises, the caretaker Stefan tells us that he knew the late architect, Janusz, personally and was with him the last time he visited the hotel before his death, in 2004. Stefan remembers “a very nostalgic moment” he had up on the roof. The 89-year-old architect apparently wept at the disrepair his utopian hotel had fallen into. “But now,” says Stefan happily, “it’s a functioning relic of the past.”

It’s a relic, but “now it’s a functioning relic”, according to caretaker Stefan. Photo: via Flickr

For the owner, Maciek, it’s the perfect place to hold the festival. “You’re in the heart of the city but if you enter the Hotel Forum you’re in a different world.” We ask him what the future holds for the building: “People always say that it’s going to be demolished, that it’s dead. The building is supposedly falling down because of the foundation.

“Maybe it’s true, and maybe one day the building will be replaced with some modern, Dubai-style hotel. But right now we’re here, we love the place but most of all, people love it. So we’re not going anywhere just for now.” Hopefully, this means that retro-futurist electronic music will be echoing through the halls and corridors of one Europe’s finest retro-futurist buildings for many years to come. David Byrne would doubtless approve.

For more information on Unsound Festival, including next year’s lineups as they drop, check out their website.