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The Humane Streets of Old Town Kraków

My wife and I walked the streets of Old Town Kraków today, one of my favorite locations in the world. There’s so much meaning and history in every brick and stone that I could walk its streets for the rest of my life and never be bored. The city is quite peaceful and quiet. At least, it makes its pedestrians peaceful — not its drivers. In a word, it is a humane city. You can tell it is made for people. It fits us well. No wonder people like my wife and I desire to be there again and again, unlike many city-Behemoths we have sought to flee.

Old Town is almost perfectly designed. Each street ends with an important institutional building in view: Wawel, churches, the market, town hall, the trade center, gates, the philharmonic, and the many mounds on the city outskirts—all very different than Chicago’s grid system with streets that could theoretically go on without end.

The city’s design also has a recognizable form. When looking at an upside-down map of the city the Old Town almost looks like the outline of a woman: Wawel as the head, the gates of Barbakan as the feet, the Rynek (Market) as the stomach, and the Jagiellonian University as the heart. I wonder if that is intentional or just my wild imagination! However, knowing a little about Renaissance city design, which modeled cities and building on the proportions of the human body (a microcosm of the beautiful cosmos), I would not be surprised to learn this about the city.

The skyline is not superhuman, compact with skyscrapers soaring into the clouds, leaving miniscule man on the ground like an ant. Viewing the city across the Vistula or from Krak’s Mound is nice, but one primarily wants to be in the city. It is not like being in the steel canyons of Chicago’s Loop where one probably just wants to escape. Kraków is built for us to dwell in.

The popular architecture of an era tells us about the esteem with which man is held at that time. Every city is an anthropological statement. The formal design of a building, including its ornamentation or lack thereof, its purpose, and that out of which it is made (formal, final, and material causes) reflect the predominate conception of man, or at least the idea held in the mind of the architect. Kraków (its buildings and design) communicates a dignified, noble idea of man, despite the horrors that took place there over the centuries but especially the last. It reflects Christian humanism.

Lastly, Kraków is a humane city chiefly because it is a liturgical city. That does not just mean that there are many churches within its walls but everything seems to be ordered and offered as a gift to the Lord. The city almost wants shine forth: the people, the buildings, the food, the sounds, the animals; all are beautiful to behold. It is almost like a garden. But it is a city, offering us a glimpse of that heavenly city we all anticipate will descend from heaven like a bride (Revelation 21:10).

Perhaps this is the ultimate reason my wife and I desire to walk the streets of Old Town Kraków.


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