Poland invented extreme sports

I’ve been poking around in old photo archives again. This time it was the truly fabulous Narodowe Archiwum Cyfrowe (National Digital Archive). I found a lot of extraordinarily interesting things, which I will undoubtedly inflict on Polandian readers in the near future, but I also found the answer to a question that’s been nagging away at me for years: Why don’t Polish buildings have fire escapes?

In the first decades of the 20th century it suddenly became possible to build tall buildings cheaply. Buildings from this era in every city I’ve visited have external fire escapes: the ones in New York being the most iconic. When buildings became higher still, external fire escapes became impractical: internal stairwells and measures to prevent fires spreading from floor to floor replaced them. There are plenty of buildings constructed between 1900 and 1920 in Poland, but none of them have external fire escapes. These photos demonstrate why: Poles came up with a far more cunning and, frankly, fun method of escaping raging infernos.

A giant canvas slide.

(Click for a larger version)

Setting up the giant canvas slide. I can’t work out if the canvas was there all the time, rolled up under that window, or if those ladders off to each side have winched it into place somehow. This building, by the way, is on the corner of Starowiślna and Wielopole (right by the main post office) and now contains the offices of Dziennik Polski.

Here they are up to the same trick again. This look suspiciously like the back of the old Fire Brigade building on Gertrudy. I still can’t work out what those ladders at the side are doing.

A third example. I have no idea where this is, but I’d like to find out.

The set up—still infuriatingly unclear exactly what’s going on here. Was that canvas always there or did a fireman have to rush upstairs and kombinować it to the parapet?

Junior Fireman Jan Superfluouski takes a swan dive.

(Click for a larger version)

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24 thoughts on “Poland invented extreme sports

  1. Grze$ko says:

    You may actually find that the buildings have internal fire isolated staircases – a concept as complex as mixer taps.

  2. island1 says:

    If they have internal fire escapes, why did they invent the Canvas Slide of Death?

  3. If I were a pyromaniac, I would probably set fire to a building just to have a go on the slide.

  4. Grze$ko says:

    Just experimenting with aircraft escape slides or a city-wide amusement park in case of a flood. The firemen work in mysterious way…

  5. Ian says:

    The ladders?

    Easy, they are so people can go back up and have another go!

  6. island1 says:

    If you were a pyromaniac you might set fire to the building irregardless of whether it had a slide. That’s why pyromania is so wrong, it just refuses to take giant canvas slides into account.

  7. Adam says:

    It always bothers me that none of the 15-storey blocks I have seen have fire escapes. I know that this isn’t due to turn of the century construction, maybe just Polish, (or more likely Soviet,) mentality.

  8. island1 says:

    So obvious now you point it out!

  9. Name says:

    Is the word “irregardless” legal?
    I thought that the “-less” part is enough, and you don’t have to add another negation, like “ir-“. Or am I wrong?

  10. Grze$ko says:

    irregardless ain’t not illegalless at all!

  11. Grze$ko says:

    Have you ever seen the housing towers in Germany, France, Italy etc.?
    The building code is very clear about the locations of staircases in relation to the distance travelled to a staircase.
    Sorry to disappoint you, but the buildings comply. Nothing to do with Soviet or any other mentality mentality.
    BTW. How many 15 storey blocks are there in Krakow?

  12. island1 says:

    You’re right. ‘Irregardless” is an illogical word lambasted by language experts. Guilty.

  13. wildphelps says:

    I have always wondered about fire codes/regulations of the various cities I have lived in (a consequence of being a native of Chicago – the Great Fire of 1871 led to Chicago being one of the first cities to implement strict fire codes). Such an obsession (compulsion?) has led to several questions:

    1. Why do most apartments have only one entrance/exit?

    If a fire breaks out in front of said exit, good luck. The logical conclusion is the balcony, but do fire fighters have the resources to get 100+ people (a completely random number calculated by the number of floors in my parents’-in-law building [11] and estimating that at any given time there are at least 10 people on the floor) off their balconies?

    2. Why, in almost a decade of living in Poland, have I never witnessed a real full on blaze?

    Considering the kombinowaced wiring that takes place in Polish buildings, one would expect electrical fires to be fairly commonplace. In a quest for an answer, I once spent a few weeks asking everyone I knew about this. This led to two things: 1. My friends started to wonder if I was a closet pyromaniac; 2. My friends became very tired of me.

    Luckily, I soon discovered the secret to why there are few full on “Backdraft/Rescue Me” fires – such fires rarely occur anywhere AND many Polish buildings were built with so much asbestos, one would need a flamethrower to get a fire going.

  14. island1 says:

    I’ve also wondered about the lack of fires; you never see burned-out buildings. What’s their secret?

  15. odrzut says:

    I don’t know about tall city buildings, but I see a few differences between one family houses in Poland and one family houses in USA (ok, I only know them from films, but still).

    People here build from bricks, or – nowadays – from “pustaki” – when in warm regions of USA many houses are from wood-and-paper (I’ve seen it in “Pimp-my-house” :) ).

    It’s no wonder these houses are more flamable.

  16. scatts says:

    We had a very nasty fire break out in one of the apartments opposite the last place we lived. I even have pictures:

    The intensity was fierce and yet there was very little damage done to anything except the apartment in question and the paintwork on the outside of the building. These things are built like little concrete bunkers and Polish fire doors, the metal ones that weight about 16 tons, would keep out a nuclear explosion let alone a piddly little fire. The owner here had left an electrical device on while she went on holiday and it eventually set the place on fire. Nobody was hurt.

    As for the canvas slides, I’m racking my brain to remember where I saw them last. I think it might have been Moscow. Anyway, we were wandering around a tall building and I noticed a strange package stuck on the wall in a corridor near a window. I asked what it was and was told it was an escape chute. This thing was on a hinge and you were supposed to open it to get the chute over to the window, then “eject” the chute through the window and slide down to safety. I think it was more of a tube of cloth than the slide shown in these pictures though. I think I’d rather jump.

  17. Grze$ko says:

    Non inflammable building materials.
    I have practised architecture in three countries including Poland and local fire codes have always been very civilised. Guess why there are (were) odd number of steps in a run.
    Nowadays I am a bit worried about the PVC windows all over the country. In fires PVC is deadly, but that’s German technology, so maybe we should trust them on this one.

  18. Filip says:

    I remember we once had a fire rescue demonstration at my primary school. The firemen rushed into the third floor (or fourth, counting the ground floor as first) on a ladder, mounted the escape tube at the breast of a window, rolled it down and started putting an entire class of math students (apparently being much relieved from abstract nature of algegra) through it.
    Unfortunately I did not have math class at the moment, so I could only watch the whole spectacle from a school yard.

    The school itself was built in 1991. It did not have any external fire escapes, but it was equipped with numerous exits and a least two sets of stairs for each floor, with fire exit signs indicating the way out.

    As for the reason for lack of fire outbreakes – concrete doesn’t burn :D Almost everything in Poland is built from concrete or bricks.
    In fact the only big fires I can recall happend at warehouses or similar places, usually holding some highly flamable items like gasoline, paints or fireworks and usually being build of tin and styrofoam.

  19. wildphelps says:

    I taught high school in a 19th-century building for 5 years. In that time we had one fire drill. I was instructed to take my students through a side door that led out to the school’s sports field. Everything went just fine. The one problem, however, was that the side door was padlocked everyday before the day of of the fire drill and every day after the fire drill. I once asked what happens if there is a real fire and was told that the custodian would unlock all the side doors that were padlocked. I then asked what do we do if he is, God forbid, incapacitated or trapped himself. I was told to stop asking so many questions.

  20. Sylwia says:

    Considering the kombinowaced wiring that takes place in Polish buildings, one would expect electrical fires to be fairly commonplace.

    As a child with a key on my neck, i.e. one that spends long hours alone without any adults around, I practiced my early kombinować exercises. One day I took scissors and cut a cord attached to a table lamp. The effect was “spięcie” immediately followed by “korki wysiadły” situation. Which means that electricity is cut off in the entire apartment.

    When my grandma returned, she unplugged the cord, turned the “korki” on, and repaired the cord (she had much more experience with “kombinować” than I did at that point).

    I guess it’s the answer why the often suspicious wiring doesn’t cause fires. In case “spięcie” happens in the hallway electricity is cut off there.

  21. […] [Polandian] Poland invented extreme sports […]

  22. Name says:

    Jaime, just saw the article and I beleive that building is in Krakow, its home to the gazette on Weili poliski ulica.

  23. Phatbeets says:

    Jaime that building is in Krakow and is home to the Gazette, its right where Weilopole and Starowisha meet Westerplatte. This photo has the building in the bottom right quadrant.

  24. island1 says:

    Yes, I know where that building is (and I identify it in the post—”This building… is on the corner of Starowiślna and Wielopole (right by the main post office) and now contains the offices of Dziennik Polski.”) It’s the last building I would like to identify. Well spotted though.

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