Adaptation of a theatre in Krakow, Poland

In May 1991, the 19th century Slowackiego Theatre in Krakow, Poland was scheduled to host the International Conference on Security and Cooperation. This paper discusses adaptations made to parts of the building so that the needs and interests of people with disabilities could better be served. Internet publication URL:


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Report of the CIB Expert Seminar on Building Non-Handicapping Environments, Budapest 1991


Adaptation of the XIX-Century historical Slowackiego Theatre in Krakow, Poland to the needs of disabled persons among the audience

Ewa Kurylowicz, Arkitektury Pracownia S. Kury, Poland

This paper discusses adaptations in the XIX century Slowackiego Theatre in Krakow, Poland. Adaptations here refer specifically to modifications to parts of the building so that the needs and interests of people with disabilities could better be served. The theater was scheduled to host the International Conference on Security and Cooperation in May 1991. The adaptations were a part of the 12 million USD major renovation efforts within the theater building.


In the original design, convenient access to all parts of the theater building had not been a major consideration. The writer was commissioned by the Main Historical Monuments Revalorization Board in Krakow to perform the threefold task of designing appropriate adaptations in the building, providing a description of building details, and researching technical aids/equipment that were available on the market to meet the needs of people with disabilities.

As the theater was an historical building, the Specialist General of Historical Preservation in Krakow had full jurisdiction over renovations to the building. Teams of architects and engineers from Krakow University of Technology had been designated as the General Designers of renovations to the theater. The results of this particular research project, as stipulated by the appropriate authorities, were then to be submitted to and implemented by these teams.

Background note

In Poland, as in many other countries, the needs of disabled persons have never been given due consideration, neither in building construction legislation nor in local building codes. The writer therefore was in no position to either demand or to expect that all accessibility requirements by disabled persons to the theater be met. The research findings were completed and submitted. Despite the fact that not all recommendations were implemented as proposed, the end results were satisfactory. The Slowackiego theater was the first historical theater in Poland to accommodate such adaptations. This pioneering effort served to dispel any previous apprehensions that changes to historical buildings in service of people with disabilities would invariably lead to damage of the structure.


At the inception of this research project, the following assumptions were made:

1) the theater should be adjusted to the needs of persons with various disabilities, namely persons with sensory and mobility impairments,

2) the minimal degree of accessibility included:

  • making the entrance to the theater building accessible to wheelchair users,
  • accessing the different levels of the main lobby by installing an electrical stair lift on one of the symmetrically located stairways,
  • enabling disabled persons to have access to the auditorium by rearranging the rear row seats,
  • providing access to the stage for speakers who use wheelchairs. (Towards that objective, part of the orchestra pit would have to be covered up so that, next to the stage, a mechanical-vertical lift could then be installed),
  • rearranging some of the toilets on the main foyer level.

Due to the lack of local building codes mentioned earlier, the writer based her proposal on regulations in the United States. U.S. guidelines were applied to the needs of disabled theater-goers. The desired number of seats for wheelchair users, the needs of persons using canes and crutches, and of those with impaired hearing were taken into due consideration. Western European and American building codes are similar in many respects. Concerning alterations to historical buildings, the Uniform Federal Accessibility Standard (UFAS) states that:

Accessibility may be limited to considering only one floor being opened up (UFAS: item 4.1.7./2/d/).
At least one accessible entrance which is used by the public shall be provided (UFAS: item 4.1.7./2/b/).
The provision of accessibility to toilet facilities may be accomplished by installing one stall for each sex, with appropriate restroom and sink facilities on the accessible floor (UFAS: item 4.1.7.).
Ramps steeper than 1:12 may be used if their total length does not exceed 60 cm (UFAS: item 4.1.7./2/a/)

The project

Entrance to the building
There used to be two steps from the curbside leading to the main hall, with a combined height of 36 cm. Aggregating the effects of the number of steps, their location and parameters, it could readily be judged that they were hazardous to the non-disabled as well as dangerous to and non-negotiable by disabled persons. Eliminating these steps could make entering the building easier and safer for all. The view of Krakow Specialist General of Preservation, however, differed from that of the present writer's. His decision was based on the proportions of the building facade. He insisted that the theaters front elevation be left without alterations. Given that constraint the present writer was obliged to propose an alternative solution.

The alternative solution was that one of the entrances on the eastern side of the building be adjusted to the needs of people with disabilities. The selection of that particular entrance was based on three major considerations: the vicinity of the parking lot to the side entrance; more space for cars within the lot, and the feasibility of securing a convenient collection of the entrance area to the main lobby.

The difference in height between the sidewalk and the entrance lobby was 106 cm. In this alternate plan, the space which could be utilized to construct the outside portion of the ramp was 245 cm x 600 cm.

Two alternative solutions were proposed. The first possible solution was focused on the two-part inner ramp. The first steep part of it (1:8) with a total length of 60 cm and a level difference of 75 cm was to be different in color from its background. It was to be equipped with handrails on both sides of the ramp. The steep beginning of the first part of the inner ramp was to be connected with the second by a platform 150 cm x 155 cm The difference in levels was to be 33.3 cm with a slope 1:12 (8.33 per cent) and a total length of the second flight of the ramp 400 cm.

The alternative approach centered on exterior adaptations. The exterior platform leading to the two-part ramp mentioned above was to be 150 cm x 150 cm at the entrance, with the slope also being 1:12 and with the length of the two flights of the ramp 385 cm and 540 cm. The major difference between the two proposed solutions is that the exterior ramp was slightly longer in the latter and therefore the entrance platform could be higher. On that account only one inner ramp would be needed.

The two proposed solutions were combined, made feasible by simply elevating the sidewalk level by 7 cm. Only one inner ramp was needed, while the shorter exterior ramp was maintained as described in the first alternative. At the time this is being written, the inner ramp still does not have the proposed handrails, though the promise has been made that the proposal will soon be fully implemented.

Connecting lobby levels
The main lobby consisted of two levels connected by symmetrically located staircases. The difference in height between the two levels was 120 cm with the angle of inclination being 30° (ca 8 per cent). That enabled the author to suggest the instalment of an electric stair lift which could be deployed for any inclination up to 8 per cent. The type of electric stair lift as recommended had to be procured from abroad as it was not being manufactured in Poland. A semi-automatic Austrian stair lift was selected which could serve the needs of wheelchair-using theater patrons. The selection criteria went beyond considerations such as ease with which the stair lift could be operated, its reliability in case of power failure and cost. The factor which weighed perhaps more heavily than any other was the fact that the chosen model would blend harmoniously into the richly decorated surroundings of this historical building.

The lift has not been purchased yet but, again, assurance has been given that financial negotiations are under way, that an agreement is imminent, and that the two levels of the lobby will be successfully connected no later than September 1991.

Main auditorium
In addition to both the balconies, much of the main level auditorium had to remain inaccessible, a result of technical as well as financial considerations. Having to install elevators accessing all 700 seats of the auditorium, only 334 of which are on the level accessible from the main lobby, would be technically inadvisable and financially prohibitive.

According to UFAS guidelines, the optimal number of places for wheelchair users for 334 accessible seats should be 8. For people using crutches, the ideal number of seats with more space immediately in front of them should be 4 (UFAS item 4.1.2./18/). In addition, a minimum of 4 seats should be located within a loop amplifying the sound for those with hearing impairments. The auditorium's original isles had been designed with a slope of approximately 10 per cent. That would be too steep to be independently negotiated by persons using wheelchairs. For that reason, and for safer and easier fire evacuation precautions, it was deemed more realistic to reserve spaces for disabled persons at the rear part of the hall. The last two rows were first to be replaced by folding-chairs attached to the wall. These seats could be occupied by non-disabled patrons if so needed. That arrangement would also leave enough space for six wheelchairs when the wall-seats need to be folded. According to this proposal, the space needed per wheelchair was 122 cm x 84 cm. The height of the wheelchair seat was to be 50 - 52 cm. Before renovation, the floor elevation of the two last row seats was +139 cm. Therefore, according to the proposal, the sight lines of persons seated in wheelchairs on the floor level (+128 cm) would equal the sight lines of non-disabled patrons before (139 + 40 = 179; 128 + 52 = 180).

According to the author's design, the higher level of the rear platform for the wheelchair user was to be connected with the foyer level. That was to be accomplished by introducing two short side-ramps. The intent was to facilitate the maneuverability by the wheelchair user and to render the traffic in the area less congested. Unfortunately, the location of these ramps was altered by the investor and as a result it could become problematic if all six wheelchair users should need to leave the place at the same time. The situation could arise in case of a fire. The author therefore intends to discuss and to resolve this potential hazard with the theater authorities. Finally, the proposal to cover a part of the orchestra pit was intended to permit the provision of two or more extra wheelchairs close to the stage. Disabled theater-goers who need to use these spaces, however, would have to rely on non-disabled persons to hoist their wheelchairs in place. This assistance is needed due to the auditorium's slope (10 per cent), mentioned earlier. For historical reasons, the slope could not be readily altered.

Toilet facilities
As ample space had been assigned to toilet facilities in the original plan of the building, designing accessible toilets was not a difficult task. With relatively minor adaptations, these facilities would fulfil their function. 

Theatre "Miniatura"
The entire Slowackiego Theatre complex consisted of two buildings: the main, larger one and a smaller structure designed originally to serve some auxiliary technical functions. After the war, the smaller building assumed a new role. It began to serve as the extension of the main theater, housing smaller-scale performances.

Due to the relatively spacious parameters of the structure's interior, facilities within the building were quite readily accessible. From the outside access to this ornate building required only the instalment of a two-part ramp. The ramp would conveniently connect the sidewalk's level with that of "Miniatura" theater's entrance.

Within the building itself, the instalment of a "unisex" type toilet, adjacent to the toilet complex used by performers, completed remodeling requirements for this theater "Miniatura". 


The absence of mandatory building codes to accommodate the needs of disabled persons in Poland is an unfortunate oversight. Despite the best of intentions and expert knowledge on the part of designers, there are no effective means to provide fully satisfying services to disabled persons. When introducing adaptations to historical buildings, even centimeters at times factor significantly into decision-making processes. For instance, in this particular project, the importance of the handrails on both sides of the ramps could not be overemphasized. However, as an expert designer, with no supervisory authority, the author had to engage in extended discussions with the General Designer's office so that the proposed handrails to the "Miniatura" theater would be installed, and that the precautions in case of a fire in the main theater could be taken seriously.

The Polish National Committee for Standardization has finally decided to begin legislation projects on building codes, covering the needs of disabled persons. It is hoped that with the experience gained through this project in addition to the experience from other nations more appropriate building regulations concerning the interest of disabled persons will be forthcoming in Poland as well.


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