A silence descends over the enormous industrial machinery of the Sisak Ironworks Plant. It’s a sunny day in mid-January. Smoke from the Oil Refinery floats towards the sky in the distance. There’s no one around. Merely a car parked on the edge of an abandoned road; a middle-aged man doing a crossword puzzle inside. Only later, when he would try and ban us from taking pictures of the privatized machinery part of the Ironworks plant, did we come to realize that he was actually a part of security. Alas, what he guards over is nothing but a heap of rocks. Everything that’s worth anything has already been removed and taken away. At one time this place was deafeningly loud, our guide tells us, an exceptional expert on the Ironworks plant history, Sisak inhabitant Milenko Kovačević Fleka. The machines made a lot of noise, sirens went off, raw material was hauled about and when the electromagnet furnace was turned on, the ground would shake. There was no rest in the Ironworks plant, some 14 thousand people worked there in three shifts. Televised New Year’s Eve reportings were known to air alongside these large, red-hot furnaces, where the heavily perspiring workers would send out holiday cheer to the nation at large and various nationalities sprawled out in front of their black-and-white television sets.
* Prvi sisački bazen izgradili su radnici u slobodnoj vrijeme / foto: Monografija Željezara
After more than sixty years the furnaces have been snuffed out and there are no more workers to speak of. The remaining two hundred workers were given notice in December, when the American company CMC decided to pull the plug on production in Sisak. Despite investing 200 million dollars in production modernization, they concluded that keeping operations working was just not profitable. At least they proved themselves sincere and gave severance pay to the workers, as is mostly not the case when factories go belly up. All remaining paychecks, Christmas bonuses and severance pay were paid to them. Thus the story of a one-time Sisak industrial giant came to its end. This very industrial giant made it possible for all its workers to enjoy prosperity and well-being, something that is a mere memory or pipe dream to the workers of today. An entire workers’ community emerged in the vicinity because of the Ironworks Plant – the Caprag workers’ settlement. The workers received apartments in solid residential buildings surrounded by parks and a forest.
* Danas je bazen privatiziran i zatvoren
The Ironworks plant itself emerged in the midst of an oak forest. The workers could either stay in their toasty apartments or leave to go play or exercise on the surrounding sports fields in the settlements supplied by the heating plant as part of the Ironworks which in turn meant they had very low utility bills. They had volleyball fields, tennis courts, basketball and handball fields, a bowling alley and a soccer field at their disposal along with an athletic track. Alongside the football club Metalac, there was a restaurant with the same name, the hub of Capraga’s social life. Lepa Brena, Miroslav Ilić and numerous other Yugoslav stars performed on that terrace, while the workers left their paychecks at the bar. An Olympic-size swimming pool was also built in the vicinity at that time. The workers themselves built the pool in their own spare time, as they did most of the other recreational facilities. A total amount of 50 thousand work hours were spent on various working actions in Caprag. Today that swimming pool, along with various other sports facilities, has been privatized and deteriorating ever since. A great deal of attention was paid to “the active use of a recess within the company,” as it’s put in a highly interesting monograph about the Ironworks plant, published in several editions by the Sisak Ironworks Metallurgy Plant. Within the Ironworks context, there were 18 volleyball fields, three handball fields, two boccie courts, 11 shooting ranges and 20 bowling alleys. You’d be hard pressed to find something like that going on today, in terms of employers building sports facilities for their workers and giving them the opportunity to let off steam on a sports field during their daily lunch break, considering they even have a lunch break in these times.
* Terasa „Metalac“ na kojoj su nastupale jugoslavenske zvijezde / foto: Monografija Željezara
It all dates back to the pre-World War 2 era when the entrepreneurial engineer Miroslav Tomac concluded that Sisak’s position is ideal for the metallurgy industry. In pre-war Europe steel demand increased, while Sisak’s surrounding countryside was renowned for its iron ore fields, a digging site renowned since the pre-Roman times. In addition, Sisak wasn’t far from the major consumers of raw iron in Croatia and Slovenia, while cheap work forces could be found in the vicinity. Tomac found an investor and in 1939 the high furnace designed according to his blueprint was ceremoniously lit in the newly founded Caprag Metal Foundry, some five kilometers from Sisak. It was the first industrial metallurgy plant on the territory of today’s Croatia. The Metal Foundry was privatized after the war and hence renamed into the Sisak Ironworks in 1947, when it already boasted 500 workers. Within the subsequent ten years it further developed and expanded, producing raw iron, raw steel and seamless pipes, which it was renowned for. It obtained a foundry for seamless pipes from the Italians as part of war reparations, says Fleka. Their iron constructions were built into the Split stadium on Poljud, the Cibona tower as well as the scaffolding that held the Zagreb cathedral for years on end. It was the third Ironworks plant in Yugoslavia – coming in after Zenica and Jesenice.
*Valjaonica bešavnih cijevi u hrastovoj šumi / foto: Monografija Željezara
However, with an increase of workers that already exceeded five thousand, the question of residence and quality of life quickly became an issue. Many of the workers, for the most part emigrating from Bosnia and Herzegovina, lived with their families in the huts in an area that had but one measly grocery store. The priority was to complete the Ironworks plant, and then look after the workers’ needs. The construction intensified during the 1960s, when a hundred apartments a year were developed. Some were singles’ buildings, but also two and three bedroom apartments, as well as family houses with two apartments where professional personnel resided, the locality earning the moniker ‘Engineer Settlement’.
* foto: Monografija Željezara
Caprag got a department store, kindergarten, school, a post office, library, healthcare center, sport courts and everything else the workers needed. “The poverty-stricken peoples would disembark at the Sisak railway station with one suitcase in hand and get everything they needed at the Ironworks plant. They had decent apartments, good salaries, were fed at the plant, and their utility bills were negligible. They didn’t have to think about tending to their basic needs, but whether or not to buy new furniture or a new car. When the ‘ironworkers’ got their paycheck, such a crowded ruckus would ensue at the town stores that we’d steer clear of them during those days. Many of them could even afford summer houses,” relays Fleka. Even if they didn’t own a summer house, they could still afford to go to any given summer resort owned by the Ironworks plant.
*Glavni trg u naselju Caprag, nekoć Lenjinov / foto: Monografija Željezara
It is still in good condition, although the sports fields and parks are neglected. The same as the public sculptures, which there is an abundance of – some thirty sculptures are “strewn about” the settlement and industrial plants, due to the fact that the one-time art colony was maintained from 1971 to 1990. Two hundred artists have come through the colony, among them Ivan Kožarić, Dušan Džamonja, Ratko Petrić, Peruško Bogdanić and Milena Lah. Over two thousand works have been realized via various media outlets.
*Kožarićev „Antipod“ na ulazu u Željezaru / foto: Monografija Željezara
An expert committee selected artists twice yearly that would come to Caprag and work there for a period of twenty days. It was a socialist version of today’s residential programs for artists. Artists cooperated with the ironworkers, i.e. workers in culture with workers in production, with the goal that the ironworkers not be mere objects, but subjects of a cultural policy, as defined by the Ironworks Plant Department of Culture.
*Džamonjina „Kardeljeva zvijezda“
Sisak-based artist Marijan Crtalić, who has dealt with that topic in detail as a part of the award-winning exhibition “Invisible Sisak: The Ironworks Phenomenon”, says: “One of the aims of the colony was to draw attention of the workers to the production process as a potential creative act.” According to Crtalić, the artists collaborated with groups of workers in charge of the technical execution of their creations. The colony also influenced the creation of amateur art groups of workers. The Ironworks would buy what the workers created, and then it would either put it on display in public spaces, if what they created were sculptures, or offer it as gifts to workers; as rewards for their achievements. According to Fleka, valuable works of art can still be found among the bulky waste that is taken to Caprag. Not everyone was thrilled with the works of art that were created in the colony. Some said that the sculptures resembled the machines and the metallurgy industry products too much; or in other words, that there wasn’t much difference between that art and the products that were made by the workers of the Ironworks. Be that as it may, the great “Kardelj’s Star“ by Dušan Džamonja can be seen in the park, abandoned, like the other sculptures in Caprag. Some sculptures have vanished in the meantime; they have probably gone back to the place where they were created – metal foundries.
The exhibition by Crtalić, which documented the sculptures in Caprag, prompted The Institute of Conservation to put them on the cultural heritage list.
In the past, as it had been stated in the youth party newspaper, the citizens of Sisak complained about how shabby their city looked while “a state-of-the-art neighborhood” was growing nearby. Today, both the city of Sisak and its Caprag settlement are shabby. The old, long-abandoned industrial complexes in Sisak, which date back to the beginning of the 20th century, are practically in ruins; and people are walking around Caprag collecting scrap-iron, using shopping carts from the malls.
Sisak-based film artist Goran Dević is currently working on a documentary about the Sisak Ironworks, a kind of ode to working in that plant. The movie was filmed before the Ironworks plant got shut down, and includes a lot of archived material.
It should be released shortly. Check out the film trailer:
Click here to check out the interview with Marijan Crtalić.
* ostale fotografije: Barbara Matejčić