Quality Viewed as Excessive in Croatian Architecture


The esteemed Croatian architect Hrvoje Njirić opened SplitTalks as the first lecturer in the Cellars of Diocletian’s Palace. Njirić has ties to Split dating back from 2007 when he was tenured at the University of Split Faculty of Civil Engineering and Architecture and several projects tie him to this city. He won first prize for the new maternity clinic project, which wasn’t carried out due to a debatable decision of the authorities. He’s also the tender winner for designing the Faculty of Law building within the new University Campus.

njiric + arhitekti is his Zagreb office while the housing projects in Gračani and Markuševac along with the MB pre-school in Retkovac are among his current, significant and realized projects. However, he refrained from talking about his work at his SplitTalks lecture, instead focusing on a more general view of architecture, education and contemplation of architecture as a cultural category.

You held quite a dynamic lecture in Split, almost every sentence was accompanied by something visual – from numerous pop-culture references to trivialities from the media and everyday life. How come you decided on such a populist concept where architecture topics can be conveyed to even the most general of audiences?

– It’s simply a reflection of my viewpoint that it’s appropriate to fight the abyss of elitism, hermetism and autism, along with formalist egotism in which domestic and international architecture is progressively falling into. I’m turned toward man as an individual, however banal that might sound, and I’d appreciate architecture as a predominantly social category being brought closer to as many people as possible, without unnecessary mystification or glorification. Thus, as a result of that train of thought, the lecture conveyed my desire that both the language of architecture along with designers’ intentions be made understandable to the users of those services – regardless whether it’s in relation to public or private space. That is an integral part of my educational work at the Split FCEA where I attempt to raise awareness among students in regard to images around them, in lieu of those from dazzling pages of foreign magazines or the overload of junk found on various architectural sites. That’s what future architects need – and with that, the Split lecture closed – to be what they are, to be what is appropriate, and not that which they will never be able to become. We can’t compete in categories we don’t belong to. Just as it’s inopportune to compete against the Brazilians in dribbling, thus it’s unwise to imitate Foster within the Croatian reality, even when designing an airport. Recognizing and inching nearer towards the everyday stuff is the only suitable modus operandi.

In Split you also paid homage to “Split’s disheveled beauty”, emphasizing that one could learn from it, all the while mentioning the tenants’ additional interventions – such as remodeling, closing off balconies, reconstruction – which we usually consider a lack of culture in utilizing architecturally defined space. Do you thereby provide users with a legitimate reason to do what they will with a given space, a so-called legitimate disarray in itself, or does that also belong to an overall acceptance of our realistic circumstances?

– Architects are unfavorably disposed toward the notion of their houses being “adapted”, but we’re conscious we live in a culture where there’s a slim chance that something along those lines won’t happen. Hence it’s always wise to anticipate such situations and “install” them into a project.  Of course, public facilities shouldn’t have to change if there is no real need for them to change, but as far as residences are concerned, some changes and adaptations are a part of the personalization of the living quarters. Renowned world architects and theorists have pointed toward that fact. Herman Hertzberger, Mario Botta and Kenneth Frampton have in more than one instance shown enthusiasm toward the vitality of the Split structure, the possibility of the town to accept life and all its finesse along with the adaptations that time and progress inevitably bring with them.

How do you anticipate possible future tenants’ needs in your residential buildings, thus decreasing the need for subsequent interventions?

– First of all, I ask myself what the frameworks for an optimal existence are within the given location. During development in peri-urban parts of town such as Gračani and Markuševac, for example, we asked ourselves who the potential tenants would be, what lifestyles would be suitable to that environment and how to provide them with adequate living conditions. We thus strive to recognize what would be important to such a lifestyle. Concretely speaking, in Markuševac we were led by a so-called cottage-themed lifestyle, which includes barbeques, parties, an outdoor lifestyle. However, we couldn’t find esthetically acceptable barbeques so, in collaboration with a company from the Croatian Zagorje region, we designed a prototype of an outer barbeque furnace, with which we intended to furnish all apartments with, that is, all terraces and gardens. Unfortunately, the investor gave up on that idea; despite the cost not being too high. Listed under njiric+, the barbecue can be found in the company’s commercial offer to this day. However, that is but one detail. We took privacy into account, because in such a location, a house with a common staircase and all such urban aspects (and concessions) of buildings within a compact city area is absurd. That’s the main reason we advocate an individual existence within a group concept. Thus, every apartment has its own entrance and outer area, which is protected from the neighbors’ view. Naturally, individual needs take getting used to, but it’s a fact that both developments haven’t undergone larger changes in these three, four years of use. That suggests that a sufficient level of freedom and possibility has been “built into” these projects. It is interesting to note that in both cases it’s a case of foreign investors. It’s a tossup whether it would be possible to achieve the same experience with a domestic partner. We’re currently trying with a Croatian commissioner in Samobor and the outcome is yet to be determined.

In your opinion, how would working with a Croatian investor differ from working with foreign ones?

– I hold that home financiers are more liable to rely on patterns they see within their surroundings, and those are quite modest. They know very well what sells and have no motive for shifting standards. Foreigners more often have a much needed broader perspective, which most probably stems from their upbringing and education, they accept new solutions more readily and are more prone to compromising. From my past experiences with domestic investors in the housing development field, one notices how unyielding and inflexible they are, led on solely by a supply and demand logic, while a parcel (address) is the one actually selling apartments at a higher or lower rate. In such circumstances quality happens as an excess, a coincidence. Architects aren’t to blame for everything, rather the entire environment is collectively accountable, including media outlets such as the daily “Jutarnji List”, which promote luxury lifestyles from far-away countries and who knows what sources that have absolutely no relation to us whatsoever. Loading papers with colorful images of jumbled interiors and then attributing them with features such as “futuristic”, “minimalistic” is a bit much even for Croatia. Moreover, what can we expect tomorrow, from children who had art classes in school a mere one hour per week, along with art class kits having been revoked…

*Rural Mat,  Markuševac, Zagreb

You’re highly critical of architecture designed in Croatia. To what extent is that critical standpoint in relation to your statement about being irritated by the overflow of mere form and superficial approaches to architecture?

– My favorite definition of today’s architecture in Croatia is as follows: a more or less meaningful accumulation of construction material. On the one hand it’s a consequence of ruthless market conditions, and on the other of indolence, the real cause lying beneath the surface. Work is being done in a cookie-cutter fashion, superficially, fast and safe, without any desire for delving under the surface or experimenting, let alone taking risks. Thus production is set up on an impermissible level. Just half of what is built means something, or, in other words, there’s but a handful of offices which try and contemplate that which they’re working on. Everything else is just mere “construction”. I, along with everyone else, have also been hit by the recession, but that’s no excuse to not tackle work fair and square. In such instances, maybe it’s better to not even bother taking on new work. Insisting on form is only an attempt to mask all other disinterests with a slick outer appearance, but even that is more often than not carried out unskillfully in Croatia.

*…this familiar feeling, Gračani, Zagreb

In the “Superdalmatia” hotel project in Čiovo you reinterpret features which we could call Dalmatian, or, actually, all-Croatian – improvisations, changeability – and you proceed to conceptualize that into a new quality.

– Hence the name “Superdalmatia”, which holds all those characteristics – ad hoc changes, incompetencies, irresponsibilities, improvisations, unexpected turns, adaptations, etc. The project is the result of a desire to reassess the ways of temporary residence – and come to at least some indication of certain new, more suitable models, as not much has changed in the development of hotel typology in the past hundred years. As is the case with every quest, ours being no exception, mistakes are a part of the process, but we went into this project with full awareness.

What is experimental in “Superdalmatia”, what deviates from the classic Croatian model?

– A lot of things – from the typology to the interpretation of the common and individual space theme. We didn’t pay homage to the standardized patterns but suggested a central cube with public programmes, which are arranged one over the other at the same time serving as a communication zone. That means that there are no classic hallways, which makes a hotel more efficient, and the square meters that aren’t wasted on hallways can be added to rooms or to the common areas. We also organize rooms differently. For the sake of reducing energy related costs, rather than with air-conditioning or sun prevention, we take care of excessive insulation by positioning the sanitary zone toward the outside, which is an unexpected albeit highly efficient solution.

*Superdalmatia, Čiovo

“Superdalmatia” stemmed from the belief that tourism is a two-way cultural process, and not an “all-inclusive” autistic development, right?

– We view tourism as an interactive process between the local population and guests, and certainly not as a closed hotel-type autistic form, such is the Méditerranée club, which treats people as merchandise – they arrive at the hotel straight from the airport, proceed from hotel to beach and back, and thus back and forth for some fifteen days, while any and all location-based authenticity is clinically removed.  Sterility at the wrong place – that aspect of tourism isn’t suitable for Croatia. A small nucleus to that inclusively juxtaposed connection to tourism is the suggestion of incorporating a small chapel within the hotel, inspired by 15th century Dubrovnik summer houses, where sacral facilities existed within the primal structure. In addition to the landed aristocracy, the local residents were a, so allowed to visit these chapels. That is one of the earliest examples of hybridity, a mixing of the public and private spheres. In the case of “Superdalmatia” that religious platform could be utilized for a certain kind of interactivity, if only to express an aspect of sympathy between the local and foreign senior citizens. However, I’m not so sure that that idea will take hold as the investor is quite fidgety.

I’d venture to say that tolerance imposed itself as the central topic of your lecture. How does tolerance translate into the language of architecture?

– Generally speaking, that’s a fairly difficult topic in Croatia. We as a nation glide among extremes – we’re either too tolerant or not at all. A prerequisite in view of tolerance toward people we co-exist with as well as the culture and space we use would be to balance out tendencies at the individual habitus level. It is hard to define it from a sociological point of view, let alone render it into spatial forms, but one must try and try again. Bearing in mind that Split is a multicultural environment with a series of social frictions, which are visible and thus more easily recognized and subsequently interpreted, we gave students tolerance as a design theme for the next semester. It has two faces; that which is real even when we’re trying to break through the core of that phenomenon and a declarative side, almost political, which is concentrated on the set of minimal rules or behavioral modes so as to satisfy the general form and a seeming ideal that we live in a tolerant environment. There’s a big difference between the real and declarative level of tolerance and I’m interested to see how students will respond. There’s a whole scale of possible instances to which tolerance relates to – ethnic, religious, sports, economic, etc. – and in line with that a whole series of differences and antagonisms in our society which we should attempt to reconcile. If we go back to the topic of residence, that could be an attempt at coexistence of a wealthy, young entrepreneur, the student population and let’s say a family on the social minimum, trying to live within the same house. Different categories of residents could result in an interesting environment, which would, at the very least, serve as an adequate existential framework for children who would be raised in such an atmosphere.

Isn’t that type of “reconciliation” between different resident categories built into your residential-tourist project you designed in Portugal?

– Indeed it is, and it’s interesting to note that we aren’t the only ones who produced such a situation, but the investor – the Granturismo Foundation – set it as a theme. It looks as if there is someone who’s prone to challenges after all. We were supposed to situate three categories of users under a common roof: the middle-class local population, young yuppies from Lisbon and senior citizens from Western Europe and make their cohabitation as acceptable and tolerant as possible…

*Non-stop house, Granturismo, Silves, Portugal

What kind of common ground for coexistence have you found for these generationally, socially and even culturally varied groups?

– On the one hand, we made autonomy possible, which is a must, while at the same time giving indications for a string of potential small social interactions. Depending on their lifestyle, the residential space is adapted to every group, and everything else is of a semi-public character and is used jointly. For example, the stairways are centrally positioned and aren’t used for just mere coming to the apartment, but are intended as gathering, sitting or partying areas. The green zone is at the same time a filter between various modes of living, the pool is also a common zone, and not only for those who can afford it.

Gibonni, Zlatko Gall, Ante Tomić as well as Damir Rako, the only architect among the jurors, will be the ones evaluating the students’ tolerance house. What is the reasoning behind deeming a musician, a music critic and a writer competent to evaluate architectural work? Would you be resistant to the idea of your architectural competition comprising of such a jury?

– Architects are always exposed to evaluation judgements from people who are neither competent nor particularly interested, formal education notwithstanding. Our job is to create a certain metalanguage by which we will convey that what we do to our future users, superficial evaluators and ad hoc critics. Clearness or competency of judgement is a somewhat suspect category and it’s a must that students be exposed to various “unclean” i.e. life situations and be capable of communicating ideas quickly and clearly. And this jury has, at the very least, the same common denominator in being from Split, having their own lenses through which they view the city, are in a more or less opposed to the governing oligarchy and all of them are trying, each by way of their own work, to say something tolerance related. In addition, such a group makes for a broader range of vision, the same vision I’m dedicated to.

For more information on Hrvoje Njirić’s work and his office, click on his regularly updated web page www.njiric.com