Arts & Culture

New Trajectories: contemporary architecture in Croatia and Slovenia

5 min read

For young architects, the moment their country is dissolving may not be a bad time to launch their careers.

That has to be one of the takeaway messages from “New Trajectories: Contemporary Architecture in Croatia and Slovenia,” an exhibition at the Gund Hall Gallery of the Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD) through Oct. 5.

“New Trajectories” features the work of 13 firms in the two countries, led by architects who were generally completing their studies and hanging out their shingles about the time that multiethnic Yugoslavia was breaking up.

This is the first in a series of exhibitions and conferences at the GSD that will look at different places around the world where a minority group of what might be called architectural insurgents is challenging received tradition.

In her presentation at a panel discussion Sept. 17, Petra Ceferin of Ljubljana, an architect and architectural critic, commended the exhibition: “It succeeds in showing that something happened in Slovenian and Croatian architecture.” The early 1990s were a time of radical changes — political, economic, and cultural — in both countries. “The architects succeeded in responding to the changes, not simply to adjust to them, but, in a radical way, to trigger a change in their own field.”

Their two countries were once parts of a bolted-together communist construct, and before that, of the Austro-Hungarian Empire; today they are part of a new Europe. The heavy hand of state orthodoxy and communist control has fallen away. Frankly commercial Western investors, who will bring money but are likely to impose creative constraints, too, are presumably on their way. But they haven’t arrived in full force yet.

In this transitional state, these young(ish) architects have carved out room to maneuver. The exhibition is proof that “things can be done differently,” Ceferin said. “The productions that you see in the hall show that the field is open for experimentation.”

As Ceferin made her case for the new trajectories of architecture in the Balkans, the Chamber of Commerce and Industry of Slovenia was her Exhibit A. It was built in Ljubljana from 1996 to 1999 by Sadar Vuga Arhitekti, one of whose principals, Bostjan Vuga, was also on the panel. Vuga observed, “The transparency of the building is a metaphor for transparency of the organization it houses.”

The building drew a strong response, both pro and con, Ceferin said. “There was something in that building that affected us — the ‘architectural condition’ was fulfilled.” By this she meant that the building went beyond merely fulfilling the usual requirements of client wishes and building codes to provoke a strong emotional response. It was a response that was hard to put into words but could be seen in the influence the building had on other structures built afterward. “And only in retrospect can you see this.”

The panel discussion necessarily had a certain “tale of two countries” aspect. Slovenia and Croatia share much history, but their situations today are quite different. Slovenia has a signficantly smaller population — 2 million compared with Croatia’s 4.5 million. But Slovenia, which won its independence after a 10-day war that cost only 67 lives, is now part of the European Union. Croatia, with a much messier history, today stands at the gates of Brussels.

Perhaps more relevant to the “New Trajectories” project, the architectural profession is organized differently, panelists indicated. Whereas Slovenia has been caught up in European Union processes for awarding commissions, Croatia has a well-organized architectural association and a robust tradition of anonymous public competitions that makes it easy for outsiders and newcomers to win commissions. It also makes it easier for young architects.

According to Sasha Randiç, a principal of Randiç-Turanto of Rijeka, Croatia, and a member of the panel, the average age of competition winners has fallen in recent years from 42 to 30. The exhibition features a high school gymnasium in the Croatian town of Koprivnica, designed by an architect who was only 28 when he won the commission.

Something the two countries have in common, though, is that in both, architects have a fair bit of authority, albeit for different reasons. In Ljubljana, the scale is small enough that, as Vuga noted, individual buildings can make a real difference. In Croatia, much of the city planning function that in other places is the purview of municipal officials falls to architects, Randiç said. And new legislation limits clients’ and contractors’ leeway in departing from an architect’s design for a building. If an architect refuses to sign off on a project as built, the occupancy permit can be denied. “Architects are the last guardians of the process.”

Architects in this part of the world have a long history of bridging the gaps between traditional architecture and modernism, and between the local and the global.

One of the projects represented in the exhibition, Randiç-Turanto’s school in the Croatian town of Krk, is an example of contemporary architecture fitting into a traditional context: A tall 20th century school was torn down and replaced with a new structure that nestles against, yet still gives pride of place to, the ancient city wall.

“Every tradition is preserved by breaks with tradition,” Ceferin said. “There’s no tradition without innovation.”