On Music Academy, Sheep and Roots

written by Tomislav Pavelić

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Fabris’s Ferimport building on Marshal Tito Square in Zagreb has been demolished. The reason is at the same time banal and serious – the supporting construction expired. Such are the regulations in force, there is nothing to be discussed, demolition was necessary. And perhaps, not everything is quite clear. Primarily because it is known that propositions of the quite recent competition for the project of the new Music Academy building insisted on preservation of this building and its inclusion into a new whole. After years of lying unused and slowly dying; after it was devastated in different ways again and again; after it was nevertheless given the great honour of being recognized as a monument of culture; and finally, after the construction of a new building was already far from beginning, made after the winning competition design by Milan Šosterič based on the dialogue with the already existing pre-layer, Fabris’s unfortunate Ferimport building was demolished after all. The sequence of the events we have witnessed is confusing.


In an attempt to comprehend the actual situation, but also the context that produced it, numerous questions impose themselves. First of all, how is it possible that a building was demolished which was not only under protection, but whose supporting construction had been reinforced for which all the necessary technical documentation had been produced and all the necessary agreements obtained and finally, the building permit had been issued? I suppose the regulations which caused demolition of this building by Fabris became valid recently, certainly after the competition had been announced, even after the building permit had been issued. Also, I suppose that these new regulations are significantly different from the previous ones, not only in the degree of strictness, but in their essence as well. Only with such suppositions is it possible to understand (at least to some extent) the sequence of events. And if these assumptions are not correct, then it is incomprehensible that there was no perception of the building being ‘rotten to the core’ in due time. On the other hand, if it was known that the decay was unrepairable at the time when the destiny of the building was decided, then it is incomprehensible that this did not have any influence at all on the elementary propositions of the competition. If the real conditions of the supporting construction as well as the regulations that classified it were known, then it was necessary to inform all the interested parties (the client and executor of the competition, candidates, jury members...) loud and clear that Fabris’s Ferimport had to be first completely demolished and then a facsimile constructed that would have to be integrated into the new building of the Music Academy. This had to be done since the difference is not small in an organizational as much as in a financial sense.


Should one, from a benevolent distance to this place, conclude that the actual course of events was merely a consequence of misunderstanding, an unfortunate concatenation of circumstances? Those of us who were not directly involved in these events cannot answer this question, and should not do so either. Nevertheless, it is entirely human, from the point of view of taxpayers who are indirectly involved in this entire confusion, to wonder what will happen next. First of all, will the ordered, completed, verified, and paid for technical documentation, which is based on the assumption that the construction will be successfully reinforced and the existing building successfully modernized, simply be thrown away? If yes, and this is most probably the truth, then it means that it is necessary to create, and of course pay for complete new documentation for construction of a facsimile. It has to be, because Ferimport by Fabris is obviously important to us.


Since everything in this tale is somewhat surreal, let us allow to have an alternative scenario and imagine a different course of events. Suppose that the position on preservation of Fabris’s building is revised due to new circumstances (awareness that the demolition is inevitable because of essentially different new regulations related to the duration of supporting building constructions); suppose that a doubt has sneaked into consciousness of the authorities and brought into question correctness of the earlier decision to include a, let us admit, mediocre building by one of the great local modernist architects among the immortal buildings. Let us say, finally, that all these together led to the conclusion that this building still does not deserve the effort of building a facsimile which is huge in any sense because many other protected buildings, and among them many are undoubtedly more important cultural monuments, are obviously falling into disrepair. Nevertheless, as I have said, this is merely a hypothesis, nothing more than lamentation, because this is not the place, and neither are we invited to solve the problem that has emerged or the destiny of Ferimport. Still, luckily, this place is certainly good for challenging some topics that are behind this and similar ‘cases’.


The introduction of regulations always and everywhere serves to establish and maintain order; a necessary precondition for the efficacy of any regulations is to establish clear criteria for objective validation and qualitative differentiation; it is the only way to be able to separate the acceptable from the unacceptable, in other words, to classify and standardize all the things and manifestations. Among measures taken today to achieve this aim are regulations on the quality and expiry date of a product; when this expiry date is due, in other words, when it is unambiguously determined by means of external parameters that the quality of the goods is no longer as regulated, the product is no longer suitable for use therefore it has to be removed and, eventually, replaced with a new one that satisfies new parameters. Since buildings are qualified as ‘products’, they are standardized and, among other things, subjected to regulations on quality and duration. Fabris’s Ferimport building is not an exception, therefore it is subject to exact and objective criteria of validation which gave it a failing grade; its demolition therefore became inevitable. The fact that this building is at the same time protected, in other words, the fact that it was given a high mark according to some other criteria did not grant an amnesty.


The Ferimport building is not the oldest building in Zagreb, nor is it the most shoddily constructed one, and still, when there was a wish to modify it or give it a chance to continue to live, it failed. Incurably infected by doubt, I wonder what would happen if literally all the buildings underwent the same test – what would then remain of Zagreb or of any other city. If a building that is merely fifty years old was demolished due to safety issues, and it was at the same time constructed ambitiously and by means of rather high technology for its time, in what shape are then far older and less ‘ambitious’ buildings? Perhaps I am a pessimist, nonetheless I doubt that more than a third of buildings would be given a pass mark, maybe not even as much. I am beyond the point of return, I am overwhelmed with an avalanche of doubts therefore I ask myself one question after another: are we, almost all of us, in jeopardy from our spaces of being because they are too old and/or not safe enough in terms of construction; should we all now steal glances out of the corners of our eyes at the walls and ceilings of the places we live in, we work in, we socialize in, or even of the places we merely pass by, fearing for our lives; will not only an earthquake, but also any stronger wind, break down our houses made of cards and in the process bury us, so that we will die slowly buried by architecture??? Fortunately, the safety mechanism in our brains realizes that the doubts have multiplied too much, that a paralysing mental short circuit threatens therefore it sounds the alarm to calm down – well done for regulations and most advanced achievements of civilization, but there is still something wrong here.


I do not doubt that the valid regulations have been issued in good faith because safety is undoubtedly very important. In spite of that, the real question is not whether a building satisfies valid regulations or not, but whether we can afford such regulations here and now. Because if we have to do so, then we should be ready for negative evaluations as well, and even for demolition orders; we have to, even though perhaps personally, as immediate users, we think that there is no need for it since it is obvious to us that the building in which we live or work functions perfectly well – it lives with us, through good and bad, with uneven walls, and creaking floors, and wooden main staircases, etc. Therefore, regardless of all that we feel, we have to be prepared that our only possibility is to start with preparations for a new building; or, as the only alternative, we can move out and leave our host building to its destiny which is obviously not optimistic. If obedient abiding by constantly new regulations is our only option then I wonder whether we will demolish and build our spaces of living endlessly in the rhythm of the introduction of new and more strict ones, like a Sisyphus, until the noble aim of absolute safety is achieved – for everything, for all times and for everybody. Will we then, when we finally achieve this aim, be able to lie down in our bed with no worry and sleep like babies, untroubled because no danger threatens whatsoever?


It is good to set high goals, in other words, to have ideals we aspire after; perhaps it is even necessary, if for no other reason, then because it helps us not to lose our way, torn between what we desire and what is possible. Nonetheless, one has to be careful because, if ideals are set too high and we grow too tired of the struggle with reality that reflects these ideals too rarely, we could too easily give up on them. Not ready to easily abandon ideals and yet aware that they are never entirely reached, I wonder (motivated by ‘the Ferimport case’, but truly not related to it) whether the regulations we have issued and accepted respond to our reality? This is an inevitable question because if they are not, then we will have to give up on them, no matter how noble the motivations they contain and how well fitted these motivations are to the highest achievements of civilization; we will have to (the teaching of the indestructible worm), because reality cannot be changed as quickly as norms can be.


I leaf through an exhibition catalogue[1] I received by post this morning. I stop at one of the photographs. In the foreground, there are two boys and a rather small flock of sheep; a city is in the background (it surreally looks like an archaic mini-Manhattan) and it spitefully rises from a rocky hill towards the gray sky. Everything in this photograph – the sky, landscape, city, shepherds, and their treasure – is combined into an inextricable entirety with a unique tonality; as if there is no difference whatsoever between the living and inanimate because these are all parts of the same matter which has acquired different shapes and energy potentials by some incomprehensible miracle. I look at the caption and then I learn that this city is situated in Yemen and its name is Hajjah.


I leaf further through the catalogue and come across a photograph in which there is no difference between the foreground and background. Here, tonality also unites everything therefore reading what is presented requires an effort. Carefully moving over the frame, I notice: an old man, who looks like a child, plays with a dog; a child, who looks like an old man, sweeps a sandy yard with a makeshift broom made of brushwood; a corner of a temple, which looks like part of a natural rock over which roots have grown (no trunk or crown of a tree are visible) and the roots look like the foot of a gigantic bird with many toes and between them, characters (human or divine?) peep out from the stone blocks and they are totally uninterested in all that is going on here therefore they send unclear signals with their hands and everything else is almost equally uninterested in these signals... In this photograph, everything is inextricably merged into a mixture of living and inanimate, therefore an essential difference between the parts does not exist because what is obviously alive is so perhaps only at the moment the photograph was taken and what seems inanimate perhaps is not. The photograph was taken in one of the temples in Angkor in Cambodia.


After I went through the entire catalogue, I was left filled with admiration.


Why putting together apples and oranges, in other words, what does Fabris’s Ferimport in Zagreb (in Croatia, in Europe, furthermore, in the European Union in the near future) have to do with a traditional city in Yemen (and many cities there are more famous than this one) or with a corner of one among many temples in Angkor in Cambodia? It has, a lot.


For us, because we decided so or because it cannot be different for us, regulations determine when we should start or stop being afraid for our safety, in other words, realize when a product ceases to be sufficiently good for usage. Moreover, regulations give us commands about that so that we can all be without care because someone or even something is taking care of this, no matter if it has to be in the form of a command. The Yemen boys are most probably protected by ‘nothing’, but they are protected by ‘someone’ – both those around them as well as protecting themselves. They protect themselves because they know this is the only way to be safe, as much as they can afford it. And reality is the fact that both in Yemen and Croatia (Europe, the European Union...) we are still not equal among ourselves, therefore the rich change houses more frequently and decorate them more, and perhaps they also have them designed if they are enlightened enough and well off enough, and the poor do that more rarely so they have to pray to God for their habitation to last a little bit longer. Perhaps this reality does not have to be like that, but at the moment, it is. Residents of Hajjah (I am pretty certain of it, but I do not actually know) do not have regulations on the quality and duration of a product. The fact that houses are ‘products’ with an expiry date they do know, since their birth; and they equally know whether they can afford to move to another house as prevention or they are satisfied, because there is no other way, with taking a risk. We, because we have decided so or because there is no other way for us, have regulations. And these regulations are rigorous, with the best intentions. Nevertheless, the real question is to what extent we can be ambitious in determining our intentions.


The same refers to the protection of cultural goods, called ‘monuments of culture’ in our country. Hem! Monuments; this smells dangerously of something dead, let us say something such as ‘monument to a fallen fighter’. Do we erect a monument to a fallen fighter each time we put a house under protection? I would say yes. There is nothing wrong with it, because if erecting a monument or recognizing a building as a monument is giving an honour, paying respect before greatness we ourselves would like to be, to the extent we can afford, then it is worth all the effort. The effort is acceptable if it is felt to be important because it gives power or shows what one should be like, perhaps even what one should not be like, in other words – if it is significant. And this is what regulations prescribe to us, in other words, the institution that teaches us what we should admire and what we should preserve because we cannot be without it or we do not want to live in a certain place without it. We do not want to live any longer without Fabris’s Ferimport – is my conclusion correct? Well, perhaps this is not a personal feeling, but the authorized Institute for Protection of Monuments issued such a classification. It does not matter that it was demolished recently because, the good Lord willing, a facsimile will be built soon. Well, it will not be ‘a facsimile’ because the dictionary says that this term means something else, that it implies a faithful copy of the original in every sense, therefore in terms of supporting construction as well. All right, this will not be a facsimile, but it will have the same volume, layout, cross section and façade, nevertheless it will have a different constructional system, in accordance with today’s standards. Well now, if the supporting construction is different and if the layouts and cross sections will be redesigned to some extent because new function will be placed here, then only the façade remains ‘the same’. Nonetheless, it too will not be exactly the same if for nothing else, then because the former aluminium wall and its glazing cannot be reconstructed again. In fact, it is possible if a replica is be created, but again, it would be insanely expensive and also it would not be in accordance with currently valid regulations; we would create a replica only in the case of a cathedral or some equally important historical building, but not in the case of Fabris’s Ferimport. So, just the façade will be retained on the facsimile and it will look like Fabris’s one, more or less.


Here, Šosterič’s project, in terms of the fact that he was aware that Fabris’s share in the new building is reduced merely to an echo of an echo, to a similar façade, guessed the essence well (in a somewhat démodé, postmodern manner, I would agree with many critics, however, why it would not be so when each and every expression is legitimate today therefore why not this one as well). Because of that, Milan Šosterič conceived his façade as similar to Fabris’s (because it has to be), and yet it is white and not bronze therefore it reminds one to some extent of a ghost, which is in this sequence of events a humorous position.


The Cambodians do not have a problem with protection; obviously, the fact that roots irreversibly destroy at least one corner of at least one temple in Angkor means nothing. And it also does not mean anything to UNESCO, under whose protection this locality is, and is classified as an archaeological site. However, classified as such, Angkor is nevertheless not mummified, but allowed to live its course of time; at least in one of the corners of one of the temples... The real question is – we have to ask ourselves – whether Fabris’s Ferimport is truly so much more important to us than this corner in Angkor is important to UNESCO? Well, of course it is not, we just pretend it is. We only care about the façade, it is now entirely obvious. While ‘prostheses’ for reinforcement of Fabris’s weak supporting construction were still being contemplated, as much as it was irrational, one could have claimed the opposite. To us, only the façade matters as a superficial impression or, possibly, a sign of continuity. Since this is a fact (the dry truth, as facts are), it would have been polite if someone could have said it in due time simply to avoid the charade that developed; if for nothing else, then because it would be reasonable in terms of business and because it would show political responsibility (not to mention the ethics of it) towards the citizens who, after all, pay for these games of ‘hide and seek’ with regulations.


[1]1 Steve McCurry, ‘Unguarded Moment’, exhibition catalogue, Museum of Modern Art Dubrovnik, 2012