Interviewed in Zagreb 14th May 2009
Dragomir Maji Vlahović is an author who has established himself on the Croatian architectural scene with a series of family house projects, summarizing very different experiences: from the rationalistic tradition of Croatian modern architecture, through appreciation of affirmative experiences of postmodern concepts, to his personal fascination with Japanese spatial concepts. His energy as a teacher and his dedicated engagement have left a significant imprint on numerous generations of students of the Zagreb School of Architecture. Vlahović remains devoted to the questions of whether building is well-founded, reasonable and ethical, because for him it is also a poetic act and essential existential issue. We talked with Vlahović about his philosophy of life, intellectual interests and roots, but also about unsolved dilemmas.
ORIS: In our talks, you often mentioned Samobor, the intellectual and emotional importance and influence of the context where you live and where you have realized most of your projects. But how did you choose to dedicate yourself to architecture? What does being an architect mean to you?
Vlahović: It is hard to give an explicit answer to your question, so I will attempt to answer indirectly. I have a photograph of me and my brother as small children, sitting at a small table in the front yard of the house in Samobor. In the 1950s, we were renting the piano nobile of a perfect historicist family villa with a large garden and orchard – a tripartite division, as Gaston Bachelard would say; the base of the house with the cellar was made of integrated ‘striking’ stone (you could strike a match on it), followed by a whitewashed, richly ornamented piano nobile or bel étage, and finally an attic with a beautiful loggia. The villa had thick walls, around 55 centimetres, and I spent my entire childhood, including grammar school, sitting and learning on the south window, whenever I could. The house was later demolished because that beautiful place ‘had’ to be taken by Chromos, the paint and varnish factory. Part of the living room was semicircular, with three windows receiving sunlight from the south-east, south and south-west. On the table outside, we had small black school writing tablets, framed in wood, and a box of crayons. On that black tablet, using white chalk, I made what was probably my first ‘coherent’ drawing – I drew a house, without preparation, figuratively, like kids in kindergarten today: a house with a roof, a chimney and smoke, and a large central window on the façade, from the ground to the edge of the roof; Robert Venturi would say: ‘Small house – big window’, ‘Big house – small window’. Sometime later, as a five-year-old kid, I went with my parents and brother from Samobor to Zagreb for the first time. My uncle graduated in shipbuilding and the ceremony was held at the Faculty of Technology, which is the Faculty of Architecture today. We took pictures on the stairs in front of the faculty, and I remembered those steps; it was almost like Sergei Eisenstein and his Battleship Potemkin. Of course, I did not know it then, but my memory retained those steps, unlike any I had seen before, because I had come from suburbia. I also remembered the big orthogonal glass panes at the front entrance, framed in thin metal frames – metaphorically, as I would say now, like the thin lines in a mathematical notebook; or, for example, like the work of Gropius on the Bauhaus building in Dessau or the Fagus factory, or more recently Steven Holl in Fukuoka, Japan. Finally, I was stunned by the large console over the entrance. These memories later initiated the spiritus movens for my dedication to architecture, even though I did not understand anything at the time.