It seems that every article on the oeuvre of Nikola Dobrović needs a special kind of introduction, not with the trivial purpose of giving (this or any other) text coherence and integrity, but simply to lead into the essence and understanding of his thought and architecture. With all due reserves, it is a fact that the oeuvre of Dobrović, in Dubrovnik and elsewhere, is only partly integrated in the history of 20th century Croatian architecture. A part instead of the whole – that may well be the constant of his small but intense body of work, largely neglected, scattered in Prague, Dubrovnik, Montenegro and Serbia, with thoughts and ideas left haphazardly in numerous projects, books and texts. The echo of his famous name and the hazy idea of an exotic architectural treat somewhere in Dubrovnik and its surroundings lead to the banal and quite paradoxical conclusion that the Croatian work of Dobrović has remained too local and yet too universal. After making some sort of an invocation instead of that introduction, invoking space and time in the plural, it’s now time to pay him a visit.
The Stulli Villa on Konal is one of the five family houses built by the architect Nikola Dobrović (Pecs, 1897 - Belgrade, 1967) over the decade he spent in Dubrovnik (1934-43). Each of those houses – except for the first, built for Vaclav Naprstek in Srebreno – has its personal name, and even, if we rephrase the famous Terentianus saying, its destiny: Rusalka, Adonis, Vesna, Svid. The names of the villas that Dobrović never actually built but that remained on paper (the villas of Dr Ivo Račić, Danica Mladinov, the Mitrović brothers and his postwar design for his own summer house on Lopud) can only be guessed. The houses were named by Dobrović (who, allegedly, never asked the investors for their opinion): the shuttering would be removed, suddenly revealing the names in concrete. And so it happened that the name of Adonis, the fatal playboy of Greek mythology, born from a myrtle tree, was uncovered one day in the early spring of 1940, on the recently built house of the young Stulli family. One may speculate, however, that Adonis himself wanted to be reborn in the modern age not from wood, but from concrete.
The Stullis descended from a lineage of artisans and citizens that can be traced in the Dubrovnik archives up to the late 15th century. As its generations climbed the sophisticated ladder of the social structure of the Dubrovnik Republic, people from the branches of the dwindling tribe in later centuries held important positions in the Republic, were members of prominent fraternities, and some of them excelled in culture and science: Joakim Stulli (1730-1817) was a lexicographer, Vlaho (1768-1843) was a writer, and his brother Luko (1772-1828) was a doctor and writer. In 1939, their descendant, the banker Krunoslav Stulli, commissioned the design of a family villa from an energetic and, from the point of view of the torpid atmosphere of Dubrovnik, somewhat controversial architect Nikola Dobrović, graduate of the Prague Polytechnic, who promoted avant-garde architectural views, fervently defended the principles of the Modern Movement, and had already done several buildings that upset the petrified Dubrovnik milieu with their white reinforced concrete masses.
In harmonious proportions (not so long ago, harmony was both an ethical and an aesthetic category in Dubrovnik), the white modernist parallelopiped is carefully located in the once tame Arcadia of Dubrovnik suburbs. Supporting one side on the edge of the upper garden and using pillars to stand on the lower one, this volume of Dobrović metaphorically presents the master’s building method: by growing out of the ground, the house inherits the pronounced tradition of the suburban villa architecture of Dubrovnik. On the other hand, rising on the pillars of the deep porch, it clearly proclaims its Modern creed. The fact that the reinforced concrete pillars are coated in vertically combined pine slivers is just another clear example of a detail structured with a special method. From its relation to its immediate surroundings to its symmetry as an order established a priori, this construction of Dobrović defines itself through the dialectical relationship between tradition and modernity. Its tangible symmetry reveals – in the words of Bogdan Bogdanović, Dobrović’s successor in the chair of architecture – an asymmetry of addition, an asymmetry of separation.
The spacious porch is tucked deep under the house, collecting directions and lines, converging them at the cleft in the middle of the dug-in portion of the ground floor. The stairs lead to the upper level through an open roofed space. One has still not entered the house proper, but ... passed through it anyway. Only after a 180° turn does one face the entrance – actually, the two of them. The ambivalent relationship between the front (two-story main elevation, access side) and the back (one-story entrance side, with two symmetrical and identical doors) is worthy of almost Venturian lenses, whether for complexity or for contradiction, thus promoting the Dobrović move vers une architecture and the ritual of entrance into an overwhelming spatial experience.
The rigorous arrangement, carried out with fascinating discipline and persuasiveness, presents a symmetrical layout with the typical element of circular linkage around a centrally placed bathroom with toilet. The program that includes a living room, 3 bedrooms, a kitchen, a closet, a bathroom, a maid’s room and 2 extended access spaces (lobby and service area) is housed in less than 90 m2 of one residential floor. The dug-in portion of the ground floor includes rooms for storage and laundry. The flat roof may indeed not be a garden, but it is an active facility, with a concrete shell that used to be filled with water to serve as a big cooling system in the summer heat.
The ascetically arranged interior is yet another testimony of an architecture of laconic expression and complex spatial relationships, and even of Loos’ demarcation line: the architect holds sway over the walls and the built-in furniture, but no further. The final cement coating on the bathroom floor, however, bears witness to the proverbial imperviousness of Dobrović to the investors’ wishes (in this case, for ceramic tiles), but even more to the reactions of the Stulli family, because the coating is still covering the bathroom floor.
Like other works that Dobrović made in Dubrovnik, Villa Adonis was a very rational building investment. Any volume not justified by a function is dead, i.e. inefficient and useless. In such a work, building layouts become flexible through organic and purposeful links between internal spaces, intended to enable the flow of life (...) of individuals in the twentieth century (Dobrović, “On the Defense of Modern Building”, 1931). The technical description of the house declares heights to be minimal and the reduced artisan works do not exceed the limits of the average, as witnessed by the anecdote that ... Kruno Stulli, at the time of the economic depression in World War II, stated the value of his investment in terms of bags of beans! As for Nikola Dobrović, he wrote of his Villa Adonis: Architecture is nothing but a logical expression of arrangements and applied constructive elements. The building, with its balanced forms and the rhythm of its lines and walls, is fully adapted to its purpose; its exterior will adorn its surroundings on the second Konal (“Technical Description of the Building”).
One version of the mythic story of Prince Adonis says that Aphrodite, inconsolable after his death, talked Zeus into allowing Adonis to spend four months with her on Earth, four months in the Underworld with Persephone, and four months wherever he pleases. The Stulli villa on Konal in Dubrovnik seems like a very logical choice...