Independence of Rooms for the Unity of Space

architect Jakša Kalajžić
project Family House, Žeževica, Croatia
written by Ante Nikša Bilić

PDF Download: Click here.

The toponyms in Dalmatia tell us almost everything. In Croatian, Dalmatian Zagora means ‘behind the hills’. In this particular case, behind Biokovo, Dalmatia’s highest mountain. The mild Mediterranean climate becomes somewhat less mild. The mountain with its highest peak, Sveti Jure, at 1762 metres above sea level, creates a mystical landscape on both the sea side and the side of Zabiokovlje, the hinterland area. The name Žeževica, I suppose, derives from žega, the Croatian word for hot, sultry weather. This makes protection from the sun and wind, in other words, the proper positioning of the structure, one of the important elements of its design.


The architect Jakša Kalajžić designed a linear building for his parents in Žeževica. This aggravating circumstance involves a wide range of responsibilities, levels of understanding of tradition, location and technology. The house is articulated as a kind of residential/agricultural ‘closet’, which, like a wall (portal), divides the plot into the upper cascade landscape of dry-stone walls and the lower flat plateau, cultivated with olive and fruit trees.


This hybrid typology (the word hybrid was, I suppose, initially used in agricultural, and only then in architectural vocabulary), which combines the dwelling (holiday house) with agricultural storage, fully replicates the typology of traditional houses in Dalmatian Zagora. Such traditional houses were divided into ‘those in the village’ and ‘those on the road’. The latter were built at road junctions and were often the nucleus of some future urbanization. Grouping together the storeroom and shop on the ground level and residential units on the second floor, they would alleviate their excessive linearity by stone mouldings and a regular succession of openings. A series of such linear structures would form minor trading and market towns (Šestanovac, Zadvarje, Cista Provo, etc). Village houses were much more modestly built. Their typologies were simple, with a complex relationship between the main and auxiliary buildings. As the inhabitants mostly engaged in agriculture and animal husbandry, the storage rooms, wine cellars and barns had almost the same importance as the living areas. We can conclude that the traditional construction of Dalmatian Zagora is characterized by rationality, smart resource management, as well as respect and coexistence with the local environment. The use of simple and unobtrusive typologies and easily available materials. The house in Žeževica is a reinterpretation of tradition through its approach to rationality, energy efficiency and easily accessible materials. In terms of building materials, what was once stone is today concrete. By integrating the agricultural and residential programmes, the architecture is treated as a framework, or to be more precise, as arching for the programme, while the time and manner of use will show whether this structure will have an entirely residential function or an agricultural one as well. In this knowledge lies the neutrality of architectural gesture.


The element that highlights the structurality and bilaterality of the structure is definitely the protection against excessive insolation and wind accomplished by foldable screens. These are made of perforated steel, which enables an unobstructed panoramic view of Biokovo even when the screens are closed. The screens also serve as mechanical protection for all technical devices. They are arranged in rows, demystifying the gradation of the residential construction, giving it a linear structure.


Apart from reinterpreting local heritage, this structure also reinterprets the principles of room and space from the history of contemporary architecture. Whether based on the early work of the Portuguese architect Eduardo Souto de Moura or the charismatic project the New Croatian Castle or the House with Six Rooms by Croatian architect Ivan Crnković.


The interior rooms of the house in Žeževica provide direct access to the olive grove, creating the prerequisite for fragmentary use of the structure as and when required, ‘giving independence’ to each room and underlining Crnković’s maxim of the ‘dialectic of the universality of space and the singularity of architectural elements’.


As for me, it does not matter whether this building will be a holiday house, an olive-processing plant or a hostel. 


In the design of this house, I view the function as a kind of scaffolding or aid in the adaptation to the needs of life. For passers-by and photographers, the house will be a white valium tablet in the neurotic landscape of Biokovo Mountain. For its inhabitants, it will be a framework for living.