Architecture as a Generator of Self-discipline

architects Hrvoje Njirić, Davor Bušnja
project Medo Brundo Kindergarten, Zagreb, Croatia
written by Idis Turato

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On the same day when this text was completed, the construction site of our last project was opened – a new kindergarten in the town of Krk. We started this project in 2005, and, parallel to the designing, we made a detailed plan for a new residential area in the new part of Krk. Along with the work on designing our kindergarten; I was following the competition, project and construction of the Retkovec Medo Brundo Kindergarten in Zagreb, the work of architects Hrvoje Njirić and Davor Bušnja. Architecture can still occasionally prove to be a quick process: the authors completed the building, from the time of competition to its occupation in a record time of two years. Our project was progressing at a significantly slower pace, typical for the architectural and urbanistic surroundings in Croatia. This temporal delay was, from today’s point of view, very fruitful. In other words, I was able to slow down the project or quicken the pace in different phases to look back repeatedly at myself and our postulates and to compare these experiences and conclusions with the excellent project of Hrvoje.


Not one architectural notion or idea can commence on its own and it is impossible to observe it out of context of history and the experience of our predecessors, of its coming to being, the place and circumstances in which this architecture was realized. It is, at least in my case, a derivation of accumulated knowledge, emotions and experience of architecture before me and concurrent with the moment in which we act. When Hrvoje’s kindergarten was completely finished and we were just finishing the working drawings, I telephoned my colleague and asked him if he could take us through his building. One of the reasons was architectural curiosity and ‘addiction’ to the profession, accompanied by unquenchable thirst for cognition of a new architecture. Another reason was the fact that going through a completed project might help me in solving my own creative doubts and unanswered questions related to our project. And so, we embarked upon an exciting architectural stroll. An excursion to the kindergarten, a walk through the kindergarten.


I have always needed the experience of the spatiality of a built work, its materialization and the physical impression of architecture to be able to fully explain to myself and understand the energy of a building and project. The very passing in real time, tactile quality of materials, smells and sounds of a space, light… all these are impossible to perceive and experience in project drawings, and least of all necessary to rationally anticipate. The beauty of unpredictability of a process and correcting of one’s own postulates and premises in the course of materialization of architecture has always been irretrievably useful if it is possible for it to happen during the procedure of realization.


A sunny winter morning, children in their rooms, kindergarten teachers ready for the visit, headmistress not so ready for conversation… and it begins… the exciting architectural stroll has commenced. The possibility to walk through an only recently completed project has brought me to a moment of a few spontaneous conclusions. Architecture of kindergartens has remained, along with schools and few other public buildings, the last asylum for a classical approach to architectural spaces. The possibility to create different spatial-functional assemblies and define places of meeting, education and social contact with architecture is possible exactly here. Kindergarten for children, kindergarten for architects. Playground for children, play(ground) for architects. By the term playground I imply the pleasure and happiness of the moment when we produce exciting and motivating places and moments by help of architectural tools. Architecture of kindergartens has to ensure a quality process in time, educate a number of generations and serve as a frame for growing up and curiosity. Very clear rules, dimensioning and functional assemblies enable different interpretations and their derivations.


The first thing that instantly became clear to me, in physical terms, and in the very moment of entering the kindergarten was the fact that ‘our kindergarten’ would leave an entirely different impression than this remarkable project. I was very glad about it, however, I asked myself how to use my colleague’s experience in my own thoughts and turn it into a stimulus for a new creation. Communication and experience of realization as creative and motivating structure. Simultaneously, I recalled the sketch design, layout, characteristic Njirić-style sketches and models, which perfectly responded to the posed question of the site or context with their conceptual and functional-structural notions. On a small-sized plot, Hrvoje created a complex structure of an introverted carpet. The kindergarten units with closed atriums and scenario of the interior street around which all common and service functions of the kindergarten are arranged define the axis and architectural spine of the building.


Already the first step into the entrance hall evoked a completely different feeling than expected. What was the reason for that? I realized that I would have to carry out a deeper analysis of materialization, and that I was at that point facing an exciting moment in which the project was leading me to another layer of insight and required additional concentration from me, an analysis of the project-realization. When Maroje Mrduljaš asked me to write this text about the Medo Brundo Kindergarten, I agreed immediately, without giving it any thought. The first reason: to explain to myself (and perhaps to others) an unexpected feeling of the experience of the realization of a project on such a supreme example. The second reason: to make my humble contribution to Oris and their editorial board in their attempt to initiate constructive-creative dialogue within the profession, freed from clichés and habits of writing about architecture and criticism of architecture. Writing and critique as projects in themselves. Writing as an experience of communication and mental fitness, and an open exchange of ideas with colleagues that makes us stronger and provides us with a powerful position in comparison with the everyday functioning in ‘the real world’. And exactly this real world of Croatia, in which everything is possible and is not possible… enables unpredictable and creative moments and new possibilities. The space ‘between the systems’, unpredictability and unstableness are the creative frame (at least to me) of today’s activities.


Hrvoje’s kindergarten, in accordance with the project brief and programme, defines and designs a space at the junction of two streets as a kind of urban dialogue between the kindergarten and city. The position of the building and the plot would certainly be more appropriate for business, service or trade activities. This disadvantage, implanted in the very essence of the project brief, is used by Hrvoje exactly as an advantage. A strong decision at the very beginning, actually imposed by the very site and its ‘disturbed’ context, which places the kindergarten and plot into a motivating conflict-relation with the city. Part of the site is offered to the city and public circulation. This is a remarkable and brave move, which could not be possible within a system that imposes and defines ideal rules for a plot, its position and dimensions.


The entrance atrium, connected to the part of the plot outside the kindergarten fence and representing the public and urban segment of the site, leads to the interior street which contains a number of programmes, glass cubes. These glass cubes are intended for the headmistress, accounts office, seamstress, pedagogues – and they all communicate directly to passers-by and children. Such a move ensures a constant dialogue between the two sides and constant merging of upbringing, communication, education and focusing of one to the other, no matter on which side of the glass they are. From kindergarten teachers to children, to seamstress and repairman, to cooks and pedagogues, everything is conditioned and defined by glazing frames or sliding walls of the big multipurpose atrium. Precisely this excellently formed and technologically well-conceived space leaves an impression that has not been given so far in our perception of kindergartens. For that reason, the first impression upon entering through the entrance hall put me (and I believe any other visitor) into an unexpected relation with the building. At the present time of ‘Disneylandization’ of styles and general over-abundance of Pevec-like and Kika-like aesthetics, such a kindergarten and entrance hall space certainly represent a conflict when related to the conventional habits and lifestyle in one’s own home, both in the minds of children and their parents. Furthermore, it becomes a kind of educational-spatial physical shock, catharsis, moment of perceiving a different, highly aestheticized and shaped architectural space.


Defined by the proposal in the competition entry, the area intended for the kindergarten teachers’ offices which Hrvoje unmistakeably placed on the ground floor at the edge of the plot that belongs to the section of urban dialogue of the kindergarten with the city, was unfortunately eliminated during the realization of the main project. Fire prevention regulations and the budget proved and showed that the ‘fire prevention strain’ of the building was not able to endure a kindergarten unit on the upper floor and therefore the management of the kindergarten had to be placed on the upper floor of the building and a kindergarten unit on the ground floor, positioned in a place which was not ideal in reality. This, regretfully, created a loss of some of communicational liveliness and functional quality of the circulatory system of the kindergarten street’s space. This relocation of the space for kindergarten teachers to the upper floor of the building disturbed Hrvoje’s idea of merging common spaces with the kindergarten. Here, we are faced with the question I often ask myself: can or should buildings be created in accordance to scenarios or does a classical architectural-spatial construct, with its elements of planes, edges, platforms and spatial divisions, represent a home to contents and creatively motivate usage of space not in dependence on purpose, rules and conditions of this usage?


The kindergarten units as well as ‘kindergarten street’ are formed in minimalist manner, as carefully yet very precisely formed frames within which the life and growing up of the little ones occurs. The furniture, designed according to the space’s proportions and coloured in the same white colour as the walls, creates an effect of spatial element where shadows, surfaces and niches define the places in a unit. The space is divided into two levels. The first one is 3 metres high (it is somewhat higher than usual) and is intended for older children and the other 1 metre high is intended for little children. Part of the furniture and mirrors define this intimacy and – at first sight invisible to adults designed height – children’s space. Joining of wall surfaces, refraction of light over reflecting and glass surfaces and carefully designed furniture merge with yellow elements of equipment and movable soft mats. The yellow colour dissolves into grass-green colour. The greenness is calming; letters and sentences travel all over the glass surfaces. This is a highly aesthetic and demanding space. Hrvoje’s insistence on this decision and usage of technologically perfect materials and equipment will certainly remain deeply imprinted in the memory of children who use it. Parents and kindergarten teachers have also been presented with an accomplished fact with such a project, and they have to focus maximally on the everyday bringing up of children and to transfer the energy of curiosity and need for acquiring new knowledge which this kindergarten very demandingly generates and sets in front of its users. Architecture as a generator of self-discipline and concentration.


The last sentences and letters of this text take me back to Krk, to my first official visit to the construction site, this time as supervising engineer (people on the construction site are not at all aware I am also the architect). I am looking forward to the time when I will stroll through my completed kindergarten with Hrvoje and I hope that all this will result in a continuation of the story after ten months of construction. If they can do it with films and books, why wouldn’t we start the same practice with architecture? Hrvoje’s answer follows… To be continued!