Interviewed in Zagreb, 14 December 2009
Marijan Hržić combines all the domains of architectural practice in a classical way: he is an active architect, urban planner, university professor and writer. His works, like the Crematorium in Mirogoj (with Krznarić and Mance), the University Library (with Krznarić, Mance and Neidhardt), Cibona (with Piteša and Šerbetić) and Eurotower, are major land marks of the urban identity of Zagreb. Along with such a prolific architectural opus, Hržić has also systematically worked in urban planning, approaching city issues by combining his architectural experience, concrete proposals and theory. He has been applying this method since the early 1980s; his opus includes numerous studies and inventive proposals for the urban renewal and reconstruction of Zagreb and other Croatian cities, which are still relevant. Therefore, the interview focuses on the issues of urban planning and the recent topics that Hržić analyzes by relying on his own architectural experience and theoretic insights.
ORIS: The discourse on architecture and urban planning in Croatia is suffering from a lack of continuous theoretical and critical elaboration. Still, the postmodernist period created a space for a more active critical attitude towards the inherited dominating modernist values and a more open debate about the city. When you returned from America in the early 1980s, you brought new knowledge. What were your theoretical reference points for urban planning at the time?
Hržić: I lived in America in 1979 and 1980. As soon as I arrived there, I asked which book was topical; they said, Collage City, which tells you a lot about my colleagues there. That period was ripe to start seriously criticizing modernism and all its drawbacks, since it was already possible to carefully analyze and challenge its claim as the exclusive or the only praxis of architecture and urban planning processes. America was then focusing on the ‘man-environment studies’; a key book on that topic was Human Aspects of Urban Form by Amos Rapaport. They were not only interested in space, in the environment, but also in how an environment or physical framework affects human behaviour, and vice versa, how human preferences, value systems etc. affect the design of that environment. It was believed that this relation existed, but that it was probabilistic, not deterministic. A good environment does not necessarily mean good behaviour. In such debates and research, it was perceived that architects often talked about building human architecture, but that it was a vague stock phrase. A question arose: what is the knowledge, by which architects gain insight into the human needs, human behaviours? At the same time, also other books focused less on the Zeitgeist and more on the spirit of a place. I should also mention the flamboyant writings of Charles Jencks and even Venturi. Another prominent issue was the meaning that architecture could or should transmit.
ORIS: At such times, architecture and architectural theory and criticism want to erase the difference between elitist and popular culture. On the other hand, urban planning was obviously becoming more influenced by humanist disciplines; urban planning was no longer considered just a discipline where a lone author creates idealized models, but appreciated as a very complex, inter-disciplinary process.
Hržić: At the time, things started to happen in Croatia too, but in fragments, not as elaborate as in America, where they tried to have a theory that would shed a different light on the modernist mainstream that lasted till the 1970s. Here too, the first contentions started with a stronger criticism of the functionalist city. In Form Follows Fiasco, Peter Blake used the example of Zagreb. The south of Zagreb is a paradigmatic CIAM model, so why is it not working, while the main city square is still vital and attractive to the citizens?
ORIS: Blake made his criticism on the basis of a relatively terse insight; he did not bear in mind that Novi Zagreb was a half-realized utopia lacking a whole range of planned elements that failed to materialize. We also should look upon criticism of modernism as upon a criticism of the social system doing the modernizing which in Croatia often stopped after achieving an elementary functionality.
Hržić: Blake needed arguments and saw Zagreb as a good example; still, when I asked him something similar in an interview, he gave me a perfect answer that I will never forget: a city cannot be instantly charming; at the moment of its creation, Novi Zagreb could not become a generally acceptable model where people would immediately create a motivating social framework like in the historic city centre.
ORIS: Novi Zagreb, unlike many other modernist settlements or cities, has not gone through gentrification, a process common in the West. Novi Zagreb is socially diversified, which is the heritage of socialist and egalitarian distribution of the available housing, eventually resulting in positive social aspects. You learned the advanced theoretic tendencies of the time and brought that experience into the Croatian context by working in the Urban Planning Institute and in publishing. You started to examine the topics of streets, blocks, city tissue...
Hržić: Split 3 opened the theme of the street, which we continued to examine in the Žnjan competition, which we won. It was no longer an issue of one or two streets, but an issue of all the characteristics of a traditional city. It was about the links between the streets, resulting in blocks of adequate sizes; it was the issue of the outline, of almost classical instruments of urban planning or traditional composition of space. Also, the scale was different than Mertojak, realized earlier in Split 3. I believe, however, that my editorial work has clearly attempted to start a debate about modernist models. When I became the editor of Arhitektura, the topic of the first issue was ‘Interpolation’, which was literally a sensation. At the time, NIN magazine from Belgrade used to choose the architectural event of the year. First place, chosen by journalists from all over Yugoslavia, went to the ‘Interpolation’ edition of Arhitektura, while the second largest number of votes went to Ravnikar’s project for Cankarjev Dom in Ljubljana. The next issue was ‘Individual Housing’, which coincided with the great success of Crnković in Japan. As a counterpoint to ‘Interpolation’, the next theme was CIAM, occasioned by the 50th anniversary of the Athens Charter, with a text by Marinović-Uzelac that critically commented on every single thesis of the Charter. As the board of editors in 1983–84, we decided to re-examine the relevance of the Charter. At the time when buoyant postmodernism inspired everyone to make sweeping criticisms of modernism, we meticulously wrote about possible defects in theses No. 1, 2, 3, etc., dealing with issues of housing, leisure, work, traffic etc.
ORIS: The articles included Weissmann’s posthumous text ‘We had a different version of the Charter’.
Hržić: Obviously, Weissmann was one of the most prominent participants in CIAM. Together with Eric Mumford, who researched all the papers on CIAM, Weissmann was one of those who were supposed to formulate the conclusions after that meeting in 1933. He was in the core team with Corbusier, Perriand and Sert; the few of them were chosen among the entire elite to shape the topics that could not be finished on board the ship because of disagreements. In the mentioned text, Weissmann indicated that the Congress participants could not reach a consensus because of too many different positions. They continued to work in America later, when Weissmann left. But when we were re-examining CIAM in the early 1980s, there was a simultaneous research on place, context and history through interpolation issues. Regarding the Urban Planning Institute, when I look at it from such a distance in time, it had an exceptionally solid collective routine. People simply knew how to make a master plan, how to make a detailed plan, who should participate. We had multidisciplinary research. We always consulted demographic indicators, geographers and sociologists, the historic and urban development of the examined area. Plans were always long-term, considering the growth and the way to embed the growth model in an existing situation, a historic structure.
ORIS: The 1980s implied an implosion rather than an explosion of cities, the return to the core and overlooked areas. There was an established practice of urban planning that has been much degraded in Croatia since the late 1980s.
Hržić: At the time, we believed there was a consensus on the need to make an adequate plan; we, the plan-makers, were overjoyed because we made very important papers, we did serious stuff. The Institute had an interesting atmosphere and discussions: Juras, Neidhardt, Ostrogović Jr., Miščević, Salaj, the Bradićs, Kincl, Mance, Čužmek, Milas, Matijević, Krznarić, Rako…. Today it seems almost inconceivable, but urban planning was so interesting and attractive that very talented architects with architectural experience had serious research ambitions on the scale of urban planning. A large number of people from the Institute later went to the Faculty.
ORIS: The connection between architecture and urban planning is crucial; the results of that way of thinking can be seen in the projects delivered by the Urban Planning Institute, and in your works such as the Cibona Complex, the Faculty of Electrical Engineering, the Crematorium...
Hržić: Every period has protagonists or teams who react more strongly to contemporary issues, so they successfully participate in competitions for a while. At that time, we in the Urban Planning Institute won many big competitions. I remember we made a big effort not only in the graphic segment, but also in the textual explanations, creating genuine studies. We wanted to provide arguments explaining why what we did was something good.
ORIS: Projects were supported by theoretical thought and research. Such elaborations, as in the case of the University Hospital competition, were published by Arhitektura; all the projects were backed up by long studies, with many references. When you look at today’s competition comments, they are usually superficial and scanty.
Hržić: The criteria can largely be made objective. Christopher Alexander, in his book Notes on the Synthesis of Form, says that design is always the answer to a context, to everything basic that affects the design process. As an example, he took a teapot, analyzed everything that affected its design, and showed how such criteria were contradictory. According to Alexander, there are some 70 or 80 criteria in a design of teapot. A piece of architecture or a city has hundreds or thousands of criteria. He claims that it is impossible to intuitively take into account all those criteria and that agreements as well as contradictions should be rationally taken into consideration. Of course, this is not how planning is literally done; it is important to be spontaneous, but also to have the will to seriously tackle the problem.
ORIS: In our time, Alexander’s thoughts have their analogy in the work of Winy Maas, who believes it is possible to make the design process objective and to handle only various statistical parameters and other data. Of course, it is rather a conceptual position. But the good reception of Arhitektura’s ‘Interpolation’ by the general public is interesting; obviously, in the 1980s, there was an interest for the city as a phenomenon.
Hržić: It had not been a topic before; after all, there had been larger requirements, such as new districts, it was all happening somewhere else. Suddenly, interpolation came back to the city. It was not unambiguous, it was not just an issue of prettying up.... The very concept of the ‘Interpolation’ issue indicated the attitude that several professions should say something about it. Texts were written not only by architects but also by the most active and respected art historians. There was an interesting article about the Željpoh building twenty years after its construction. It included a big survey with many participants; each of them presented their opinion on a couple of pages. There were big differences in opinion, but the predominating opinion was that the building should not be there, especially from the standpoint of art historians.
ORIS: Still, many architects had a positive opinion about the building.
Hržić: Interestingly, art historians’ valuation of buildings changes over time. Regarding the criteria for the Music Academy competition, it was they who insisted on the Željpoh rhythms, horizontal and vertical relations, parapets, configuration, and scale.
ORIS: But the building has not retained the original concept by Fabris. Still, the current events are quite senseless: how can an office building be redesigned into the Music Academy?
Hržić: Prominent buildings in the city centre have their value, either only historic or both historic and architectural. When, for one reason or another, the decision is made to give new life to a building, it is important not only to create events within the building, but also in front of it – the building must contribute to the city. It was discussed whether the reconstruction was worth the effort if the resulting premises would not satisfy the needs of the Music Academy, forcing it to continue using other premises in the city. I made a counter-argument that sometimes pleases me: it is beautiful if the students of music walk around town, from one building to another. Krier similarly debated mega-systems, about the desire to integrate everything. Instead, it is possible to create in the urban space appropriate dynamics, an event, with the streets replacing the corridors of a large system.
ORIS: This is not only the issue of the Music Academy, but also the location of the University within the city, making it particularly lively. If the entire University were removed to an isolated campus, the city centre would not be the same.
Hržić: A dramatic example was the displacement of high schools I and IV to make room for the Mimara Museum; it radically changed the pace of that important city part: there used to be hundreds of pupils on the square and on the windows overlooking it. Now the square is empty.
ORIS: In some cities, on the other hand, the campus became a part of the city; for example, Yale is a part of New Haven. The concept of a university axis in Zagreb emerged half a century ago, but that opportunity was never quite realized.
Hržić: There is still a big opportunity for that campus integrated in the city tissue. It is not completely lost, because much has been done, but it lacks consistency. On the stretch from the former University Library, it was planned to build the Faculty of Law in the Martinovka settlement, north of the Faculty of Electrical Engineering. Further south, there should have been a string of faculties with student dormitories in the direction of the River Sava.
ORIS: Although very logical, that link is incomplete. Runjaninova Street is crossed by hundreds of students who use the inadequate passage under the railway. That part should have been revitalized.
Hržić: I could never understand why they did not open that locked door on the east side of the Students’ Centre. All the students go there for lunch, lectures, concerts and the gallery....
ORIS: Now it is possible, the door is ajar. We are talking about absurdities, about urban planning that hinges on a simple lock, but there are mental locks too.
Hržić: So much effort is needed for the simplest actions, to organize the smallest things, and it suddenly introduces a new pace, merges the urban flows; obviously, such flows are gravitating around the incomplete stretch of the university axis. Sometimes you do not need much to achieve something good for the city.
ORIS: Rather than large urban planning activities, we could need more mindsets sympathetic to urban planning. Regarding this topic of merging and bringing together, it seems that Cibona had a paradigmatic role, introducing a planning method that brought back some well-known urban forms, but also creating a metropolitan situation that Zagreb lacked. After the Foundation Block, where the passage was added later, Cibona was the first metropolitan gesture that formed a high-density urban complex.
Hržić: The sports hall for the University Games had been proposed in two unfeasible places, and then I proposed the current location of Cibona, which seemed unsuitable at the time. In fact, the location was inside a triangle formed by railways, there were houses, an inadequate courtyard, it was reduced, it seemed as if nothing would fit there. The other locations were Tuškanac, where the Lokomotiva club, now Cibona, had a basketball court; now there is a garage. It is where nature enters the city; we must keep some of that feeling of woods and parks. The other location was Steinman’s secondary school playground. In debates, you sometimes need to use slogans; I claimed that it was a fact that you should never build in nice locations, but in the worst ones, those that can gain a new value, instead of replacing an established value.
ORIS: It is a very productive and interesting claim.
Hržić: When we examined how a sports hall would fit in the location, it became obvious it needed to be elliptical to fit between the railway tracks. The entire situation was complicated because of the railway lines. Also, we upgraded the found structures, added an urban passage, a raised square, a big multipurpose sports facility and a tower. The investors intended to finance the club with the business contents in the passage. The tower was firmly opposed by art historians; the fact that it was an office tower was enough. One art historian told me that he did not mind skyscrapers, but he asked me whether it could be a tower of youth instead of a corporate structure, which seemed inadequate for such a prominent vertical element of the cityscape. People used to make a big fuss (justified or unjustified) about building a tall structure in that place, because the city master plan specified that residential and public buildings could not be taller than eight floors. But the regulations were vague, they could be interpreted this way or that. Was the Cibona office building a public building? A survey was made among the architects, the Faculty was asked for its opinion on how to interpret it, the inspection people believed it went against the master plan, others said it was not a public building and therefore not restricted to eight floors.... Later the city master plan was also changed.... People do not like tall buildings, especially some experts. Many years later, there was the same fuss about Eurotower, with big opposition, bigger than for Cibona. The Monument Protection Institute organized a symposium with colleagues from London and Vienna. A tall building: yes or no, does Croatia need tall buildings, why build tall when there is so much space? Those were the issues.
ORIS: Eurotower was a watershed, one of the first vertical structures designed after Cibona, even though some skyscrapers happened to be constructed before it. Still, to build tall buildings without adequate criteria is very questionable.
Hržić: Hoto Tower and Eurotower were erected at the same time. I had an interesting TV debate about it with Dražen Juračić and Ognjen Čaldarević. We had a round table about tall buildings. I had primary-school arguments: the city is always both horizontal and vertical, but we should investigate where it is possible to have something vertical, we should analyze visual corridors, the situations from characteristic visual standpoints where anything tall would stand out too much. That is how a city protects its visual form, but Zagreb is not doing it, unfortunately. It seems that too much was given in – on one hand, there is dogmatic rigidity, and on the other, everything becomes possible. There should be stronger arguments, better studies.
ORIS: How do you see the current situation with urban planning in Croatia? The example of the Flower Square shows that the topic of the Lower Town blocks has not been analyzed enough or that such knowledge was unavailable. Since investors exert pressure, it is necessary to offer adequate knowledge to moderate the processes of building in a context. America has the principle of reacting to the ambitions of an investor, who might start the process, but then various possibilities are investigated.
Hržić: In theory, a democratically elected city government should protect the citizens’ interests. As part of its mandate, it should do whatever it can to adequately fulfil those interests, to arbitrate, make offers and investigate. However, it needs the support of the urban planners. But you cannot rely on that profession at the moment when all its institutions are in ruins, when everything is improvised. Today, there is only one generally acceptable model, but I doubt it can completely guarantee quality: ‘Let’s hold a competition’; but the competition itself, the project task, already defines many things. The procedure uses an agreed process of choosing the best proposal to guarantee a result. The competition takes one, two or three months, coming after a project task that was also made immediately before the competition. Studies should be made over a period of five to ten years; you can make hundreds of competitions with very talented people, but it is all arbitrary without long-term studies. The approach to Lower Town blocks is an open issue. The blocks closer to the centre, or the larger blocks in the west, are different from the rest. Much is already determined, but there are big potentials too. There comes a time when those potentials are seen by the investors, who make their proposals. You can hold a competition, choose a proposal and start building. If it complies with some general restrictions of the city master plan, it might be possible without major problems. But while one block is being rebuilt, what about the next one, what about the potentials for even better regulation? You could decide that the lots will not be merged, but should this apply to all the blocks or just some of them? There is no ultimate recipe. The Flower Square started many things, initiating the considerations and discussions of the topic. I am not against that project in principle; I am not talking about a concrete solution, but about the general idea of creating a passage in a city block in the very centre, as a covered public space par excellence. A passage is always public, regardless of ownership. Most cities have small blocks in the centre and large ones in the periphery, for the simple reason that the centre should have many street fronts, a wide network of public spaces, the most vital spaces for a city, shops, cafés, the pulsating places.
ORIS: But there are problems with density, with the idea of a block that is empty from the inside, with a garage entrance on a pedestrian surface.
Hržić: It is always like that: win some, lose some. If you make an intervention, there must be a garage, everything else is hypocritical. You must resolve the logistics of the premises, which can never stop. I see the entrance as a place where cars go in and out very quickly. Does the entrance encroach on the pedestrian zone? I believe it makes it possible, but it depends on where you put the garage, the entrance etc. There are indisputable issues of decision-making and public participation. Each city master plan and each detailed plan have their public presentations. But the possibility to react depends on whether the projects and their consequences are clear and readable enough to make a competent judgment, for the good of the specific too. But I think that if the architecture is good, if it provides the right answer, no matter how controversial it may be at a time or depending on the moment, one should be resolute and stand behind the project. Many things were not immediately accepted by the wider public, but later turned out to be good decisions for the city. When Pičman and Seissel made the plan for the Foundation Block and when they tore down the Foundation Hospital, the entire city shouted in joy. In the case of the Flower Square, nobody shouted, everybody screamed.
ORIS: It seems that the age of joyful shouts and general satisfaction with architecture and urban planning is past.
Hržić: On the other hand, big mistakes are being made, but sometimes there is no sharp analysis of things that can be very objectionable, but elicited no major reaction. For example, the building across the University Library, the Sunce Polyclinic, gets between Trnjanska and HBZ Streets, into the perspective from Freedom Bridge towards the north. Trnjanska has always been an issue: how much to preserve or not, whether it should stand along a big avenue; the entire district has been researched a lot in urban plans.
ORIS: In fact, some interventions are marring the basic urban planning themes that have been defended for fifty years or longer. It makes us ask how that can be possible if the legal criteria have been satisfied.
Hržić: On the other hand, the edifice of the Museum of Contemporary Art (MSU) is the biggest event in Zagreb in recent years. Its architecture is great, the institution is important, a big effort has been made. Franić researched and wanted to use the advantages of the location. MSU is a part of the cityscape of Novi Zagreb, which has been here for decades. Such a context demands an adequate attitude, which is clearly stated by Franić. On the west side, he placed a screen that is especially effective at night, corresponding with the avenue and enabling the artists to test its possibilities. On the other hand, towards the north, he develops a panorama merging the interior with the exterior and providing a view towards Sljeme and the city. But its parcel of land ends a few metres from the building; future structures on the adjacent plot could clash with the configuration of MSU. Why not leave some empty space north of MSU? That space could be completely devalued by new structures, which has already happened to the east of the building.
ORIS: But where is the expert opinion? This is also an issue of studies. Where is the institution protecting that space from being degraded by future structures?
Hržić: Unfortunately, the master plan considers it a construction area, so a building next to MSU would not be illegal. There are debates within the profession; one should be lucid and judge well. But who is the judge? In fact, the judge is the city, which should protect the public interest; the city should rationalize decisions with the help of experts from different domains, depending on the issue, and react adequately.
ORIS: The issue of expert opinions brings us back to the source of the problem: education, the starting point of everything. Education is the prerequisite for any structured scene. When you came to the Faculty, you brought a new way of thinking and integrating.
Hržić: I remember when I first came to the Faculty, when I gave lectures, I asked the students a question – but it was a different time, things have changed. ‘Most of you here would rather design the bar counter inside an interesting café, instead of researching how to connect the park of Zrinjevac with the square in front and behind the railway. But it will not be resolved by somebody else; it will be resolved by you.’ I researched how to advertise urban planning, because very few students wanted to specialize in it, which has greatly changed since then. I told them that every serious architect always dealt with the city and the building. I believe it is very important to promote and implement the concept of teamwork, which I tried to do within practical exercises in the Department of Urban Planning. In 1994, for example, there was a very large and demanding competition by Seattle Commons. The Department of Urban Planning gathered two groups of talented students who did teamwork on that large project, with me as a mentor of one of the groups. That quite concrete work counted as a part of the teaching obligations. The competition itself was very interesting, as it dealt with a metropolitan situation that assumed a synthetic approach in architecture and urban planning; I believe that the results were very successful – to have high-quality projects, you need a motivating task. Interestingly, the students who participated in that competition are among the top Croatian architects today; I am sure that their experience in that competition was precious to them. The research of the teamwork model continued during the ‘Framework of Metropolis – the Space Between’ seminar, which was a workshop in 1998, organized by the City Department for Development Planning and Human Environment Protection together with the Faculty of Architecture. I do not think we should strictly separate urban planning from architecture. I believe that the graduate-level studies should all belong to a same method or mindset. The sections of urban planning and architecture should be considered as simultaneous and interrelated, as parts of the same process.