The Issue of Rashomon

architect Tomislav Odak
project Residential buildings in Sloboština, Zagreb, Croatia
written by Tomislav Pavelić

PDF Download: Click here.

While preparing for this text, I once again realized to what extent the evaluation of residential buildings and new settlements is a ‘grey zone’. Although dominant in terms of quantity, it is an area of architecture within which it is almost impossible to reach consensus, because what is ‘white’ to me is ‘black’ to someone else and here we all have the right to exclusive opinions since everybody lives the consequences of housing construction every day. The other day, I explained to Sandro, the author of the photographic part of this contribution, with much difficulty which building in Sloboština I was talking about, only to find out eventually that he had lived precisely in one of these buildings by Odak. He could not stop his amazement that we have them as a theme in Oris because, I guess, this means ‘confirmation’ that they are an example of excellent or at least interesting architecture. We visited the location together, entered one of the buildings, walked through the access galleries – pure Rashomon! Where I saw fine spatial structure, motivating openness of form, a field of social possibilities etc., Sandro recalled unbearable noise from the nearby fast road and the feeling of unease because he had lived in a building where he used to meet strangers all the time in the dark and too long corridors.... My professional enthusiasm found itself faced with a memory of space which forced people to cocoon themselves only where they felt safe, in other words, in the private domain of a dwelling. He did not notice or was not interested in the socialization potential of the building. Instructed by this Rashomon situation, I wonder whether my perception from the outside allows me a competent opinion when I talk with someone who used to experience this very same building from the inside; could (should) Sandro’s ‘black’ perception undermine my ‘white’ one or, on the other hand, should (could) my professional point of view change or attenuate, at least post festum, Sandro’s experience. In fact, the question is whether Sandro and I are at opposite sides and therefore have experience-linked Rashomon foreordained by destiny.



What is, here and today, residential architecture? In other words, is there a way to at least approximately precisely determine the parameters that would satisfy the interests of all participants in the process of housing construction – end users, architects, city development strategists, investors focused on profits? Already superficial insight into the state of affairs shows that a polarization occurred within which earned (or lost) Euros and/or political points are on one side, and existential necessity and inability to make real choices on the part of the majority of population are on the other side; planners and architects operate between the two poles. Planners are trying to prevent the development of cities which would be directed towards total urban chaos, balancing the absolute rule of investment capital and ensuring at least minimal communal standards and social values; architects, hereby ensuring their own existence, ‘swim’ within the given conditions, trying to satisfy all participants, but frequently failing all, because square metres of housing space are far too expensive for average users, and projects are never sufficiently commercially profitable to investors.


A glimpse of specialized ‘Real Estate’ supplements in newspapers, and especially the experience of almost everything we see around us (in other words, what we live) force us to conclude that an increase in the quantity of constructed housing space is followed by a reduction of its quality as well as the reduction of urban space quality which results from residential construction in inverse proportion. Is consensus of all participants’ interests possible at all? If, due to the lack of a consensual solution, we look back, we will see that the entire history (of architecture) teaches us that housing architecture is an immense sea of more or less amorphous constructed structures that host people within, and build cities as a consequence. Does it mean, anywhere and forever, the inevitability of ‘greyness’ within which all ‘black’ and ‘white’ particular experiences and interests are intermixed to the point of indistinguishableness? And then again, the history of modernist (socially-focused) architecture teaches us, the architects/city builders who grew up out of it, to think that there is no nobler task than to create housing architecture as the sum of human personal habitats/sanctuaries as well as a means of social integration – in other words, we are expected to provide a positive ‘vision’ of city development.


Perhaps it is now clearer where Sandro’s and my experience-linked Rashomon originates – on one side, there is a (frustrated) individual with the right to have his personal dwelling needs satisfied, but without any real possibility to act particularly and on the other side, there is a (naively ambitious) architect with a chance to shape a city-forming model, but without the credibility of a consensual suprasystem (architectural, town-planning, social, political...) and with investors who are not at all interested in any of the above. If we finally look at Odak’s buildings in Sloboština in Zagreb, perhaps we should ask ourselves whether they could be a referential example of/answer to the solution of today’s housing construction problems, since they were built some thirty years ago, in other words, they are the product of a different socio-political, economic, social... context?



There is no doubt that Odak faced housing construction and city construction with courage and systematically; in other words, he dealt with ‘big’ (forming a city with buildings) and ‘small’ (forming of individual habitats with buildings/the city) issues. Nor is there any doubt that, even for today’s hyper-restrictive investment conditions, he created a remarkably rational housing construction system within which access spaces are reduced to a minimum (to merely two inner galleries per building), therefore the ratio of total to commercial constructed area is especially favourable.


His residential buildings indeed offer a model for possible growth with their interrelation and disposition of space and content (in other words, they are not self-sufficient in satisfying particular interests); they are structured with a clear hierarchy of constituent elements (thus forming both a segment of a new part of the city and constellation of individual residential units), therefore it can be said that they grow almost organically.


The physical structure of Odak’s buildings is clearly visible as an entity within which mutations of individualities are possible. Odak is aware that design of a residential building on an elementary level speaks of the essence of architecture, but also that a spatial frame is built within which a man will (or will not) find his own ‘niche’ in the world. Precisely because a misuse of authorial position is possible (under the auspices of a higher cause), his design is reticent. After establishing a clearly structured entirety, he abandoned both excessive designing and unreasonable defining of the private domain of dwellings, so he also had reservations about aesthetization; he understood that he was not allowed and was not supposed to restrain future tenants with redundant ‘rules’ since they were true ‘colonizers’ – with the right and possibility to develop ‘personal aesthetics’ within the defined frame.


In the domain which emerges between personal habitat and a building’s entirety, Odak discreetly forms spaces for social integration – from a shielded ‘courtyard’ with lawn and playground for children which is nestled between two buildings, to the access spaces of the inner galleries. Although the galleries on the lower floors are indeed long and dark (exactly as Sandro remembers them) those on the higher floors are filled with light; however, both have ‘spatial pockets’ with which Odak (architect/demiurge) hoped to create spatial-social ‘added value’.


Regardless of personal affinities, it has to be admitted (and appreciated) that Odak, with his buildings in Sloboština, probably built one of the last examples of entirely systematic and socially aware housing in Zagreb.



Gaston Bachelard says that ‘the image of a house, is as if it becomes the topography of our intimate being,’ and considers a house as ‘an instrument for analyzing the human soul’. If this ‘house’ is a private house then Bachelard’s observation seems self-explanatory; the same applies if one talks about a dwelling, in other words, a personal living space. But, what when we talk about ‘a house’ which is built (designed) to host a multitude of ‘human souls’ who can in no way influence its form or its constituent elements? What about multi-storey residential buildings, what are they the ‘topography’ of – of a ‘collective soul’, the architect’s, the investor’s?!


‘By following the dream of inhabiting these uninhabitable places, we have again reached images which require of us who experience them, and with the aim to be able to inhabit them, to make ourselves tiny, like nests or shells. Do not we find, namely, nooks and corners even in our own houses where we would like to huddle?’ When thematizing space and its poetics, Bachelard talks about intimate space (‘drawer,’ ‘nest,’ ‘shell’...), about secluded place, the sole place in which the imagination, which gives meaning and fullness to human existence, can come to life, in other words, one which is a true field of human freedom and starting point for a connection with the suprasystem of the absolute: ‘Is it possible to single out intimate and concrete essence, through memories of all the houses we have found refuge in, to houses which we were daydreaming we lived in, which could be the explanation of a unique value of all our images of protected intimacy? ... Because our house is our snug nook in the world. It is – it has often been said – our first universe. It is truly a cosmos. A cosmos in the full meaning of the word. Intimately observed, is it not that even a modest dwelling is beautiful? ... Our aim is clear now: we should show that the house is one of the biggest integrative forces for human thoughts, memories, and dreams.’


Are we allowed (or even, do we dare) to pose questions? Does an architect of today think about this or at least about some of this when he designs a multi-storey residential building? Is a multi-storey building for him (in other words, for us) also primarily an agglomeration of personal ‘houses’ i.e. a sum of ‘the biggest integrative forces for human thoughts, memories, dreams’? Is a house a synonym for the cosmos to us, as it was to Bachelard? And even if we think like Bachelard, are there buyers/investors (no matter if they are private or public) who have the tendency, or at least enough the sensitivity, for such contemplations?


Regardless of Sandro’s ‘black’ or my ‘white’ perception, the view of Odak’s buildings in Sloboština still brings nostalgia; but it also gives hope that the times in which residential buildings were built as an integral system of individual human shelters and as positive means of social integration are not lost beyond return.



All quotations from:

Gaston Bachelard: The Poetics of Space