The World Lost in Time

architect Željko Kovačić
project Museum of the Krapina Neanderthals, Hušnjakovo, Krapina, Croatia
written by Alan Kostrenčić

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If I cast my eyes before me,
What an infinite space in which I do not exist;
And if I look behind me,
What a terrible procession of years in which I do not exist,
And how little space I occupy in this vast abyss of time.[1]


The architect Željko Kovačić is known for his ‘museum undertakings’; one could almost say that his works set a benchmark for the success of architectural interpretation and organization of a museum display. Therefore, both the expectations and standards for his new works are set very high. One of the important aspects of his design is definitely the narrative ability of architecture that has gone a step beyond, from the bare presentation of exhibits to their animation, dramatization. The Early Man of Krapina, affectionately known as ‘Dedek Kajbumščak’, is certainly a good topic for dra­matization. Since I knew about the multimedia approach even before starting the tour of the museum – from a short film made specially for the museum to sculptural installations, holograms and computer simulations, and various references and quotations from Lewis Carroll’s Alice to Leonardo da Vinci and Tesla – my biggest question was how the author managed to accommodate such an ambitious project in his architecture.


Peter Zumthor writes that there are two basic principles of spatial composition in architecture: a closed architectural body that creates borders, separating the outside space from the space inside oneself, and an open body which embraces the space that remains associated with the infinity of outer space.[2] At first glance, the Museum of the Krapina Neanderthals belongs to the first group, anchored in a rift between two hills, almost invisible, separated from the ‘outside world’ by the entrance wall of reflective glass and buried in a semi-rock... but things are often not what they initially seem.


A visit to the museum is conceived as a journey through time, starting with a prologue set in August 1899, when the Krapina teacher Rehorić found some strange bones and sent them to Kramberger. There is a scene simulating Krapina of that time, with the mayor Vilibald Sluga, who took Kramberger to the site, including the pharmacy where the first finds were sheltered.


Still inside the introduction part, we are acquainted with the basic moments in the history of science, which actually set the basis for the theory of the gradual genesis and development of nature, which culminated in Darwin’s theory of evolution. This part is made in the distinctive style of Kovačić, with a little help from technology, computer displays and holographic images, honed to perfection. However, it is only the beginning of the real story. Having passed through the narrow passage, separated from the rest by a dark curtain, we embark, Lewis Carroll style, on a journey through time.


It would be point­less to recount what happens to the visitor on that jour­ney, and I will allow readers to discover it for themselves. What is important from the aspect of architecture is a kind of ‘unwinding’ of space, generated by the proportions and geometry of this space, but primarily by moving through it. The surfaces that define it certainly suggest a cave by their simplicity, but its quality is not found in its form, not even in its material, which is just raw reinforced concrete suggesting a cave by its monolithic nature and providing tactility by the imprint of wooden boarding, but rather in the intelligent use of the haptic experience of space in the service of storytelling. As a master of interiors, Željko Kovačić shows here the courage not to stick to the design ‘for the sake of beauty’ but rather to resort to the elementary architectonics of the spiralling ramp and the raw concrete vault on one hand, and the virtuality of contemporary media on the other. The hyper-realist scul­ptures of Elisabeth Daynes are a logical continuation of Kovačić’s strategy of erasing the boundaries between exhibit, simulation, fact and fantasy.


Human perception works in two ways. Its first postulate is that the observer – the subject – is separated from the thing he observes – the object. However, at the same time and contradictorily, the observer can be ‘here and now’ only if he is a part of that reality, if he is involved in it, surrounded by it, because otherwise it is a representation of reality (through a picture, a film or another medium). Furthermore, we experience our presence, where we are, as an atmosphere or a mood, which again inevitably affects perception, tainting it with our emotional attitude towards it (liking, disliking, remembering previous experiences etc.). For this reason, we can only experience architecture in all its fullness, as the shaping of space, by our physical presence in it and our movements through it. Kovačić’s organization of movement through the museum, being also the timeline of the exhibit presentation, is told primarily by architecture – by a ramp, and only then by the design of individual elements. The gesture of movement enables the participation in architecture, by which we can match our inner mood to the theme of this space, ‘entering’ the atmosphere. Pulling us into the game, into participation, into an almost childlike surrender to time-travel, which picturesquely (and also fascinatingly) shows the history of our world in 24 hours, in which our human existence, in proportion to the existence of the world, occupies only the last seconds of the day, Željko Kovačić as the architect and Jakov Radovčić as the exhibition display co-author have created something more than just another museum. Methodologically, of course, it is possible to discuss whether such an approach is populist, but museums have been a kind of Wunderkammer since their beginnings, a micro-cosmic representation of the ‘theatre of the world’. The presentation of the world around us has been changing, together with our way of understanding it, as an evolution of ideas and images. Kovačić’s solution for the Museum of the Krapina Neanderthals has brilliantly captured the spirit of the times, but not only that. Despite all my efforts to closely observe what I would write about, his magic succeeded in making me forget about architecture, at least for a while, and participate in time-travel with my daughter with an almost childlike joy.


If we go back to the beginning of this text, to Zumthor’s claim about the closed and open architectural bodies, the original impression of a closed building (in terms of its volume) has been replaced by the feeling that the museum has not only been extended outwards in space in some virtual way, but also extended in time. Being in time, duration is an architectural category that is rarely used. Time, caught in the architecture through actual and metaphorical movement, is probably its greatest asset here. In the end, perhaps it is none other than time, here shown quite literally as a timeline drawn on the museum floor that gives the most important lesson of the museum, pointing out the small and really insignificant role that we humans occupy in the time of the Earth, let alone of the universe. The beauty of the world around us, given to us through our existence in a moment that passes like a flash, should teach us that we must respect it and that life is ultimately more important than architecture.

[1] Blaise Pascal, Pensées

[2] Peter Zumthor, Thinking Architecture; Brikhauser, second, expanded edition, 2006, p. 22