A Step Ahead of the Social Reality

architect Davor Katušić
project Accident & Emergency building, Zagreb, Croatia
written by Maroje Mrduljaš

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Some realizations of the Croatian architectural scene (several projects each year) indicate that there is an evident disproportion between the current social reality and a very narrow layer of advanced architectural culture. From a more general point of view, it is usually said that architecture is a reflection of the development of civilization in a certain social environment, so an overview of the achievements of prominent Croatian architectural practices could lead to the conclusion that Croatia is a wellregulated state with an official policy that is socially sensitive or one that stimulates current cultural discourses as a part of its strategic direction or construction of contemporary identity. During his visit to the recently finished Accident & Emergency Service building in Heinzelova Street in Zagreb, designed by Produkcija 004, Kenneth Frampton very affirmatively concluded, with almost exalted excitement, that its architecture is a realized example of the ideal of the welfare state. However, this economic and political concept of ‘Western capitalism with a human face’ was deconstructed in most countries in the first half of the 1970s, only to be gradually replaced by a neoliberal order that consequently brought about the downfall of the public domain, particularly reflecting on various ‘social services’. However, Frampton did not visit other Croatian health institutions such as, for example, Šibenik General Hospital that on several occasions has had no drinking water and was literally crumbling, so he could not have known that the welfare state is just an illusion in Croatia. Frampton made the point that such a sophisticated, programme-rich and carefully constructed building as the Accident & Emergency centre in Heinzelova Street could not have been built either in the Netherlands due to budget restrictions, nor in the USA, because the construction of advanced architecture for public and social services is practically impossible there.


Indeed, if you look at the architectural quality of the terminal building (as the architects themselves call it), its functionality and spatial generosity towards employees and users, we can freely say that this is an another isolated enclave of constructed architectural ideals, like several internationally-noted educational institutions or collective housing buildings constructed in the past dozen years in Croatia.


The Accident & Emergency building raises existing standards of medicinal institutions in its very programmatic plan. Basically, it is a big garage for ambulances that has centralized and optimized the transportation system. Apart from expected functional content, like the technologically sophisticated dispatch centre, a smaller ambulance unit, vehicle repair shop and carwash, there is also a high capacity inpatient clinic to accommodate injured persons in cases of crisis situations, as well as an educational centre with a conference hall. All this content is expanded by numerous interior and exterior areas for rest and recreation of staff and users. The architects say that the building is a ‘typical hybrid’, which means that it is an amalgamation of a garage’s infrastructural and technological systems with medical and educational content. Indeed, this connection could be presented with an axonometric drawing in the style of Atelier Bow-Wow, which would show that the spirally organized parking spreads along the vertical axis of the building, connected to a block with various functional systems. However, all of them serve medical and repair purposes; there is no radical juxtaposition of events in the sense of a concept of Tschumi-like transprogramming[1]. However, it is possible to speak of disprogramming[2] that has brought together both the spatial and tectonic-structural needs of typologically different programmatic elements, although all of them were gathered within the same unified content of a specialized medical institution.


Two designer decisions were crucial for the building's concept: the spatial porosity of its body, and the steel loadbearing structure. Both decisions were logically inspired by a simple structure of an open multistorey carpark reminding one of Koolhaas's fold – a continuous spatial configuration with a series of various events – so the architectural motifs of an open terrace or ramp repeat in various functional systems of the building, like ‘recreation areas’ or educational contents. In that way, the spatial equivalent of the garage ramp in the interior is the conference hall, and on the active, open last floor, this motif is repeated in an inclined terrace/auditorium with an artificial lawn and a wooden deck. On the other hand, the terraces are the external extensions of the staff areas that develop within the building’s external canvas cloak. These horizontal spatial elements are joined by fullheight vertical slits. One atrium introduces natural light into the block with the inpatient clinic that is airy with a two-side orientation, while the garage is also vertically integrated and linked with the roof terrace with two additional penetrations.


The steel structural framework enabled the required programme to be placed on the site in a porous spatial disposition with a single underground floor. Namely, studies during the project’s ela­boration showed that the steel load-bearing structure saves more space, thus being visually ‘lighter’, while some of the details, like the specific round connection elements, resemble the language of Russian Constructivism. The load-bearing structure, especially its diagonal elements, is developed in a tectonically logical order that is not enslaved by visual cleanliness or abstract ‘higher order geometry’, but directly corresponds with the structural or functional needs, creating a visually expressive structure. The diagonals that frequently appear throughout the building often surprise by the appearance of changes in the structure, while the concept of the tectonic structure is consequently implemented and fully readable in the garage and in the block with other functions. Therefore, this simple, yet intelligently and optimally conceived steel skeleton enabled a spatial configuration that in its ‘constructivist’ concept belongs more to the noncomposed logic of infrastructural and technological solutions than to the classic (modern) tradition of the architectural order or contemporary tendencies of ignoring tectonic logic. In the case of the Accident & Emergency building, the spatial concept ‘contaminated’ the structure that nevertheless preserved its integrity and tectonic simplicity.


The steel framework, again in the spirit of integration of hybrid elements, is wrapped in two types of membrane. The membrane of the block with the dispatch centre and inpatient clinic is constructed as a curtain wall made of light green tinted glass panels, while the entire building is covered with the external white canvas membrane with weave density: Précontraint 392. The textile also extends over the roof terrace and creates a pleasant, shadowed ambience. The building’s ‘clothing’ procedure might at first recall works by Christo and Jeanne-Claude, starting with the clothed Berne Kunsthalle in 1967-68, up to the clothing of the Reichstag that after the initial initiative of 1971 was realized only in 1995. However, Christo and Jeanne-Claude always emphasize in their work the motif of drapery and ‘covering’ the figure that is strongly present in art history, as well as the temporariness of their works. In the Accident & Emergency building, there are no folds, although you can discern the grid on which the canvas is stretched, just as it is not completely obvious that it is made of ‘textile’. The properties of textile and drapery still appear in the visual hinting of ‘that which is behind’. In the everyday image of the building, it is some sort of ‘writing degree zero’ – (Le Degré Zéro de l'Écriture), where this is not entirely a Barthesian ideological decision of controversy over convention, but another consequence of hybridization or disprogramming. While Tschumi’s disprogramming involves mutual permeation of programmes through ‘contamination’, here we have a sort of reconciliation of functional needs that in Heinzelova Street is read as an introverted construction that only hints at its performance properties. On the other hand, the membrane in the building’s interior creates a sense of protection and cover, first of all from direct sunlight and views from the outside. The night image is on the other hand completely different, and it is significantly assisted by lighting that corresponds with the load-bearing verticals and the traffic routes inside the garage, creating light ‘swarms’ in the traffic route trajectories in the depths of the building. This radical difference between the daytime and nighttime image, from low-profile to a very intensive light effect, uses the properties of the membrane’s translucency to the maximum. Application of additional lighting that does not serve the very function of the programme is decorative, while the basic lighting would be sufficient to produce a visually interesting effect. In the nighttime image, the ‘writing degree zero’ changes into a relatively spectacular solution that stands out as a surprising sign in the wider area, representing a selfsufficient architectural experiment. One can also find a certain analogy in the sense of translucent membrane manipulation in the project of Koprivnica High School by Studio UP that is also characteristic for the ambivalence of its daily and nightly appearance.


In the end, the Accident & Emergency building is an authentic construction made with great concentration. We should also point out the authors’ ability to bring the typologically and technologically heterogeneous content into logical and interesting correlations that are harmonized with identical attention at both overall and detailed levels, so there is no place that would reveal the designer’s lack of interest. Also, this has opened a new approach to the building’s appearance that does not rely on ‘artistic’ or narrative finesses in architectural design, or the geometric distortions of the building’s body. Instead, the solution is sought in the combination of bare constructivism and creative application of sophisticated generic elements of the membrane and the finishes.


There are several lines of force that enabled the Accident & Emergency centre in Heinzelova Street to be built as a building ahead of the real situation, and perhaps even ahead of the real possibilities of Croatian society in the allocation of social justice. First of all, here we have the institution of public architectural competitions that do not guarantee architectural excellence, but still set up relatively transparent rules of the game and mostly prevent construction from sinking into backroom dealing that would be managed by the so-called construction lobby. Secondly, the best protagonists of the architectural scene in Croatia are completely dedicated to their profession, somewhat on the trace of the somewhat nostalgic definition of the craftsman by Richard Sennett, who uses the craftsman as a metaphor for an individual who is, as a member of the social community, also realized and emancipated through work, sincerely founded on believing in the meaning and productive consequences of his work. Thirdly, the public sector in Croatia is still prepared to invest in advanced architecture, regardless of whether it is sporadic or caused by political reasons. In a way, the described situation has certain although remote associations with the architecturally fruitful 1950s and 1960s, when there was an immediate connection between the ruling ideology and the need to physically construct a new – modern – society. The fact that Milan Bandić used photos of buildings in his campaign for reelection as Mayor (including the Accident & Emergency building in Heinzelova Street) indicates that the partnership between politics and the architectural scene will continue to develop. Such a scenario comes even closer to the concept of ‘projection practices’ in which architects in Croatia are not yet ‘surfing the wave of capital’ but ‘surfing the wave of promotional political actions’. Of course, this collaboration is not new, because architecture has always been used by investors as a symbol of promotion, but in the Croatian situation, it is crucial that in Croatia the public interest represented by architecture meets what is basically the private interest of individual political options or actors. It is indeed interesting that the Accident & Emergency centre in Zagreb, an abstract, minimalist and ‘specific object’, dressed in white cloth, or in other words, a building without a façade or a ‘building that is not there’, was used as one of the iconic motifs of political marketing. This is a realization out of which the architectural scene should try to extract a strategic lesson in the hybridization of public interest of archi­tectural excellence and completely particular political motifs.



[1] Transprogramming: Combining two programmes, regardless of their incompa­tibi­lities, together with their respective spatial configurations. Reference: planetarium + rollercoaster. Event cities 1, p. 327

[2] Disprogramming: Combining two or more programmes, whereby a required spatial configuration of program A contaminates program B and program B’s possible configuration. The new programme B may be extracted from the inherited contradictions contained in programme A, and B’s required spatial configuration may be applied to programme A. Event cities 1, p. 221