Alvar Aalto - Divided Muistot

written by Aleksander Laslo

Aalto's masterful project for Yliopistollinen Keskussairaala on Široki brijeg in Zagreb, 1930 (inspired by Lapsuuden Muisto, a painting by Juha Rissanen, 1903)

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For starters, this is about sledges too. Sledges gliding through Rubetićeva Street, from the top of Schlosserove Steps to Vončinina Street, and along the southern edge of the planned public city promenade that waited on Široki Brijeg alias Šalata almost a century ago for a new Zagreb acropolis, a para-Gradec. Until the early 60s, the slope of Rubetićeva Street, with a sharp right turn in Vončinina Street, ended in front of the tram rails in Vlaška. A genuine adventure. A childhood memory. Lapsuuden muisto. The promenade was forgotten long ago, replaced by the epicenter of the magnum opus of architect Fran Bahovac: the tennis court that replaced vineyards in 1928, then the wooden structure of the center court stands (today’s skating rink) for the finals of the European zone Davis Cup against Germany in 1936, an extension of the stands, the construction of the first (small) city swimming pool (for tennis club members) on the occasion of another Davis Cup finals in 1939, and the construction of the ATK Zagreb club building in 1940. This was the start of the Šalata Sport Center. The center expanded to the north with an open pool, had its center court turned into a skating rink with raised reinforced concrete stands, and got a new center court, thus radically altering the planned look of the crown of the hill of Široki Brijeg and reinforcing the impression that international competitions in Zagreb between the wars were nothing but knightly tournaments on the slippery trails of urban utopias.


Loos made several photographs of sledge trails in trendy Davos resorts at the time when plans were being laid to build the Franz Joseph I State Hospital on Široki Brijeg in Zagreb. But Adolf Franz Karl Viktor Maria Loos did not ride the bumps of the Šalata competition – at the time, he needed the services of a solid medical institution more than the dim prospect of building a “health town” on Široki Brijeg. Anyway, his sledge came off the trail a decade earlier, when his Clarté cosmopolitan vision of a hotel organism, submitted to the invited competition for Esplanade Hotel, did not pass the crooked selection procedure (Otto Rehnig came out first, with a design more suitable to an indeterminate Reichsministerium, and was offered a second competition with a new rival and an amended program, but he declined it, of course), although its basic premises were included in the Esplanade designed and built by Dionis Sunko. The competition projects were lost in unknown circumstances; all that remains of Loos’s work is a couple of studio sketches and blueprint negatives of perspectives, as well as the architectural legend that, when visiting Zagreb for the competition and sightseeing with the esteemed city conversation officer (Gj. Sz.), Loos made just one positive comment – about the architecture of the Brothers of Charity Hospital on the main square. It is a sad reminder of a time when the city was not ready to lay a strong foundation for its undisputed cosmopolitism, even though Loos had the best chance to realize such a task (a better chance than in Vienna and Semmering, Nice and Paris). That chance was recorded only when the elite literary review Savremenik published the notorious essay “Ornament and Crime”, while the city inherited the literary model on the route of Orient Express, which still barred Josephine Baker from the stage, not to mention its decaying Déco furnishing that would disconcert even Poirot.


Hugo Alvar Henrik Aalto did not care much for sledges either, it would seem, or for Zagreb at the time of the Esplanade scandals. He was busy graduating with honors from Helsinki Polytechnic. There are occasional skiing photographs, however, from Swiss resorts where he was a regular from the mid-1920s. Despite his topological sensibility and the virtuoso skills that everyday builders’ language basely calls “pegging out” he sledged away from Široki Brijeg.


The Široki Brijeg competition was one of the three famous international competitions held in Zagreb in 1930-1931, with ambitious and noble intentions, great expectations, respectable competitors and judges, but weak results. Even the scathing critic Stjepan Planić, maybe resenting his own participation, did not include it in his “Progress of Construction”, the Bible of Croatian modernism, except for some general remarks about the program. Nevertheless, it is significant that, after the page with the La Sarraz declaration, those remarks became the starting point of “Problems of Contemporary Architecture”, the first part of the notorious “Progress”. The competition for the general regulatory plan of Zagreb, published under the motto “Thought is the Regulatory Plan!”, ended without awarding the first prize. Although it made a significant contribution to passing a new basic document for the physical plan, it neither resolved the railway issue (the “railway noose”, as art historian rhetoric would have it) nor salvaged Trnje, lost in a chaos of unplanned (read: illegal) construction hiding behind the euphemism “self-help” (Selbsthilfe). The competition for the Jewish Hospital in Petrova Street, formally successful but marred by another non-awarded first prize and a shared second prize, showed that the available terrain was barely sufficient for the basic construction program, let alone any seriously founded development plans. The construction was postponed until a bigger terrain could be obtained (on Rebro, then on Ksaver), but it was cut short by the cataclysm known as Shoah.


The competition for the Foundation and Clinic Hospital on Široki Brijeg aka Šalata was the biggest “mission impossible” among the three, which is after all the background of this text. The roots of the problem reach back to the early 20th century, when the plateau on the hill above Ribnjak that was once called Sv. Rok and then Široki Brijeg changed hands between church and state. The latter intended to build a state hospital of his apostolic majesty – a modern general hospital, since the capital simply did not have an appropriate health institution. City authorities started regulating the future construction site and planning access routes – a public access road along the eastern base of hill, today’s Vončinina Street, and the angle of Gospodarska and Bijenička Streets, today’s Veberova and Mesićeva Streets, at the position of today’s west entrance to Šalata Hospital Center, while the dell on the western side of the hill, called “Uvala” (Tiefe Schlucht) was left alone until a better time. The badly equipped state building department, helped by renowned outside associates (Ignjat Fischer, Dionis Sunko), started planning an impressive ensemble of buildings following the regional model (for example, the contemporary Graz State Hospital), with eighteen buildings, some of them separate hospital pavilions for ophthalmology, operations, infections, gynecology, psychiatry, internal medicine, dermatology and pediatrics. The plan included a reception building, a nurse building, facilities for kitchens and engine rooms, chapel and mortuary, and empty premises for future radiology and TB pavilions. All of the above had several possible arrangements within the usual hospital pavilion typology. The construction of the hospital complex started not long afterwards. However, as soon as the first hospital building was finished – it was the reception building on the northern end of the terrain (Dionis Sunko, 1909) – there came a sweeping strategic turnaround: the reception building was turned into the Nobles’ Convent (moved to Šalata from its Upper Town location in Habdelićeva Street) and the very center of the hospital construction site became the location of a building started as a normal school for boys and completed as the Upper Town & 2nd Comprehensive School (Ignjat Fischer, 1913). The growing costs of the budding hospital construction led to this new plan, realized by the state building department, since both health and high school construction was the government’s job. Instead of the largest health institution in the country, Šalata was turning into a school campus of sorts, almost a junior college. It was not meant to last. World War One broke a year later, and both the convent and the school were summarily joined to the scarce war hospital capacities. 


The Zagreb Faculty of Medicine was founded during WWI, and the idea of building a state hospital was reincarnated as the long-term vision of a medical campus on Široki Brijeg. The Parliament approved its founding in early 1917, while the Ban (the Croatian ruler) decided at the end of the year to open the faculty in the same school year. The Parliament also passed a law saying that the buildings for the Faculty of Medicine and the State Hospital with clinics would be built on Šalata. The realization of this decision would be strongly restricted for a long time. The existing convent and high school premises were turned into faculty departments and administration, the gynecology clinic was happily housed in the newly built State Maternity Hospital and Midwife School in Petrova Street, while faculty clinics were temporarily housed in adapted premises of the City Public School in Draškovićeva Street, the Girls’ Trade School nearby and the City Public School in Kovačićeva Street. This event, however, announced a monster symbiosis of two independent medical organisms: the joint construction of the clinical hospital and the general hospital. Doctor Vladimir Bazala, the medical and cultural historian who used the certificate of Emperor Leopold from 1669 as proof of the 300 years of continuity of Zagreb University, later referred to that merging as a “not at all modern concubinage”. Still, it is just one part of the “problems of contemporary architecture” that would impact the competition program guidelines for the Foundation and Clinical Hospital on Široki Brijeg in 1930. The other part was definitely the spatial restriction of the construction site. Enter architect Franjo Gabrić, alias Franz Gabrić, who had graduated from Graz Technical High School and had spent nine years planning and managing the construction of the Graz State Hospital. In 1919, he became the manager of the newly founded construction section of the Faculty of Medicine. He adapted the Nobles’ Convent into the Anatomical and Pharmacological Institute and the high school building into the administration building with the Institute for Morphology, Biology and Physiology. In 1920, west of the latter building, he started the construction of the Pediatric, Dermatological and Venereal Clinic. Finally, in 1921, north of the boarding school, he built the Institute of Pathology and Anatomy, the third and fourth buildings of an ambitiously planned “Medicinal Faculty on Široki Brijeg in Zagreb”, with five pavilions of theoretical institutes, nine pavilions of the clinical hospital and seven administrative and economic buildings. The design has nothing to do with a general hospital. Financial hurdles to its completion discouraged Gabrić, who left the building department job in 1922 and started a private practice. His opus on Šalata, realized in harmony with the buildings of his predecessors, created the framing conditions for all future competitions: characteristic forms of amphitheatric clinic lecture halls (in the new wing of the adapted convent and the strongly articulated projections of his two new buildings). The scope of his ambitious plan for faculty buildings was recorded in the Zagreb Plan from 1923, which would be enclosed with the competition materials for the construction of the Foundation and Clinical Hospital on Široki Brijeg.


The medical cohabitation on Šalata, prescribed by the mentioned legal provision on the construction of a hospital on Široki Brijeg with at least a thousand beds, including the clinics needed by the faculty of medicine, suddenly caught attention in the late 1920s, when hospital capacities in Zagreb were stretched to the limits of endurance by the lack of money and the rapid growth of the city. Ever since the 1890s, there had been discussions about moving the oldest city hospital, the Foundation Hospital of Brothers of Mercy (built in 1792-1804), from the main city square to a quieter part of Zagreb. But it could be moved only when the court resolved the hospital management issue in 1918. The Brothers of Mercy left Zagreb and the management of the hospital was divided among the city, the county, the archbishopric and Kaptol. The decaying hospital was removed only in 1931, after the competition for Široki Brijeg. Two years before, in 1929, a foundation was established for the construction of a Foundation Hospital in Zagreb. On 18 October of the same year, it was decided to announce an international competition for the construction of the Foundation Hospital. In early November, a competition was published for the parcelling of the “Foundation lot” on Jelačić Square (the building block of the condemned old hospital). The Foundation Hospital was temporarily moved to the building complex of the City Poorhouse on Sv. Duh, while the poorhouse was chased away to the godforsaken suburban area of lower Selska Street. Široki Brijeg was also affected by important changes, to be precise on its western side. The deep dell that uncomfortably encroached on the construction site of the Faculty of Medicine, known as the Bernstein lot, was divided into lots by the city authorities only in May 1930, when its owners finally agreed to rounding the faculty grounds and creating a more appropriate dividing line. The Bernstein lot was divided into two dozen building sites of the “elegant villa quarter” of the proposed “Zagreb Weissenhof”. The winding outline of Novakova Street was laid down across the lot, its end in the faculty grounds undefined until the completion of the competition for the Foundation and Clinical Hospital. Almost a year after the decision, the international architectural competition for the construction of the Foundation and Clinical Hospital on Široki Brijeg could finally be announced.


The competition was supposed to create two fully separated hospital complexes: a clinical hospital with 375 beds, out patient units, laboratories, surgery rooms and lecture halls, linked with the existing institutes of the Faculty of Medicine, and a general (Foundation) hospital with 620 beds and its own out patient departments, surgery rooms and so on. and a freestanding TB hospital (on a separate terrain at the crossroads of Bijenička Road, the location of today’s high school made by architect Bo‘idar Rašica), as well as common facilities and services of both complexes – a central pharmacy, institutes for physical, X-ray and radio therapy, central kitchen and washhouse, administration and employee residences. The competition included not only the faculty grounds on the plateau of Široki Brijeg and a separate building site for the TB hospital, but also the elongated pointed ridge between Vončinina Street and the uphill section of Voćarska Road.


The competition was published in numerous foreign specialized magazines, especially in the German-speaking countries, both in the official professional papers (Baugilde, Schweizerische Bauzeitung, Bauwelt) and in reputable magazines with a wide international readership, such as Moderne Bauformen from Stuttgart and Der Baumeister from Munich. The prize fund had prizes of 20 000, 15 000 and 10 000 Swiss franks each, as well as 15 000 SFrs for any purchased projects. The competition program and material could be procured from the administration of the City Hall against a deposit of 200 dinars (18 SFrs, equal to 100 chicken eggs at Dolac, the open-air city market, or a fifth of a square meter in new buildings on the local building market). The competition material included a nice lithographed Plan of Zagreb made by the City Construction Office in 1923. The contestants, especially foreign ones, could also obtain the freshly translated second edition of the exemplary guide Zagreb u prošlosti i sadašnjosti 1093-1930 (Zagreb einst und jetzt/Zagreb Past and Present) by dr. Stjepan Srkulj, the current city mayor. The ten-member jury was made up of Croatian experts and Walter Henauer (Zürich), dr. Wilhelm Kreis (Dresden) and Roger-Henri Expert (Paris). Eighty designs arrived by the deadline of 15 January 1931, including 49 from Germany and 5 from Switzerland. The final decision was to be made in late April 1931. The Swiss judge Walter Henauer, cited in Schweizerische Bauzeitung in May 1931, said that, despite the high quality of submitted designs, the first prize could not be awarded because many contestants paid too little attention to local conditions and many designs, especially for clinical facilities, proposed partly unfeasible solutions. Instead of the planned three prizes, three teams of architects received 15 000 SFrs each: Ernest Weissmann (Zagreb-Paris), Bernhard Stein and Richard Zorn (Hamburg-Altona), and Gustav Paul and František Čermák (Prague). Purchase awards of 5 000 SFrs were given to G. Schöller (Vienna), Benno Schachner (Munich), Prof. William Dunkel and Heinz Lipp (Zürich), Hans Tietmann and Karl Haake (Düsseldorf), Jadwiga Dobrzynžska and Zygmunt Aoboda (Warsaw). Henauer concluded that the basic provisions of SIA (Swiss association of engineers and architects), used as contractual provisions for the competition, were not binding for the international competition because of departures from the program.


Available post-competition publications provide insight into only a fraction of the enormous effort invested by the contestants. Stjepan Planić, in his “Problems of Contemporary Architecture”, published his proposal and the proposals of Mijo Hećimović and Zdenko Strižić, as well as the awarded design “ZKBZ” by Ernest Weissmann. In September 1931, Der Baumeister, under the editorship of Wilhelm Harbers, published a special volume about contemporary hospital architecture that included the awarded design by Bernhard Stein and Richard Zorn, the purchased design by Benn Schachner and the proposal of Konstanty Gutschow, with a detailed attachment investigating functional and spatial issues of contemporary hospital architecture. Hermann Distel, the leading German authority on hospital architecture of the time, published the monograph “Krankenhäuser” (ed. Werner Hegemann, Hellerau, 1931) with two theoretical articles, some projects and buildings from the late 1920s and early 1930s, from Hamburg and Lübeck to Berlin, and a proud display of his two competition submissions for Zagreb (the Jewish Hospital and the Foundation and Clinical Hospital on Šalata). What do the above designs tell us? The Croatian proposals include a graphically seductive but actually naïve expressionist citadel by Planić and an unsuccessful minimalist domino-maximalism by Hećimović (who literally suppressed the main access). The biggest disappointment, however, is the proposal by Strižić: an unacceptably dense layout, with more than thirty interconnected two- and three-storey buildings and a four-storey 120-meter mastodon cutting across the middle of the complex (the design betrays an inexplicable fear of the third dimension, considering his emphasized urbanistic nerve). On the other hand, Weissmann’s proposal shows superior, confident and highly esthetical engineering of a pavilion system held together by transparent bridges, a not built ground floor, an open plan and so on… Not to forget an almost invisible feature that could easily be mistaken for a pre-neo-constructivist presentational effect in the project photomontage: the internal coordinate system of the complex is deflected to the southwest. The published German designs betray a Neufertian fascination with medicinal technology and the mistake of taking the maxim “form follows function” literally. The awarded design by Stein and Zorn, despite a hybrid structure that should give it a competitive advantage from the aspect of today’s tastes, is lacking a satisfactory clarity of arrangement. Moreover, it ignores local conditions, as it shows or rather enforces with the elongated blocks of the central clinical building and the doctors’ apartments located in the uphill vista of Novakova Street. This fault is even more salient in the purchased design by Benn Schachner, who designed the access to the pavilion complex as a side-street from the crown of the winding Novakova Street and sealed it with a ten-storey administration building spreading its elongated wings of internal medicine and surgical facilities of the Foundation Hospital. Konstanty Gutschow topped the winding part of Novakova Street with a 200-meter five-storey in-patient clinic (justifying it in the perspective drawing by the size of the southern rampart of Kaptol fortifications), which is cut by the internal hospital road and continued by the 100-meter block of the internal medicine section of the Foundation Hospital. Hermann Distel proposed a planimetrically attractive but academic arrangement (the preferred southwest orientation turns the separate TB building into a grotesquely distorted Oldenburg hotdog). When seen in three dimensions, it turns into a mythical Valhalla monument, a foretaste of his wartime work in Berlin, especially at the eastern perimeter of Vončinina Street with its grotesquely prominent kitchen/washhouse/engine room. 


Owing to the monumental multi-volume edition of Aalto’s architectural drawings, jointly published by Alvar Aalto Museum, Alvar Aalto Archive in Jyväskylä, and Finnish Architectural Museum in Helsinki (The Architectural Drawings of Alvar Aalto 1917-1939, Garland Publishing, 1994), Aalto’s project for the Zagreb competition has been fully available to the public for some time. The entire competition submission with numerous studies and sketches covers some seventy pages in the fifth volume, cataloguing Aalto’s buildings and projects from 1930 to 1932. The short introductory analysis of the submitted project, entitled “SUD”, points out specific features of the design – anticipatory solutions of spatial elements that would become the recognizable traits of Aalto’s style (circular auditoriums of clinical buildings, the jagged basis of the employee residential tower) and hints of his Paimio sanatorium, designed at the same time – and the special importance of this project within Aalto’s whole oeuvre, Finnish architectural modernism and its role in the global architectural phenomenon of International Style. Understandably enough, the analysis does not consider the qualities of Aalto’s design in relation to the known/published competitors’ projects, especially its outstanding value as it admirably adheres to the concrete environment and, ultimately, to the competition requirements. Aalto’s spatial arrangement is prominently readable and clear, the distribution of contents is logical, the applied building typology is appropriate, the medicinal technology is adequate, accesses to the complex and internal traffic routes are impeccable, the relation with the demanding topography of the location is very considerate, the ratio of buildings to open green areas is excellently balanced, the volumetric composition is harmonic, and the architectural division of specific building units is ideally measured. Even the tall and slender residential building at the top of the complex is entirely justified by the compositional dialog with the nearby observatory of the Archbishopric Seminary. A special mention goes to the solution for the building complex of the Foundation Hospital, offering a unique variant: a stretched mono-block with bipolar orientation, hollowed out by interior gardens and opened with columns on exterior ends. This architectural model could definitely be presented in any good handbook on hospital architecture. The jury’s total blindness to all the virtues of Aalto’s design is truly a mystery. Its failure adequately to appraise this refined contribution to modern architecture resulted in two different views of Aalto’s work in Zagreb: the history of Finnish architecture sees it as a contribution to its national modernism, while Croatian history sees it as a virtual solution to an impossible task.


If we consider the motivation, it is unlikely that Alvar Aalto decided to participate in the Zagreb competition out of the blue, in search of international fame. Since the CIAM 2 congress in Frankfurt in October 1929, Aalto had been the Finnish national delegate in the official structure of CIAM and became close friend of CIAM’s general secretary Sigfried Giedion and his wife Carola Giedion-Welcker. He already had some notable work behind him: the Agricultural Cooperative office building, the Standard residential block, and especially the office building of the newspaper company Turun Sanomat in Turku, as well as the first places at competitions for the town library in Viipuri and the Paimio TB sanatorium. Ernest Weissmann, who continuously cooperated with Le Corbusier at the legendary address of 35 Rue de Sèvres in 1928-30, was in CIAM from the very beginning and stayed in touch with Giedion, although he would regulate his national delegate mandate only when the Zagreb Working Group was founded in 1932 and proclaimed itself the associate working group of CIAM for Yugoslavia. It is known that Aalto and Weissmann met at the Frankfurt congress – the proceedings of the congress, titled Existenzminimum, recorded the fact that the Yugoslav working group was being formed. It is quite likely that they met at CIAM 3, the congress on rational construction held in Brussels in November 1930, even though the hypothetical meeting happened in the middle of their work for the Zagreb competition. It is also quite probable that Sigfried Giedion heard about the Zagreb competition through his intense correspondence with Weissmann. Therefore, it is not too implausible to assume that many CIAM members knew about the demanding Zagreb competition, which created an opportunity to promote international modernist principles. Roger-Henri Expert and Wilhelm Kreis were not the people to support that, but Walter Henauer was. 


The eventual tripartite first prize unfolded a tentative plot for project realization. As the winner from Croatia, Weissmann was supposed to manage and develop the project, but he did not have the prescribed license at the time (by the way, in the Zagreb Working Group, this legal obligation was met only by Josip Pičman). The Foundation for building the Foundation Hospital started postponing the commission, probably looking for the same solution as the one for Esplanade Hotel. Protecting his legitimate rights, Weissmann created a scandal that culminated when the case was presented at the session of CIRPAC, the executive board of CIAM, in Barcelona in March 1932 (another scandal, related to the construction of the Soviet Palace in Moscow, was presented by Le Corbusier). The scandal eventually drove him from Zagreb. In the meantime, the Foundation gave up on Šalata and built the Foundation Hospital on Rebro, while its designated lot on the faculty grounds on Šalata was later used for the sport center. Most hospitals in Zagreb are now within the system of the clinical units of the Zagreb Faculty of Medicine.





Gossip? Maybe, at first glance. Two thorough pieces of research that are about to be scientifically verified are analyzing the circumstances in detail and systematically. In the meantime, as the never-ending story of the Faculty of Medicine (as Bazala said: “the building of Skadar”) on Šalata is still going on, this text will have no epilog, just a few interesting remarks about some participants in the competition. Gustav Paul and František Čermák, architects from Prague, built the Faculty of Mechanical & Electrical Engineering of the Czech Technical University in Prague in 1965. Benno Schachner, after graduating and working in his family’s studio in Munich, was a professor of hospital construction in Aachen and built the city hospital in Leverkusen in 1956 and the RWTH clinic in Aachen in 1983. William Dunkel, Swiss architect and painter, a student of Cornelius Gurlitt in Dresden and a professor at ETH in Zürich, founded the new Zürich city theater in 1961, inspired by Aalto’s project of Essen Opera. Hans Tietmann and Karl Haake, architects from Düsseldorf, joined Wilhelm Kreis in setting up the Great Exhibition of Health, Social Care and Corporeal Exercise “Gesolei” in Düsseldorf in 1926. Jadwiga Dobrzynžska and Zygmunt Aoboda, members of the Polish architectural avant-garde, designed the Silesian Technical High School in Katowice in 1932, the GMO residential building with a steel skeleton in Poznan in 1937 and the pediatric sanatorium in the Silesian town of Istebna in 1929-37. Konstanty Gutschow, architect from Hamburg, working in the building directorate under Fritz Schumacher and later in his own studio, built the Helgoland hospital in 1958 and the Tübingen University Clinic in 1961. Hermann Distel, architect from Hamburg, designed the University Clinic for Reichshauptstadt Berlin in 1940.