The Legend of the Boat

written by Boris Bakal

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To see something means to look from the right place, to look at the world, at an object of special importance, to look at, or within ourselves. That place becomes the centre around which to spin our world, imprinting locations and terms of significance in a cognitive map.


When we are small, the world is huge, infinite in space and time. The memories of that period become an endless day that cannot be shortened. Nor prolonged.


From a window in his grandfather’s house in Draga, the family home of Vitić-Zafranović household, Ivo would often observe the sailing ships and steamboats in the shipyard. He would visit the slipways with his grandpa, checking the progress of the repairs on ships and boats. He used to crawl beneath the keel and slip his fingers between the propeller blades. Yet, he had never sailed on any of the grandpa’s steamboats or sailing ships, and there were many in possession of this proud captain and co-owner of Jadranska Plovidba Company. Every day the landowner and the ship owner, grandpa Zafranović, took his grandson to see what will belong to him one day. The ships were humungous and the chimneys on them resembled towers in the skies. Just like Miyazaki, whose visits to his father’s plane company defined his entire life, so have these visits awoken in Vitić a certain worldview.


Every summer after school would end, he and his gang of friends moved to the Ročni sailboat owned by the family Šupuk from Šibenik, the descendants of the constructor of the first alternating current hydro-power plant in the world, and of the first Croatian mayor of Šibenik. They used to spend the entire summer there, the full three months, while their mothers would bring them food. They would sail out with one ship mate, old Nardo, who was a helping hand, as Vitić and his gang were more than skilled in sailing. It was there in Šibenik, at the Šupuks’ boat, that Vitić felt the first calls of his freedom.


Šibenik of Vitić’s childhood was a wealthy naval town, third in the world to have electric street lighting, owing to the very Šupuk family; the town through which, right during Vitić’s formative years, walked Ita Rina, European film diva of Slovenian origin who later filmed her famous movie The Coral Queen in the nearby Zlarin. Vitić absorbed all the intensity of the Mediterranean, its colours and smells, dynamics, and change that will determine and mark his life, and his creative work until his untimely death in 1986, only a year after his final sail on the Adriatic.


And he sailed all his life. Literally, on his friends’ sailboats; first the Šupuks’, then Kelavas’. He also sailed by creating unforgettable objects throughout the Adriatic coast.


Infected by sailing like many of his architect colleagues, such as Šegvić, Marasović and Richter, he dreamed of his own boat. But back then in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia it was not easy to own a boat. Apart from several classic regatta sailboats such as Barbara in Dubrovnik, there were no larger privately owned sailboats on the Adriatic, partly because of the political, and partly because of the financial situation.


As Branimir Jelenić reports, Neven Šegvić also owned a sailboat, a yacht later on. As a young man, Šegvić was member of the famed Labud sailing club from Split, and invested all his earnings in that sailboat. The legend says that Šegivć’s flat was only a temporary stop on the way to his true home, the one on the boat. The boat on which the intellectual elite of Split, oftentimes after merry nights in the painter Ostoja’s yard, came up with the Red Peristyle.


Art is the result of the artist’s personal growth and the historical development of art. Monet was the one who wrote that he is always on the lookout for the scene which shoots the painting in his eye. Vitić’s childhood directed his gaze and awarded us with the polychrome facades and the dynamics of his sun-vanes. Ever since the first use of sliding window shutters on the colourful façade of Villa Meje, the influence of the Mediterranean on Vitić is evident. That villa is actually a command bridge, and its first user was an admiral of the Yugoslav Navy Fleet, Mate Jerković from Petrinja. Lenko Pleština did an excellent job in describing the history, features and the process of construction of that villa in his essay entitled A House for Some Better Times (Kuća za bolja vremena). Villa Meje, one of the finest Croatian modernist villas, no longer exists.


Vitić repeated the same colour pattern and constructive detail of moving shutters at the famous Depadansa (Yugoslav National Army Home, today poorly renovated in beige, hosting Marko Marulić Library). The explosion of the Mediterranean in Vitrić’s work is on fire on what is now a monochrome and almost forgotten Jadran Hotel. Here, for the first time on a public facility he used the colours of his childhood in a De Stijl definition. The nuanced window screens, successfully repeated on the block in Laginjina Street are closed or semi-open by movable or fixed wooden or concrete planes. Vitić’s hometown has forsaken him, ironing his colours and breaking up his complex screens; maybe contemporary European tourists do not care for a restless and sassy façade.


Vitić’s friend Marasović, another seaman, sketched his projects on whatever was at hand: matchboxes, napkins, tablecloths. The legend says that his associates would draw on his ideas and project from those very sketches. Complete opposite to Vitić, introverted and moody, Marasović built his boat based on his own project in one of the hangars of the Zagreb Fair. He was actually building two catamarans, a big one and a small one. He sailed on the small one, but he never finished the big one.


Vitić sailed, fantasized about sailing and talked about ships. At that time to own a ship was a luxury, and despite all his success, Vitić was unable to make his dream come true until 1960. That year represents a breakthrough in his life: his thus far biggest project (The National Bank apartment block in Laginjina Street) was realized, his son Ivan (Gino) was born, and he successfully participated in a tender for the construction of Social Organizations (the so-called Kockica). The construction on that project lasted for seven years due to flooding (water again!), and when it was finally finished in 1967, Vitić was at the peak of his architectural and life triumph.


As he designed marinas on several occasions, cooperating with ship and yacht manufacturers such as the us Chris Craft, there were many opportunities to use his profession in order to obtain a discount on a ship. Yet, he elegantly rejected all such offers, and after having earned enough, owing to Laginjina and Kockica projects, he realized his dream, and in 1968 travelled to Kent with his wife Nada and daughter Branka (a successful urban planner), where in the town of Tonbridge he purchased a classic Seacracker 33 sailboat and proudly coated the mould in which the future boat was to be cast (in the photo).


Every year, often in mid-project (when his presence was no longer essential) Vitić retreated to his boat. Even though it entertained many celebrations and parties, served for visits to friends from Vrsar (Murtić) over the Sovlja lagoon (Richter) to Dubrovnik (Spaventi), for Vitić this boat was the extension of his childhood, saturated with simple family joys. His wife Nada and son Gino sailed with him all the time. She, originally a woman from the continent, from Zagorje, turned into a true woman from the coast on that boat. Vitić’s seafaring adventures, anchorings and voyages, storms and quiet seas are all drawn on a single naval map into which he would draw his route year after year, every time with a different colour pen. And he sailed day and night, often moving from one lagoon to another within one day. Impulsive and versatile, he conquered all with his many talents, skills, openness and knowledge. He drew ambidextrously and simultaneously and one of the favourite scenes was to draw in the direction to of the client. A fascinating and vigorous speaker, it is said that he would always have an irrefutable argument why a certain project should be entrusted to him and no one else.


In researching as to why Vitić was often employed on army facilities, residential and cultural projects, I have come across and interesting piece of information: as opposed to the Ostrogović’s strict socialist norm, they had a breath of freedom and an excess of madness that Vitić required. Just take a look at all the ferries, steamboats, admiralty decks, observatories and traditional stone houses that he dotted along the Adriatic. From the modernist Villa Spaventi (completely devastated by the slating roof and reconstructed), through the Villa Meje admiralty and the cargo-cultural boat Depadansa in Split, Medijateka (former Army Home) in Šibenik, to the the Culture House in Komiža and the Jadran Hotel, as well as motel-lookouts in Trogir, Biograd and Rijeka; all these are dedicated to the views of his childhood. His early regional architecture, such as residential terraces in Vis and Šibenik, only accentuates that vision of freedom later developed in more mature projects, ranging from Pavilion 40 to Laginjina Street.


From the window of the house in Draga where Vitić grew up, and which was damaged in the devastating bombing of the Allies in 1943, hence afterwards sold, the view today falls on the Bus station designed by Ante Vulina, Vitić’s associate on many occasions and co-author of the famous Vitić’s yearbooks. Even those yearbooks, totalling to eight, the overviews of his annual production, are reminiscent of the Mediterranean due to their appealing monochrome binding.


Vitić spend his entire life studying boats and knew everything about them. With his colleagues Šegvić, Marasović, Richter and others in the Masonic lodge, as it was referred to, of comrade Murtić in Martićeva Street in Zagreb, he would go on about boats late into the night while having a drink or playing poker (or both). Of course, boats were not the only topic of conversation, but all present were infected by sailing or the sea. Though, Murtić caught the virus a bit later, in 1984, but Vitić had to do with that, having tricked him by introducing him to an architect friend for boat design.


Until he acquired his own boat in 1968, Vitić often used the sailboat of his friend and colleague from Šibenik, Ante Kelava. It was on that boat that at the fragile age of only a few months he first brought along his son Gino, who is now a painter by calling and architect by profession. Gino, who has become a true seafarer alongside his father, talks of the final years of Vitić and his boat. In fact, it seems as if the two of them somehow left, sailed away together. A year before his death, Vitić visited his boat for the last time. In then already changed social circumstances, it no longer could have been anchored on a regular dock, but was moved to the marina. Having been broken into and violated on several occasions, in a sense it served as a prophet of the age to come.


A shallow and disinterested observed would be wrong to comment that the building in Laginjina Street has nothing to do with the Mediterranean and Vitić’s childhood apart from the playful façade and the colour pattern. Although Vitić’s grandpa Zafranović, who personally saved the Austrian heir to the throne when his ship got stranded near the Krka falls, did not live to see and enjoy the architectural and naval empire of his grandson, the grandson dedicated it all to him. On one poker night in Martićeva 9, in the company of the Mimicas and the all-important Stevo Luković, when talking about his boat, what Vitić really had in mind was his building in Laginjina Street. And really, if you stand on the corner of Laginjina and Vojnovićeva Street, exactly opposite the colourful skyscraper, a steamboat suddenly appears before your eyes. The four-storey building becomes the stern, the three-storey building the prow, and the colourful skyscraper with the elevator tower a part of grandpa’s passenger steamboat. Only a step or two to the right and all that disappears into the cave called the city and the canyons of streets.