Architecture as the Open Work

written by Maroje Mrduljaš
architect Ivan Crnković
project Kindergarten, Samobor, Croatia


On the cover page of the February 1975 issue of the Man and Space magazine an axonometry is reproduced that simulates a balloon perspective of the Grigor Vitez kindergarten in Samobor by Ivan Crnković (1971-74). On the draft, Crnković wrote a well-known thought of Aldo van Eyck. Tree is leaf and leaf is tree—house is city and city is house—a tree is a tree but is also a huge leaf—a leaf is a leaf but is also a tiny tree—a city is not a city unless it is also a huge house—a house is a house only if it is also a tiny city.


But the relations of the design of the kindergarten in Samobor and works by Van Eyck and the Dutch structuralists are more complex. The kindergarten design fits into the narrative of the critical development of post-war modernism, which was articulated in the international discourse by the members of the Team X group, but which also had its own specific, individual agents like Crnković. The core of this criticism was summed up by Theodor Adorno in his 1965 address to the German Werkbund, when he sharply criticized the functionalist architecture, deeming that, in it, the relationship of the human subject and architectural object was too identical—the object became a mirror in which the subject was reflected. French sociologist Jean-Louis Violeau accurately detects the change of architectural paradigm advocated by the revisionists of modernism, Whereas the family was… a landmark notion to the architects of the Modern movement (rationalists, productivists, etc.), Team X induced a semantic shift towards the notion of the community, understood as the locus of exchange and reciprocity…Put more simply, this is a shift from a biological dimension to a socio-anthropological one.


And while some of the leading issues of leaving the functionalist paradigm were flexibility and variability of space, both Van Eyck and Crnković, individually and from their own directions investigate the potential of abstract architectural form for creating anthropologically meaningful situations, both on the trail of the concept of open work (opera aperta) by Umberto Eco. According to Eco, an artwork is completed by the recipient, through the act of reading and experience, which depends on their predispositions and preferences. However, this varied readings and different effects always depend on the original structure of the work. Such and precisely defined, clear, exact architectural form has the capacity for a variety of readings and experiences if it is designed as a multifaceted, open system.


Aldo van Eyck was skeptical about the possibility of total transformability of space and sought the correct relationship between spatial form and social institutions. He elaborated this search in the theoretical text written on the occasion of the design of the Amstelveenseweg orphanage in Amsterdam (1955-60). The design of the house starts and supports a pattern of life on a certain day and has been developed for its wards. The flexibility and adaptability of the house... allows the development of exactly this pattern, and cannot support equally the pattern of daily life or the structures of the group which is fundamentally different from the one on which the house is based. The extreme flexibility of this kind would mean a false neutrality like a glove that does not fit any hand because it fits them all... The design seeks to provide a built conceptual framework­—set the stage—for a dual phenomenon of individuality and collectivity without resorting to arbitrary accentuation of any one at the expense of the other, without hiding the meaning of either. Not one basic dual phenomenon can be reduced to an incompatible polarity, because such a division will harm what the dual phenomena advocate. For the dual phenomena concept a right-size needs to be found: What the right-size is is both great and small, a few and many, near and far, simple and complex, open and closed. Van Eyck argues that the design cannot affirm the importance of "dual phenomena" if it is undetermined, vague, or architecturally insufficiently articulated to satisfy the imperative of complete flexibility. Such a design is emptied of meaning and its existential role. Do welcome from every door and a scene of every window, make a place of them, because the area of human domestication is located in the area 'in between.' It is this area that architecture seeks to articulate. When I say this, my intention is to expose once again the false meanings in order that the sense of measure be fulfilled with what the right-size implies. As soon as the balancing influence of the area 'in between'… manifests itself in the understandably articulated configuration, the opportunity to reconcile frightening polarities that have so far continuously disturbed people's true presence of mind will surely increase.


The associated in between and dual phenomena concepts refer to the reciprocity and multiplicity of relationships that take place within an architectural framework. These relations are established on the social level, but are encouraged by the architecture itself. In the spirit of Eco’s call for the open work, architectural configurations should encourage the individual and the collective to creative detection of the potential of spaces. Architectural elements can and should be formally abstract, but they must have the right-size that encourages the performativity of space and its capacities to create events. Van Eyck credibly showed the potential of abstract geometric forms for a diverse and imaginative interpretation of the individual and the community in several hundred realized playgrounds in Amsterdam. The children quickly adapted to simple geometric shapes and developed their imaginations when discovering ways in which these elements could be used and experienced.


The kindergarten in Samobor was designed analog to those settings. Crnković defines a set of rules according to which the architectural elements form spatial relationships, and through mutations of these rules is created a whole. The building is organized in the form of a series of parallelly placed elongated strips, and structured according to Louis Kahn’s concept of served and servant spaces. Served spaces are open and closed rooms, servant spaces are changing rooms and sanitary facilities. However, this division is relativized by introducing narrow and long, zenithally lit stretches under the lanterns. These interspaces, the streches of intense light, are both the clasp and the dividing line between the servant and served spaces. In the densely woven structure of the kindergarten, the served and servant spaces are not binary elements, but part of the dual phenomenon in which the in between stretch under the lanterns is also included. The play of dual phenomena is read in different scales and in different systems. The stretches under the lanterns are ambivalent architectural elements whose continuous expansion through the entire organism of the kindergarten can be deceiving. These stretches are the areas of movement and organization of the kindergarten, but they also penetrate into the assemblies of kindergarten units, extend through the terraces into the exterior where they participate in forming sub-spaces and spatial assemblies. Formally always the same stretches under the lanterns get different meanings and roles depending on their position within the system. Furthermore, the same spatial configurations were used for both the assemblies of kindergarten units and terraces, the rooms in the open, making a dual phenomenon of the inside-out relationship too. The clasps of the terraces and rooms are small metal bridges, and between the terraces and the environment of the stairs: the spaces between that articulate the event of crossing.


The undeniable presence of architectural order is experienced, but it is read through a number of separate segments which are the derivative of the whole. The feeling of the whole depends on the reading and understanding of a series of fragments, and vice versa, which is also a dual phenomenon: city is house and house is city. The precision formal discipline of arranging the spaces in structural parallel strips is comparable with the Kimbell Art Museum (1967-72) by Louis Kahn, with which the design of the kindergarten shares the model of variation of the basic structural matrix. But at the level of urban planning, the structural strips in the kindergarten in Samobor are mutually shifted, there are also shifts that are adapted to local conditions and needs for the right- size, and the space is characterized by a labyrinthine clarity. Views of the adjacent rooms and contacts to them open up, but not further from them, so the whole of the spatial system is not immediately perceptible. Also, although it seems that the organization of space is oriented longitudinally along the stretches under the lanterns, the main entrance and the sequence of public rooms—the hall, room for multiple purposes, dining room—are placed at right angle to that grid. It is this formally broken sequence that is a semantic core of the otherwise non-hierarchically organized system. The concept of parallel strips potentially offers further growth and propagation of the kindergarten, either through further sequencing of parallel strips, or through their prolongation because the outside rooms function as atria. Abolished is the concept of "composing" in favor of the systematic development of mathematical logical structure, and architecture does not build the object, but prepares a framework for creating situations. So is the relationship of the architectural framework and the performances of space, in the spirit of Eco’s open work, in moving.


All building elements have a clear role in defining spatial units or their connections. In the vertical plan, the spatial form is described with solid walls that never form angles, but are free-standing, massive square pillars, parapet walls, and their upper complement: wall-beams. In the horizontal plan, the spatial units are determined by the floor treatment and the ceiling in which syncopations happen too—gaps and the changes in height. However, parapets and wall-beams are also part of the horizontal definition of the connected-separated spaces, for example, the links of the living room to the interspace under the lantern, or the edges of the dining room. Spaces are thus open, but always clearly defined. The organism of the kindergarten is not liquid space, but a series of connected-separated places or "rooms". While the construction elements are abstract, the rooms are specifically defined.


The ground plan proportions of the room are either square or tend to be square in order for their organization to be non-hierarchical and open. Crnković handles the height as an element of identification or right-size so the openings inside the interior and the glass walls towards the exterior follow the same height of 212 cm, with the vertical horizon adjusted to children’s age. While this right-size is continuous, the ceiling heights of served and servant spaces vary in proportion to the ground plan area or the significance of each space. Vladimir Bedenko explains the concept of varying scale, The main problem in the design of the kindergarten is the problem of the scale and dimensions of space for adults and children ... Spatial values of Crnković’s kindergarten are the result of the handling harmonized and contrasting scale relations. Bedenko also explains the experiential qualities of spatial segments, By framing the terrace with pillars and partial covering, the outer space is fenced and protected, a place of security and belonging. The glass wall is not... an unwelcome barrier to complete spreading, but a fence between the outer and inner living room, of partial and full protection.


Architectural order is potentiated by the materiality of walls and columns coated with bricks. The walls are never connected in the corner, but stay open and suggest a whole assembled of individual construction elements, not of volumes. The corners thus form a negative sub-space that admits side light in a manner that is complementary to the area under the lantern. The tectonic relationship of bearing and born is always clear, so the metal profile on the floating beams supports the lining of bricks.


A difficult requirement is placed before the architecture of the institution of the kindergarten—to follow the growing up of children. Therefore the architecture of the kindergarten should not be immediately understandable, but be sufficiently complex and open to the changing experiences and continuous learning of the logic of spatial form, and also the logic of social relations. The configuration of Crnković’s design enables gradual identification with different elements of architecture—from understanding the logic of living rooms and their boundary and "servant" spaces, through learning about relationships of the interior, exterior and the environment, to looking at the whole. The configuration of the kindergarten thus becomes a pedagogical instrument through which the child masters the creation of active relationships to both spatiality and the social life that this space hosts. Although there are no moving elements or undetermined spaces, the architecture of the kindergarten is open.


Crnković’s kindergarten is persuasive as both an autonomous, programmed architectural form, and as a space that supports the pattern it is designed for. Adopting the experiences of different cultural sources, from Van Eyck to Louis Kahn to Umberto Eco, Crnković designed an entirely authentic, even enigmatic work, an architecture that contributes performatively rather than declaratively to the development of emancipated, open society.


At the opening of the partially realized kindergarten, Juro Bujan, the president of the Self-management Community of Interests for Pre-School and Primary Education emphasized the beauty and functionality, but also mentioned the emphasized issues and dilemmas about whether such costly construction was necessary or the same effect could have been achieved with lesser resources, and that the issue should have been be self-critically dealt with. Meanwhile, the kindergarten has been improvised and cheaply rebuilt, and today looks like a favela. The original configuration is resistant and still looms, but some environments look miserable. Crnković, at least as is known to the author of this text, showed no special sentiment towards the fate of the kindergarten. According to his view, once completed, the house is left to the users to use it the best they know how.