The Vučedol Effect

architects Radionica arhitekture
project Museum of Vučedol Culture, Vukovar, Croatia
written by Alen Žunić

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History here has not been sanitized into a colorful spectacle for your viewing enjoyment.

People are actually living history here, punctuated by periodic violence.[1] (1997) 

Herbert Muschamp, architecture critic for The New York Times


Until twenty years ago Bilbao, a small town in the north of Spain, was relatively unknown on the map of Europe and was experiencing a severe industrial crisis, provincial neglect and a historical burden of the Basque political activism. What put the city on the map of new cultural centres was architecture, as the generator of development, most notably the building of the Guggenheim Museum designed by Frank O. Gehry, built along the river. The then architecture critic for The New York Times, Herbert Muschamp, was, as many at the time, fascinated by the spectacular shape of the building and wrote one of the most famous eulogies when the museum was in the final stage of construction and had no other exhibits but the Snake by Richard Serra. Although it was impossible to apprehend the significance of the cultural practice for the town which was in the process of rising again, we can rightfully ask ourselves today whether such a branded project can be of any interest in the Croatian context and for our cultural industry which is in its infancy. Due to many reasons, it is not possible to simply copy the Bilbao effect to our region but it is definitely useful to observe the model of the revival of the neglected town by a successful formula of using cultural objects of a unique architectural manifestation as generators of development.

Vukovar, one of the towns which suffered the utmost physical and demographic destructions, but also destructions of the identity, in the recent war, seems to be an ideal candidate for such a new beginning since the town, which has no industrial substrate of the factories Borovo or Vuteks, definitely has to develop a different philosophy of survival. In the recent years, with a large-scale reconstruction of demolished residential buildings, several historically valuable buildings were renovated, such as the Eltz Manor, the Franciscan Monastery and the picturesque Baroque town centre. It is interesting that Vukovar, although not originally planned as a tourist destination, is increasing directing recent investments towards such projects, such as memorial houses, the Battle of Vukovar Memorial and the Museum of Early History.


 In that stage of the reconstruction of the town, architect Goran Rako, and the team Radionica arhitekture, have left most significant trace. Their projects of the reinterpretation of the emblematic water tower in Mitnica neighbourhood for a complex memorial project (still not realized) or the demanding restoration of the Eltz Manor which today houses the Town Museum are well known. Apart from his active presence in Vukovar, Rako already had some experience with the typology of special museums, first through the tender for the Museum of the Battle of Neretva, which remained only on paper, and then, together with his creative team, in Narona, where they built a museum around ancient archaeological sites exposed in situ. A look on the list of the authors of Radionica arhitekture reveals that the credit is regularly given to all participants, which is rare in many major architecture studios. Cooperation with the young, respect given to them (and their guidance) is what makes the Radionica team innovative and prevents repetition, no matter how many times they do the same architectural typology.

The Archaeological Museum in Vučedol, not far from Vukovar, has also received a unique form of a meandering ramp resulting from a specific functional organization and the need to create the connection between the collection in the interior and the outdoor archaeological park planned on a high terrain vertical alignment. But why is it important to reach a high level of architecture in Vukovar by the building itself, considering the fact that Vučedol is already an international cultural brand? The first reason is the need to introduce new powerful author signatures in Vukovar, which has lost numerous authentic values and thus, by the small Bilbao-effect, draw the attention of visitors. However, what is more important is an objective museological fact that, after war destructions, plunder of exhibits and the earlier dislocation of the most important Vučedol findings (the famous Vučedol Dove is kept in Zagreb since 1938), there are almost no authentic artefacts in Vučedol (sic!), so the attractive architecture of the museum and the virtual plan of the collection (Vanja Ilić) carry the bigger part of the responsibility of the presentation of the archaeological locality. ¶ The Indo-European population of the old Vučedol ethnic group inhabited the prominent loess plateau high above the Danube River already in the early Neolithic period (Starčevo stratum dates from c. 5000 bc), but in the long duration of life on this location the emphasis is on the period of the Eneolithic Vučedol culture (2900–2300 bc), famous for a high level of art of incrusted black ceramic, the oldest European calendar, as well as the technological achievements of the first metallurgy north of the Mediterranean!


It was not easy to fit a contemporary building into such a locality abounding in prehistoric findings and beautiful landscape, which would not compete against the main topic. The Vučedol Museum was planned as a modest, unobtrusive structure adjusted to the slope of the hill into which it was tucked, and situated in the woodland and vineyards of the Danube Valley. It is the topic of the soil and the great river. On the building facade full stripes of the wall structure are coated in brick, burnt loam in a special colour, which alternate with continuous glass panels opening the transparent face of the museum to the Danube. The selection of the material for the facade is visibly contextual so bricks look as if they are a substance just extracted from the hill, baked in a cast and stacked along the slope of the hill. The configuration of the building is dynamic, constantly rising and shifting, transformed into a slightly curved ramp which climbs towards the archaeological site like a serpentine. This motion is also followed by the functional disposition of the interior exhibition areas adjusted to the topography of the terrain, as well as the outdoor promenade on the green walk-in roof.

The interior gives the impression of a Neolithic cave, dug under the hill, warm and safe but semi-dark and rough to the touch which, in the interpretation of the author, is emphasized by anthracite black rustic concrete of the inner walls. The impression is somewhat spoiled by the too artificial parquet floor, which could be replaced by an equally dark raw concrete glaze, as a better and cheaper solution more suitable for the ambience. The path through the interior of the museum is one-way; the zigzag communication follows mild ramps in a constant upward movement and the theme sequences of the future collection are dilated by transverse wall partitions. The crescendo of moving through this inner serpentine culminates in the highest final point of the collection, from where it is possible to continue the tour on the outdoor roof promenade ascending to the archaeological plateau of the future archaeological park. This interweaving of the interior and the exterior has resulted in a really impressive counterpoint of millennia, with geometric terraces of the 21st century positioned next to a 7000-year-old site with the traces of dugouts. We are still to see the finalisation of the interior of this interesting museum, hopefully before it is completely covered by the neglected environment and thick underbrush. 


[1] Quote from the article “The Miracle in Bilbao”, on Guggenheim museum in Bilbao by Herbert Muschamp.