Phoenix in Komiža

architects Ivan Vitić (author of the building), Ante Mardešić (author of the renovation project)
project Ivan Vitić Cultural Centre, Komiža, Croatia
interviewed by Vera Grimmer, Tadej Glažar

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More than fifty years after they were created, four anthology works by Ivan Vitić are living different destinies. While the housing complex in Laginjina street in Zagreb and Pavilion 40 at Zagreb Fair are exposed to decay and devastation, the former Army Hall in Šibenik was renovated and transformed into a city library so that today it only resembles the original, in many aspects, paradigmatic building.


However, the Cultural Centre in Komiža, devastated in the nineties, has shines again with the power of the original thanks to the initiative of the Croatian Architects’ Association, the efforts of Komiža municipality and naturally, to the craft and care of the architect, Ante Mardešić from Komiža.


The characteristics of Vitić’s architectural personality, such as his bravery, innovation and radicalism, enabled him to create key works of Croatian late modernism. Some of them are close to Frampton’s theory of critical regionalism that may be well applied to the Cultural Centre in Komiža.


This building has a powerful relation towards its surroundings and is determined by the location, and an original quality was achieved independent of the prevailing trends of the times.


The architect placed the object in the environment very carefully. He established a macro-scale relationship towards the nearby hill of Hum, characterized by its calligraphy of dry walls, while the micro scale realized an entire direction of the layered, almost ceremonial, approach to the object. The Cultural Centre in Komiža undoubtedly has a strong sculpturality, but it is not a closed corpus, it is a modernistic composition of the façade where even stone walls seem like light screens. The investigative character of Vitić’s work is visible in the forming of the folded roof, seen in the Army Halls in both Šibenik and Split, and the Bunko-Mimica holiday home. The six roof folds determine the interior of the pavilion of Komiža. It is also determined by targeted openings towards the near and more distant landscape. In the middle of the Mediterranean landscape, at the edge of the old fishermen’s town, the pavilion of the Centre manifests its integrity strongly, without imposing itself on the environment, but enriching it.



ORIS: Almost your whole life has been connected to Komiža. When did you first see this pavilion of Vitić’s as something special and what do you remember in regard to it?


Mardešić: I noticed during construction that something completely different and new was being built in our town. Then I noticed that a house could be built in a different way from the usual stereotype. At the time masters of modern architecture were active in Komiža and Vis. Šegvić’s primary school in Vis and Planić’s kindergarten were built, and especially Planić’s Memorial Home in Komiža, a difficult task at the time considering that the initial construction of a soc-realistic cultural centre was to be turned into a multi-purpose public building. Naturally, I was not then aware of the value of those buildings, but I believe they helped me choose my profession in a way.


ORIS: How do you see Vitić’s pavilion in the structure of Komiža?


Mardešić: The building is a pavilion located on a visible and elevated spot at the edge of the historical structure of the Komiža settlement. Vitić’s task was not to include it in the urban structure, but to show in an innovative way how to build in a contemporary manner, how to completely connect the inner and outer space of the pavilion, which he achieved in full by using simple elements of the stone wall to support the innovative reinforced-steel roof construction.


ORIS: The restoration of the Cultural Centre in Komiža by Ivan Vitić is an important contribution to the preservation of Croatian late modern architecture. The renovation of the architecture from the times of the Modern is something new in our country. What were the greatest challenges during the restoration of the pavilion in Komiža?


Mardešić: I am fascinated how we have managed to almost finish the renovation, which did not seem possible at the beginning. Naturally, great influence on the expert public was exerted by Oris and the publishing of Vitić’s building in its sorry state, in issue 13 that was partially dedicated to the island of Vis, and showed that there was an architectural pearl somewhere in that small place.


It is a great thing that local politics, that is mayor Tonka Ivčević, recognized the value of the Centre as a monument of modern architecture and provided the larger part of the renovation financing. I hope sufficient effort will be made to put the building to use as it was intended, as a Cultural Centre, so that the building can live its full life and contribute to the quality of the island’s life.


ORIS: We suppose there were dilemmas during the restoration. For example, one of the qualities of Vitić’s architecture is the elegance of the glass surfaces, achieved by using minimal, almost filigree metal profiles, which is especially evident in the pavilion in Komiža and Army Hall in Šibenik. Since the physical demands of the building, as well as production conditions, are quite different today than they were in the sixties, how and to what extent did you manage to come close to the original?


Mardešić: Naturally, there is no original project documentation, but only the projects published in Oris prior to the reconstruction. I believe much better documentation did not exist at all; I think Vitić defined many things on site during construction. That was done mainly by builders from Komiža according to Vitić’s instructions. The outer glass walls, windows and doors were made of eloxated aluminium profiles strengthened from the inside by steel profiles. The technology was completely different than today, everything was cut and assembled on site. It is amazing how light all the profiles were. During the reconstruction we attempted to achieve this elegance with steel profiles, but unfortunately not quite successfully because of the available finance.


ORIS: There is probably no authentic documentation of the original colour scheme and materials. In what direction did your efforts go when reconstructing these themes? Was it possible to use original Bernardi furniture when the object was renovated?


Mardešić: We managed to achieve the original colour scheme, and it was not difficult. Probes were made to show that the original plastered walls and the concrete ceiling were black and white. It is amazing how few people remember that, but they remember which popular singer performed at the summer dances that were very popular at the time.


My intention was to come as close as possible to the original without slavishly attempting absolute fidelity to the original. There were some elements that were not the standard of construction at the time. Air conditioning was introduced into a space that was neither heated nor cooled, more illumination for various activities and so on. The illumination has a contemporary form, but is completely appropriate to the space.


Not all the necessary furniture and equipment for the building’s intended purpose was procured. Only the chairs and tables so the space can house lectures and workshops.


All the built-in cupboards and shelves were made according to the available photographs. There are only the bar and wardrobe counters to be produced, and we know what they looked like.


I did not insist on finding original Bernardi furniture, because the functional-spatial programme of the building has changed. I selected furniture that I believed would be appropriate for Vitić’s pavilion, but I would also like to see a piece of Bernardi’s furniture.


ORIS: How is the today’s functional-spatial program connected with the one when the building was constructed? What is the future of the pavilion in the sense of the program?


Each restored architectural monument has a chance to be preserved for a longer time if it functions in the social sense after the reconstruction. What are those prospects for the pavilion in Komiža?


Mardešić: The functional-spatial programme is not very different from the previous one. The user has changed, it would have to be the inhabitants of Komiža in first place now, especially the young, as was intended during the entire renovation. The building’s purpose would have to be related to all cultural activities and for the wider needs of the local community.


I hope the Cultural Centre will function to realize the intended purpose of Vitić’s centre although I have not seen the local community’s programme for its use and no one is assigned to head the Centre’s activities.


The heads of activities should be experts, and there are none on the island. It is not easy to find someone from the mainland who would be willing to live on the island.


I hope the Centre will be used for workshops in regard to culture, and include the island’s inhabitants.


ORIS: How do the inhabitants of Komiža look at Vitić’s pavilion today, after the many years of renovation?


Mardešić: Naturally, I haven’t heard any bad reactions, everybody was glad. I think everybody was amazed again by the beauty that Vitić created. Many had not visited the building for a long time, or had seen it in its half-ruined state. Everybody was fascinated with the building and saw the possibilities of Vitić’s construction, so they began to feel it as their own.



ORIS: Are there any anecdotes or comments among the citizens from the time when the pavilion was constructed and during its basic functioning?


Mardešić: I do not know of any, because there are not many people who were active at the time, but there is a nice new detail that connected the two periods in a symbolic way: at the building’s unofficial opening after the majority of works had been completed, the same old man was singing who had sung at the opening of the original building.