Straw and Glass

architect Davor Mateković
project Zagorje Cottage, Kumrovec, Croatia
written by Vera Grimmer

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A bright and sunny morning has dawned over Ladanje. White towers of cumuli are gathering over the hill of Strahinjčica after the abundant night rain; everything sings in the sunlight: the birds and the blue skies, the brooks and the waters, the roads and the dewy morning. ... From the country house terrace under centennial plane trees, the muddy, swampy Zagorje meadows swell beneath the dark green tapestry of the slopes of Ivančica, interspersed with the first strokes of the early autumn crimson.


Miroslav Krleža: The Banners, Vol. 1


Descriptions of landscapes in literature often serve as me­taphors for our mental states. We find one such example in Krleža’s novel The Banners, where scenes of the Zagorje region are used to indicate a dramatic situation in the life of the main character. In architecture, however, this process is often reversed. The energy of the landscape can be used to initiate architectural narrative. Herzog & de Meuron, for example, opt for a particular materiality for the de Young Museum, which corresponds to the setting of the Golden Gate Park, often covered in fog rolling in from the ocean. In the history of modern architecture, one can find many examples of interaction between landscapes and buildings – from Frank Lloyd Wright to Sverre Fehn to Glenn Murcutt.


When designing a transformation of a traditional Zagorje cottage to his own summer house, architect Davor Mateković showed a distinct relationship with the landscape in terms of its topography and its physical and sensory elements. It requires quite a bit of luck, but also a clear perspective of ​​your own needs and desires, to be able to find such a perfect plot of land with the necessary infrastructure at the back and an undisturbed natural landscape at the front. And in addition an elementary, vernacular wooden cottage with a porch and a steep roof of 45 degrees already built on a densely wooded plot. By using methods such as inserting and cladding, the modest cottage was converted into a glamorous leisure pro­perty. The careful and restrained development of the project, however, has preserved the memory and respect for  the folk architecture of this Zagorje region.


Finding himself in a sort of danger zone, Mateković skilfully avoided the pitfalls of narrativeness and vernacularity. To accomplish this he needed a certain degree of radicalism, which allowed him to juxtapose the transparent cube with the strict black frame and the soft body of the primeval house fully clad with straw. The glass corpus – one could almost call it a pavilion – opens with a sliding door onto a bold console of the terrace above the slope. The peculiarity in this is the free-standing cantilever frame into which the glass plane is inserted. At the same time, it acts as a frame for the landscape. The architect only subtly underlines the greatest value of the location – the intense presence of the natural landscape. Through this frame, we will actually see ‘the slopes interspersed with the first strokes of the early autumn crimson’.


Another striking feature of the house is its cover and mantle of straw which uninterruptedly merge into one another. The decision to choose straw as a material is a contribution to sustainability on several different levels. In Croatia, for example, old varieties of rye are being grown again near the village of Bednja; they are used to produce quality material by employing special techniques. Furthermore, the old crafts involved in its production and application are passed on to the next generation.


To have enabled different experiences during a stay at the house and to have created specific atmospheres can be considered a success of the architectural creative process. In the Mateković House, it is possible to have totally opposite experiences. On one side, one can feel the exposure and complete openness to the surrounding countryside in the glass porch. It is especially beautiful to imagine the sound of rain on its glass roof. At the same time, it is possible to experience the feeling of security in the warm interior between the walls with old wood panelling.


The duality of appearance of the Mateković House, its blend of minimalism and vernacularity, probably also points to new possibilities for development of country house typologies.