The Expressionist Vernacular of Igor Emili

architect Igor Emili
project House over Kantrida, Rijeka, Croatia
written by Idis Turato

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Vienna, 7 October 2001


Dear Sir and Friend,


In the world of globalization – where ‘personality’ is found, changed, traded and lost at media arrangers’ discretion – the luxurious architectural monographs I often receive are always written as though their subjects were somewhere far behind the authors. The essayistic content of the text is mostly standardized, just as the photographic contributions are diligently ‘digitized’, and everything is then elegantly wrapped in plastic foil, just like consumer goods.


Fortunately, it was clear to me from the first moment that your book about Emili – and here I emphasize the word book, not a brochure, not a picture book – was a kind of paraphrased creative novel of this noble and very talented builder whose personality and ideas far transcended the limits of the above marketing standard.


From your very first analysis, you open an almost metaphysical question. Every major builder always had a city of his own to which he belonged either by birth or descent or by his free choice; he always had a city in which his works were more at home than anywhere else, and could thus fully express themselves. One could conclude that the builder and the city are some sort of a circular continuum, just like the Ouroboros, the Gnostic serpent, eating its own tail to symbolically enable a continuous flow of energy.


I am pleased to see that you start by listing the toponyms, allowing us to understand the deeper substance hidden in them. The word has always been at the beginning of all things, has it not? After all, the richness of words often implies the great secrets of the master builder’s skill. In order to describe the portico of a classical temple in the composite order, for instance, to this very day, we need sixteen Greek and seven Latin words. Therefore, I like and find very useful the vocabulary you introduce right away from the beginning of your exposition to evoke not only the manifestation, but also the associative grandeur of the old, dilapidated city core and to facilitate the correct reading of Emili’s scrupulous and gifted interventions.


Today, we defend our cities from the ravages of time, but we also defend them from newly fledged citizens who in their desire to lead more city-like, even metropolis-like lives sometimes innocently contribute to the destruction of the city’s being. You have implicitly allowed us to understand the silent clash between the urban, the suburban and the seemingly urban mentalities, and have presented Emili to us as a white knight defending urbanity, a task that was his own in many ways. He knew that the city was not only its buildings, but was also a spiritual power (or powerlessness), and that the task of a builder, who had to teach his new fellow citizens about it constantly, was neither easy nor particularly rewarding.


And in all European cities in the early post-war decades, the misunderstandings could even be grotesque. Those functionalist, concrete monsters were, in fact, created in the name of sacred modernity, but they soon turned into socially morbid growths on the city’s tissue, and now the demolition of these mammoth, ugly buildings before television cameras is received with loud applause and cries of approval by the same generation that was born and grew up in them.


Emili was a great master of inserting something new into the already existing flawed, damaged, semi-erased old-town text. And that is a great skill indeed! And in that skill his wise, Mediterranean sense of weighing, of balancing the past and the future, the ephemeral and the permanent, came to full expression. He was certainly not a man Jencks could have explained to us, nor am I certain that Emili would have been delighted with the spasmodic linguistic parades of this, then still young, nowadays probably over-age, ostentatious yuppie, because Igor was not an artist who could have easily swayed into some new, or even the latest change in fashion. He was a man of continuity, and it seems to me that he is far better explained by the principle of ‘critical regionalism’ than by Jencks’s neologism of ‘supersensualism’. There is no doubt that Emili was sensitive and sensual, not so much in the manner of a superficial London snob, but in the Stendhalian, hence southern manner.


And another thing, just as important. What has become the real discovery for me are Emili’s written views and juicy expressions. I am very much attracted to them, and I should be grateful if you could provide me a few copies of his texts.



Your friend, the old Cuburian-Vienese

Double-Doppel TOMCAT

Bogdan Bogdanović


When I was approached by the editors of Oris to write an article on the house in the Kantrida neighbourhood by architect Igor Emili, I was suddenly presented with two unexpected opportunities that are very dear to my heart.


First, Igor Emili was an architect whom I met when I was still a little child. My grandfather, uncle and father worked hand-in-hand with him. Through him I became infatuated with architecture and decided to become an architect, and I have been waiting a long time to have the opportunity to say it publicly. The house in Kantrida about which I am writing today was published in the legendary Red Architecture back in 1984, at the time when I was about to leave for Zagreb to take my entrance exam to study architecture.


Secondly, Igor Emili never liked writing about architecture, he despised people who do, as he himself said: ‘I get brain hives from subsequent theorizing and “scientific” dissertating on my works. Architects should stop talking so much. The “inflation of words” (Krleža) should be replaced by focusing our greatest efforts on the project and on the construction. It is insane to bark nonsense at the moon, and expect it to echo with a serious result.’ And I, who knew him well, am now writing, just imagine, about him and his work. What a wonderful opportunity, by some supernatural miracle, to forever dissuade him from pursuing such unnecessarily harsh views.

Igor Emili was an architect who worked a lot and very intensely. Apart from architecture, he was also enthusiastic about photography and his littoral region. He was very influential, and was always professionally, socially and politically ready for any action or project. Throughout his career, he designed almost everything, from interiors to small houses, from reconstructions of cultural monuments to office buildings, grand hotels and town planning projects. He could easily cope with any architectural scale. He did not spare himself, and was the protagonist of the events and times in which he worked and lived in the true sense of the word. He made ​​decisions and took responsibility. For that reason, many people loved him, but just as many hated him. But one thing is certain, no one was indifferent towards him. He was also one of the rare architects who were given the chance to design and build the headquarters of their own architectural practice; the headquarters building of his GPZ, which is the Croatian abbreviation for the Institute of Construction and Design, was erected in Rijeka’s Old Town. The building was a nursery for architects where he raised and monitored numerous colleagues and associates. To this very day, with more or less success, his GEPEZA, as he used to call his office, still operates and designs architecture.


In the house in Kantrida, one of his last completed projects, we can recognize all the elements of ‘Emilian’ architecture. This thinking and composing of architecture began back in 1964 in the summer cottage in Selce where Emili studied and analysed his first derivations of littoral structures. The process and the development of such assemblages and his systematic investigation took him further to Villa Lostura where, by applying the principle of addition of elements implemented in the little house in Selce, he built another complex structure of a small motel with a series of rooms and common sitting rooms grouped together around large fireplaces, his favourite motif. With his house in Kantrida, Emili achieved a kind of summary of his principles, which in fact encompasses his method of arranging and adapting elements of the vernacular architecture of the littoral, and transposing them into the contemporary architectural code.


His way of thinking about the structures, the forms he handles, and his personal architectural philosophy is materialized in his specific and never repeated, much less explained, ‘expressionist vernacular’. For Emili, the motifs of littoral architecture were some sort of ‘ready-made elements’. Building on them, in his expressive and powerful sketches with black felt-tip pen on thin sketch paper, he arranged them into new and unexpected assemblages. These structures would result from spatial blending, crumpling and distorting elements of vernacular architecture. In his projects, the caught and selected elements and forms of chimneys, fireplaces, balconies, corbels, eaves, pitched roofs, arched doorways characteristic of the coast, and louvered blinds form strange new architectural structures, constructs, and objects.


Skilfully and precisely, he places various combinations of plaster, glass and rustic stone in the sun, using them to coat and dress the forms thus shaped and derived, and creating unexpected black-and-white cubist paintings. His famous photograph The Bright Moment is the best example of his view and his eye for the typical littoral vernacular, a sensible and very expressive structure.


Emili indicated and formed his spatial records both in his shapes and volumes and in his plans. His floor plan is an artistic chart, a system assembled by lines merging into tight curves, which he ultimately uses to draw rooms, fireplaces, walls, dry-stone walls and parapets. All elements of the house and the drawing representing it are ideograms of a small coastal town or an old citadel. The centre of the house is always focused on the combination of these two elements. First, the fireplace with its artfully shaped chimney, which is the centre of the spatial organization and bearer of the spatial composition of the building’s volume, and secondly, the view of the selected motif and panorama framed in the precisely proportioned opening, which simultaneously shapes and perforates the volume of the building.


The topography of the house is also subtly indented. There is not one single level; everything is broken up, flexible and adapted not only to the scale but also to the littoral material in which it is built. The sizes and shapes in the plan, the cross section of the frontal façade and the volume are generated with an innate sense of scale and pace of black-and-white shadow. The texture and the structure go from smooth to rough, from hard to soft. From rough to polished stone, from mortar to split or polished wood, from his favourite cowhide to polished and brushed dyed leather, from brass to coloured cast glass, everything is in its place. Emili’s architecture makes you feel it, touch it, stroke it.

The house in Kantrida was built for the lawyer Vajić, Emili’s good friend. After moving into his house, he sent a letter to his architect. He writes: ‘When I look six years back ... I realize that I have learned that architecture is art, in my opinion, the most complex among the known branches of art. ... I felt the everyday violence to which the idea, the inspiration was subjected, and how long the way to implement one’s idea was. From all sides, they (consciously or unconsciously) seek to dishonour that beauty and purity of the idea, the concept, the viewpoint. I now have a much better understanding of our heritage, of its basic values, and I have grown to like the region where I was born even more. Suddenly I see the birth of new values from a few shapeless forms. Not even in my dreams did I ever think that a house could be built of dry-stone wall, that rudimentary, original, unsophisticated, provincial dry-stone wall. I grew to like that dry-stone wall, that specific littoral environment and atmosphere. ... I captured the creation of the modern, the functional and the new from these fundamental values ​​of our space where there was not a trace of imitation or uncritical acceptance of foreign ideas. ... In the house itself, I constantly come up with new vistas, feelings, and different places ... dry-stone walls, playful roofs, eaves, patios, stairways, spatial links, and passages. ... How the “local” can become universal when it is original and primarily human.’


I think that this intimate and warm letter best describes Igor Emili’s energy and the power of the idea he generously dispensed with his architecture. People were simply caught up in and forever enthralled by the spatial aura of architectural design he created. This state and energy is best felt and seen in the house in Kantrida.


Igor, I hope I have not gone too far and you did not get brain hives from my subsequent theorizing and ‘scientific’ dissertating on your works.


Your student, Idis Turato