Beyond Buildings


The Beauty of Zagreb

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This last weekend, I had the pleasure of speaking at the Days of Oris, a remarkable gathering of architects that every year attracts an audience of more than 2000 to the town of Zagreb. I went there with pleasure, because I love Zagreb.


There is a beauty to the cities of the Old Middle Europe, and Zagreb is no exception. Once a provincial center in the Austro-Hungarian empire and now the capital of Croatia, it displays the clarity of layout that you can find in cities all the way from the border with Turkey to the Baltic Sea. Approaching from the airport, you first hit sprawl—generic, destructive, and without any particular character. Then you come to the utopia of the communist era: large and usually very long blocks of apartments, set along broad avenues and interspersed with schools, community centers, and strips of shops. What makes these repetitive structures remarkable is the articulation of their concrete structure, their scale, and the often elongated proportions that stretch along the road to evoke the grandeur of an egalitarian, hard-working, and heroic worker’s culture.


Then comes a break, usually a park or an industrial zone, and then the 19th century grid, filled out with cream-colored stucco blocks, interspersed with linear parks and the monuments of the post-Enlightenment era: the university, the opera house, the art museum, and perhaps the parliament. Finally, as often as not rising up to a hill crowned by castle or palace, is the old city, with its winding streets, small churches, and squares. Leading off into the hills are the roads along which the wealthy built their mansions in the 20th century, some of them white villas designed by Bauhaus students.


Zagreb map


So it is with Zagreb. While the communist-era towers on the outskirts are not all beautiful, the closer-in blocks of New Zagreb is a remarkably successful neighborhood that is still one of the most popular in the city, even though it is about three miles from the core. The railroad line separates its Northern reaches from the Habsburg-era grid, where Zrinjevac Park, for instance, leads past the museum and theater towards the central square. Beyond Jurisleva Street the medieval fabric winds up the foothills of Bear Mountain, and the white villas look down on the plains of the Sava River with their clean lines and open terraces.


I love the clarity of this layout, which traces both the landscape and the political history of the city (though it is unusually far away from the banks of the Sava). I love the sense that you can understand where you are, how the city was made and who made it, just by moving through its human topography. Just as you can understand Main and State Street in most American cities in between the Alleghenies and the Rockies, and can comprehend the ridges where the mansions are built looking over the flat planes where the silos mark the intersection of the main road with the railroad, so you can follow the lines of power and architecture in cities from Zagreb to Budapest to Prague to Warsaw.


Because of Zagreb’s scale, the layout is especially clear. It also has good feng shui, with its mountain to the North and river to the South. Because it was not a center for development, it is remarkably preserved, and its provincial nature does not hide the basic urban facts under great monuments. Behind the facades and in details, there are small hints of the closeness of Turkey and Oriental influences, though most Croatians are at pains to deny it. And out of this order a new architecture is rising, about which I will report later this week.




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About the Blogger

Aaron Betsky

thumbnail image Aaron Betsky is the director of the Cincinnati Art Museum, and in 2008 he was director of the 11th Venice International Architecture Biennale. Trained as an architect at Yale, he has published more than a dozen books on art, architecture, and design and teaches and lectures about design around the world. Aaron worked for Frank O. Gehry and Associates and Hodgetts & Fung Design Associates as a designer, taught for many years at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, and between 1995 and 2001 was curator of architecture and design at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. From 2001 to 2006 he was director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.