Beyond Buildings


A Machine for Saving Lives

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The best new building I saw in Zagreb last week was the Emergency Terminal, designed by Davor Katusic. It takes a new piece of infrastructure and turns it into an urban beacon, and uses a complex traffic knot to create an exciting bit of architecture.


Emergency Terminal Zagreb

All images courtesy Davor Katusic.


The facility is a cube in an area on new mid-rise office buildings in New Zagreb, the area where most development in this Balkan town of 2 million is now occurring. It will soon be surrounded by other structures, but for now it stands in isolation, letting you see it for the cube it is. Katusic clad the seven-story, 130,000 square foot structure with a washable plastic mesh screen that covers a simple steel framework. Most of the building is essentially a parking garage for 170 emergency vehicles, so through the scrim you can see—depending on the time of day or night—an open structure in which the red accents of the ambulances stand out. The terminal also comprises various support facilities, and so through some of the screen you see a glass-clad collection of offices, emergency hospital facilities, and call centers. The building is both a pure bit of geometry and “function mixer,” as the Dutch critics would call it, displaying a rationalized urban infrastructure.


 ET Zagreb Facade


The effect works best at dawn or dusk (aren’t most buildings designed to be seen at those “magic moments” when they appear into our consciousness or disappear into the shadows?), but at night it is especially vivid. Katusic placed fluorescent tubes along the structure’s vertical members, so that it glows with the unnatural light of places that are awake at night when peace descends on most of us.


It is the terminal’s interior, which few people will ever see, that is the most intricate. Starting from the traffic pattern of the ambulances and other response units as they park and then have to move out into the city as quickly as possible, Katusic devised a spiraling parking garage and then fit the ancillary programs in around these trays. Walk into the building, and you see glass boxes and concrete planes spinning all around you. The whole is open and clear, and yet the functional logic creates a sense of activity that makes the response to emergency seem like a machine not for living, but for keeping alive.


 ET Zagreb Interiors


A large part of what makes the complexity the architect mined from basic elements work so well is what he did not control (though he tried, but could not get the commission): the graphic strength of the uniforms, equipment, and ambulances. Everywhere you eye picks out flashes of red, yellow, and orange in stripes, blocks, and points, moving through an equally simple geometry of steel, concrete, and glass.


The one moment of excess Katusic snuck in is at the top of the structure, where the logic of the garage unfolds into open spaces he clad in Astroturf and turned into places of gathering for the employees. The interconnected, sloped surfaces develop, like in MVRDV’s 1998 VPRO Villa, out of an upper-level auditorium, thus connecting all the spaces of gathering and turning them into an unveiling of the structure that brings these people together.


ET Zagreb Balcony


Does this building have anything to do with Zagreb? Other than this is a city that a generation ago was at war, and before that was a subordinate part of the Yugoslavian conglomerate, and thus needed to build up its own infrastructure, it is not. It is a reaction to the rationalization of urban forces, from emergency services to land development to manufacturing and design techniques, that are global in their nature. What is perhaps most remarkable is that this small city in the heart of Europe could have produced a facility that I think could be an easily replicable model for turning what we usually think of as a dreaded necessity into a moment of excitement, clarity, and even pride in our civic structure.




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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.