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Sunday Walk in Zagreb

June 16, 2012

The first time I was in Zagreb it belonged still to Yugoslavia in 1990. I was on my way to Dubrovnik for new years eve, it was cold and I didn’t have time to see the city. On May 19-20 I had a better chance being invited to speak on behalf of the Architects’ Council of Europe at the International Scientific Conference RETHINKING URBANISM organised by the Faculty of Architecture, the Croatian Architects’ Chamber, the Croatian Association of Architects and the Urban Planning Institute of Republic of Slovenia.

I stayed for just a Couple of days, but thanks to the conference and the short visit of the city I became a vivid impression of some local circumstances.  Participation at the conference was quite intense: the dean of the Faculty and the presidents of the architects national bodies were attending, but that was everything the usual academical/political parade. All contributions were lively discussed in their content from Saturday 9.00 am untill late afternoon.

Apart from prof. Luuk Boelens from Utrecht University and myself speakers were from former Yugoslavia: Slovenia, Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, FYROMacedonia and of course Croatia. Most of them were young researchers introducing reflections about urbanism, landscape and regional planning based on concrete projects and research findings. Often they have been investigating the relationship between recent history, various forms of political power and how they shaped and are shaping cities of Ljubljana, Novi Sad, Sarajevo, Skopje, the coastal areas of Croatia etc.

For those who might be interested in the content of the presentations I warmly recommend the proceedings book of the conference Urbanist’s Season /International Scientific Conference RETHINKING URBANISM /2012 ISBN 978-953-6646-23-4.

Among the great variety of contributions I was particularly attracted by a cross cutting issue connecting many different presentations: a light sense of nostalgia for urban planning in socialist times and the difficulties of this discipline to guide urban development nowadays. What I had is just a quick impression about an issue that have many facets and deserves in depth consideration for the way it is rooted in the history and culture former Yugoslavian countries. Nevertheless for me it was an enlightening experience of the positive relationship towards urban planning culture as a common good, a professional practice of public interest.

In a nutshell Croatian architects and urban planners today have to face a completely different situation than in socialist times, without being supported by any adequate regulatory framework. In the socialist era urban planners were certainly a component of the rigid socialist system, but they were free to conceive and design streets and buildings according to their own planning principles and skills, respecting the traditional city and generally achieving high quality public spaces. Nowadays these principles have been replaced by the free market and the old set of regulations do not correspond anymore to reality. Consequences of this gap between planning laws, planning culture and reality are manifold and complex, but on one point there is general agreement: quality of urban design and spaces is generally poorer today than it was before. In some cases, like in Ljubljana, the negative consequences of political change is evident also in transport modal split, whereas the share of public transport has dramatically decreased to 13%.

The pictures I took during my Sunday walk in Zagreb may illustrate some aspects of this nostalgia and urgent need to Rethinking Urbanism.

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The skyline offers a coherent picture of a mid-size town with a lot of green areas penetrating from the surrounding hills.  No glazed highrise buildings, at least on this part of town.

There is a good network of cycle lanes, at least in the flat parts of town. Some of them very narrow, others divided in two for different speed or direction.

Brand new tramways connect the outskirts with the city center.

Scattered dwelling or office towers amidst the low rise residential areas and weird department stores are witness of the last decades of socialist regime.

Although not in perfect shape, these modernist residential settlements feature a very high quality public realm. Just green fields and trees, free access from public space and in touch the flats of the groundfloor, no fences. A public/private area belonging to the neighbourhood and their dwellers. Cars are parked all over the place, without reserved areas and contribute to a sense of self-regulated and self-mainteined environment.

An invasion of red roses from a private garden into the public walkway.

The modernistic town planning approach did not exclude some industrial areas within the city boundaries, also contributing to metropolitan variety.

There is also space for single family houses lovers. Above a shiny example of it.

When the dimension of dwellings bacomes like this, something goes wrong, immediately. No human scale, no relationship of flats with the street and even with the large green areas are possible anymore. Urban balance is lost.

High rise is possible and welcome in town, when it features a well balanced composition of horizontal and vertical volumes and a proper design of outdoor spaces.

This is the local brewery. In Zagreb you can really drink sustainable (0Km) beer.

Nicest architcture in town is the local declination of neoclassic and eclectic, reaching from the XIX Century to the 1950es.

Contemporary architecture has  an excellent role in renewing spots of urban landscape without useless conflicts. Volumes and compositions are in line with the urban scale and the modern buildings from the 30es (see next post). Language is international and sober, with attention to well functioning spaces, great views and respect for public realm.

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