Interview by Božo Skoko
While recovering from the terrible earthquake and discussing ways of renewal some of the experts see this misfortune as an opportunity. As absurd as it may sound, the catastrophic earthquake of 1880 led to an architectural move wherein Zagreb got the Lenuci Green Hoof, Downtown palaces, the renewed Cathedral with tall, elegant towers by Hermann Bollé, described by the great connoisseur of medieval art, Xavier Barrl i Altet as “the best Ottocento in the world”. This is the moment to seriously think about Zagreb’s identity and its place within the Central European culture. Professor Vladimir Peter Goss, Croatian American scholar who spent much of his career abroad, in the U. S. (University of Michigan), and Israel (University of Tel Aviv) has been researching Zagreb’s urban patrimony for a long time. Goss, since 2000 full professor and then Professor Emeritus at the University of Rijeka, is also an accomplished writer, journalist, and art critic. His most recent interests focus on studying space and creative spirit, laying ground for a new humanistic discipline – studies of creativity.
B. S.: What is the place of Zagreb on the cultural map of Europe? What is the essence of its identity? What makes it special among other European capitals?
V.G.: Among the major European cities Zagreb is probably the least explored. Zagreb is not a city, nor is it a village or a wreath of villages, or a city core (or several such cores) plus villages. Zagreb is all of that. It is a settlement area. This means that people form their habitations given local varieties of the landscape, from a handful of huts to a metropolitan urban settlement. As the landscape varies the variety of Zagreb settlement area is mind boggling in a most positive sense of the word. But what they all have in common is a certain overall order written into the natural ecology. Anyone familiar with spatial organization would recognize that throughout its history Zagreb has followed the good precepts of the ancient Chinese book of building, the Feng Shui. One, of course, needs not go to China to create functioning and appealing cultural landscape, as good building and space organization practices are universal. All it takes is a congenial natural environment and a good building terrain, which, approached with intelligence and empathy, would yield results regardless of social system and ideology. The Zagreb settlement area is bounded by a powerful mountain to the north, keeping the boreal winds away. There are tens of ridges separated by creeks allowing descent into a wide plain of a mighty river flowing in the west-east direction, joining the dragons of the mountain and the river together. Not even the socialist government, such as are otherwise notorious for preconceived control and rigidity, could go wrong when it embarked on a major Zagreb urban enlargement of the mid-20th ct.
B. S.: From foreigners living in Zagreb, and from our tourist guests we often hear that Zagreb is big enough to have elements of a metropolis, and yet small enough so that you can get to know it really well and enjoy it… What is the key to Zagreb’s attraction?
V.G.: The key determinants of Zagreb total ecology – of its natural and cultural landscape taken together are the powerful West – East factors – the Mountain, the River, and lines defined by major thoroughfare directions – West-East along the line marked by the end of the major descending Mountain ridges, and a secondary line running along the very foot of the Mountain. Thus we get three major East-West stretches or masses – the Mountain, the Piedmont – the heart of Zagreb area – and then the alluvial plain. We have huge rectangular plane stretched East-West slantingly descending into the river plain. The vertical, South-North links are provided by those ridges descending toward the plain. This means that we have a huge gridiron pattern bringing stability to the natural landscape regardless of its boundless variety. Once we learn about it we can orient ourselves in the Zagreb space even when we do not see much more than a part of our own quadrangle. This gives a pleasant sense of security. As we move through the body of this large settlement zone Zagreb never stops surprising us. Vistas are endless and striking, both within the highly urbanized core and in the rural Piedmont and the Sava river plain area. Here I do not mean views of “monuments” only, but vistas of “ordinary” areas and stretches of nature. This should be strongly emphasized. Zagreb and the Zagreb settlement zone is a highly visual area, and the quality of this visual experience, overall and in detail, is what makes Zagreb what it is – esthetically attractive, functionally friendly, and overall a very pleasant place to visit and live in.
B. S.: How to preserve this identity and yet carry out the needed rebuilding interventions, especially in the old city core of the Upper and Lower Town, and Kaptol? We know that any attempt at renewal may spark boycotts and protests?
V. G.: The esthetic and visual quality must be preserved in the rebuilding after the earthquake. One does not need to make a facsimile of every average downtown building destroyed by the earthquake, but if it is replaced by a more update structure, the latter should retain its predecessors’ size, volume, surface articulation, color, and texture. Briefly, it must fit with its micro-environment, and preserve the vista it used to be a part of, and obey the urban matrix. Zagreb must remain what it has always been, and what was so felicitously called by A. G. Matoš, a “Forest City”. It is a rare national capital that has grandeur without overblown fake monumentality and crass political visual rhetoric. And it must remain so!!!
This s a categorical imperative for the entire Zagreb settlement zone, bearing in mid specific local differences in terms of the ratio between the urbs and the rus, the role of nature and logic of communications. It is clear that, while always respecting the spatial values, one should use different approach in Vugrovec and at Ban Jelačić square. This theme requires special treatment and here we can only list some basic facts and directives for the area of the historic Zagreb, from the northern end of the Sava river plain to the top of the Mountain.
B. S.: Zagreb’s identity is closely linked to its relaxed surroundings…
V.G.: Zagreb Piedmont, in a narrow sense of the word, the stretch along the very foot of the Mountain, has been for centuries the mainstay of the proto-urban and urban community of Zagreb. It fed the city, supplied it with fresh water, clean air, building material, fuel. The Mountain was a refuge in case the “Tartars should come again.” Vijenac starih sela (The Wreath of Old Villages) as studiously described by Lelja Dobronić has been an eternal link of the urban and suburban zones with nature. It is so also today and this must be absolutely protected, in spite of all the errors that have been committed. Some of those old villages are seats of parishes with handsome historic churches, curiae, villas, even some wooden buildings. Even where the new building destroyed some individual objects or groups, we may still possess vestiges of old space organization and communications. This must also be fully protected and preserved, as well as the eco-system of the Medvednica, and its pattern of communications. We must protect vistas, sunshine, light and air.
B. S.: The population of Zagreb keeps changing. But the spirit of Zagreb remains as it is added to and enriched. To what extent do the people of Zagreb indeed know their city?
V.G.: This is a vast topic and I suggest that here we touch upon some salient points in the core area. Apparently, Zagreb is two hills, Gradec and Kaptol, at the tips of the ridges descending from the Mountain. The central one, Bishop’s town with the Cathedral sits on a gigantic natural axis – Most slobode, Avenija Vječeslava Holjevca, Avenija Hrvatske Bratske Zajednice, Trg Stjepana Radića, Zrinjevac, Kaptol. Nova Ves, Ksaver, Gračani, the peak of Veliko Sljeme. Gradec is linked by way of Cmrok and Prekrižje to Šestine, and then via Medvedgrad to the prominent peak of St. Jakob, the court of Perun in the Early Slavic phase of Zagreb’s cultural landscape. In either case we have an impressive cadence for the urban zone, through a rural one, to real wilderness. The third ridge of Zagreb, the Mirogoj Hill (Mirogojski breg) has been so far neglected. No historic building has been recorded there, and before the setting up of the Mirogoj cemetery, it had held little interest for the people of Zagreb. However, this should not be really so. The terrain rises from Vlaška Street and Kvaternik Square to the Šalata and Voćarski breg. Next come the high plateau of Bijenik and the naturally protected enclave of Remete. Even here, among groves, gardens and orchards History has left its imprint. At the vey entrance to the Remete hoof, there is the Crematorium built at a spot called Kameniti stol – the Stone Table, a literal translation of the Celtic word “dol men” – table stone. As dolmen is a funerary monument, the city fathers did a great job by placing the Crematorium at an ancient sacred area.
However, “stol”, or “štulec” could also mean “throne” (we thank Professor Andrej Pleterski for this suggestion), like the one of the Carinthian Dukes at Klagenfurt. Thus, here in the well-protected Remete pocket may have been the seat of the first “župan” (count) of Zagreb. The third ridge may have been the heart of the earliest post-migration Croatian Zagreb.
Those three historical areas require a special attention, so that their enormous historical and spatial quality may be preserved. This is the area where town has been meeting village, man meeting nature, what makes Croatian, and so also Zagreb space so idiosyncratic, consistent and unique.
B. S.: Zagreb’s relief and its geological characteristics seem to be a blessing, but also a curse. Recalling the catastrophic earthquake of 1880, one may expect things like that happening again in the future…
V.G.: Zagreb’s relief and its geological characteristics are indeed both a blessing and a curse. As people exited the caves at the end of Old Stone Age there was a rush for good living areas. It appeared that the best were along the rifts, fertile and good for agriculture and cattle breeding. The rift areas also radiate positive geo-energy. The Zagreb Piedmont is definitely such an area – ideal for small farms and transhumance livestock breeding. Such areas are also geologically unstable, as we have unfortunately learned several times throughout history.
The great students of the city in history, such as Ebenezer Howard and Lewis Mumford, did not know Zagreb. A pity, as Zagreb is a prime example of their dream, a settlement perpetuating “a marriage” between urban and rural areas and elements. But a keen student of the Croatian space and its cultural landscape need not be surprised. It is demonstrable that Croatian space is a paradigmatic “brand” of the western European model. This is due to specific characteristics of the Croatian space (small units, low population density, poor flow, autarchy, and polycentrism), and a specific mix of the human/cultural element – urban Mediterranean (Greco-Roman), extra-urban indigenous prehistoric (Illyrian-Celtic) and the Early Medieval “barbarian” (Slavic). The cultural duality of the urbs and rus, when acting in unison, has created the stream of monuments of visual arts which represent the best that was achieved within the Croatian space from the immigration of the Croats until today. This subtle balance of the two great traditions is what accounts for Croatia’s attraction as a tourist destination today. It offers a cultural “brand” unique yet recognizable within a broader European model. The spatial qualities of the Zagreb human settlement are one such case in point, and among them not in the least the Zagreb architecture and space organization of the mid-20th century.
B. S.: We are, of course, aware, of devastations that occurred during the recent decades…
V.G.: Of course, the entire Zagreb settlement area has suffered in the building booms of the late 20th ct. both before and after the Liberation War. Stretches of the wonderful Piedmont villages and natural wonders were savagely destroyed by the ugliest parvenu architecture and planning imaginable. Yet, Zagreb and its surroundings are still holding on. Perhaps the current tribulation may even be a chance to rectify some of the environmental crimes of the last fifty years.
Vladimir Peter Goss, Professor Emeritus of the University of Rijeka, is a Croatian-American humanist scholar, writer, and journalist. For last two decades ha has been especially studying the relationship between space and spirit in creative settings, initiating, it has been noted, a new humanist discipline, study of creativity.
Interview prepared, conducted and edited by dr. sc. Božo Skoko, professor at the School of Political Science, Zagreb University, and columnist of the Večernji list.