Owen Hatherley visits selected cities in EU countries to discover what their urban design tells us about their history and the state of the union. His first port of call is Split in Croatia, the last country to join the EU
All manner of ideas get projected onto the European Union. For many in the EU it’s a guarantee of peace in the most historically fractious (sub)continent in the world; for American liberals it’s where everything is the same but better; for some in the former USSR it’s a potential saviour; for asylum seekers in Africa and western Asia it’s an extremely heavily policed place to escape to; and for the right in Russia and the USA it’s a satanic moloch of sodomy and multiculturalism. But for British architects and planners and for those interested in buildings and cities, the European Union is where things are done properly.
Beyond the UK border lies the transcontinental Schengen Area, where you can traverse the once-bloodsoaked distance between Tallinn and Lisbon on high-speed trains without needing a passport, shunting between pedestrianised historic cities boasting public transport systems well beyond the capacities of anywhere in the UK bar London. There you can admire serious, well-made, contextual contemporary architecture, the result of building standards and planning regulations far stricter than in Britain. In the recent wave of sober, regular housing in London, we even have our own cargo-cult approximation of contemporary Hamburg or Porto. The crushing of Greece might shake this notion of the EU as a holdout of order and placidity, but the difference is still clear. British architects, you can be sure, will not be major ‘out’ voters in the forthcoming referendum.
There’s another EU, where barely functioning rail systems can’t connect up individual countries, let alone link to neighbours. Nationalism is on the rise, those lovely historic cities are choked to death by tourism, a retail park exurbia as grim as anything in the USA spreads at the edge of every city, cheap airlines distribute both ‘guest workers’ and budget holidaymakers from west to east and back, and deregulation of the public sphere rivals Britain’s. That’s the Europe you arrive at when you disembark at the railway station in Split, the second city of Croatia – the EU’s third-poorest, most recent, and almost certainly last, member.
If you manage to get your train – mine was cancelled 10 minutes before arrival and replaced with a coach – you’ll find a tiny, rotting, semi-derelict station. The rail connections between Croatian cities mostly go through non-EU territory in Bosnia-Herzegovina, so have been barely functional since the wars of the 1990s. No gliding between Schengen states here. Just outside the station, you’ll find a rookery of stalls selling Chinese-made Split-related tat, looked over by a looming statue of Franjo Tuđjman, the founding president of Croatia, who presided over war crimes and ethnic cleansing on a scale rivalled only by Serbia’s Slobodan Milošević. It’s an ugly scene, suggesting somewhere cheap, nasty and nationalistic, but historically Split is anything but insular. This port on a peninsula jutting into the Adriatic has been part of a dizzying amount of European states, including the Roman Empire, the Byzantine Empire, the Kingdom of Bosnia, the Venetian Republic, the French Empire, Austria-Hungary, Yugoslavia (in both monarchist and socialist variants), Mussolini’s Italy, the fascist Independent State of Croatia and, since 1991, an independent liberal-ish democracy. However, the two states that have had the most effect on its built environment – and certainly produced the most interesting architecture – are the first, and second-to-last: the Roman Empire, and the post-war Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.
For British architects and planners the European Union is where things are done properly
Split emerged within the shell of the Palace of Diocletian, completed in 305AD, close to the large Roman-Illyrian city of Salona. It is an imposing, subtle design, fortifications enclosing a sequence of grand spaces around a haunting central peristyle. Many of its features are familiar from the borrowings of 18th-century Neoclassicists such as Robert Adam, who published a book on it. The palace is the most convincing example in Aldo Rossi’s The Architecture of the City of the ‘locus’, the architectural structure so strong that it can define an entire city within itself. In Diocletian’s Palace this happened in a very literal way. When Salona was besieged during the barbarian invasions that ended the Western Roman Empire, its inhabitants sheltered in the abandoned palace and over the centuries bent it to their needs. Hundreds of tenements were built in the spaces of, and with materials plundered from, the grand corridors and boudoirs; and the elaborate basements became a rudimentary sanitation system. The result has a certain historical justice, as a complex intended for the comfort (and worship) of an absolute emperor became a shelter for thousands of refugees: the possible fate for a post-apocalyptic One Hyde Park, perhaps.
The Roman architecture was treated roughly – the joins are obvious where chaotic masonry is piled on top of the cleanly cut Roman limestone. Nevertheless, as Rossi makes clear, the shanty town that the refugees and their descendants built still bears the clear outlines of the original palace’s structure, and the peristyle remains the central feature. Walking around it is an elaborate guessing game – the route through the peristyle leads to a roofless rotunda with an open oculus, or below to a brick crypt; fragments from Diocletian’s mausoleum were piled up into the tiered Romanesque tower of Split Cathedral, but the mausoleum’s outline is still clearly seen round the back; tightly packed tenements give way to traces of the palace’s hydraulic engineering and washing is hung out over lonely Corinthian columns, visible through cyclopean archways. It is extraordinary, though it would all be a lot more so were it not also home to sundry crap tourist restaurants and barrier-like rows of souvenir stalls.
Around the palace is a long, recently renovated quayside corso and the Venetian city, with its instantly recognisable triangular belltowers and point-arched palaces, mostly in extremely narrow streets. The only pre-20th-century civic gesture, aside from the accidental one of the peristyle, is the Venetian architect Giovanni Battista Meduna’s Prokurative, a colonnaded square in scarlet, overlooking the Adriatic, begun in the 1860s and completed half a century later. There’s a scattering of interesting things immediately around that: the typically Hapsburg National Theatre, a yellow stucco and glass Secession facade which could be anywhere; packed streets of limestone tenements with tiny, shuttered windows; and a few worthwhile villas and apartment blocks in nautical Streamline Moderne style – but the ‘other’ Split is that built between 1945 and 1991.
In the 1960s, Yugoslav planners divided the city into ‘Split 1’, the Palace; ‘Split 2’, the unplanned city that had grown up around it; and ‘Split 3’, a planned extension that would run eastwards along the Adriatic coast. ‘Split 2’ was infilled with a variety of strong Modernist structures, such as the laconic, Classically proportioned Prima department store opposite the National Theatre, or Dobri Square, a once-sleek ensemble just north of the historic centre. A series of stepped-section apartment blocks rises up the cliffs above the port. These all share the gleaming whiteness of the local limestone tenements, but the jumbled arrangements are smoothed out into more conscious compositions. This is all elegant modern architecture, more redolent of affluent Alpine countries than the quickly-built prefab blocks notorious in ‘Communist’ Europe. That’s partly because Yugoslavia was an odd geopolitical exception between the 1940s and 1980s. Internationally part of the Non-Aligned Movement, which it formed with ex-colonial countries such as India, Indonesia and Egypt, internally Croatia’s system was ‘self-management socialism’, where workers legally and practically controlled their own industries. Housing was owned and allocated by the self-managed workplaces, not by the state.
Accordingly, Yugoslavia was able to traverse the binaries of West and East, and was markedly outgoing and internationalist in its outlook. So Split 3, this tripling of the city’s size, was not going to be a numbers game, but an experiment. Modernist in conception, made up of towers and slabs raised above car parking, it would nonetheless attempt to factor in streets in an attempt to create an attractive communal life, rather than empty spaces. The pan-Yugoslav designers – a Slovenian planning team headed by Vladimir Munić with Croatian architects Ivo Radić and Dinko Kovačić – contacted American urban activist Jane Jacobs herself to assess the completed estate. She approved.
You reach Split 3 walking east from the city centre, past some more ‘normal’ 1960s housing estates. The difference is obvious, as you go from vague in-between spaces turned into car parks into a series of wide, stone-clad walkways. Split 3’s central ‘street’ projects outward as steps lead down towards the sea, flanked by polygonal, low-rise offices, shops, and about a dozen bars and cafés. Were it not for the huge Brutalist cruisers above them, with their cantilevered balconies, turret-like service towers and monumental melodrama, these small blocks processing their way to the Adriatic might recall Louis Kahn’s Salk Institute and its alignment with the Pacific. It is both an awe-inspiring vista and a clearly very successful, ordinary pedestrian space. A plaque with an inscription reads ‘Tehnogradnja 1976’ – Techno City, 1976.
Walk along the street, which cleverly dips below the main service road to form an arcade, and you assume it will lead, as it appears to, straight to the sea. It doesn’t. Split 3 was left unfinished in the 1980s and instead the main street reaches an overgrown ravine, marked by allotments, abandoned hotels with rotting reinforcement jutting out of the concrete balconies, an incongruous and carelessly dull new Radisson, and wasteland. Get past this and you find more stepped-section blocks and a beach, evidently part of the same composition as the Brutalist streets above, but unconnected to them.
Nothing much has happened since Split 3 was left unfinished more than 30 years ago. A small extension has been built in recent years for the University of Split, some of which is decent, such as Jasmin Semovic’s 2008 University Library, a multistorey glass block en piloti, convincingly connected to the walkways of Split 3. Then there’s some grim exurbia a couple of miles beyond that, best passed over in silence. Within the city limits, Split has conserved what it does have, and has refrained from (or hasn’t had money for) adding anything meretricious to the skyline, but the ruined railway station makes clear just how steep the decline has been since 1991.
There’s an odd symmetry between the Roman palace turned into a chaotic bazaar, first by early medieval emergency and then by neoliberal tourism, and the way that Split 3 was left as an unfinished grand blueprint ending in weeds, ruins and speculation. Both also happen to share a street life that is not common to their typology. However, Split’s roots are so deep, and so strange, that it is hard to imagine this stasis will be permanent.
A mile or so north of Diocletian’s Palace is the estate of Split-Poljud, striking, almost medieval towers leading to the city’s northward terminus, the Hajduk Split football stadium, an unusual design by Boris Magaš, a half-opened oyster crouching in the shadow of the craggy limestone peaks of the Dinaric Alps. Nearby is the Archaeology Museum, built in 1914 to the designs of Austrian architects Ohmann and Kirstein, at the end of Split’s tenure in the Hapsburg Empire. Curiously for a country and city that often defines itself as a Catholic bastion against the nearby Orthodox Christians of Serbia and, even closer, the Muslims of Bosnia-Herzegovina, it is a very ‘eastern’ design, its chunky rusticated stonework and red tiled roof more Byzantine than classical Roman. Inside, there isn’t much from Diocletian’s Palace – so many people live there that it will never be possible to make a full excavation – but in an open-air exhibit in the courtyard is an almost complete necropolis, taken from abandoned Salona. Every variant of Roman tomb, devoted to every cult, with monuments to patricians and plebeians, freemen and slaves, men and women, but all in a recognisable, realistic Roman style. It is a museum of monumental sculpture, an eye-opening showcase of ancient typography and an act of creative grave-robbing. This necropolis is the heart of Europe, an ancient civilisation built upon colonialism, slavery and absolutism presenting itself to the world as a modern paragon of unity, liberty and democracy. It’s beautiful, but can we take its claims seriously?
Average property price (£ per m2)
people per km2
Ivo Baldasar (SDP)
Date entered EU
Croatia: Croatian Kuna
UK: Great British Pound
Croatia: 4.5 million
UK: 64.1 million
Croatia: $57 billion
UK: $3,122 trillion
(percentage of GDP)
Croatia: 76.9 years
UK: 81.5 years
Croatia: Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovi (CDU)
UK: David Cameron (Conservative)