The great master of sports stadia

Published on the 6th of December 2011 at 11:03:00 | Author: Željko Žutelija / Aktual
Every journalist occasionally faces a wall: with a blunt chisel, or dictaphone, no matter, he faces a gigantic, imposing, and apparently insurmountable structure, which he has to shape into a newspaper article. This time the imposing structure is the academic Boris Magaš, an architect whose creativity has marked contemporary Croatian architecture, culture, time and space, and - if one accepts Hans Hollein's thesis that architecture is all around us - life in general.

Proposal for the Mediterranean Games Stadium in Rijeka, 2002
He was born in Karlovac in 1930, like the notable Milan Lenuci (1849 -1924) who had shaped Zagreb's "Green Horseshoe" - the monumental urban core of the city. One of the leading living Croatian architects, at the age of 81, Professor Boris Magaš is eloquent, focused, sleek and refined, with enviable intellectual power and life energy. The academic has recently held an inspiring speech at the Glyptotheque HAZU in Zagreb, where he opened the exhibition "Croatian Students of Friedrich Schmidt - Viennese Academy and Croatian Architecture in the 19th Century".
Professor Emeritus of Architecture at the University of Zagreb, Department Secretary of the Academy of Fine Arts, regular member of the Science and Art Institutions Umbrella, winner of the highest professional awards, author of masterpieces such as the Municipal Stadium in Split, hotel complexes Haludovo and Solaris, St. Nicholas's Church in Rijeka, the Mihaljevac kindergarten in Zagreb, the Museum of Liberation of Sarajevo and the Faculty of Letters in Rijeka, greeted me in his spacious though simply furnished room in the building of the Academy, where, besides a large table surface - essentially a simple panel on plain table legs, the highlight is the great oil painter Ivo Šebalj.

Museum of Liberation in Sarajevo, 1958-1963 (Magaš, Šmidihen, Horvat)
Aktual: Soon your book "Architecture - an Approach to Architectural Work" will be published by Školska Knjiga, summarising many years of your professional experience and elaborating on the philosophy underpinning your architectural theory. Can you elaborate?
BM: At the Faculty of Architecture I was at first Assistant to Professor Vladimir Turina, then to Professor Andre Mohorovičić, who prepared me to take over the seat of Theory of Architecture prior to his retirement, and where I continued to lecture until my retirement. The department sought to discover the very roots of architecture, to search for enduring truths in architecture, regardless of prevailing world trends. The primary focus was on history and theory, and architectural thought over the centuries, however there was also a practical approach to the essential elements of architecture such as proportion and structure. Many years of work with the students enabled me to create valuable resources which I believe will serve future generations.
Aktual: Have you poured the summary of those lectures and the research which preceded them into the book?
BM: From all these lectures, which went on for decades, I pulled out the most salient, the most relevant thoughts for our present considerations of architecture, ranging from the Greek times to the modern era, including philosophical elements which constitute the foundation of architecture. The first part of the book consists of elements of architectural thought, the second of elements of practical knowledge and applications, starting from the simplest horizontals and verticals to complex concepts of spatial relationships. I have studied, for example, what happens to the European social consciousness at a time when Gothic transitions into the Renaissance, the Renaissance into the Baroque, by analysing whether the reason for this transition is materials fatigue, form fatigue, a process of thought transformation or an evolutionary transition from one stage of social development to another.
The book has been prepared for around twenty years, it will finally be published thanks to Školska Knjiga, and I am grateful to the publisher because such publications are not driven by commercial profit. In this book, I finally posit the thesis of free invention, which I believe will serve as a foundation for all who find its principles an inspiration for their own architectural considerations. Thanks to the mighty progress of technology, practically anything imagined in architecture can now be applied, so free invention is based on the unlimited possibilities given by the application of the most innovative contemporary materials.

Stadium for the Mediterranean Games in Split, 1976-1979
Aktual: In your vast oeuvre, ranging from sports and religious buildings and tourist complexes to educational and pedagogical institutions, the Municipal Stadium at Poljud in Split occupies a very special place - it has branded you within the professional architectural practice. Has your architectural approach to it - the most beautiful Croatian sports arena and the first of it's kind in the world - influenced your approach to all your other projects?
BM: Prof. Turina taught the subject of sports facilities, and I contributed as his assistant. Prof. Turina did not want to build sports coliseums - enclosed gladiatorial arenas - but sports arenas which communicate with the surrounding environment, where spectators participate together with the competitors. Proof of this is his project of the stadium in Maksimir, open towards the Maksimir woods, in which he cited me as co-author, even though I do not consider myself as such seeing that I only participated in plotting the Eastern stands of the stadium based on his design ideas. As his assistant however, I gained knowledge of sports facilities, and when the Poljud project came about, I had already established an attitude towards this type of architecture - I had understood the relationship between man, space and natural phenomena. In Split, I tried to make a stadium with a translucent roof which integrates the environment in it's entirety, and does not impose on the Marjan mountain, the coast, or its surrounding environment. Poljud is, in essence, a reinterpretation of two Greek theatres facing each other. It was the first stadium in the world conceived and understood in such a way. Following the completion of the project, institutions of the former communist state sold the concept, without my knowledge, to allied countries.
In recent times the tendency of building enclosed stadia - reminiscent of gladiatorial arenas - has strengthened, and thus the sense of youth participation in sporting events on the ground has been lost. I tried to make a stadium where spectators are participants and not mere observers of sports games. My Split stadium project is part of my worldview and philosophy of architectural design, with emphasis on respecting the space: in the same way I have considered a hotel complex, a kindergarten, and religious buildings. You have to feel, experience and understand the space in which you create and its spirit - that is the essence of everything. Any content that you insert into the space needs to be a resolved narrative, although adapted for different use, depending on whether the context is a religious, sports or some other building.

St Nicholas's Church in Rijeka, 1983-1988

Aktual: Does a designer of religious buildings have to be a believer?
BM: What does it mean to be a believer? Is it one who goes to every Sunday Mass, or who, respecting religion, has lived a life worthy of humanity and constantly questions elusive truths and tries to answer those questions himself? Max Planck said that for religion God stands in the beginning, and for science at the end of the whole thinking, for there can be no other answer. Is a believer he who knows that we haven't found answers to key questions, and knows they exist somewhere?
Modern man is rarely able to match the standard of conduct required by the Church. We belong to the European Catholic cultural circle, which has played a vital role in the creation of the Croatian national identity and that is the truth we carry within. It is however questionable whether an architect of a particular civilisation, cultural or religious circle, is qualified to experience and understand the design space of a religious building belonging to other, to him lesser known religions and traditions. I believe in the immaterial, not in the sense of a flickering flame, but in the sense of the unattainable and immaterial which governs existence.

Proposal for the extension of the Poljud Stadium in Split, 2009-2010
Aktual: Let's return to the subject of stadia. Recently, in view of the possibility of Croatia hosting the European Football Championship, you were hired to design the reconstruction and extension of the Poljud stadium. Has this idea since been abandoned?
BM: You are actually asking me if Poljud deserves to be reconstructed, regardless of what it is intended for. This is a misapprehension. Events which spark off such initiatives are a different matter from the continuous need to care for and protect buildings which we as a civilised nation consider to be of historic, cultural, monumental, sports or other heritage. If we protect religious or cultural monuments, if we finance theatre or concert programmes which cannot be supported by the sale of tickets with the aid of the state budget, then we are also obliged to look after valuable sports facilities which are an integral part of our identity. I am referring to buildings which are part of national identity, the state, the city and the people. Poljud is certainly such a building, which is worthy of maintenance and reconstruction regardless of a football championship.

Proposal for the Athletics Stadium in Jarun in Zagreb, 1998
Aktual: In this context, do you have a proposal to solve the problem of the unfinished farce that is Maksimir stadium?
BM: No one has ever called me or asked my opinion. What happened out there I just do not understand, I do not see it in the same way, and I could not do such a thing.
Aktual: But how to resolve the stalemate for which no one is able to suggest an acceptable solution?
BM: Considering the current location, it would be difficult to design a stadium which fits the spirit of the present, and even less so the spirit of the time before us. The only real solution would be to build a new stadium at a new location - not the proposed location which is completely inappropriate - but in the open space east of Bundek, on a beautiful field, where Zagreb could truly get a stadium it deserves.

St Augustin Kažotić Church in Zagreb, 1995-2004
Aktual: You are an award-winning author of religious buildings. Recently, your colleague Nikola Bašić said he uses newspapers to block his view when passing by the church in Udbina, for which he made ​​the original project, though the church ended up being built under the church's own direction and the result is a stain on the architectural profession. How do you perceive such an intervention by those who are professionally incompetent?
BM: The government, unfortunately, is no longer obliged to adopt and respect cultural and professional standards, even at the level at which they were adopted in feudalism, where most landlords knew whom to entrust with a job. Nowadays people in power have no such knowledge, and even fewer are aware that the concept of quality implies competence in a given area - it is not enough to know who does what, but how to do it. Church authorities are in fact no exception. The Church managed architecture competently until the Baroque period - all architectural theorists during the Renaissance were priests - it is now unfortunately not the case. Croatian religious architecture must achieve the spirituality of its sacral space appropriate for its own time. What occurred in Udbina is precisely the opposite, it was a missed opportunity - the project could have matched a patriotic theme with an architectural achievement documenting the creativity of the Croatian spirit for posterity. It turned out to be a blemish on the architecture of spirituality and a blemish on our national identity.

Haludovo Hotels in Malinska, 1969-1972
Aktual: Do you agree with the thesis that Croatia has great architects, prominent and awarded individuals, but the overall impression of a national architecture and the supervision of architectural achievements is highly problematic, from allowing the coast to be covered with concrete to the disfigurement of certain architectural urban areas?
BM: Half a century of architecture was subject to the dictatorship of the Communist Party, but even during that time architecture was intended to be part of something more valuable and more significant, comparable with global trends. During this period, especially during the Sixties, outstanding projects emerged. Today however, we do not have a structure which would determine a strategy for architectural development with knowledge and authority. We have many clans, some with strong pulling power, but we have no concept or perspective which would direct overall architectural efforts towards the common good. We have elected a non-selective, incomplete and politically biased law on the legalisation of illegally constructed buildings, without professional consultation on what should be validated, and what most certainly should not. Zagreb lacks the concept of city development, does not grasp the significance of the Sava river, it develops entirely randomly. Zagreb lacks urban planning. It does not know what to do with the railroad or traffic in general. It has destroyed the hills of Medvednica, but also communities such as Vrbik and Trešnjevka. One of the priorities is addressing the railway which crosses the city, and the best solution would be to "tidy it up" by moving it underground.
Aktual: Judging by our lack of planning, is our entry into the EU likely to pose new threats?
BM: The EU is neither expert nor ignorant, but has power, and primarily financial. Having spoken with many European architects I am convinced that we do not fall behind them, in fact are often ahead of them. The only problem is who will lead the game for us and will they operate in our national interest and have the knowledge to fight for it. We need to secure a different development strategy for every region and predict its place in the future European Union. We don't even have relevant studies of the specific regions, which means that we will be exposed to danger from within, not from the EU.
Aktual: You were born in Karlovac like Milan Lenuci, who in the 19th Century shaped the urban core of the city of Zagreb. Was he an inspiration?
BM: The "Green Horseshoe" is, in terms of city planning, unique in the world. As a city concept it is an excellent achievement, considerably different in its approach to Vienna's Rings and Paris's Arrondissements. With its urban character and its role in establishing the city's structure, Zrinjevac has provided the right conditions for the design of quality housing and we have been given the legacy of an impressive urban centre.

Poljud stadium in Split, 1976-1979
Aktual: From your vast oeuvre and many years of work, what are you most proud of, and what could you ultimately discard?
BM: I am not blameless, and I get sick every time I notice my mistakes. However, I would not discard anything, I would just admit where I have made a mistake, and try to avoid making such a mistake again. I have worked on every project as best as I could or knew how to - whether I succeeded is another question - however the Poljud stadium is undeniably the peak of these achievements, my capital work.
Aktual: When all grand themes in architecture are exhausted, we often return to the essential notions of a house, an apartment, a home we live in. How should such dwellings be shaped in order to make us live happily within them?
BM: Something unpredictable has happened to the family unit, as the essential component of social structure. The family unit is eroded, and so the notions of a house, an apartment and a home have assumed entirely new meanings. Once grandparents had their pride of place around the hearth of a home, now they are dying in old people's homes. Nowadays when we design residential units, we do not consider the ideas of family or the home, but how many people can be fitted into a certain number of square meters according to set standards. We don't talk about the culture of living in the way we used to when the family structure dictated the structure of living. Today we resolve this in a technocratic way - we do not think of homes but of units. Zagreb has a few great examples of villa quarters, such as Novakova or Nazorova Street, which were conceived with a clear conceptual relation to nature, but this concept has now entirely disappeared, and in the hills of Medvednica we are now building residential towers, and calling them urban villas.
Aktual: Eminent world architects have celebrity status with the biggest investors competing over them and their signature projects being valued in the millions. From the perspective of our modest terms, who would you single out as an architect of the highest calibre?
BM: Great and civilised countries nurture their architecture. In our country there is no clear social relationship to architecture. We had many architects, and still have some today, capable of great achievements, but society does not show any need for them, and does not want to use them. I am on my way out - I do not want to sound dramatic, but I often wonder whether my skills have been used in the right way, have I given this country everything I could. After the stadium nobody wondered if my skills were appropriate for something similar or different. We are a country that does not know what to do with their experts, not least when architecture is concerned.
Aktual: Can you name some architects who have missed out on a supporting structure, and whom you particularly professionally admire?
BM: I am afraid to list names as I could inadvertently forget to mention the name of someone deserving, but if you insist, I believe that Nenad Fabijanić is a world-class detailer. Nikola Bašić is the ultimate architect of our time, has designed epic things in different genres and I have great admiration for his work. I could name more names, but it would be a matter of a more complex analysis, which is impossible to conduct here.
Aktual: For a short term in the Nineties you were advisor to President Tudjman on architecture and urban planning. How did this cooperation unfold?
BM: I had long and detailed talks with President Tudjman about Medvedgrad and I managed to reduce ideas of ​​monumentality, advising him to avoid any inappropriate visual solutions that were being offered to him. We had an open conversation and he left a very different impression on me than the one he regularly provoked with his public statements, when he denied all opposition. Instead he seemed to have the tendency to respect professional opinion. However, when Pantovčak got a new president, I left.
Copyright Željko Žutelija. Translated into English by Michela Magas.