Croatia / Architecture & Design / Travel

Zadar Modern

Although rarely celebrated, it’s Zadar’s rich stock of Sixties-era architecture that gives the city so much  character.

Apartment building by Božidar Rašica, Zadar Forum

Zadar’s post-war status as a city on the architectural frontier has had a subtle but important influence on the planning decisions of the present day.

From the ninth-century Rotunda of St Donat to the twenty-first-century light installation Greeting to the Sun, the north-Dalmatian city of Zadar has never been short of emblematic attractions. However Zadar’s peninsula-bound Old Town harbours one cultural treasure that hardly ever features in the guide books: the Adriatic coast’s best collection of Sixties’-era housing blocks.

Zadar has always been something of an urban mongrel, with Roman ruins and Romanesque churches rubbing shoulders with modernist flats, sleek cafés, and contemporary landscape art.

The main reason for this architectural mix-up is that Zadar was repeatedly bombed by the Allies in World War II, leaving huge holes in the urban fabric.

The rebuilding of Zadar was a strategic priority for Croatia’s post-1945 rulers. An initial plan put forward by architects Zdenko Strižić (1902-1990) and Božidar Rašica (1912-1992) envisaged clearing much of the peninsula and building a modernist-inspired city in its place. However there was a competing desire among Croatian intellectuals to preserve as much of the city’s historical heritage as they could, and the radical plan was never enacted.

A competition for a new urban plan was launched in 1953. The winning proposal, by Bruno Milić (1917-2009), left more room for Zadar’s historic buildings, but again portrayed Zadar as a utopian city of the future, filled with rectangular blocks of concrete. The Milić plan definitely caught the spirit of the age and was turned into an exhibition that toured Europe, visiting Paris, Milan, Moscow and London - before being shelved by the Croatian authorities as far too costly.

Bruno Milić and Božidar Rašica’s boxes on stilts, Kalelarga

The architectural visions of the Fifties, however over-optimistic they might have been, played a major part in determining what did actually did get built in the following decade. It was Rašica and Milić, for example, who conceived the boxes-on-stilts buildings that provide Zadar’s main street, the Kalelarga, with its distinctive look.

Neat geometries

Of course a lot of people have felt over time that these buildings were mistakes, concrete eyesores that took the heart and soul out of a historical city. However they were a logical response to Zadar’s wartime destruction, and deserve to be treated as classics in their own right.

Zadar’s post-war status as a city on the architectural frontier has had a subtle but important influence on the planning decisions of the present day. The re-paving of the former Roman Forum (renovated by architect Ante Uglješić) as well as the re-landscaping of Old-Town piazzas such as Trg Petra Zoranić, Trg Šime Budinića and Trg Pet Bunara, have reaffirmed the modernist era’s love for neat geometries and cool grey lines. As a result of these renovations, Zadar has been startlingly reinvented as the well-proportioned city that utopian post-war planners were aiming for in the first place.

Socialist-realist relief, Kalelarga

The Rašica-designed concrete slab that runs along one side of the Forum looks all the more stately now that the adjoining public space has been smartened up. The nearby Boutique Hostel Forum (, a modern-interior headline-grabber designed by Studio Up and Damir Gamulin Gamba, is an adaptation of one of the modernist blocks on the Kalelarga. An important aspect of the project was that the original façade had to remain unchanged.

There are still plenty of Old-Town corners on which present-day renovation drives are yet to make an impact. Set-piece squares like Poljana Natka Nodila and Poljana Plankit, on the peninsula’s north-eastern side, nowadays have the grubby appearance of neglected inner-city estates.

Heritage and modernity

Incomplete and controversial though they are, the modernist projects of the Fifties and Sixties continue to exert a profound effect on Zadar’s urban look. Indeed the upcoming projects of the future can only be seen in the context of their utopian predecessors.

Poljana Plankit

The juxtaposition of heritage and modernity is set to remain something of a Zadar trademark. One of the most eagerly awaited openings of 2016/2017 is that of the reconstructed Ducal Palace (home of the Zadar National Museum), a Renaissance-to-Neoclassical structure adapted to contain some of the most up-to-date exhibition spaces in the Adriatic. Meanwhile, Slovene-Austrian architect Boris Podrecca is overseeing the transformation of the nineteenth-century Maraska distillery offices into a luxury hotel for the Turkish Dogus group. Even more ambitious (and so far still on the drawing board) is Nikola Bašić’s Gates of Zadar project, which involves re-digging the moat that once formed the Old Town’s southeastern border and creating a new canal-side district. If you’re looking for glimpses of the Mediterranean future, Zadar is not a bad place to start.

© Jonathan Bousfield