Zagreb / Architecture & Design / Travel

A History of Zagreb in Ten Buildings

Forget the about the cathedral and St Mark’s Square, Zagreb’s real architectural strength lies is its status as a crucible of the modern

Pretty much every movement from Art Nouveau onwards has made a mark on the Croatian capital, leaving it particularly well supplied with genre-defining examples of modern architecture. This is especially true of the things that got built between the Thirties and Fifties of the last century, when Zagreb could be just as avant-garde as anywhere else in Europe.

An earlier version of this article appeared in Time Out Croatia and is reproduced with their kind permission

1. Croatian National Theatre (1895), Trg maršala Tita.

Opened in person by none other than mister big whiskers himself Emperor Franz-Joseph I, the National Theatre []still sports the kind of golden-mustard paint job that was all the rage during the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s belle époque. It was designed by Viennese theatre-building tandem Ferdinand Fellner and Hermann Helmer, who together built over forty opera houses, concert halls and drama venues throughout Central and Eastern Europe between 1872 and 1913. They provided each project with the kind of Neo-Classical, Neo-Baroque, Neo-everything sense of grandeur that their big-city clients most wanted. It’s well worth grabbing tickets for a performance here in order to take in the fin-de-siecle opulence of the plush auditorium, lined by gilded boxes and balconies.

2. The Kallina House (1904), corner of Masarykova and Gundulićeva.

Designed for ceramic tile-producer Josip Kallina by Vjekoslav Bastl, the Kallina house is the best surviving example of Art Nouveau in the city. Most eye-catching of the many decorative details are the series of floral patterns high up on the curving facade, and the ceramic-tile frieze of bat motifs at first-floor level.

3.Novakova Ulica (1932-38)

The leafy winding street that is Novakova ulica is lined with a unique ensemble of Bauhaus-inspired villas, beautifully well-proportioned slabs of angular architecture that today represent some of the city’s most highly-valued real estate. Many different architects worked on the street, although the houses at no.9 (Slavko Löwy) and nos. 28 & 32 (Bogdan Petrović) are the ones to go and gawp at if you’re writing a thesis.

4. The Löwy House (1933) Masarykova 22

The façade of Slavko Löwy’s nine-storey apartment block has been so badly neglected over the years that it now looks like an ugly grey stump. In fact it is arguably the most graceful and well-proportioned example of modernist minimalism in the city. The fact that it was dubbed “Zagreb’s First Skyscraper” at the time of its completion provides some insight into the city’s low-rise nature at the time.

5. Napredak Skyskraper (1936), Bogovićeva 1

Stjepan Planić’s sensual, curvy, powder-blue building was ordered by Napredak, a cultural association that catered for the needs of the Croatian community in Bosnia. The stubby protrusions that run around the crown of the building are supposed to reflect the cog-wheel motif that formed part of the association’s crest.

6. The French Pavilion (Francuski paviljon; 1937), Savska cesta 25

Lurking at the back the Student Centre complex, beside the &TD Theatre, this innovative cylinder has been wrapped in restorers’ tarpaulin for what seems like years. This innovative combination of steel, concrete and wood started out as the French exhibition pavilion of the Zagreb Fair, which occupied this site until 1955. Used to stage theatre performances in the 1990s but since abandoned, it became a byword for neglect until thorough restoration project, it looks set to serve once again as the most evocative performance space in the city.

7. The House of Croatian Artists (Dom HDLU; 1938), Trg žrtava fašizma

Frequently touted as Croatia’s greatest ever sculptor, Ivan Meštrović (1883-1962) was arguably more successful as an architect – although he tended to draw the sketches and get someone else to work out how exactly his visions were going to be built. Whatever his input, the arcaded rotunda that stands at the centre of Trg žrtava fašizma defines Zagreb’s inter-war avant-garde more than any other building. Initially named after King Peter I The Liberator, the Serbian monarch who ruled Yugoslavia from 1918 to 1921, the building has always been heavy with political symbolism. During World War II it was turned into a mosque in order to curry favour with Bosnian Muslims brought into the Croatian Nazi quisling state of Ante Pavelić. From 1949 to 1991, it served as a museum of communist revolution. It then went back to being what Meštrović had originally intended, an exhibition venue for the Croatian Fine Artists’ Association, a purpose it still serves today. And what a stupendous exhibition venue it is, with circular corridor sweeping around a central space beneath dimpled glass dome.

Dom HDLU []; open Wed-Fri 11am-7pm, Sat & Sun 10am-6pm.

8. Wooden Skyscraper (Drveni neboder; 1958) Corner of Martićeva and Smičiklasova.

One for the connoisseur of modern concrete with a twist, Drago Ibler’s residential block gets its name from the wooden panelling that is used to jazz up what would otherwise be a plain functional exterior. With brown picket-fencing on its balconies, it looks like an eleven-storey village shed.

9. The Vitić Skyscraper (Vitićev neboder; 1960) Corner of Laginjina and Vojnovićeva

One Zagreb building that fully deserves its place in any architectural textbook it is the Vitić Skyscraper, so named because it was the leading Croatian modernist Ivan Vitić (1917-1986) who designed it. It’s a strictly geometric affair: one monolith-like slab of a building flanked by two lower wings that branch off at right angles. What makes it special are the mixture of wooden window grilles and brightly-coloured panels that cover the facades, giving it the appearance of a gargantuan painting by Piet Mondrian. The building’s light-filled apartments have long been popular with local creative folk; indeed it’s impossible to walk past the main entrance without seeing hordes of architects and designers walking in and out. It is currently in the throes of through restoration, which will hopefully return its coloured panels to their original glory.

10. Zagrepčanka (1976) Savska cesta 41

Designed by Slavko Jelinek and Berislav Vinković, the 23-storey Zagrepčanka was long the butt of jokes due to the fact that tiles started falling off the façade soon after its completion, forcing office workers to scuttle through a jerry-built wooden tunnel on their way into the building. In pure design terms it has stood the test of time better than expected: with its curving surfaces, and flying-V profile, it possesses an elegance unmatched by any of the corporate office blocks that have sprouted up in Zagreb since.

Text for numbers 1-6, 8 & 10 © Time Out Group. Everything else © Jonathan Bousfield

All photographs © Stray Satellite except for the Vitić Skyscraper © Robert Loher.