South of the river Sava, Novi Zagreb or “New Zagreb” began to take shape in the late Fifties, and is nowadays something of a modernist showcase thanks to its planned neighbourhoods of residential blocks, large parks and long straight roads. One of the later additions to Novi Zagreb’s architectural portfolio, the Mammoth is a 250-metre-long residential block built in 1974 as the centrepiece of the Travno district. Containing 1169 individual flats and an estimated population of 5000, it’s almost a town in its own right. As such it seems like the megalomaniacal conclusion of the modernist epoch, echoing not so much Le Corbusier as the fantasies of Futurist Antonio Sant’Elia.
Born out of the ubiquity of concrete and a love for functional shapes, the architecture of Brutalism is frequently misunderstood. The very term seems to attract us for all the wrong reasons, inviting us to admire buildings for their roughness, or their obstinate refusal to be pretty. Recent years have seen the word Brutalism fall victim to a warped social media aesthetic in which it is exoticized as something east European, communist, falling to bits – an object of nostalgia or pity that is shorn of its social context.
Touring the modernist neighbourhoods of Zagreb is something of an antidote to this – Croatian Brutalism is restrained and sympathetic to its surroundings in a way rather different to the application of the same style in, say, Sheffield or South London. Not all of it is pretty – Brutalism was above all a functional style designed to provide social planners with cheap solutions to big problems. However, there is plenty here of compelling interest – enough to justify Zagreb’s growing reputation as an unsung treasure-trove of Central-European modernism.