Mamutica
© Mirna Pibernik

Ten beautiful Brutalist buildings in Zagreb

Jonathan Bousfield suggests ten impressive examples of Croatian modernism that deserve a closer look.

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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.

  • Attractions
  • Historic buildings and sites
  • Zagreb

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. 

  • Attractions
  • Historic buildings and sites
  • Zagreb

A beautifully proportioned combination of concrete, marble and glass, the Open University Building was built in 1961 to serve as the “Workers’ University”, a clear statement of socialism’s intent to do away with academic elitism and bring education to the masses. With an interior designed by Bernardo Bernardi (famous for his groovy black armchairs), it was envisaged as an urban cultural hub that all local residents could use. Yugoslav President Tito, Croatian party leader Bakarić and Zagreb mayor Većeslav Holjevac were all present at the opening, providing some idea of the building’s symbolic, the-future-starts-here importance.

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Apartment block at Vukovarska 52
© Mirna Pibernik

3. Apartment block at Vukovarska 52

Pick of the buildings along Vukovarska is Stanko Fabris’s residential block at Nr.52 (1954-1960), its surface jazzed up by the horizontal lines formed by balconies and stairwell windows. The building’s jolly lego-effect was accentuated by the fact that it used to be light blue; sadly the colour has faded to the uniform grey-brown that characterizes the rest of the street.    

Kockica, Prisavlje 14
© Mirna Pibernik

4. Kockica, Prisavlje 14

Looming over the Sava riverfront, Kockica or “The Cube” was built in 1968 to serve as Croatian communist party headquarters. The architect was Ivan Vitić, a man famous for taking the clean geometries of modernism and turning them into something altogether graceful and pleasing to the eye. Kockica is more of a brute than a beauty, however, a silvery-grey lump that was built to project power rather than prettiness. Now housing the ministries of transport and tourism, it preserves some extravagantly groovy period interiors – sadly off-limits to the general public.

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The Zagreb Rockets (Rakete), ul. Lavoslava Ružičke
© Mirna Pibernik

5. The Zagreb Rockets (Rakete), ul. Lavoslava Ružičke

Of all Zagreb’s modernist buildings these three residential blocks are the most iconic, thanks to the earthquake buttresses that taper away from the main body of each tower. The addition of these buttresses was a consequence of the Skopje earthquake of 1963, which impressed architects with the need to include more safety features. Completed in 1968 they were designed by a team led by dexterous architect and painter Vjenceslav Richter, whose house-museum in northern Zagreb (facebook.com/zbirka.richter) is something of a temple to the modernist epoch The fact that the Rockets are approached along a street named after Yuri Gagarin only adds to their space-age appeal.

Apartment block at Vukovarska 52
© Mirna Pibernik

6. Apartment block at Vukovarska 52

Pick of the buildings along Vukovarska is Stanko Fabris’s residential block at Nr.52 (1954-1960), its surface jazzed up by the horizontal lines formed by balconies and stairwell windows. The building’s jolly lego-effect was accentuated by the fact that it used to be light blue; sadly the colour has faded to the uniform grey-brown that characterizes the rest of the street.

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Super Andrija, Siget
© Mirna Pibernik

7. Super Andrija, Siget

Can anything top the Mammoth? Well in the beauty stakes it is certainly outdone by Super Andrija, built just to the west at around the same time. With monumental concrete columns breaking up the façade and minor projecting buttresses at ground level, it's a perfect example of how sculptural the Brutalist style could be, and is a fitting place to bring our Brutalist tour to an end.

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