Split, a prime example of urban vitality, is nowadays often sadly pointed out as an example of regression, a space where modernity is ‘being expelled’ from the city. The current city administration is evidently amateurish, with a feudal world view, but the regressive processes and side effects of modernizations are seen in substandard suburban districts, the cacophony of visual environments, and the infrastructural issues that have been unresolved for decades…
However, several architecture and urban planning projects in Split have fruitfully brought modern culture to the urban tissue of the city, which refers not only to the architectural language and new standards of modernist districts, but even more to the rhythms of the city and the contemporary ways of inhabiting space and thinking about it. Such signs of modernity are the Prokurative, Bačvice, the residential buildings of Ivo Radić and others, Poljud, all the topics that brought current and fresh experiences of modernity to this historical city... Today, advanced and critical models of urban development in Split are hard to find in current constructions. The best among them are nothing but rearrangements of familiar forms, and most of the newly built environments do not establish any relationship with their contexts or with current cultural trends.
To find radical conceptual shifts, we need to look at two architectural recycling efforts that have brought new forms of modern culture to Split while retaining the spirit of urban tradition in a city where the historical core is a renowned example of urban regeneration. One is the gradual colonization of the Youth Centre, where the collective work of the Split branch of Platforma 9.81 and very heterogeneous participants from social and cultural circles have gradually transformed the abandoned concrete mastodon, a relic of the unfinished socialist modernization where everything was top-down. The other is the ‘design hostel’ Golly±Bossy. Bringing contemporary culture into the heart of the city, with a critical attitude towards the banal notion of the much desired ‘elite tourism’, this hostel already has its place on the map of urban rhythms of the city. It is useful to consider these two projects as complementary.
At this point, we embark on a digression about the concept of modernity as we can understand it today. In the final chapter of his famous book All That is Solid Melts Into Air, the American theorist Marshall Berman looks at some prominent artistic and social practices of late Modernism and recognizes the productive dialectics of the existing and emerging forms of culture that is also the foundation of modernity (Berman considers Postmodernism to be an illegitimate notion). Berman uses the title of the famous Bob Dylan album Bringing It All Back Home as a metaphor for the opinion that social change is achieved by working through layers of the existing culture, by critically examining and transforming the relics of prior modernizations which brought both improvement and destruction. This metaphorical ‘back home’ means understanding that the present is alive, that it is a resource of transformational energy, that contexts are not something external, but the stuff of creation. As pointed out by the first part of Dylan’s album title, ‘home’ is something to come back to (coming back is a permanent state) in an emancipated way, with the awareness of the affirmative values that modernity can offer to a certain social, political or urban milieu without cancelling in advance their more or less hidden potential. What kind of modernity emancipates tradition without being nostalgic? It is a practice that is able to anticipate the future and surpass expectations, but also recognize older values. Moreover, it ‘brings home’ a new context, the context of vitality and critical renewal.
The Golly±Bossy hostel is one such modern project. It is located in a Secession building, erected in 1912 after the plan of Kamilo Tončić, dominating the smallish and harmonious square of Morpurgova Poljana. A covered passageway connects the square with Marmontova Street, a popular pedestrian promenade linking the Riva seafront, the Peškarija fish market and the theatre on Gaj Bulat Square, so that the hostel is both out of the way and right next to the major urban arteries. The building stands on an irregular plot, sitting on the city wall that had part removed to be used for the new building. Originally designed as an interesting combination of the massive boundary wall and the skeletal structure of concrete and reinforced concrete, the building went through several adaptations. The citizens of Split also know it as the former building of Uzor, a textile company. The attic was built after the design of Jerko Marasović in 1978. A competition was held in 1991 to convert the building into a shopping centre. It was won by Vinko Peračić in 1992, with a project that planned to build a lift and a two-flight staircase in the small courtyard. But the conversion that was eventually built was designed by Emil Šverko, who saw vertical communications and the full height incision in the building as his main spatial theme. Šverko used the centre of the building to set up a dense structure with a glass lift, an escalator and a gently curved staircase, which are placed opposite the main entrance, so that they must be avoided upon entering the building in order to begin climbing.
In the spring of 2010, Studio UP was hired to convert that spatial configuration into a hostel in the shortest possible time and within a reasonable budget. In such circumstances, the Studio UP designers were virtually forced to keep all the older elements of the building structure, despite the fact that the vertical communications occupy a significant part of the floor area and that the roof supporting structure is quite complicated. The situation they found looked like an adapter’s nightmare, especially since their work had to be optimized. They were sort of helped by the vertical load-bearing structure. Since it consisted of only three massive pillars, it simplified the organization of space. Considering all the restrictions, their work had a surprisingly consistent and coherent result, which kept and transformed all the previous layers while achieving an exciting and quite inhabitable space.
The modernity of their project resulted from the synergy between the architectural imagination of Studio UP and the courage of the investor Ante Kotarac (who comes from a family of hotel owners). They approached the project experimentally, both from the aspect of architectural design and the conception of the task or genre itself. On the Adriatic coast, we have yet to see a redesign of an old hotel or a new tourist facility that would critically and originally examine these eminently important topics. Virtually all the projects are a result of the generic standards of the highly standardized tourist industry, which is not particular to Croatia, but a reflection of global trends. The typology of a ‘design hostel’, added to the Golly±Bossy project, was suitably intoned from the aspect of marketing, but the idea of this project offers something more than hype design: a sophisticated interpretation of a specific genre of tourist accommodation housed in a unique spatial experience.
Studio UP reshaped the old configuration using the simplest means of construction, like plaster board and OSB boards. In bathroom areas, the finishing is innovative, made with the technology of spraying plastic that is usually used in small boats. There are various types of rooms: from common ‘hostel’ rooms with a dozen beds, to attractive and spacious two-storey ‘penthouses’ in the attic with great views of the city. The design is reduced to a minimum of themes and a maximum of effort invested in space organization and consideration of the themes of comfort, intimacy and functionality within the available space resources. The complex ground plans are a consequence of the need to include enough beds, which made it necessary to make the best use of the existing front windows, to adapt service ducts, some of which were also inherited from the shopping mall project, and to adapt to the robust load-bearing structure. These difficulties resulted in meandering or geometrically irregular rooms, which just makes the space richer. The triangular forms scattered across the building, from the ground-floor counter to the attic suites, owe something to Herzog and de Meuron. The completely white, ascetic spaces of the rooms ‘without details’, which could be nicely described by the architectural slang of ‘no design’, feel like contemporary Japanese interiors. This is no mechanical repetition of known patterns, but a set of decisions, a logical reaction to the physical micro-context: the design of Japanese residential interiors, just like the Golly±Bossy hostel, is a reaction to the lack of space. The implicit reference to Herzog and de Meuron, who may be the only authentic contemporary formalists, is a link to international architectural research that has directly resulted from the origami structure of the rooms and the roof’s geometry. The same applies to the beautiful common area with its vertical communications, where the use of full surfaces on glass balustrades and other places makes it similar to the fluid spatial sequences of Steven Holl. This ‘extended communication’ contains common areas for projections, work and socializing, given a specific character by the luminous yellow paint. Scattered across the public areas, there are typographic elements on a micro-scale (short and humorous notes related to the urban folklore of Split) and a macro-scale (painted numbers in the spirit of the forgotten genre of super-graphics used to mark floors). This layer of the project was made by the designer Damir Gamulin Gamba and the copywriter Nenad Vukušić Sebo.
Studio UP ‘brought home’ a whole world of interesting design experiences and concepts. We hope that the ambition and enthusiasm shared by the designers and the investor will attract a whole world of equally open guests, who will enrich Split with their stay and vice versa. An important part of the outline of this meeting, which is also the measure of the urban quality of the hostel, is the dynamic ground floor that integrates the reception desk, bar and restaurant. This attractively designed space, and even more the square in front of it, is an open place combining the modern urban pace, the iconography of contemporary interiors, international lifestyles and the complexity of the urban structure of Split that is given new life. The hostel and the square in front have already attracted some events – a Pecha Kucha Night gathered several hundred participants.
‘Bringing It All Back Home’, say Dylan and Berman. Even though it had to happen sooner or later, we had already given up hope that the Croatian tourist industry would give birth to a modern impulse. We are glad that it happened in Split’s Ghetto, rich and pregnant with the contradictions and complexities of urban life. Let us hope it will not be sterilized by the process of gentrification and mutation into a tourist theme park. Among recently renovated luxury hotels, bankrupt stores, dilapidated residential buildings and historical monuments, here is a contemporary trace of modernity that is significant and ephemeral, relaxed and pretentious, democratic and elitist, brand new and fully recycled, depending on how you approach it. The most important thing is that the project reflects a readiness to experiment and sends the optimistic message that it is still possible to make changes in Split.