The fascinating and well-established scene of contemporary dance and performing arts in Zagreb has finally obtained adequate working conditions. Located inside a relatively small courtyard, about a hundred metres from the main city square, the Zagreb Dance Centre (ZPC) continues the tradition of most Zagreb theatres and former cinemas in the centre, using the courtyards of the blocks in different ways as their natural environment, interwoven with the ‘informal art’ of the city tissue. Courtyards and theatre patios are unconventional outdoor foyers, non-monumental and spontaneous additions to cultural institutions, which come to life during performances, but also host other scenarios of urban life. Such is the case of ZPC, which has been housed in the dilapidated building of Kino Lika, a former cinema, thanks to a big effort by the architectural practice 3LHD.
The public space of the courtyard has not been designed in a particularly lavish way; there is only a basic arrangement, with a fresh layer of asphalt and simple benches, carefully preserving the trees. An integral part of the outdoor setup is the arrangement of ‘ambient signs’, made by Lana Cavar and the studio Linked by Air. Graphic interventions on the pavement announce the presence of ZPC from the street of Ilica, continuing through the courtyard as a part of the integral visual identity, and affecting all the indoor signs. This simple and unobtrusive design differs from most visually aggressive urban signs because it does not try to persuade – instead of attracting visitors to ZPC, the design intends to mark the venue and aesthetically complement the overall concept.
The courtyard itself has a somewhat intimate atmosphere: there are virtually no public contents, since the ZPC building, closing the back perimeter of the block under the slope of Grič, is completely closed to the exterior. Three dance studios with auxiliary contents are located within the modest dimensions of the former cinema. The former lobby and stairway have been replaced by a new outdoor structure, a steel container with the public premises – the foyer, the staircase and the gallery. The container unfolds from the ground level of the courtyard, adheres to the building and crawls upwards to ‘hang’ on the roof terrace, its shape unambiguously signalling an autonomous sculptural element with a fragmented oblique geometry that sends the same message indoors and outdoors. This persuasive and suggestive shape should also be attributed to 3LHD’s exploration of compact free forms. But the form and arrangement of the container are significantly conditioned by site urbanistic conditions and by its retracting from the openings of adjoining buildings.
The floor of the foyer is slightly slanted, with the outside dimensions and openings also following non-orthogonal geometry, which makes the space flow in all three dimensions along the old building, where the wall is plastered even indoors. They applied low-tech solutions, ‘rough’ materials such as perforated and stretched metal plates/meshes and distorted geometries, suggesting ‘radical aesthetics’ similar to the experimental spirit of the contemporary dance and performing arts scene. But the details and realization reveal the concentration and precision of the architects; certain solutions, like the curtain designed by the studio I-gle, contribute to the sophisticated impression. The halls themselves – the main hall with retractable stands and two practice halls with auxiliary contents – are organized as a simple and compact three-dimensional system. The ‘white hall’ is particularly beautiful, with its overhead light and the view of the green slope. Moreover, since this hall is directly linked with the exterior, it is the most pleasant part of the entire complex. On the other hand, the possibility to connect the main hall with the smaller practice hall, turning the latter into a gallery, is questionable from a purely functional aspect, since it does not achieve a clearly usable spatial relationship.
The utter closeness of the foyer/container begs the question if there should have been a more direct contact of the interior with the courtyard/square. But a greater opening of the container by glazing would spoil the integrity of the form; the occasional events in the lobby would not make the courtyard scene much more dynamic. Furthermore, the foyer has its autonomous spatial quality, which is enhanced by interesting light entering through randomly placed slits in the container. Theoretically, since there is also a side entrance, the foyer could have a ‘circular connection’ in cases of premieres or other events, but the courtyard and the foyer cannot be merged in a single space, as indicated by the pavement treatment, where both its material and slope are shaped as a continuation of the public space. However, when the interior of the block is made alive, it does not mean that interpolated events should be linked visually or physically in a very direct way; it is quite legitimate to have an introverted foyer if it is conceived as an interesting setting. One of the possible simple solutions for the problem of the ‘blind’ front of the container would be its ‘outpouring’ into a kind of urban furniture.
A truly poetic scene would result from opening the practice halls, where dance events would become a part of the courtyard scene, improving both the interior and the exterior, but this possibility was prevented by the extreme lack of space and structural issues. It is certainly good that the roof terrace of the outdoor cinema has been preserved, not only as a reminder of an almost forgotten form of urban life, but also as another outdoor space that can be used in various ways. The question remains whether it should have become an addition to the outdoor public space, available to everyone at all times, maybe linked to the park on the slopes of Grič.
Obviously, the chosen building caused many restrictions, although it was the logical choice because of its ownership, location and memories of prior contents. But the programme could not be developed on a more comprehensive scale than the old one, which excluded the possibilities of creating added architectural value. The planned colonization of segments of neighbouring houses would certainly make for a more functional intervention and a livelier courtyard. But revitalizing a block does not mean stifling it – instead, blocks can be filled, but also become calmer parts of the city. We are yet to develop the culture of living in the heart of the block, as a calmer counterpoint to the density found in the rituals of the showy stretch of Bogovićeva Street.
It should be kept in mind that the adaptation of Kino Lika into ZPC belongs to a wider programme of renovating movie theatres owned by the privatized company Kinematografi, which was undertaken by the Zagreb Office for Culture in the early 2000s. That process resulted in the renovation of Kino Apolo, now used by the Histrioni theater company and also designed by 3LHD. The destiny of former cinemas and their Lower Town courtyards was also analyzed through the study of the enlargement of Kino Zagreb in the Flower Square block, where Produkcija 004 made an interesting project. Therefore, a decade ago, general plans were made for a relatively consistent reconstruction of former cinemas, which could have been a part of a sustainable scenario to renovate and develop blocks, precisely because it initiated a productive discussion between the city authorities, major figures of the cultural scene and architects with their proposals. The interventions were sporadic, but they could have become the basis for the development of a decentralized network of public cultural contents in the Lower Town, defining its identity and socio-economic future in clearer terms. But the city obviously did not have enough strength or interest to fully realize such a scenario and upgrade it into an urban planning model. Significantly, the independent cultural scene started using the abandoned and unadapted building of Kino Lika in back in 2001, clearly showing its potential. Of course, that would not be enough to save the premises from a different development (as shown by the unclear future of the Badel block), but independent initiatives in the abandoned Kino Lika provided a certain symbolic capital and concrete arguments for the need to make it publicly and culturally useful.
The methods of use and the sustainability of an institution like ZPC are yet to be verified through the cultural management of those who have been entrusted with it. Furthermore, ZPC will be affected by the trends of the performing arts scene, but also by the cultural policies of the city and the state. In that sense, the scenario for revitalizing the Lower Town through cultural contents cannot be separated from the ability of the major cultural figures to take care of the contents and finances of those premises. Clearly, urban planning alone cannot guarantee the success of such strategies. Let us hope that other proposals for the renovation of blocks which are being designed right now, such as the enlargement of the Academy of Visual Arts, will be constructed and will reveal all the potentials of adapting block structures into socially useful and motivating surroundings.