A castle has many entrances whose rules of usage and whose locations are not well known. The hotel in Amerika has innumerable main doors and side doors that innumerable guards watch over; it even has entrances and exits without doors. Yet it might seem that the burrow in the story of that name has only one entrance; the most the animal can do is dream of a second entrance that would serve only for surveillance. But this is a trap arranged by the animal and by Kafka himself, the whole description of the burrow functions to trick the enemy...
(Gilles Deleuze, Félix Guattari: Kafka, Pour une Littérature Mineure)
By itself as well as in the space and time context, the complete body of works of Nikola Dobrović in Dubrovnik is sufficiently large and recognisable in the continuity of creation of its individual parts, to open up really wide possibilities of most varied interpretations. Since outside the “centre” and not belonging to any particular “school”, it has not been evaluated enough in our literature (1).
The architect, Nikola Dobrović, worked in Dubrovnik from the beginning of 30s until World War II, and in this relatively short time period he designed and mainly realised a number of family houses, public buildings and so-called park arrangements. Born in 1897 in Pečuh, he graduated in 1923 from the Department of Architecture of the Higher Technical School in Prague. After World War II, he worked in Belgrade, and was elected a corresponding member outside the active body of the JAZU Department of Visual Arts. For the Croatian culture Dobrović’s first prize winning projects at international competitions for Banovina hospital and the Bačvice strand in Split in 1930 are of significance, as well as the competition project for the Zagreb hospital from 1931,the post-war proposal for the Zagreb Main Railway Station, traffic regulations and no less Dobrović’s comprehensive theoretical work, often precisely dealing with the architecture problems of new Dubrovnik.
The key person of the modernisation of the Dubrovnik cultural environment between the wars was the art critic Kosta Strajnić, important also as the author of the first monographs on Plečnik and Meštrović. For Strajnić, according to the exalted post-war assessment by Neven Šegvić, “the advocate of Le Corbusier” (2), modern architecture, as the only expression suitable to the space of the new nation, is the logical final step in the organic, by imported historicism discontinued development of styles in the extraordinary architectural history of Dubrovnik. This unique Strajnić’s vision of modern Dubrovnik was shared and in fragments of the conceptual whole realised only by Nikola Dobrović. In the publication Dubrovnik without a mask, futile efforts and bitter disappointments, Strajnić has described the unusual circumstances of his appearance in the lulled and conservative Dubrovnik culture. Dobrović appears, namely, as the witness for the defence (together with Ivan Meštrović, Josip Plečnik and Edo Šen) at the trial of Kosta Strajnić because of his sharp public criticism of the quasi-traditional construction of the today’s hotel Excelsior at Ploče, which the constructor, the hotel designer experienced as a personal offence. In the same booklet, Strajnić published his sample modern project for Dubrovnik, Hotel – Kursalon at Pile, which was designed by the architect Nikola Dobrović in 1929 free of charges, at the request by Strajnić, “in order to dissuade the investor from historicistic building. Since “our people consider their patriotic duty to be conservative in everything, even in architecture” (3), this Dobrović’s design has remained on paper alone. Soon, however, thanks to the progressive views of several Dubrovnik bourgeois families, the architect Dobrović was commissioned to design a number of family houses, two hotels, he shared a first prize at the competition for the City Café with Kauzlarić and Gomboš, intervened creatively on the ground-floor of the Renaissance Palace Sponza, thus realising certainly the most significant opus of modern architecture in the whole of Dalmatian region.
Grand Hotel on the island of Lopud was designed by Dobrović in 1934, and it was built in 1936. Originally, the hotel ground plan was L-shaped, and only in the 80s, during a complete reconstruction, the initial structure was modified by adding a back wing, in the shapes which repeat Dobrović’s vocabulary. The hotel building is pulled back from the waterfront regulation line into the depth of the plot, in front of the hotel there is an axially composed park, a line of palm-trees with a gazebo at the entrance and a promenade all the way to the hotel access terrace, on the side of which open public spaces follow each other with various species of subtropical plants and park furniture made of reinforced concrete.
In the plastic unity, from the design of the landscape to the design of minimal in-built furnishings in hotel rooms, the park in front of the hotel and the building itself are the most significant Dobrović’s works during that period, and an extraordinary conceptualisation of the Mediterranean in the consistent modern language of architecture. The contradiction of the modern age fate has linked to this creation of his, a tragic historical event: during World War II the hotel was the place where Jews arrested by the fascists in the Dubrovnik area were concentrated. On this station of their tragic journey, “according to literature, a total of about 600 to 700 captives were confined” (4).
The modern house of the 30s is obviously a machine, in this case not only in the sense of stimulating a form. Functionalism, as an unquestionable component of Dobrović’s conceptualisation of contemporary time, is legible even in the machine-aesthetics of the building; form metaphorically similar to a machine. However, functionalism is here the main content of architecture: everything present in the form is not superfluous in construction. The machine character of the building is pregnant also in the technical aspect of function, from the drainage of the flat roof to the design of the services. The structure is skeletal, of reinforced concrete, the ground floor is open on columns, the roof is a flat, active deck, openings in the wall are ribbon windows… in this house Dobrović consistently realised five Le Corbusier’s principles. The machine character of the house – ship is underlined by the captions achieved by reductions in the terrace parapets shuttering. At the entrance into the park there is a semi-cylindrical gazebo, “commanding bridge”with the letters Hotel Grand, and the really unique curiosum is the architect’s signature done in the same manner near the very entrance of the hotel, written in about 20 cm tall letters. The pregnant functional disposition of space: of open functions, wings with rooms and hotel plant is emphasised in content by distinguishing the external and internal rooms by panelling and painting the surfaces: by concrete glazing discontinued by shingle beach strips, wooden panelling of the columns in the exterior and the interior; by stressing the given characteristics of the industrial materials or their modification through surface treatment.
Tourism in the modern sense of the word, started to develop on the island of Lopud with the opening of the Grand hotel. With its construction, the so-called tourist offer of the island, in the unique natural phenomenon of the Elaphite archipelago, rich with cultural heritage of the glorious Republic, has been significantly improved. By creating a unique place (hotel) ship with a commanding bridge at the entrance to the line of tropical palm trees and tennis court and stands on the flat roof, by staging the scene of time: voyage (ship), exoticism (palm trees) and hedonism (tennis) makes it possible for Dobrović to generate unprecedented formal and meaningful attractions in the life of a place by the sea. Agaves that grow in the air; on the pergolas of reinforced concrete built above the terraces supported by the dark-pine-lath-panelled columns, express full liberation in the avant-garde thinking of architecture. The white, from the ground lifted volume, machine for pleasure, entertainment and voyaging in the geometrical wood of thin palm trees, is today the visual landmark in the silhouette of the picturesque place. However, the multiple synthesis of form and content into the voyage + exoticism + hedonism metaphor of tourism, is only one of the aspects of this complex work, with which the author conquers the field of programmed contemporariness.
The culture of particular form is approaching its end. The culture of determined relations has begun. (Piet Mondrian)
The hotel and the park are the implementation of precisely such a space concept. From the whole to the details, the composition is dynamic, designed for perception in movement, whether in the whole of the authentic or anthropogenic landscape while the ship is entering port, or in the sequenced penetration through the depth of the park into the interior of the hotel. The sequenced character of perception of space in passing along the park promenade is achieved by setting it into the axis shifted from the centre of gravity of the volume composition and by arranging a row of niches, the exterior rooms of the park alongside the promenade.
This piece of modern architecture synthesises the principles of several of its components: Le Corbusier’s purism in the sense of combining the spirit of the machine era with the classical value of the place; Central European modern tradition in the aspect of minimal design and relative closeness of the column-lifted form; organic tradition in soft linking with the landscape; De Stijl in the experiment of creating plastic totality. Transposing of these principles from the universal property of humanity into its own, distinctive version of international modern vocabulary, is what makes Grand hotel a great work, and its author a great protagonist of the European modern architecture.
To find the foothold of the Hotel project, and even the whole Dobrović’s Dubrovnik opus in the tradition of region, is possible only in his own theoretical work on the subject.His Dubrovnik opus finished with the beginning of the World War II, Dobrović, anticipating space problems in the near future,in his study on traditional Dubrovnik architecture, described the most important content guideline of his own work: “gardens are the vital urban parts of modern and future subtropical city, that in lack of vegetation, fruit and vegetables, should tend to expand and join as many green surfaces as possible. Once, landed gentry’s gardens, at their time the symbols of intimate segregation of the privileged, should in the spirit of modern democratic urbanism and within the new integral urban space combine with the public green zone, thus be put to service to the people. They should be strictly considered when setting the urban basis of new Dubrovnik (5). Grand Hotel is a fragment of this unique town sheme in the spirit of “modern democratic urbanism”; Dobrović’s original contribution to regional and urban planning, the building is pulled back into the depth of the site, and the park in front is open to public. The deck chair made of reinforced concrete among the trunks of tropical palm trees as the fragment of the realisation of the new town vision summarises in itself the tendency of the architect of the Modern movement, to serve the enlightened investor and at the same time to serve the needs of the public, thus achieving the physical frame of the democratic society of the future.
Precisely through this, so to say social aspect of his work, Dobrović creates the basis of a committed, in the Frampton sense critical regionalism of Dubrovnik and Dalmatia: “as in earlier times, the architects should use the most modern means, materials, and structures, and be guided by the same spirit and rules of urban and architectonic principles that guided the old masters of this town. It is only in this way that it will be possible to create the specific artistic ambience of Dubrovnik.” (6)
On a steep sea-facing slope, in the silhouette of the same place of Lopud, Nikola Dobrović built three years later a luxurious family holiday house, villa Vesna. The post-war owner of the villa, for reasons known to him alone, had the main gate walled in, and as a convinced internationalist put a notice on the stone garden wall, with big, shingle beach-coated concrete letters: “UNU HOMARA SORTO - UNU HOMARA LINGVO ” (one human race - one human language). What a splendid contribution to the discussion about language or architecture: therefore, Esperanto.
1 Marina Oreb Mojaš: Material, Symetry, the ship; arhitektura, Zagreb 1984; Krunoslav Ivanišin: The Architecture of Faustian meditations, ^IP; Zagreb 1997; The Architecture of Dubrovnik after the fall of the Republic, IUC Dubrovnik 1998
2 Neven Šegvić: A contribution to an understanding of the development of modern architecture¸ Matica Hrvatska, Zagreb 1946
3 Kosta Strajnić: Dubrovnik without a mask, futile efforts and bitter disappointments; Dubrovnik 1930
4 Bernard Stulli: Jews in Dubrovnik; the Jewish community Zagreb 1988
5 Nikola Dobrović: The country – seats of Dubrovnik; Beograd 1946
6 Nikola Dobrović: Let us save Dubrovnik, let us keep its historic character, Tribuna 84, Dubrovnik 1930