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LIMITS OF PLACE: Dobrović in Dubrovnik 1930-1940

Villa Vesna, Lopud, N. Dobrović, 1937 © Wolfgang Thaler, 2010

Nikola Dobrović was born in the Hungarian city of Pécs, 1897. He got his degree in architecture in 1923 from the High Technical School in Prague. After gaining experience in prominent Prague architectural offices and in his own practice, he moved to Dubrovnik in the early nineteen-thirties with the radical, programmatic mission of bringing modern architecture to this small but historically very important city on the Dalmatian coast. He was invited in 1930 by Dubrovnik municipal conservator Kosta Strajnić, well known as the author of the first monographs on Josip Plečnik and the sculptor Ivan Meštrović, to explain to the authorities what modern architecture actually was. To depict in the local press the exemplary architecture that would be suited to the so-called new, modern Dubrovnik, Strajnić put forward Dobrović’s radical project for hotel-Kursalon on Pile, in close proximity to the most monumental part of the medieval city walls, as an alternative to the eclectic project by the Viennese architect Alfred Keller. As for Dobrović, although his project was never to be realized, his entrance to Dubrovnik was truly grand.

In the short timespan that followed, less than a decade, he managed to construct a series of houses-machines, all of which characteristically embody the ideas of the heroic, international period of modern architecture. Yet, there is a specific value to his Dubrovnik oeuvre. His architecture indeed evades conceptual classifications: every reference to the time period of his work must be conditioned by an understanding of its parameters of place. Simultaneously, each possible reference to local tradition is brought to the modern world and thus incorporated into the greater, universal tradition to which Dobrović contributed.

Part I

House-machine I

Grand Hotel, Lopud, 1931-1936

Lopud is the middle island in the Elaphitic archipelago, at a distance of a single nautical mile from the mainland and seven miles from Dubrovnik’s harbor. The foundations for the island’s economic development were service-related activities, primarily maritime trade. The recession in the Mediterranean after the sixteenth century led to the quick fall of the frail island economy. From the seventeenth century through the nineteen-twenties, the island remained confined in something like a time capsule. The growth of a new service industry, tourism, incited economic restoration; for a period the island was what would be called today an exclusive destination.

The Grand Hotel was designed by Nikola Dobrović in the early thirties for a native island family Glavović who was already working in tourism, although in a smaller capacity. For the purpose of construction, which took several years, a quarry was established on the island and a small concrete factory was built. This construction, which used new materials and advanced technology, represented an attraction like never seen before, and when the hotel opened in 1936, it kicked off the development of contemporary tourism on Lopud. The Grand Hotel is a paradigm of developmental and social sustainability derived from a local community in almost all aspects. The only aspect they imported was the architect himself, a man with highly technological knowledge who hailed from a distant metropolitan environment where completely different rules reigned.

Distanced from the regulation line along the quay, the building is placed deep in its parcel. A public park—composed in an axial manner with lines of slim, tall tropical palm trees—stretches from the quay to the hotel. A panoramic terrace offers access from the quay directly to the park. The dynamic spatial composition synthesizes the principles of a number of components of modern architecture. But most importantly, the Grand Hotel and its park embody the universal, a-temporal, and rational principles termed by Dobrović the “intellectual confluents” to architecture. And so the architect, staging the iconic sights of the times—in which a voyage equals a ship, the exotic equals tall palm trees, and hedonism equals a tennis game on a wide, flat roof—changed the life of this sleepy town forever. Plastic unity—from the design of the landscape to the design of the built-in hotel-room furniture—makes the Grand Hotel the most consistent work of heroic modern architecture on the eastern Adriatic coast.

The dynamic spatial composition in front of the Grand Hotel was paired with an investment in public interest. One may wonder why the hotel building draws back from the quay, deep into the plot. This placement can be understood as a staging of “the culture of determined relations” perceived in motion—a counterpoint to “the culture of particular form,” which was believed to have ended, at least according to Piet Mondrian (1937). The private initiative thus also profited the local community and its visitors. From the distance of almost eighty years, his architecture can also be grasped as rhetorically sustainable from a much wider perspective: in its relation to the old and the new layers of the cultivated landscape, and in a sense, the word sustainability encompasses and goes beyond its banal, everyday meanings here.


Part II

House-machine II

Villa Adonis, Dubrovnik-Srednji Kono, 1939-1940

The cross section of Villa Adonis resembles a physical manifesto of Functionalism that has been adapted to the Mediterranean climate and to the sloping terrain. Its introverted volume rises above an open porch on four reinforced concrete columns, while its back leans against a garden terrace. The reinforced concrete frame structure enables the horizontal continuation of the windows in the southern façade, while the roof is flat and intended for use; through a continuum of vertical and horizontal axes, the structure as a whole creates a remarkable experience of space. Moreover, on many levels, Villa Adonis’s form and function resonate with today’s concerns by activating the flat roof terrace as compensation for the occupied natural ground; by imbuing, but not merging architecture with nature at the open ground level; by adding value to the cross section of Villa Adonis, thus ranking Dobrović’s architecture technologically innovative even from our contemporary perspective.


Two technical aspects of this cross section in particular represent Dobrović’s original contribution to the instruments of technologically reflective architecture. Concrete fiber-cement pipes serve to drain rainfall water from the flat roof and from the sewage. Both sets of run-off end in the mechanical cleaner buried in the house’s front garden. Passing through several connected wells, the rainfall and wastewater provide constant watering for the garden. Another outstanding aspect of this section is the roof terrace’s double floor. The top reinforced-concrete board rests lowered between four massive beams. Thus three shallow ponds formed in the concrete, and a secondary wooden floor was constructed above them. The space between was filled with water, which serves as a good insulator due to its thermal capacity; it simultaneously minimizes cracks in the thin, reinforced concrete slabs.

Dobrović applied the same technical solution to all his buildings in Dubrovnik; however, it was not preserved for long on any of the roofs. After a few years, the wooden floors suffered—which had not been well maintained in a climate with sudden changes in temperature and humidity—and the increase of the volume of water around the freezing point—which in the Mediterranean occurs infrequently yet still often enough to cause damage—resulted in the reinforced concrete elements cracking. In the end, it was necessary to apply conventional sealing methods, which unfortunately partly restricted the roof’s use as an inhabitable open-air space. The most seemingly mechanical aspect of these machines for living thus failed. Still, their endurance proves them places of a good life: all five erected villas have remained until today without substantial structural changes.

The floor plan of the middle level also illustrates the radicalism of the architect’s interpretation of the principles of modern – he called it contemporary – architecture. For him, the contemporary in architecture simply equals the functional. His programmatic rejection of any handicraft makes his position clear: “This contemporary building requires no handicraft works…”. The technical description of the project reads more like a manifesto published in an avant-garde architectural magazine or a textbook at an architecture school, than a part of the project documentation submitted when applying for a construction permit. It tells us why the house was raised on columns: so that “the garden may pass below the building into the space of the half-open porch.” We uncover the architect’s intent to reduce material use by applying contemporary technologies: concrete boards that are “only 8 centimeters” and “only 7 centimeters” thin; air cavities and layers of thermal and acoustic insulation; glass bricks that “let the light through very well, and at the same time they serve as bars.” Yet with “this contemporary building [having] all plumbing and carpentry removed” to make it look like a sophisticated product of the machine era, a need arose for superior craftsmanship skills to execute its wooden and cement paneling, windows, doors, and built-in furniture.


The principle of low consumption is strongly present in the building’s “rational”—by which Dobrović means minimal—material consumption and in its interior floor ratio. The bathroom in the center of the apartment, as a sort of spatial negative, confirms the functionalist layout’s arrangement. The rest of the rooms are small and divided by thin concrete boards and built-in wardrobes. The residential rooms are separated from the service ones, so the apartment has two symmetrically placed entrances. The principle of Existenzminimum was applied with mechanical precision. It is justifiable, then, to question what makes the minimally designed family house a villa and why the architect called it such.

The answer lies in the richly dimensioned exterior spaces and the way in which they are imbued with nature: the porch below and the roof terrace above the closed apartment are anything but minimal. The idea of actually being in nature is another principle of new architecture that Dobrović emphasized. He certainly was not the only architect of his time who, coming from the cold north, was seduced by a flash of the bright Mediterranean sun and yet who was unaware that Mediterranean winters can be cold, too. That is, after all, how modern lime white architecture of primary volumes with sharp edges on which bright light breaks without diffraction was born.

Part III

Spatial luxury and low consumption

Three Villas in Dubrovnik: a visual esssay

The volumetric simplicity and symmetry of the series of villas that Dobrović built in Dubrovnik in the decade of the nineteen-thirties, relates then at the same time to the rules of International Style, and to the local tradition of country mansions built by the Dubrovnik elite. The simultaneous modesty of the precisely designed interiors and the dynamic spaciousness of the open exteriors represent the realization of a sustained lifestyle dependent on climate conditions: spatial luxury imbued with the logic of low consumption.


Text: Krunoslav Ivanišin from Krunoslav Ivanišin, Wolfgang Thaler and Ljiljana Blagojević, DOBROVIĆ IN DUBROVNIK, A VENTURE IN MODERN ARCHITECTURE, published by Jovis, Berlin 2015: ,


Videos: excerpts from the documentary movie NOVI DUBROVNIK NIKOLE DOBROVIĆA [Nikola Dobrović’s New Dubrovnik] produced by Croatian Television, 2002

Archive materials: Dubrovnik State Archives, Belgrade Museum for Science and Technology, and private collections.

28.Jul.2016 7747 views
Krunoslav Ivanišin

Krunoslav Ivanišin (Dubrovnik, 1970) holds the diploma in architecture from the University of Zagreb and the doctorate from the University of Ljubljana. He is a practicing architect with international teaching and publishing experience, founding partner in IVANIŠIN. KABASHI. ARHITEKTI since 2003, and professor of architectural design at the University of Zagreb – Faculty of Architecture since 2015. He won competitions and constructed buildings for public and private purposes, lectured and exhibited internationally, including the Venice Biennale in 2010. He is the co-author of Dobrović in Dubrovnik: A Venture in Modern Architecture (Berlin: Jovis, 2015) and Middle East: Landscape, City, Architecture (Zürich: Park Books, 2013).
28.Jul.2016 7747 views
Wolfgang Thaler

Wolfgang Thaler
 (Salzburg) is a freelance photographer focussed on architectural topics. He graduated 1991 on the Bayrische Staatslehranstalt für Photographie in Munich. He co-published the book Modernism In-Between: The Mediatory Architectures of Socialist Yugoslavia (Jovis Verlag), and contributed to the exhibition Balkanology (curator Kai Vöckler). Prior to that, he photographed for the book The Looshaus (editor. Christopher Long, Yale Univ. Press), and Building and Island (Acconci’s project for Graz 2003). In 2015, he co-published the book Dobrović in Dubrovnik – A Venture in Modern Architecture (Jovis Verlag) and Die Stadt außerhalb (Birkhauser/De Gruyter). Upcoming is the book The New Space (ed. Christopher Long, Yale Univ. Press), and the project Hotel Wien – a comprehensive study on hotel lobbies in Vienna.

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