OF NEGLECTED SITES
A Report on new functions for old structures,
formats and ambitious utopias.
By Juan Fabuel
Not long ago the sense of brokenness surrounded the overall feeling towards Sarajevo, a place in which opposing forces collided in the 90’s destructing the social, economical and urban fabric. The ambiguity of a conflict that held such a devastating magnitude leaves many doors sealed with anger and fear, but opened up new and invisible ones towards a new urban momentum where unexpected and positive things are emerging. In this very moment, as Manuel Castells points out, when a social system suffers a structural crisis it is forced to change either its goals or its means. When the goals are changed it becomes a completely different system but when the system alters its methods to achieve the untouched goals, then a process of social restructuration is launched.
In this context we can place the new synergies currently occurring in the neighborhood of Marijin Dvor, a district in particular that suffered the atrocities of the conflict due to its unique geopolitical setting. “Marijin Dvor is a transition place,” tells Senad Alibegovic, architect in charge of reorganizing some of the spaces that were destroyed and organizer of the Architectural Student Congress 2014. “People cross this place coming from one place and going to another. Although it is a physical center one of its functions is to connect the two extremes of the city. “Functionally it is dead, but we are working on that”. The neighborhood connects the different centers of the city, which are the obvious reference to the cultural perspectives that assembled Sarajevo through its existence. Senad walked me along the urban timeline, offering his vast knowledge about the importance of increasing the awareness of the abandoned buildings and the need to give new functions to these spaces. “Let’s raise the awareness of the neglected sites,” he says, meaning that if the people don’t see its value, the district will eventually loose its visual identity. All kinds of reasons varying from economic to political are behind these neglected places, but as Senad points out: “the reactivation of these areas interact with the people because these places tell their story. Finally someone who cares about the buildings! That’s what people said.”
Senad showed me “Mucha Lucha”, a place completely destroyed during the conflict that has been given new functions and meanings these days. “Now it is a social space where we organize architectural events while enjoying the new possibilities that the district can offer. It is a multifunctional place that hosts concerts, talks or our events,” explains Senad. “In ten years it will probably be destroyed due to the massive capitalization and urban development of the district. More skyscrapers and malls will be built but we are trying to keep the minimum identity of the neighborhood, because the people that have been living here for a long time know how the city breathes and this way of breathing is essential to understand the space”.
The citizens directly connect this “breathing” to the understanding of the functions of the space and, when these functions are altered or destroyed, the connection with the space is also distorted. In this case, the job of the architects and urban planners is to give new functions and meanings to these constructions depending on the actual context.
Marijin Dvor offers three sides to every story, allowing citizens to time travel across the city. It contains the remains of what has been, what is and what will be, creating a very unique experience when visiting. The buildings are faithful witnesses of this transformation and the spaces tell us more than we can or want to hear, giving the loud silence a powerful meaning. In order to better understand this peculiar situation I asked Nedim Mutelevic about the transformative processes in the city. Nedim and his group called LIFT have been revitalizing certain spaces that have been neglected, keeping in mind that these acupunctural interventions are subject to a collective effort that will strengthen and improve the community and its dynamics. One of the most iconic constructions of the neighborhood is a former brickyard by August Braun that represents his love for Maria, his wife. This former factory built in the XlX century and remodeled into a residential building is known as the origin of the district and a precious structure, holding the essence of the Austro Hungarian period. Due to external forces the health of the courtyard is not very promising. The beautiful internal garden had no proper care for a long time and LIFT –being aware of the benefits of small individual actions– decided to act and reorganize the space and not to wait for institutional help (which might never occur). “LIFT generates very good synergies,” says Nedim and adds: “it helps to release social and urban tension.”
The LIFT collective was founded in 2012, but before that Nedim and his colleagues worked as an NGO for several years. They decided that it was time for a change but this time the change would arise from the inside, not from the outside. The architectural events were almost nonexistent in Sarajevo seven years ago, leading towards a dispersion of the professionals and the isolation of the sector. “People were completely fragmented and our aim was to create common spaces and to unite the people. After the war people became more individual and we are working to change this attitude using our knowledge of space, materials and visuality.”
Keeping a clear vision of change and transformation in mind, LIFT organizes architectural events offering an alternative to previous initiatives. At first they would play an organizational role but as the attention for the events grew, they decided to be completely involved in the whole process of developing concepts, helping to fundraise and managing events from the inside out. This new mindset, as Nedim explained, took them to develop physical interventions in order to improve and refunctionalize certain spaces. An example is the garden by August Braun inside of the brickyard.
The fascinating tour across Marijin Dvor with my exceptional guides Nedim and Senad made me think about the necessity of keeping the emblematic and iconic scenarios of each particular place updated in a critical manner. Through the restructuration of these places people have the possibility to re-enact their emotional and historical links with a specific place and, as Josep Maria Montaner points out: “recycling these old infrastructures contains a double meaning: On one hand the functional sense of reuse and on the other one the symbolic sense that increases the collective memory value.”
If truth were told I find Montaner’s way of thinking gently connected to the architects Muhamed and Reuf Kadic, which in the 30’s designed some of the key modernist buildings in Sarajevo. They embraced Modernism but always keeping in mind not to damage the historic urban matrix of Sarajevo. This logic of protection and preservation is present as well in the aim of Nedim and Senad in finding a new role for the abandoned spaces in contemporary urban life, while indicating to the local community their value and implementing strategies to keep them alive. The symbolic value of these buildings should be understood as a crucial factor in the development and establishment of the identity of a certain society. In this specific case the citizens of Sarajevo and particularly the residents of Marijin Dvor.
After all the time spent in the district, I got to discover the real need for change that the citizens have. At this point all potential options are open but the consequences of an unplanned urban development are dangerous because they too exist. Unfortunately, this is the easiest choice most of the time.
I did not want to skip the opportunity to chat with Mejrema Zatric, –someone who truly understands this subject– and to get a deeper insight about all these matters. Mejrema is an architect and a PhD candidate at the ETH in Zürich since 2012. She has the vision of somebody who has experienced these issues as an “insider” culturally speaking, but that also possesses an “outsider” and holistic perception due to her physical distance with the city.
“It is not easy to find the essence here,” says Mejrema. “Sarajevo and especially Marijin Dvor are very complex places to understand. The colliding external forces and different superimposed cultural contexts made this place evolve in unexpected ways. In this Banal Globalization of Hipster Good Taste that we are experiencing at the present time, it is important to notice that Sarajevo faces a non globalized Cosmopolitanism, a tendency towards normality portrayed in the construction of new malls with gigantic and shiny digital screens. Right now there is an exceptionalmomentum here in Sarajevo with a fraction of the citizens trying to be closer to a European mentality.”
During our conversation Mejrema explained to me all these ideas using specific buildings in Marijin Dvor as examples. She talked about the Holiday Inn –designed by Ivan Straus –as a clear example of a building constructed in the 80’s with the essence of the American architecture, even though the political and social systems were radically opposite. “The place has a Pathos, the building is connected to some sort of good energy that displays the bravery of the architect. Back then, this building made the city look normal, exactly like the shinny malls make the city look normal nowadays.” This district was designed in the 50’s to be the center of the new socialist Sarajevo. They needed a place to gather all those different faces of the city and the urban plan of Juraj Neidhardt was meant to reach that goal. The ideas and structures of Neidhardt, the only paid assistant in the Paris studio of Le Corbusier — emphasized the integration of architecture and landscape, suggesting urban scenarios between utopia and pragmatism. In reality, as Mejrema mentions, “Marijin Dvor never became the center of the people because most of those big initial projects were never accomplished”.
Asking her about the “aspects of transition” that Marijin Dvor ought to play these days, Mejrema agrees with Nedim and Senad that all those small initiatives carried out in an independent way, will aid to making the community stronger and the cities growth visible. “But in order to make the metropolis more livable, we need to plan according to the real needs and the current context”, she says, stressing that a certain amount of organization and balance between the elements can help to simplify the unresolved dialectic between function and form. Mejrema fired out a last question seconds before I left and kept me busy thinking about the importance of distant proximity: “Can we develop without a distant mind?”
Drifting through the streets of Marijin Dvor after these conversations one is capable to understand a bit more about its complexity and cryptic role. A place like this district — designed to be the new center, but ending up serving as a space of transition between the extremes of the city– contains an invisible tension that all these young and talented architects and urban planners are trying to control and re-direct through their interventions. The ideal city needs to have a certain amount of tension, some sort of characteristic discomfort that behaves like the pins and needles you feel in your arm after it wakes up from being asleep. This brings the words of the American artist Richard Nonas back to my memory: “The scars of a city are important. They are the source of energy, the source of life. What I see is that irritation, is that itch, just slightly uncomfortable on your back and you can’t reach it, so you have to go up to the wall and rub your back against the wall. But it makes you aware that you have a back. Because who thinks about the back?” Wise words articulated during a conversation that occurred a long time ago and helped me discover the invisible stamina, which makes a city real.
Luckily in this particular case, Mejrema, Nedim and Senad are able to think about the city’s back and offer potential scenarios to improve the urban quality of life while taking the importance of keeping the Bosnian identity alive into consideration. They are young; they posses a cosmopolitan mind when it comes to liveability, sustainability and communal effort and they understand the relevance of a distant mind to think creatively. Even if bureaucratic barriers make feasible things almost impossible to achieve and the long shadow of the armed conflict will never be completely invisible, the will to rethink the space, its functions and the connection with the people is bigger than any administrative or legal trouble. Mejrema, Nedim and Senad through their works and knowledge of the urban condition, revealed that the power to connect people, ideas and places, is stronger than the effort and negative force used to destroy them.