Singular Adventures and Systematic Frictions: A Subsidized Residential Building in Krapinske Toplice, Croatia

Author: Maroje Mrduljaš


During 1990s, post-socialist Croatia was lagging in all fields of social programs including housing. The gap was filled by the State-subsidized residential  building programme (POS) launched in 2001 by the newly elected left-wing social-democratic government. The programme was designed as a linkage between the  Federal Government, investment banks and municipalities and was targeted at lower income middle-class households. Until 2004 public architectural  competitions were held for POS buildings, which encouraged experimentation in housing typologies within the programme’s restrictive spatial norms. One of  the most exciting designs within the programme is POS Krapinske Toplice that combined advanced spatial models and references to local vernacular  architecture. The system of interconnected circulation spaces, transitory areas and terraces enhance social integration while split-level apartments enable internal changes and refitting in accordance to residents’ needs. POS Krapinske Toplice underwent significant physical changes, yet maintained its architectural integrity. Despite several changes in regulations, POS is active still today.


State-subsidized Housing, Housing Policy, Experimental Housing Architecture, Residents’ Interventions on Buildings, Social Integration

To cite this essay

Mrduljaš, Maroje. “Singular Adventures and Systematic Frictions: A Subsidized Residential Building in Krapinske Toplice, Croatia.” Fusion Journal, no. 6, 2015.


The town of Krapinske Toplice is located in a picturesque valley of Hrvatsko Zagorje, a region in northwest Croatia well-known for its springs of therapeutic thermal water. In the town and its surroundings, there are as many as five hospitals and rehabilitation centers, with a spa tradition that stretches back to antiquity. Krapinske Toplice, like most settlements in Hrvatsko Zagorje, does not have a pronounced urban physiognomy, being a rather loose, straggling conurbation along the curvy main roads. One settlement tends to lead into the other, and the whole of Zagorje gives the impression of being one large, dispersed town with the occasional accent, like the odd fort or Baroque manor house of the gentry.

Nevertheless, when you are travelling by car from Zagreb, after you have turned the bend in the road where a sign with the name of the town stands, after a hillock, there is a sudden view of a dark brown horizontal building, visible from a somewhat elevated position. The impression left by the building is ambivalent and somewhat strange, oscillating between a relatively neutral, ordinary appearance and a certain amount of the drama of a well-composed volume cut into the slope of the hill. The timber-colored rendering and the shed roof suggest a link with the local vernacular tradition. On the other hand, the elongated volume with a regular rhythm of French windows is situated perpendicularly on the slope, and it seems as if the building is anchored into the ground, while the gable, turned towards the valley, appears eager to take off. The counterpointing of the prismatic body of the building and the landscape is simultaneously emphasized by the sharp geometry and yet toned down by the colour, while the neatly arranged chimneys poking out of the roof suggest a residential purpose. This is a multi-residential building by architects Iva Letilović and Morana Vlahović, who, while they were designing and building in 2001–2003, had only just turned thirty. “Today, when I was returning from work, I had the idea that the house looked like a stranded ship in the twilight,” said Ms. Majsec-Kobaš, librarian at a local school and resident of the building. “Often the locals tell us jokingly that we live in a weird and strange house, in a tanker, a stable, a crematorium, all kinds of things . . . I usually tell them it’s their fault if they don’t understand modern architecture,” concluded Ms. Majsec-Kobaš with a laugh and a somewhat suppressed measure of pride.

Indeed, right from the beginning of construction, the house has excited controversy and is one of the few examples of relatively small-scale architecture having frequently appeared in the Croatian media with a fair amount of ineptly supported negative comments about the “nonresidential and inappropriate” appearance of the house, which were soon stilled by a string of professional prizes that the design received in Croatia and abroad [1. Building won „Das Erste Haus“ award of the magazine Bauwelt in 2004 and Silver plate of European Architecture Award Luigi Cosenza 2004 for architects under 40 (Napoli, Italy).]. The building became a pilgrimage site for architects and students, and the residents have become accustomed to visitors arriving for “cultural tourism” and educational purposes. Mixups are possible, however, and it will occasionally happen that people go astray here in search of a hospital. Ms. Majsec-Kobaš recalled that she had read an article in the architectural magazine Oris, in which a critic had referred to inspirational rural farmstead constructions, and was not quite sure that it was right, for her impression was different in that she thought the building very modern. I had to admit that I had written the article and turned the  conversation to a different topic.

How is one to reconcile a very small budget, a research ambition, and at the same time pull off a sound framework for living? The building has been designed as a well-harmonized organism in which special attention has been devoted to public circulation, conceived as a place for socializing, as well as for a gradual transition from public to private areas. The common gallery through which the flats on the first floor are reached, is enclosed by a framework of vertically placed wooden lattices that create an op-art effect. The lattices of the access bridge and the gallery are different in their widths, and their graphism is different —clearly, this is a visually refined architectural articulation. Yet, there are no meticulous architectural details, but rather the simplest possible technical solutions are employed. Standing on the steps that join the gallery and the raised entrances into the flats, Ms. Čuljak recalls: “When I first showed the children the new house, I have three of them, they told us I had taken them to Remetinec Prison [2.Famed remand prison in Zagreb.] for the thickly placed lattices reminded them of bars.” Don’t they recall the pickets in a rural fence? “Perhaps,” she says, “but anyhow that’s not so important, the flats are wonderful.”

The building of, all told, twenty flats of sizes between 45 sqm and 90 sqm functions like terraced housing. The intention of the architects was to imbue the multi-residence building, a typology not particularly common in rural areas, as much as possible with the quality typifying suburban single-family dwellings: immediate contact with surroundings, private entrances from exterior space and spatial generosity. The bilaterally oriented flats are entered through glazed “containers” with entryways, which are a place where collective and private worlds both overlap and divide. The same principle is applied to both the first-floor gallery and to the wooden decks on the ground-floor level. After the entryway comes a dining space, the phenomenological centre of the flat, around which all the other facilities are arranged. Most of the flats develop over three split-levels and the spaces freely range across the vertical.

While we are sitting at the dining room table, Ms. Brkljačić expresses her satisfaction with the concept of the flats, saying that every one of the owners has treated the surplus volume of a double-height sitting room in a different way. Some have added on a whole new floor, but most of them have simply decided on the interpolation of a gallery with various purposes. This is corroborated by her husband, whose voice trickles down from somewhere up high, from the new study located on a platform extension. The vertical spread of these flats is indeed unique for socially subsidized dwellings, and although some architectural critics had warned that a cross section with split-levels in little flats was not rational and practical, the feeling of space is exceptional, and this is something all the dwellers agree on. Both Ms. Majsec-Kobaš and Mrs. Brkljačić report that on their very first visits they were sure that these somewhat intricate flats were the best of all those they had viewed in a market. “The flats come to life very much during Christmastide—they can be arranged very nicely,” said Mrs. Brkljačić.

However, not all of the architects’ decisions have proved suited to the local habits of life. The Brkljačićes say that the former glass containers in the entryways positioned to the west are lined with metal sheets today because of the excessive heating in summer and condensation in winter. Flat dwellers in Croatia value their privacy, and it was to be expected that this extrovert solution would have to undergo modification. Luckily for the building, this adjustment was ordered and executed at a stroke, so the change is uniform and in line with the metal entrance containers on the ground floor. Instead of “Balkanised” individual adjustments of the buildings so typical in the region, residents decided to carry out transformation of the entrance containers as collective action aiming to preserve the aesthetic qualities of the architecture. The main dilemma was whether the containers should have been done in the original brown or whether white aids in “visually opening up” the gallery space, as Ms. Krepelnik observed. The white option prevailed. The vertical cleft between terraces on the ground and the gallery on the first floor has been closed in several spots. “Why shouldn’t we get another little terrace,” said Ms. Brkljačić self-confidently, indicating the little table and two chairs surrounded by flowers. “And anyway, it’s not quite polite to peer down on someone from up top.”

The modifications have not militated against the original intention of the architects to generate spatial conditions that contribute to vitality of residential community. Indeed, the actual configuration of the building has stimulated a sense of collectiveness and community for the residents. Ms. Krepelnik said that she had not been in downtown Krapinske Toplice for the popular Saturday morning cup of coffee since moving in almost five years earlier. Here residents socialize on the wooden decks of the ground-floor terraces, the communal gallery, and the spacious string of balconies.

Since most of the inhabitants work in hospitals in different shifts, the rhythms of going off to work and arriving home are different, and the house is never entirely deserted, for someone can be found in passing at any time of day. The architects designed a neat entryway into the flats, with a bench to sit on, thinking precisely of traditional neighborly life. Unlike anonymity and isolation in the mass afforded by the big city, the residents in Krapinske Toplice know everything about everyone.

The life of the building does not end at the edge of the lot. The entire environment, from parking area to the surrounding meadows, is used by the residents for outdoor living, and along the eastern perimeter of the building runs a trail along which deer meander from one copse to another. The children quite simply love it, and the greened terraces and maize fields are just as appealing as the geometry inherent in the concrete frameworks of the water-main manholes—it is impossible for the vocabulary of the Aldo Van Eyck playgrounds not to come to mind. Certainly, the building is privileged by being at the edge of town, but this is an idyll that might be altered in the future, and the residents are somewhat anxious about what might be built next door: another residential building, a hospital, or a hotel. Any change in the immediate environment will certainly have a significant effect on the beauty of life in the building, which at any moment seems like a heterotopian solution for a habitat, a productive response to suburban sprawl. But clearly this solution can hardly become a model, precisely because the building owes its fascination to the dialectics of compelling architecture and nature.

The building was designed and built as part of the state-subsidized residential building programme (POS – Program društveno poticajne stanogradnje) passed by the Republic of Croatia Parliament in 2001. POS was one of the first signs of positive changes after the parliamentary elections of January 2000 won by left-wing social-democratic coalition. Changes in political landscape led to socio-economic normalization of a post-socialist transitional country. The programme was designed as a linkage between the federal government, which regulated the whole programme and provided incentive funding (25% of costs of building), the investment banks that loaned money to the residents, and the municipalities that made the land for the buildings available and financed communal infrastructure. Maximal market cost of square meter was set each year by the Ministry of Public Works, Redevelopment and Construction and oscillated at 1150 eur which was considerably cheaper than comparable commercial developments boosting the real-estate bubble. A team of experts from the Faculty of Architecture in Zagreb and Ministry of Public Works, Redevelopment and Construction drew up a very precise, even rigid set, of regulations for spatial standards and apartment organisational schemes (Privremeni pravilnik za Program društveno poticajne stanogradnje). These regulations, with the noteworthy prefix “temporary” in the title, were mainly derived from socialist period and Programme of socially directed collective housing (DUSI – Društveno usmjerena stranogradnja) initiated in 1975. The regulations did not address either climatic conditions or life styles despite the fact that these vary strongly in Croatia from region to region. Lists of the candidates who were to benefit from the programme were chosen in municipalities according to the set of criteria applied to the applicant: current housing status of household, household income (priority was given to the households with lower income), number of household members, number of children, educational level (priority was given to the applicants of higher education), years of employment service of the applicant (favoured were longer employment services), status of war veterans and others. One of the prerequisites was that none of the household members own an apartment or house. Criteria were tailored to favour larger middle-class families, but it was open enough to ensure social diversity. The economic profile of a programme that demanded a steady income discarded the especially sensitive social stratum of unemployed, or part-time employed citizens. Programmatic schemes for buildings were mechanically derived from candidates’ needs depending solely on number of family members. This overtly simple mathematics resulted in unbiased apartment structure that was hard to organise in buildings that had to be as simple as possible. Yet, the Croatian Government Real Estate Agency (APN – Agencija za pravni promet nekretninama), which was carrying out the programme, did not interfere with the conceptual issues. Projects for most of the POS buildings of the initial phase of programme were results of invited or open architectural competitions that didn’t require any professional references. Exactly for that reason, the launching of the POS directed the focus of architectural debate in Croatia between 2001 and 2004 towards collective housing. Albeit, POS was envisioned for satisfying short-term social needs in municipalities, so practically all competitions, except the large housing estates Špansko-Oranice and Sopnica-Jelkovac in capital Zagreb (both with disappointing schematic layouts), were about single buildings or small clusters of two to three buildings, and didn’t address urban planning issues. Selection of sites was primarily based on availability of land. The majority of POS buildings in smaller towns, including Krapinske Toplice, were built in relative proximity to the historical centres that ensured continuity of urban tissue and reduced time needed for everyday commuting of residents. The exception is the largest housing estate Sopnica-Jelkovec in Zagreb built 12 km from city centre, on the area of a former pig-farm. While POS buildings and complexes integrated in existing urban tissue became organic parts of the cities, recent sociological and urban reports [3. Among many debates on Sopnica-Jelkovec, the most exposed one was the multidisciplinary panel discussion “How to improve social cohesion in Sopnica-Jelkovec” (Kako ojačati socijalnu koheziju u naselju Novi Jelkovec?) chaired by prof. dr. Gojko Bežovan, organised by Interuniversity post-graduate study program for City Management and held in the Aula Magna of the Rectorate of the University of Zagreb on 20th of November 2013] on Sopnica-Jelkovec show a process of ghettoization.

The building in Krapinske Toplice was one of the first buildings constructed within the POS. The Majsec-Kobaš family reviewed several options, including the building of a single-occupancy house, but concluded that kind of quality of space offered by building could not be found anywhere else at the same price. Mr. Čuljak, a veteran of the Homeland War, [4. Domovinski rat, Croatia’s war of independence (1991–95).] discovered upon coming to Krapinske Toplice, after an isolated life on a Zagreb estate, renewed élan in life and was the first to remodel his flat, after which he assisted in alterations to the others. Mr. and Mrs. Brkljačić also moved from Zagreb, tired of urban life. But still, most of the inhabitants hail from the local area and are fairly in agreement in the assessment that the building has increased their standard of living. The residents are very clear about recognizing the architectural qualities, which is a very rare occurrence.  Naturally, some complaints about the building work are inevitable, and justified.

Today, the building has numerous roofs built by the residents onto the terraces on the ground floor, and even rustic balconies have been added. Because of the austerity of the building’s appearance, its marked photogenicness, and its precisely considered spatial structure, a question arose as to whether it would be able to bear changes in configuration, which suggest a “Croatian favela”. But as it turned out, all these changes were carried out and perceived as organic adjustments of living space to the residents’ manner of life and viewed as positive modifications to a house with a welcoming focus. Design solutions that departed from the common standard—the high sitting rooms, the spacious balconies and terraces, the expanded communication galleries, and the translucent surfaces—were seen as an opportunity for reinterpretation, as places of colonization and adjustment. The residents on the whole reshaped the nonstandard architectural solutions in the form of a move back to convention, but the living qualities of the space were maintained. For example, irrespective of the glazed entryways being closed, the gallery communication did not lose its property as social space. The project was not deliberately conceived as either inclusive nor as expecting wholesale interventions, but the practice of everyday life showed that a sophisticated spatial structure is more receptive to changes than are generic solutions that are usually considered to be more adjustable.

During field research in 2008, of these twenty flats, one was empty, one was for sale. The community of residents has developed an emotional attitude to the building that is not typical in collective housing typology. At that time, they had just completed a collective action of sticking anti-slip strips on the ceramic tiles of the gallery, provisionally placed on the original minimalist floor of painted cement screed. In a rapid rhythm, the house has obtained new layers that are laid down one on top of the other—it is changing like a collective Merzbau (Merz Building). Its neat original appearance is increasingly converging on the disheveled diversity of “rururban” [5. The term is taken from Metapolis: The Dictionary of Advanced Architecture (Barcelona: Actar, 2003).] life.

The housing in Krapinske Toplice represents the first phase of the POS programme. Public competitions were a chance for young architects who were given an opportunity to realize their first built works and to make names for themselves. It was exactly the youngest generation of architects, many of them women, who managed to reconcile programmatic “calculus” and advanced architectural concepts. An emerging generation of architects tested various advanced design approaches. POS housing on the island of Cres designed by Studio Capsula: Vanja Ilić, Ivana Ergić, Vesna Milutin (2002-2004) is situated on extremely long suburban lot. Then building is organised as a dense system of terraces and individualised blocks with beautiful vistas towards the bay. The phenomenological and organisational core of the apartments is joint living- rooms and kitchens interconnected with generous exterior open spaces. Tasteful colour schems and pitched tile roofs add to the cheerful reaction to the Mediterranean context. In the continental town of Đakovo, Petar Mišković, Branimir Rajčić and Robert Jonatan Loher (2001-2003) developed compact, yet flexible apartment floor plans based on circular circulation around service cores.  The defensive and abstract grey body of the building conceals loggias and intimate top-lit atriums. The list of outstanding POS works should also include collective housings in Delnice designed by Vladimir Kasun and Ivica Plavec (2002-2004), Rovinj by Helena Paver Njirić (2001-2004), Samobor by Iva Letilović and Morana Vlahović (2002-2004) and Rab by Davor Katušić (2001-2003).

While these and several other examples were indeed a creative contribution to the housing problem, they remain singular heterotopian cases. Between 2001 and end of May 2015 altogether 5.324 flats in 169 mostly mediocre buildings were completed. [6. Source: Official web site of APN: accessed 21st of May 2015.] The first results of POS were encouraging, but what happened in following projects? In 2004 new POS regulations (Pravilnik minimalnih tehničkih uvjeta za projektiranje i gradnju stanova iz Programa društveno poticane stanogradnje) were passed. Besides a slightly lower spatial norm, the new regulations discarded public architectural competitions, which were replaced by commercial tenders for design documentation. Projects were not chosen in accordance to architectural quality, but to the lowest price of design. Furthermore, after the élan of 2001-2004, the programme started to lag since it was initially comprehended by the new administration as an initiative of previous government. Conceptual inconstancies and burdens were embedded in the POS from its very begging. The programme was not carried out as a coordinated and broad interdisciplinary action that would include systems of prefabrication or standardisation of construction materials and elements.  Instead, each construction site was carried out as individual enterprise of often-incompetent small-scale contractors and subcontractors. During the first phase of POS, committed architects struggled for the quality of the projects and their engagement actually covered up all the inadequacies of the programme. When the public competitions were discarded and design fees had been subjected to dumping, POS projects became inaccessible for the younger generation of architects and infeasible for any sort of architectural experimentation. Furthermore, advanced architectural projects were often more demanding in terms of execution and required slightly more than just basic construction techniques. Both the state bureaucracy and construction industry entrepreneurs favoured striped down, generic, “uncomplicated” solutions and got rid of adventurous architects. The architectural intelligence and professional institutions, enchanted by the early success of the programme, didn’t respond to the new conditions in a fast and critical manner so POS slipped out of their hands.

First phase of POS buildings resulted in singular heterotopias dependent on the engagement and creativity of the architects and the beauty of the bucolic suburban landscape. The following phases did secure housing for numerous families able to afford an average monthly annuity of 200 EUR, which is not only considerably lower than commercial real estate loans but also cheaper than monthly apartment rent on the poorly regulated and insecure Croatian market. [7. According to Croatian bureau of Statistics, average net earning in Croatia in April 2015 was 748 eur. accessed 21st of May 2015.] Unfortunately, discarding architectural intelligence from the process significantly influenced lowering of quality of these buildings.  A systematic approach was lacking from the very begging of the POS. To some extent, exactly this initial lack of strict bureaucratic control enabled peculiar architectural projects like Krapinske Toplice to depart from the norm. POS could have been a great research laboratory of systematic design and comprehensive planning in the field of collective housing. Instead, architectural creativity was invested in beautiful and unique architecture that remain isolated showcases of the good life. [8. This essay is updated, expanded and revised version of text that first appeared in the catalogue of the exhibition Housing models – Experimentation and Everyday Life under the title Heterotopia instead of Utopia? Exhibition, curated by Oliver Elser and Michael Rieper, took place from December 16, 2008 to February 22, 2009 in Künstlerhaus Vienna and was produced by the Künstlerhaus Vienna and MVD Austria, in cooperation with Vienna University of Technology, Department of Housing and Design. Research on Krapinske Toplice housing was carried out by Breza Paić and Maroje Mrduljaš.]

Before construction. Photo: Damir Fabijanić

Before construction. Photo: Damir Fabijanić


Photo by resident of POS Krapinske Toplice.

Photo by resident of POS Krapinske Toplice.

IMG_0161 2

Photo by resident of POS Krapinske Toplice

Photo by resident of POS Krapinske Toplice

Photo by resident of POS Krapinske Toplice

Photo by resident of POS Krapinske Toplice

Photo by resident of POS Krapinske Toplice

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