I met Davor Mateković in Munich, at the biennial BAU Trade Fair. That was the time after Croatian architectural sky had been lit, as if it had been the Star of Bethlehem, by a small house, a house that just could not have left anyone in Croatia indifferent, his straw house.
Our Munich encounter remained etched on my memory because I struggled at first to link in my mind that miraculous, fairy-tale-like house (and its implications) with the serious and somewhat stern physiognomy of a young man I’d just met. But a few sentences into our conversation I was already charmed by his simplicity, unaffectedness and openness that are as irresistible as his straw house.
Where I come from, houses are made of stone, but life in them was once inconceivable without straw.
In the early summer the beds were filled with fresh, fragrant, golden barley. And that was just a bit of all the straw that was bundled into sheaves in the corners of every family’s mandrać1 on the island of Murter.
On islands, where stone had since forever been the dominant building material, straw represented an opposite substance: the coldness and hardness stood in contrast with the rustling softness and warmth. Whenever I think of Davor’s house, it takes me back to my childhood, to nights when I felt the warmth of the straw and heard it whisper.
What is its purpose? Where is it located? What is it made of? These are the eternal questions architecture poses and Davor has answered them all with straw.
Prompted by the acquaintance with Davor, I wanted to get to know him and his past work better.
I was struck by the intensity and the wideness of his productivity and realised that I was getting to know a seemingly unkempt but still tightly bound bouquet of architectural realizations that must be looked at as a distinctive opus. What makes his opus so special already now is its density and heterogeneity, and the individual works are bound together into a distinguishing whole only by the fact that they bear the same author’s signature. Nevertheless, this opus has yet another characteristic, and that is its pyramidal hierarchy. In the base of this pyramid are varied and widely-covered architectural topics that confirm the old French proverb, according to which anyone who embraces too much, has a weak grasp. However, as the pyramid goes up, that grasp becomes tighter and the contents clearer. Each new level in the cross section of Davor’s pyramidal career is marked by an even more powerful and distinctive identity of the author. On this path of growth and maturation, Davor has reached the heights that already provide him with an honourable place on Mount Olympus of Croatian architecture. Such a high position, at least when it comes to the cultural national discourse (which I find most exciting), has been earned by virtue of a strong architectural three(of a)Kind he pulled out of three regional cultural identities that are marked by three material substances: straw, stone and concrete. These are, of course, Davor’s paradigmatic vacation house projects in Kumrovec, Lukovo Šugarje and Vis, which undoubtedly belong to anthological accomplishments of Croatian architecture. However, Mateković has not played his trump card yet – some real architectural surprises still lay in store, I’m sure.
Though all the attempts to describe architecture are in vain, there is one element that is invariable: its definitions come in triads, such as, for instance utilitas, firmitas, venustas; or function, shape, structure and similar.
My modest contribution to that inescapable trinity would be: continuity, communication, context, or shortly Three C(k). Believing that all the good architecture can be reduced to Three C(k)s, I couldn’t resist the temptation to sift Mateković through that triple sieve.
And the following passages shall show that Davor Mateković is, owing to his architectural opus, an eminent protagonist of Three C(k)s.
Let’s do it one by one. First, continuity. With his recent architectural production, Davor Mateković, in a distinguishing and convincing manner, corroborates the continuity of Croatian national culture at a time when it is again exposed to traumatic discontinuity. And for Croatian architecture continuity means the preservation of national cultural resistance and safeguarding its identity. Mateković’s architecture is significant precisely due to the fact that it has been developing at a time of general relativity, lack of ideals, faith and self-confidence. In that sense it can be considered an engaged author’s position, though, at least I feel it that way, it is more a sort of a spontaneous reaction to the general global osmosis.
Achieving continuity in architecture means being yourself, not forgetting your name, feeling your space, remembering your stories and earning the right to tell these stories freely. Those who are afraid of remaining trapped and stuck in continuity do not realize that continuity does not mean to follow but to lead, not looking back at your own traces.
When you are at sea, shrouded by fog, and the sea is dead calm, when there is no wave to help you find direction and your boat has no compass – how do you keep on sailing? How do you keep on going where you’ve headed?
Old sailors used to tie a rope on the stern and drop the other end into the sea and then kept on sailing, paying attention that the rope always remains straight. That way they were able to stay on their route and successfully arrive at their destination. The thread that connects one to the source is a projection of the direction and continuity of the path one treads.
Continuity is perseverance as you tread your own path.
An architect is a bricklayer who, in addition to building, also wants to say something with what he is building.
If there is nothing to be said or no message to be conveyed, he remains a mere bricklayer. Architecture could not carry the cultural continuity of a community if it weren’t a communication medium. Architecture derives its communication power from its narrative character that sublimates complex semantic meanings. The communicational paradox of architecture as an art form is contained in the question: what does architecture describe? If art is a particular view of the real world, an artistic interpretation of a butterfly and a flower, be it figurative or abstract, which reality does architecture artistically reproduce? After the primordial cave shelter, what is that what architecture ‘paints’?
There is only one possible answer.
Architecture is the only art that describes itself.
Its narrative character describes its own abstract heritage, which eventually becomes an idiom of architectural ‘figuration’. This way we face the inversion phenomenon, according to which abstraction in architecture is not extracted from the reified prototype. Architecture is abstract in itself, and, in time, this abstraction emanates into a semiotic and communication narrative.
With his architecture, Mateković demonstrates the communication power of architecture, equilibrating from abstract to ‘figurative’. Assuredly mastering various languages of architecture, Mateković has become a communication virtuoso. He is an architect – mecofrant, and his architecture is – polyglot.
This architecture communicates widely and deeply. It is far from that unblushing arrogance that tries to sell the autistic handicap as the author’s personality and to justify it as avant-garde, thus terrorizing space with architecture that does not take care of anyone or anything.
(And the greatest accomplishment of all is to look back, be considerate, and say: peace be with you!)
Mateković’s architecture clearly communicates both as a thought and as an image. He does this intelligibly both when he speaks his original language and when he translates from other languages. However, in terms of language, Mateković’s opus can be seen as dichotomous. His restrained three(of a)K(ind), from picturesque regions of Croatia, the one whose semantics is derived from the native culture (be it architectural or landscape), is read with different optics than metropolitan urban themes, whose vocabulary sometimes too obtrusively flirts with the trendy scenography of world-renowned stages.
But, what would you know!
Mateković takes that global syntax and translates it, assimilating it to local Croatian environment so that we see it as our own. That skill of his to assimilate the context, culture and architecture is indeed marvellous. The way he implements this results from his authorial procedure, which is completely opposite to those practices that just literally unload into our space the alluvium of architectural flea markets from all around the world.
One of architecture’s attributes is that it belongs to a place, a certain context. If it does not arise from a context, then, in my opinion, that is not architecture.
Topos is not a mere physical fact, a place has a soul as well. It is that invisible historical and cultural substrate on which a varied, always different and new architecture blossoms. (Precisely because of this is the life with architecture full of various surprises and new excitements.) To accomplish this, an architect has to figure out the chosen site, he has to know how to read it.
Davor Mateković is an authoritative forensic expert in topos, who responds both discursively and intuitively to challenges of a site. And that is an ability only few have.
(Precisely due to the fact that this is a rare gift, and that architectural stories are getting ever more complex and demanding, it is understandable that authors gather into duets, trios, quarters, and even into real architectural ‘bands’.)
From this analysis it follows that Mateković stands firmly on the architectural tripod (three-pod) I’ve put forth.
His mature opus proves that it is possible to create architecture within the boundaries of national culture, while remaining uncompromisingly modern and open to the whole world. That is why Davor Mateković will be remembered in the history of Croatian architecture as the author who has spectacularly croatianized contemporary architecture.
Following the epigonic Modern and Postmodern Era, and the recent disintegration of trendy design cacophony, the step forward Davor Mateković has taken means that Croatia has brought to the European space an authentic authorial architecture that reflects the national culture. This has not been anyhow connected with any Croatian architectural school (regardless of whether the term is written in capital and lowercase letters, with or without quotation marks), for schools have remained trapped in academic dictates of the imperative ‘modernity’, thus creating, following the reflections they caught from the other side, value and educational clichés.
The advocating of the thesis that there is no national architecture has resulted in the persistent marginalization of own culture and own space. Even Mateković, in one of his interviews, puts the strong and individualized personality of the author above the architectural identity of the community.
Well, if there is no national architecture, then how should we call architecture that, as a distinctive medium, unquestionably promotes the culture of the space of a certain community? Perhaps, due to the lack of an answer to this question, real Croatian architecture had to be born ‘by accident’, wrapped in the biblical straw, on sterile and meticulously lined up tables of Mateković’s Zagreb office in Knez Mislav Street 15, in which the keen market competition collaterally lead to Croatian national architectural liberation.
IN ZADAR, FEBRUARY 2018.