Split, Croatia: To Conform or Not to Conform, a Look at the Modern and Historical Architecture of a City
by Sarah Huddas, Student ASLA

Nestled in the Mediterranean terrain of the country’s mountains near the Bosnian border sits Split, Croatia. Located on the western coast of the Adriatic Sea, this city exudes its historical identity as travelers make their way through the wandering, white streets of this ancient metropolis. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1979, Split is a special place in the eyes of its inhabitants and the world.

Image courtesy Sarah Huddas

The history of Split began with the a Greek settlement named Aspálathos founded in the 6th century BC. The town relied heavily on trade, hence its close proximity to the sea. Then the Romans invaded and became the leading force within the area, claimed Aspálathos, and re-named it Spalatum (modern day Split). A man named Diocletian from Dalmatia, a current day region of Croatia, became the Roman emperor from the years 284 to 305 AD. Upon his retirement he had a palace built on the Adriatic Sea, which came to be known as Diocletian’s Palace. The layout of the design is a very detailed one. The palace itself is surrounded by walls on all sides, and they were laid out in a grid fashion. Along with the wall were 16 lookout towers spaced evenly around the palace. On the south wall facing the Adriatic Sea were a series of arcades which framed the porch of the palace, and views of this from the water or land give the impression of power and wealth. It also offered the opportunity for the people within the palace, specifically Diocletian and other members of the Roman army and family, to enjoy views of the water from their home. Other important factors in the design of the palace were the streets, baths, and mosaic courtyards, as well as the street system. The streets averaged about 30 feet wide and were lined with a procession of columns. The bathing area within the palace walls was one large bath, in its entirety.

Located in the Dalmatia country of Croatia, Split has experienced a new ‘façade’ in the past few years. The architecture firm responsible for the design, 3LHD of Zagreb, Croatia won a first place award for the project. The waterfront of the city, known as the Riva, was re-created as a modern day public space, respecting the historical buildings which surround the space, while adding a new contemporary flair. Ground was broken on January 2005 and was completed July of 2007. The new design evolved from the original structural layout of the Roman forum, within Diocletian’s Palace, and was built in 2005 by 3LHD. When observing the overall design, it appears to be a project based upon grids in space, emphasizing the simplicity and beauty of this shape, while incorporating the historical design that was laid out in a square fashion. When experiencing the space it can be analyzed in 3 layers. The first focuses on promoting the café culture and social life. It includes spans of filtered fabric, taut above the café areas, attached to towering white posts that also have a dual purpose as lights. This gives relief from the sun, while still allowing a breeze to filter through. The lights, when seen from the water or the city itself, have a very strong rhythm, reflective of the arcade and porch from the time when the palace was originally created. The plaza was constructed in white, polished marble, to match that of the ancient city. Two greenbelts of tropical trees and vegetation sit mirroring each other, with a grand open piazza framed by the height of the vegetation.

Image courtesy Sarah Huddas

Directly next to this space is a smaller path also framed by different trees and vegetation. Because of the height of the trees, and the breadth of space left open for the public, the sense of enclosure is on a grand scale. This project scale may have been chosen to mimic the importance and monumental scale of the old palace. The creation of the Riva is the model for new development of the city in years to come.

The project was aimed at creating a space for all to enjoy, including different concerts, festivals, religious celebrations, and other social events, while trying to capture the essence of the Croatian character. Both the historical and modern layouts of the city provide important values to the community. The historical structures and buildings that were part of Split’s very rudimentary beginnings are a reminder of the evolution of history in the area.

The new design takes some of the important design aspects of the historical layout and puts a modern twist on them, creating an up-to-date public use space on the south waterfront of the city, the Riva. During the design process, and throughout construction, there were many public concerns about the new design. Most citizens of the community were concerned that the new plan would ruin the aesthetic value of the city’s old buildings that were located directly behind the project. Despite these voiced concerns, the project was given the okay to build and ground was broken on January 2005. The project was completed in July of 2007.

Image courtesy Sarah Huddas

Some negative opinions that were talked about post-design included the idea that the area felt like a huge, unused airport with no cultural identity. The new design had taken all of the depth and vibrancy out of what Mediterranean cities are like and made it a sterile, overpowering plaza. The use of white materials to mimic that of the old city was a good conceptual idea; however, some citizens argue that it is already looking dirty, and maintenance will not be cost effective. On the other hand, arguments for the design include commendation for installing a vast number of benches along the Riva Boulevard shore. Some benches have been situated under trees for shade relief on hot summer days; others are in the sun. The seating areas have proven to be a big hit. LED lighting was used for the promenade’s metrical lighting fixtures. The size of the concrete blocks of the ground plane were measured to be the same size used in the design of the palace some 1,700 years ago. Social politics aside, the Riva has become a popular destination for locals and tourists alike to sit and enjoy the spectacular views of the Adriatic Sea. Its new opulence and grandeur are a fresh perspective on an old idea.

Sarah Hudda, Student ASLA, is a landscape architecture student at Michigan State University. She can be reached at huddassa@msu.edu. 

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