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Monday, November 03, 2008

Book Review: Project Zagreb

Project Zagreb: Transition as Conditions, Strategy, Practice by Eve Blau and Ivan Rupnik
Actar, 2007

What began as a two-semester seminar at the Graduate School of Design at Harvard University is documented in this book, a work of collaboration between the authors, scholars, architects, and urban historians in Zagreb and Harvard GSD. It could be described as an alternative history of the urban fabric and architectural constructions of the Croatian city over the last 150 years. Instead of analyzing and presenting the history in a linear fashion, case studies are used to focus on specific areas of the city. Much of the case studies are architectural interventions, stressing the way buildings have influenced the urban plan of Zagreb over the years, where planning didn't dictate building so much as the opposite condition prevailed. The authors use Umberto Eco's concept of the "open plan," in which smaller interventions fit into a larger plan, influencing and altering the plan as they are implemented. So the relationship between architecture and planning is interdependent, as it is in many cities around the world, though the clarity and thoroughness of presentation makes this situation abundantly clear.

The value of this book lies in the visual presentation of the city, rather than the verbalized conclusions drawn from the analysis of the various case studies, from the Green Horseshoe to the city's post-2000 urban plan. A mix of period photographs, aerials and plans are accompanied by three-color diagrams that aid in explaining the analysis and illustrating the growth of the city over the study's timeframe. The consistency of the visual presentation and the accompanying text (interspersed with contributions from professionals and academics from Zagreb) belies the fact the book came from multiple student and other voices. It's a cohesive production that gives the reader a strong sense of place, for most who have not experienced Zagreb, like me, in person.

If the means of analysis, the case studies that provide valuable insight into the city's evolution, can be applied to other cities is not the point of the project, as the case studies are a specific response to the conditions of the place, of the city's open plan. Regardless, the outcome of the seminar and the involvement of Zagreb and Harvard offers lessons for pursuing similar goals. In this case the focus is on a place marked by an almost constant state of transition, most recently in terms of the country's anticipated membership in the European Union. Zagreb is certainly not alone in a lack of equilibrium, and the analysis of how change in certain areas can help explain changes in the city at large is a helpful method that can certainly find application elsewhere.

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