In the local context, discourse on architecture and urbanism has lacked in attempts to extend the scope of the discussion beyond research within the narrowly defined disciplines. The construction of the built environment is rarely problematized in a way that would critically approach issues such as the relation between disciplinary concepts and social realities, the use of contemporary scientific experiences aimed at a better understanding of the possibilities and goals of architecture and, finally, the exploration of the potentials of the utopian horizon of urbanism. It is precisely these issues that Matko Meštrović consistently dealt with. Without pretensions toward comprehensiveness, by interpreting two groups of texts from different time periods, one from the first half of the 1960s and one from the late 1980s, early 1990s, I will attempt to outline some of the interests and values that were of interest to Matko Meštrović. These interests are related to the field of architecture and urbanism, but also relate to Meštrović’s overall position.
In the 1950s, Croatia saw a rise of discussions on synthesizing the plastic arts. During the 1960s Meštrović‘s work would build on this discussion, but for a better understanding of his position, it is useful to introduce earlier attempts to redefine the concept. For instance, architect Vladimir Turina, both in theory and in practice, takes issue with the extended field of the synthesis that polemically comprises the domains of technology, economics and social reality. Turina emphasizes that in today’s social circumstances, a comprehensive realization of the progressive programmatic tendencies of modern architecture would not be possible. Rather, he claims, they would remain “permanent precedents”, exceptions that confirm the rule of the beaurocratically end technocratically managed development of the built environment, often with dystopian results. Similarly, in the 1960s, Vjenceslav Richter claimed that the question of architectural expression is not crucial for the discussion of the development of architecture in Yugoslavia because the modern aesthetics had already been accepted. He recognizes the progressive tasks of architecture in a “more complex and open social vision“, in the active participation of architects in the formation of the tasks and goals of the development of cities in which they should take the role of “equal social partners with direct social responsibility.”
Matko Meštrović gives these positions a clearer theoretical basis, advocating for an even more radical and wider platform for the redefinition of the social role of architecture and urbanism. “Prescient insights in architecture appear only as exceptions, and it is paradoxical that such insights predict the elimination of such exceptions. They anticipate the abolition of exceptionality and of architecture itself as a special human activity, envisaging its complete integration into equivalent systems of complex production activities on a technological and thought level of a higher organizational order.”
In the practice surrounding him, Meštrović sees the accomplishment of such a program in industrially created architecture and the YU-61 system of Bogdan Budimirov, Željko Solar and Dragutin Stilinović, which was carried out in the form of the “silver cities” in the Zagreb neighborhoods of Savski Gaj, Zapruđe and Borongaj, and in other cities across Yugoslavia. To Meštrović, YU-61 was important due to its integrative approach, which takes the economy, production technology, transport construction and methodology as its design parameters, with a minimum number of prefabricated elements used for the variability of the configuration of buildings. Such a systematic approach is close to Meštrović’s interests, not just in terms of aesthetic affinities, but also in terms of abolishing disciplinary boundaries and integrating architecture and urbanism into a planned, rational, long-term and comprehensive projection of social development. It is precisely the YU-61 system that proved “…the possibility of transforming an artistic act into a social act, and a social act into an artistic act, i.e. the possibility of abolishing art as a separate social phenomenon “, as Meštrović wrote in the originally untitled text The Ideology of New Tendencies from 1963.
Seemingly on the opposite pole of YU-61, there was a radical urbanist vision that emerged in Croatia and Yugoslavia, the Sinturbanism project, later renamed Heliopolis, by Vjenceslav Richter, which Meštrović commented on is several texts. “… It was clear to Richter that synthesis can only be discussed as a higher form of unity, in which the basic characteristics of the previously independent elements change significantly. The conceptual program of the artistic activity he supported envisaged an extensive intervention into all parts of our environment.” The concept of sinturbanism, which Richter defended as a historical necessity because the models inherited from capitalist systems cannot meet the needs of the self-governing socialist society, was based on totally abandoning the conventional city and replacing it with a mobile megastructure that is home to and integrates all needs of the individual and the collective. Meštrović will confirm his unreserved modernist faith in the plan represented by Sinturbanism with his thesis that “the aesthetic and all other criteria will find their replacement in the significant and basic laws, in the stabilized constructive and production foundations… By their logic alone, they will not allow any arbitrariness.” This idealist and modernist position clashes with the fragmented urban reality and antagonisms, which are inevitably involved in the development process of cities. However, Meštrović calls on the discipline of urbanism to take on an active progressive role, believing that the city needs to be revolutionized by systems based on scientific knowledge and coordinated collective action, which was also advocated by other international neo-avant-garde movements such as the Japanese Metabolism. However, the urbanist practice of the time was completely different: “The approach to the development of cities is schematic and apriorist on the one hand, and on the other it adjusts to situations, accepting them with their non-intervention, uncritical attitude and conformism.“
Almost 30 years later, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Meštrović considers urbanism in essays that were later collected in the collection of works Goods and Freedom, when international architecture was facing yet another crisis, while in Croatia urbanism was heading towards collapse. At the time, Meštrović was completely dedicated to an interdisciplinary approach and his primary field of interest was no longer the visual arts. In his essay The Historic City, Meštrović introduced Manfred Tafuri, which means he reconsidered his own positions considering Tafuri’s well-known demand to expose the modernist myth of the “faith in the project“. According to Tafuri, the failure of the modernist movement lies in the fact that it attempted to resolve social issues that lie outside of the narrow domain of the discipline, without having revolutionized its own resources, remaining trapped within the framework of old economic and political relations and the production of the built environment. This diagnosis was somewhat close to Meštrović’s request to extend architecture and urbanism to the level of self-abolition, but Meštrović could no longer seek answers in the then local architectural theory or practice. Also, Meštrović was interested in new issues imposed in the era of “mondialization”, focusing his attention to social and spatial structures, new space-time relations brought about by computerization and new technologies, and their impact on the physiognomy and behavior of capital. The conditions of the production and reproduction of the city, and not its physical form, are now in the centre of Meštrović’s consideration. Meštrović establishes original lines of an analysis that follows the trajectory of the tradition of modernist emancipatory projects, from the utopia of William Morris, the interdisciplinary understanding of environment design of Thomas Maldonad, to contemporary research, which particularly relies on the analysis of urban reality of Manuel Castells. Meštrović deliberates contemporary issues of urbanism through the concepts of the “global city”, the “networked society”, and the “space of flows”, asking the fundamental question “What about it is universal, important for the affirmation of human values, and what about it is uniforming, crippling and reducing?“. In this period, Meštrović no longer has peers or concrete projects to establish a productive dialogue with.
Within the span from the resolute concept of abolishing the autonomy of architecture in the 1960s to activating a diverse source of progressive thought from the 1980s to today, Matko Meštrović is an uncompromising critic of mediocrity, irrationality and particularism, and is moving constantly from the “particular to the general”. Meštrović optimistically demanded a comprehensive acceptance and application of progressive ideas and tendencies that were accomplished only marginally or where merely envisaged as a possibility. This emancipatory, even utopian horizon is, at least from my perspective, utterly convincing precisely because of his deep empathy for reality, expressed by both his work and his personality. “Any cultural activity is successful in its emancipatory mission to the extent it does not separate the culture from the significance and understanding of the meaning of everyday life.”