One wouldn‘t guess that behind the traditional 19th-century façade of Zagreb’s Old City Hall sit some of the most innovative interiors of the 1970s. Born in Osijek in 1929, Croatian architect Andrija Mutnjaković was educated at the Faculty of Architecture, University of Zagreb, where he studied under the leadership of modernist pioneer Drago Ibler. Highly experimental in his approach, only a few of Mutnjaković‘s ambitious architectural projects have been realized. The National and University Library of Kosovo in Pristina, built between 1971 and 1982, is perhaps his most famous and the only one to receive international recognition. Influenced by Byzantine and Ottoman design, the library is a monumental structure of 99 differently sized domes that together form a biomorphic surface. The building is covered with a geometric metal lattice that provides shade to those within and serves as a decorative element that is rooted in local tradition yet feels decidedly futuristic.
Muntjaković similarly blends the historic and the contemporary in his interiors for Zagreb’s Old City Hall. Located in Gradec, a medieval district that sits above the old town, the Old City Hall complex is made up of three interconnected buildings that range in date from the 15th to the 19th centuries. From 1968 to 1975, Muntjaković undertook the restoration and renovation of the existing interiors and added three new auditoriums, each imagined for a specific city government agency and conceived in a different style but united in their refined craftsmanship, meticulous attention to detail, and remarkable sculptural form.
For the health department, Mutnjaković covered the auditorium walls and built-in furniture with round ceramic tiles set in intricately carved wood to echo the pharmacy in Dubrovnik’s 14th-century Franciscan monastery. Swells of round wooden stalactites create a rhythmical relief across the walls of the economy department meeting room. And olive leather panels pad both the walls and furniture of the culture department auditorium. All three rooms have dramatic ceilings constructed from computer-generated polyester-fiber modules—dynamic, curving silhouettes that seem to anticipate the undulating forms of contemporary architects such as Zaha Hadid and Greg Lynn.
The Old City Hall was the first architecture project in former Yugoslavia to harness computer design, the result of the pioneering parametric and computational methods Mutnjaković developed over his career. Mutnjaković would make his own sketches of simple geometric shapes before setting parameters (radius, distance, addition) to establish a universal system for each design. For example, the circular ceramic tiles‘ coiling graphic derives from a simple algorithm that distributes a certain number of ellipses between two curves—in this instance, between a circle and a spiral. Mutnjaković also used algorithms to map the leather paneling, the rolling ceilings, and the wave motif that runs through the wooden wall reliefs. Mutnjaković collaborated with the University’s Faculty of Electrical Engineering to program and create his final patterns on IBM computers.
A member of the Croatian Academy of Sciences and Arts now aged 93, Mutnjaković lives in Zagreb and continues to work on his radical computational designs. “We drive in a machine-car, we sail in a machine-ship, we dive in a machine-submarine, we fly in a machine-plane, we live in a machine-house. And that is all. Life will not become inhumane.”
Adam Štěch is a Prague-based curator and editor.
Photography by Adam Štěch