The purpose of my visit to Pula in late summer was to see the recently finished office building of the Lumenart lighting company. The company’s owner, designer Dean Skira, curious to know what I would think of the building, instructed me over the phone how to find it and announced that a surprise was waiting for me. I wasn’t thrilled to hear about the surprise since I rarely find wild designer excesses convincing, while restrained architectural solutions thrill me always and again. I made my way along a narrow, winding road, between multi-storey buildings of pastel colours, with massive white balustrades; clearly showing that the ideas of the pioneers of postmodernism have not been understood correctly in the area. After the last left bend – wow! – I was looking at a really uncommon white building, belonging more to El Croquis or a 2G publication, while certainly not between historicistic villas in the outskirts of Pula. That was a relief – I escaped having to explain from which aspect I found the building especially interesting.
The building’s core is a common brick and concrete construction characteristic of low-tech industrial halls. The simple cube, however, is clothed on both sides, on the inside and the outside, and so something that any skilful constructor could construct has evolved into a totally contemporary, distinctly postmodern architecture (surely agreeable to the pioneers of postmodernism as well). The exterior of the building reflects neither the logic of construction nor the concept of the interior space – form does not follow function – and nor, most certainly, has this project been built on the “less is more” principle – if I restrain myself to merely three tenets of modernism. The simple brick cube represents indeed just a skeleton for the interior and exterior coverings, treated as autonomous elements and as consequence designed in that manner: the author of the pressed glass panelling of the exterior of the building is Andrija Rusan, while the epoxy floor coating and plaster cardboard plates of the interior architecture are the design of Dean Skira. Both of them followed, each in his own way, their own ideas, the image of the building they had recognized as the right one; more than the logic of the programme or construction. Both of them are gifted by a specific aesthetic sensibility which can be traced in similar design interventions inside and outside the building, which certainly led to their collaboration.
The building’s image was probably conceived on a ferry in the middle of the Adriatic, on the way from the island of Hvar to Split. Skira was contemplating his new office building aloud, while Rusan listened and sketched a little, just for himself. When Skira saw the sketched image, he immediately recognized it as the right one. The fact that no one had ever built anything so audacious before in that area, didn’t disturb them. Rusan pictured the building as a large crystal of irregular form, still needing to be turned into geometric figures in order to be constructed. Thanks to the new envelope, what is basically a low-tech construction has been turned into high-tech architecture. Solving the ambiguity of completion of such complex construction supported by comparatively low funds and the use of the simple technology locally available at present didn’t trouble them either.
The starting idea was to envelop the building in Corten steel – in red earth colour; but in the end they decided to make it completely white. Intensely white to the same extent is the primary colour of the interior. The probability is we shall come closer to the real reason for the choice of colour not by associating it with another modernist premise but recognizing instead that the architect and the designer simply saw white as the colour of the right effect. One of the positive effects of the white interior is that it serves well as a background for the lighting devices in the display area and the salesroom of the building. It makes different colours, shapes and materials stand out into the foreground. The white surface also works well for the lighting effects demonstrations on the first floor, designed for lectures and illumination presentations. Here, the white walls serve as a large projection screen. The laboratory whiteness in this building makes you feel you have entered a space used for scientific research, which would in this case be the lighting. Considering how seriously the designers and engineers of this company take the task of working with illumination, dressing them in white coats and giving them white gloves to wear would quite fit the picture. A showroom used for presentations of lighting devices is in the basement, a studio for designing the illumination is on the ground floor, while a lecture hall for studying the lighting effects is on the first floor. Owing to its pure whiteness, the interior indeed resembles a laboratory for the complex programme of nurturing the culture of illumination.
A positive effect of the whiteness is also shown when viewing the building from the outside, from afar. Seen from the coast, it resembles a large, white crystal which catches the eye immediately, being surrounded by colourful pastel architecture; at the same time, it resembles southern Mediterranean architecture or a gigantic light (wrapped in a semi-transparent white fabric) as a Nordic designer would have designed it. Such a double standard (as well as the duality of associations) surely also contributes to the building’s extravagance. It stands out from its surroundings – at day due to its form and completely white surface and at night because of the multicolour lights projected onto it – it really represents a recognizable object in space, a landmark. What was still recently just one part of Pula has now been turned into a very special area.
The nearby buildings, together with the ex-army barracks by the sea and many other parts of the city have stayed the same for years and thus make you wonder how the architect Rusan and designer Skira managed to realize the project. Most would restrain from taking up such an ambitious project; everybody would claim in advance projects like that wouldn’t pass here, Pula is a place where it is impossible to do anything, technology is underdeveloped in this country, the lack of money is another problem, people wouldn’t like it, the legislation is over restrictive, it would be impossible to get the construction permit issued. As persistently as the majority repeats that mantra of impossibility, Rusan and Skira nourish another principle, characteristic of both of them and which made Bob Kennedy famous: “So you’re saying it’s impossible to do? We’ll do it then.” Or as both of them usually reply to long explanations about how things are impossible to do, too complicated, unfeasible: “Not to worry, it can be done.” Still recently Pula looked like a place lost in time, inevitably to stay the same forever. However, this house of light proves the problem is neither the place, nor the (impossible) conditions, but is of subjective nature. Luckily, we have Rusans and Skiras who prove the present state isn’t the last horizon of possibility, even today.
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