The Industrial Heritage of Rijeka, Croatia

By Melita Juresa-McDonald posted 10-08-2013 14:12

I have had the good fortune to live most of my life by the sea. I was born in and spent my high school years living in the city of Rijeka, Croatia, one of the major European ports. Today I live in Oakland, the fifth largest port in the U.S.

 Rijeka, Croatia | Credit: Melita Jureša-McDonald
Although Rijeka is small city by American standards, it played a vital role in the history of Europe, and today, sites associated with the shipping industry are an integral part of the city’s cultural and architectural heritage. The port occupies practically the whole of the city’s waterfront, and not surprisingly, many of the city’s preservation battles center around the industrial sites now located on prime real estate near the harbor.

Like other cities in countries making the transition from communism to capitalism, Rijeka has seen many of its industries collapse during the last two decades. The aggressive pursuit of development that follows an influx of foreign capital into a country poses a threat to the preservation of the traditional fabric of many cities. However, instead of charging ahead with the demolition of its historic industrial building stock, awareness of Rijeka’s industrial heritage is very strong among historic preservationists and even the general public. And despite the fact that the majority of Rijeka’s preservation and reuse projects are primarily funded from the limited coffers of the state or local government, several groups are working hard to ensure the preservation of Rijeka’s vital industrial heritage resources.

Preservationists in Action in Rijeka

At the helm of Rijeka’s industrial heritage preservation effort since the early 1990s is Pro-Torpedo, a nonprofit association that started as “Odbor za Obnovu muzejske zbirke torpeda” (Committee for the Renovation of the Torpedo Museum Collection). The group formed in order to preserve the Torpedo Launching Ramp (1933/35) and other remaining buildings of the former Rijeka Torpedo Factory, which closed in 1994. In addition to advocating for the preservation of the historic torpedo factory—where the world’s first torpedo was invented—the group has continued to research and promote Rijeka’s entire industrial heritage, and was the initiator of a biannual international conference on the preservation of industrial heritage. The first conference was held in 2003.

The City of Rijeka and the Association of Architects of Rijeka have also sponsored a series of four international architectural workshops, “Krpanje Grada” (PATCHing the City), where international students of architecture and affiliated fields spent the summers of 2008 through 2011 intensively researching problems and proposing solutions for the revitalization of Rijeka’s industrial zones.

The “Rikard Benčić” Complex and the Paper Mill

Several reuse projects involving industrial sites are worth highlighting. Since 2000, the Rikard Benčić complex, a former sugar factory constructed in 1750 and later the largest Austro-Hungarian tobacco factory, has been at the center of a lengthy struggle between historic preservation experts and local authorities over the future of the site, situated in what is now the center of the city. Early reuse plans resulted in demolition of several structures on the site, and subsequently the complex was added to the Croatian Register of Cultural Properties. The current plan is to bring the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art and the Rijeka Central Library into four buildings of the complex.

Another reuse project involves a vacant paper mill factory located along the river Rječina. The City of Rijeka bought several buildings in upper part of the complex, known as Marganovo, and several of the machines and buildings were preserved in situ.  As with the Rikard Benčić complex, numerous ideas for the adequate use of the paper mill started to float around. Surprisingly, considering the mill’s very desirable location, no one ever suggested the demolition of any of the complex’s buildings. As of 2005, the Hartera Music Festival is hosted annually in the Marganovo buildings. Also, for the first time in the history of the site, the whole area is open to the public. “Hrvatske Vode” (the Croatian Water Utility) is currently in the midst of the rehabilitation and restoration of the Rječina ravine and its river bed in order to improve water quality. The City of Rijeka has joined Hrvatske Vode to try to reconnect the city and its citizens to “their” river by building walkways, “Riječke šetnice,” along the river. As of September 1, “Savez udruga Molekula,” a network of organizations that work to strengthen the independent cultural sector in Rijeka, was awarded a five-year lease to several locations in the city, including Marganovo.

The Port of Rijeka

 Port of Rijeka | Credit: Ivica  Jureša
Conflicts have also arisen over historic warehouses near the harbor. When the Rijeka Port Authority sought demolition permits for the two historic warehouses in an effort to modernize its facilities, the Rijeka Conservation Department of the Croatian Directorate for the Protection of Cultural Heritage put these two warehouses under preventive protection, along with an additional six (of 40 that once were stood in the port), and a political tug of war ensued. The Croatian Minister of Culture, under the pressure, removed all but two from the Register of Cultural Property under Preventive Protection. Reaction against their removal from the register was immense—numerous articles were published in the local and foreign press about the value and importance of the maritime heritage associated with the warehouses, and public lectures and discussions were held. Even the representatives of the Hungarian National Office of Cultural Heritage - Kulturális Örökségvédelmi Hivatal (KÖH)—and its Division for Hungarian Heritage Abroad came to the City to Rijeka to urge the protection of the warehouses. In 2005 the six excluded historic warehouses were added to the Croatian Register of Cultural Properties, ensuring their permanent protection.

Also of interest, in July 2005, the Croatian Minister of Culture and his Hungarian counterpart signed the “Program of Cultural Cooperation between Croatia and Hungary for the year 2006, 2007, 2008.” Among other things, Article 20 of the Program specifically addresses joint efforts in the protection and rehabilitation of Rijeka’s historic port buildings.

Rijeka’s preservation story is best told through photos. As such I would like to invite you to travel with me to Rijeka in order to explore some of the aspects of its many-layered history and the struggles faced by preservationists in my home country.

P.S.  Most people know that the first ship that came to the rescue of the Titanic was the Carpathia, but did you know its original route? The Carpathia, as one of the Liverpool-based Cunard Line ships, sailed twice a month from Rijeka to New York and back. She was on her way back from New York when she received the Titanic’s distress signal. Check out this virtual exhibit dedicated to the Carpathia, hosted by the Maritime and History Museum of the Croatian Littoral Rijeka, where you can see many historical photos of the ship itself and the port of Rijeka.

Note: To read more about the preservation of historic sites in other countries, look for the fall issue of the Forum Journal, which will be in your mailbox the week of October 14.

Melita Jureša-McDonald manages the Forum Reference Desk from San Francisco. She is the first point of entry for preservation leaders across the country seeking information about preservation issues, advanced content, and resources and assistance available from the National Trust. A native of Rab, Croatia, she is been with the Trust since 2001.

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