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Mihajlo Mitrović's singular Art-Nouveau inspired modernism in Vrnjačka Banja

Updated: Apr 12, 2020

In the small spa resort town of Vrnjačka Banja, Serbia, famous architect Mihajlo Mitrović spent nearly 20 years creating a series of art-nouveau inspired spring houses that are unique treasures of Yugoslav-era postmodern architecture.

A view of the Topla Voda spring house, right in the center of the promenade area [source: personal photo]

The phenomenon about how modernist architecture was uniquely manifested during the Yugoslav-era is a topic that has received much discussion in recent years. Among these discussed examples of architects in Yugoslavia exploring innovative and novel approaches include the neolithic-like monuments of Bogdan Bogdanović, the elegant and colorful geometric creations of Ivan Vitić, the gravity-defying works of Vjenceslav Richter, among others. In league with these titans of Yugoslav architecture was a Serbian architect named Mihajlo Mitrović. Born in Čačak in 1922, Mitrović is most often remembered for his ambitious double-skyscraper work in New Belgrade called the Geneks Tower (also referred to the Western Gate). However, yesterday I went to visit a much lesser discussed series of phenomenal works by Mitrović in the mineral spring resort town of Vrnjačka Banja, Serbia which he created over the course of several decades. These creations stand as a distinct celebration of the synthesis of architectural modernism and traditional art-nouveau design, a singular combination which few other examples exist of in the world, especially in this concentration. Let’s take a look at what I found in Vrnjačka Banja.

A historical postcard showing some of the original spring houses and pavilions around Vrnjačka Banja

The town of Vrnjačka Banja has been a destination for its healing mineral waters for centuries, going all the way back to the Roman era. During the the late 1890s through the 1920s, the springs underwent development for the purposes of health tourism, especially for the region’s royal and princely families. As a consequence of Vrnjačka Banja developing during this time period, one style of architecture that can be found here in abundance is that of Art Nouveau, which was particularly trendy during the 1890s through 1910s. As part of this development, around each of the major springs of the town were built elaborate and ornate pavilions to house and shelter these abundant and mineral-rich water sources. These beautiful pavilions existed for several decades well into the Yugoslav-era, until plans started to materialize in the 1960s for a mass redevelopment project for the mineral spring infrastructure.

A side view of the Topla Voda spring house, showing its many unique tower pinnacles [source: personal photo]

The town of Vrnjačka Banja commissioned famous architect Mihajlo Mitrović, who was originally from the nearby town of Čačak, to spearhead the re-imagination of the town’s major spring houses. The first spring house which Mitrović completed was the Topla Voda (Hot Water) site next to the Rimski Izvor spa center. Unveiled in 1975, the spring house that Mitrović created was a dynamic modernist work of red brick and concrete that was heavily influenced by the art-nouveau style. This unique architectural fusion came at a time when the architectural discourse in Yugoslavia was criticizing the 50s & 60s era style of modernism, particularly the International Style, for being too disconnected and too far removed stylistically from the history and culture of the places in which they were built. As a result, many architects attempted to integrate components of “regionalism” into their architectural works, taking into consideration the location’s history, traditions and vernacular design heritage. These efforts were further explored in global architecture with postmodernism, which flourished as a global style starting in the 1980s. As such, it was Mitrović’s clear intention with Topla Voda to celebrate the Vrnjačka Banja’s architectural history, all while further expanding the the innovation of Yugoslav modernist architecture.

The interior of the Topla Voda spring house [source: personal photo]
The famous art-nouveau 'Glassmaker' door in Brussels [left] and the Topla Voda door [right]

Standing as a meditation of ‘circles and spheres’ (a common theme of art-nouveau), Mitrović’s Topla Voda spring house pavilion is composed of four circular brick towers at its four corners, each adorned with concrete and copper decorative circular pinnacles. As an emphasis on the art-nouveau theme, the pavilion’s central clock tower contains a doorway at its base which is almost an exact recreation of the famous art-nouveau “Glassmaker’s House” door in Brussels, Belgium. Meanwhile, within the interior of the pavilion is a set of huge spherical glass lamps running diagonally across the room suspended underneath the roof’s gable from a thick concrete pillar, itself perforated with circles. The bare brick and concrete, along with the polished concrete floor, give the room a very organic feeling while imbuing the room with a temple-like atmosphere.

A view of the clock tower of Topla Voda [source: personal photo]

After the success of building the Topla Voda spring house, Mitrović went on to build three more spring houses in Vrnjačka Banja over the next 15 years, all created in varying incarnations of his distinct modernist/art-nouveau fusion style. Such a long term commitment highlights not only Mitrović’s dedication to the development of Vrnjačka Banja’s architectural heritage, but also the clear emotional connection he most certainly must have felt towards this particular location.

A view of the exterior of the Snežnik spring house [source: personal photo]
A view of the clock tower of Snežnik spring house [source: personal photo]
A view of the interior of the Snežnik spring house [source: personal photo]

Mitrović began work on the next spring house, Snežnik, three years after the completion of Topla Voda in 1978. Located roughly 700m to the south on the opposite end of the main park promenade situated along the pathway of the Vrnjačka River, the Snežnik spring house was unveiled to the public in 1980. The ‘circle and sphere’ theme is continued here, with the primary component of Snežnik spring house consisting of a large circular pavilion whose patinaed copper roof is suspended by a complex web of red steel girders all concentrated upon a central concrete Roman-esque pillar. From its walls, glass hangs down like curtains, giving the whole pavilion a floating gravity defying feeling. A series of skylights on the circular ceiling further emphasize the space as an open unrestrained environment. Each spring fountain is topped with a spherical globe light, similar to as in Topla Voda. The masonry of Snežnik is laid in white brick and white concrete and, like the Topla Voda, Snežnik also has a circular clock tower. Interestingly, these clock towers may be a reference to the famous art-nouveau clock tower of the Blue Church in Bratislava, Slovakia. Yet, compared to Topla Voda, Mitrović’s art-nouveau influence here at Snežnik is less pronounced here, but still subtly present thematically and in the building’s atmosphere.

A view of the pathway which leads to the Slatina spring house [source: personal photo]
A side view of the outer features of the Slatina spring house [source: personal photo]
A view of the interior of the Slatina spring house, with some stained glass windows visible [source: personal photo]

Two years after completing Snežnik, Mitrović then began work on his third spring house at Vrnjačka Banja in 1982, called “Slatina”, located roughly 500m west of the park’s riverfront. The Slatina spring house may be the most overtly art-nouveau of all of the works which Mitrović created here. From the undulating green-tile roof, to the large curvy clam-shaped windows, to the beautiful tile work, to the elaborate stained-glass installations... art-nouveau inspired elements adorn almost every inch of the Slatina house. At the center basin of the spring house is an unusual rock sculpture that is the source from which the mineral water pours. Along the ceiling are circular concrete cut-outs around which are elegantly twisting glass globe chandeliers, further lending to the organic composition of this building's architectural synthesis. The series of six stained glass works around the central interior of the spring house depict classic early 19th century buildings that once existed in Vrnjačka Banja, including the small wooden pavilion that was originally built here at Slatina.

A view of the pond and the Jezero spring house [source:]
A view of the exterior main entrance of the Jezero spring house [source: personal photo]
A view of the Miodrag Živković sculptural relief inside of the Jezero spring house [source: personal photo]

The last spring house that Mitrović built in Vrnjačka Banja was a complex called “Jezero” (or ‘Lake’), which was created after a spring was discovered at its location in the mid 1980s, roughly between Slatina and the riverfront. Completed in 1989, this is the most stylistically adventurous of all Mitrović’s spring houses. Jezero spring house is most strongly characterized by its sharply sloping east facing roof which reaches all the way to the ground. The roof, which is covered in classic art-nouveau green tiles, is dramatically punctuated with highly modernist large-scale glass windows. Within the interior of the spring house, a set of stairs leads down to a the spring fountain font, in front of which towers an enormous 10m tall relief sculpture defined by its geometric abstraction and vibrant color. This sculpture, created by Belgrade artist Miodrag Živković, impacts the room with an almost spiritual aura of mystery, as if it is communicating the water’s healing powers and energy through its dynamic form. The spring house sits on a small pond, lending to its name, which provides with stunning reflective views of Mitrović’s unique creation. The west side of the spring house is completely flat, which, at its center, contains two large fountain heads which spray out thin jets of water into the pond, adding to its serene atmosphere. Lastly, atop the building is a metal-worked sign displaying the word “Vrnjci” in Serbian cyrillic, which is the name of the nearby village the resort of Vrnjačka Banja was named after. The metal-work and distinct font on this sign are highly evocative of the iconic art-nouveau metro signs seen across Paris, thus operating as an effective topping element for Mitrović to communicate his architectural synthesis.

The sign displaying the word “Vrnjci” in Serbian cyrillic on top of the Jezero spring house [source: personal photo]

When Visiting Vrnjačka Banja

The mineral spring resort town of Vrnjačka Banja is relatively easy to find. Directions on your phone will get you there quite easily. Parking can be quick jammed, especially in the summer, so be prepared to search around a bit for a good spot. Admission into all of the spring houses is free, but if you want to purchase water, it is 10 Serbian dinars per liter… and bring your own containers, because they don’t provide them here. It is important to note that the water that comes out of the springs here is not necessarily the “tasty spring water” you might imagine. It can often be quite sulphurous and mineral heavy, so, it is more often used for medical therapy, healing and other such spa-like activities. Though some do drink it, I did not personally find it ‘yummy’. Also, in addition to the spring houses, any visit to Vrnjačka Banja must also include an exploration of its many significant Yugoslav-era modernist hotels that exist around the town, which are all stunning examples of the country’s distinct style of resort architecture. The most impressive and intact with its original decor is Hotel Breza, right off the main promenade of the town.

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