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Motel Košuta: the lost & forgotten work of architect Ivan Vitić

Updated: Apr 12, 2020

Located just off of the A1 Motorway exit for Kragujevac, Serbia near the town of Batočina can be found the unassuming and decaying ruins of a 60s Yugoslav-era roadside motor lodge named “Motel Košuta”. Upon first sight, the casual passer-by may not pay much mind to it nor even give it a second glance as they speed by. Few, if any, of these thousands of people who zoom past it every day will ever realize that this now-decrepit motel is the seminal work of the famous pioneering Croatian architect Ivan Vitić. Admittedly, in its present state, it is understandable why its significance might not be readily apparent. So, as a result, I will now explore the historical legacy and creation of this unique, forgotten and abandoned architectural treasure.

A view of the detached bungalows at Motel Košuta, near Batočina, Serbia. Photo credit: personal photo

The story of Motel Košuta, nestled within Serbia’s Šumadija region, begins in a place one might not expect: the Adriatic coast of Croatia. Up until the 1950s, the many picturesque seaside beach towns dotting Croatia’s Adriatic coastline were connected only by a rough gravel/dirt road which was tenuous, treacherous and unreliable. It was at this time at the start of the 1950s that the Yugoslav government began to see the potential of tapping into the greatly undeveloped market for auto tourism along the Adriatic coast through the construction of a modern paved roadway. As such, a massive civic project to create this asphalt highway along Yugoslavia’s entire Adriatic stretch began in 1954. This highway was envisioned as not only a means to access the coast, but also as a sort of "cinematic experience", where the road was laid out in such a way as to emphasize the beauty and drama of the natural landscape. When this ambitious project was completed in 1965, the newfound accessibility for auto tourism into this beautiful sun-soaked region led to an increase in visitor-ship by millions of people over the course of just a few years.

A Yugoslav-era vintage postcard view of the Adriatic Coastal Highway not long after it was unveiled in 1965

In concert with the completion of the Adriatic Coastal Highway was an additional effort to create a series of facilities which could accommodate the overnight stays of this massive increase in auto tourists. While many architects tasked with creating such facilities restrained themselves within the realms of past architectural traditions of hotel construction, the architect Ivan Vitić, himself from the Adriatic town of Šibenik, devised a new type of ‘motor-hotel’ or “motel” that could service the unique and distinctive needs of motor tourists traveling the Adriatic Coastal Highway. In this way, Vitić, who was an avid motorist himself (having a sleek Alpha Romeo), envisioned a motel design around what he thought would be the primary needs and demands of the average touristic motorist as they searched for overnight accommodations along their coastal holiday sojourns. Before Vitić, such a specific focus on the distinct needs of the touristic motorist had never been fully explored in the Yugoslav architectural world, mostly because such a demographic had never truly existed in Yugoslavia until its touristic explosion in the 1960s. This explosion was the result of the touristic accessibility the Adriatic Coastal Highway offered (which the government and industry heavily advertised internationally), but also because car-ownership among Yugoslav citizens was increasing exponentially in the 1960s… and with one-month of free holiday per year for all Yugoslav citizens, this new road gave them all somewhere to go riding in their new symbols of freedom and social status!

A collection of Yugoslav-era vintage posters and materials promoting auto tourism in Yugoslavia and its Adriatic region
A Yugoslav-era vintage promotional image image for Zastava cars along the Adriatic Coastal Highway to Dubrovnik, HR

And as all of these new tourists set out upon the Adriatic Coastal Highway, they would need somewhere to sleep along the way. Ivan Vitić was commissioned to create this series of motor lodges along the Adriatic coast by the Sljeme hotel chain, whose parent company was the Sljeme agricultural company of Croatia, who were looking to expand their food-product offerings into the burgeoning Yugoslav touristic trade. What Vitić envisioned for his proposed motel concepts was a model which centered around the car experience, where all facilities, services and accommodations were focused on being optimally accessible and relatable to the “modern” and “fashionable” motor tourist. One of the most distinct and pioneering architectural approaches which Vitić used in the creation of his motels was a design that had been used in American motor lodges for a number of years… one which centered around the idea of creating fully-detached bungalow suites which the motor tourist could easily and readily drive their cars right up to for maximum convenience and comfort. Not only was parking made paramount, but ample space and accessibility for maneuvering the car through the complex was also given high priority (compared to traditional touristic offerings in Yugoslavia, where car convenience was rarely, if ever, given any consideration). Never before had such an car-centric architectural design been used in the creation of touristic accommodations in Yugoslavia. As such, it can be said that Vitić invented the modern version of the “motel” for Yugoslavia. It was only through examining and analyzing the specific demands and needs of the Adriatic holiday motorist that Vitić was able to hit upon such an adaptive solution to this unique Yugoslav social and cultural situation.

The Sunbeam Motel in Largo, FLA, showing an example of the classic American-style motor lodge with detached bungalows

Vitić created three such motels along the Adriatic Coastal Highway at Rijeka, Biograd and Trogir, all opened concurrently in 1965 to coincide with the official opening of the highway. All three motel complexes are unified in their sleek and minimalist boxy design which bears clear inspiration from the International Style of modernist architecture. However, at the same time, all three motels are distinct in their layout and orientation within the landscape and in relation to the highway, with each taking advantage of local panoramic views, topography and highway accessibility. As far as rooms, the defining feature of the hotels were a series of detached fully-contained two story bungalow suites, all neatly positioned and organized in well-spaced rows which not only conform to the texture of the landscape, but also reside in such a way as to provide its occupants with maximized parking and scenic offerings, very much in line with the American style of motor lodge design. However, while they were initially planned to be built, Vitić’s motel complex at Rijeka did not include these bungalows, but instead employed another unique adaptive feature where the rooms were built directly into the steep hillside, with parking and patio space built onto their roofs above.

A vintage Yugoslav-era postcard image of Ivan Vitić's Sljeme Motel (Panorama Motel) at Preluk, Croatia, near Rijeka, built 1965
A vintage Yugoslav-era postcard image of Ivan Vitić's Sljeme Motel near Biograd, Croatia, built 1965
A vintage Yugoslav-era postcard image of Ivan Vitić's Sljeme Motel near Trogir, Croatia. built 1965

Within the adjacent reception/restaurant complex, covered outdoor passageways connect the parking lot and the guest rooms to the restaurant and reception buildings, a feature which maximizes protection for guests from both the sun and the elements. While a feature like this on a simple tourist motel might seem obvious today, such designs were novel for their era. Furthermore, each of Vitić’s three Adriatic motels employ local stone materials and construction techniques, which brings distinctive regional character to the facades of each of the three motels. This sort of architectural regionalism, where Vitić takes landscape and local materials are considered in building design, was a fairly new approach at this point in Yugoslavia, where it was much more common to have highly modernist buildings where often forced upon the landscape without taking local materials, terrain or culture into consideration. Finally, to give each of these motels a final touch of singular vividness, Vitić highlighted each complex with a distinct color using dozens of brightly colored panels, similar to how to accented his earlier architectural works at Šibenik and Zagreb.

Ivan Vitić's skycraper in Zagreb [left] and Hotel Jadran in Šibenik [right], showing his use of colored panels

These three motels by Ivan Vitić were a revolutionary departure in touristic motel architecture, which led to Vitić winning the Borba” Federal Award that year, which was the highest professional honor available in Yugoslavia at that time. As a result of the success of Vitić’s motels along the Adriatic, a Dubrovnik-based catering firm commissioned Vitić to build them a similar style motel on Yugoslavia’s primary showcase highway: the Brotherhood & Unity Motorway. Initiated in 1947 just after WWII and completed in the mid-1960s, this massive highway project spanned all the way from Slovenia down to Macedonia. Vitić’s new motorway-based motel was built in a picturesque sylvan meadow near the Serbian town of Batočina, just off the motorway exit headed towards the city of Kragujevac. It was opened in 1966, the year after his first three Adriatic motels opened.

A vintage Yugoslav-era postcard image of Ivan Vitić Motel Košuta, near Batočina, Serbia, built 1965

This complex, which was dubbed with the name “Motel Košuta”, was larger than any of Vitić’s Adriatic motels, having ten detached bungalow suites, along with dozens of additional rooms available across the parking lot in two L-oriented double-story motel buildings. While the Adriatic motels were highlighted in panels of blue, green and orange, Motel Košuta was characterized by its brightly colored yellow panels, while also having its facade clad in tan plaster and reddish-yellow brick as opposed to the natural flagstone of the Adriatic motels (perhaps referencing the more industrial nature of this region of Serbia).

A view of the entrance to Motel Košuta, Feb. 2020. Photo credit: personal photo
A view of the reception area of Motel Košuta, Feb. 2020. Photo credit: personal photo
A view looking down the main stairs into the reception area of Motel Košuta, Feb 2020. Photo credit: personal photo

While Motel Košuta was a popular and well-used overnight destination during the Yugoslav-era, the complex began to fall into neglect and disrepair in the years after the country’s dismantling during the 1990s. When I approached Motel Košuta in late February of 2020, the entire complex was in a state of complete disrepair and abandonment, with it becoming immediately apparent that the land around the motel was being used for some nature of industrial mining/gravel pit work. As I stood at the roadside wondering whether I should risk entering the dilapidated motel with heavy machinery moving all around it, a foreman spotted me from a distance and walked forward to approach me. While he spoke no English, I was able to communicate to him that I was interested in the old motel’s architecture, at which point he delightfully motioned me forward and offered to give me a tour of the ruined facility.

The landing at the top of the main stairs of Motel Košuta, Feb. 2020. Photo credit: personal photo
A view into one of the rooms with some remnant furniture at Motel Košuta, Feb. 2020. Photo credit: personal photo
A view of the restaurant area in the main building of Motel Košuta, Feb. 2020. Photo credit: personal photo
A view of the original curtains still hanging in the restaurant of Motel Košuta, Feb 2020. Photo credit: personal photo

While I was not able to find any definitive records on when Motel Košuta was last in operation, historical aerial photos for this location on Google Earth go back as far as 2003, where even that far back it still appears to be in a state of disuse. While the buildings themselves are all standing in relatively good order, the interior of the motel rooms are all completely devastated. The vast majority of the valuables and furniture from all of the rooms are all long gone (even the toilet fixtures are gone), though some odd rooms can be found to have lingering shattered television scattered about or odd piles of furniture stacked within them (which gives a unique perspective on how these rooms were originally furnished). Meanwhile, the reception/lobby area of the motel complex appears in the best condition, with the front desk and several of its original features still intact. The adjoining restaurant, while completely empty, I found it still containing its original veneer wood panels and even its original curtains. Interestingly, the restaurant’s kitchen appears to have the majority of its original equipment still in place, though much of it is well beyond repair or the point of operation.

A view of the main covered walkway to the main reception of Motel Košuta, Feb 2020. Photo credit: personal photo
One of the main motel room buildings of Motel Košuta, Feb 2020. Photo credit: personal photo
An image showing the bright yellow glass panels decorating Motel Košuta, Feb 2020. Photo credit: personal photo
A view of the Motel Košuta's 10 detached bungalows, with some seen harmed by gravel piles, Feb 2020. Photo credit: personal photo

Sadly, with the operation of the gravel company right within proximity to Motel Košuta, even further damage has occurred, with several of the west bungalows partially covered by a huge gravel pile. The condition of the motel is so poor at this point that it seems unlikely that any commercial enterprise would attempt to step in to rehabilitate the property. I found online bulletins advertising efforts to sell the property for about 3 million euros as recently as 2017, but it is unclear if those attempts have been successful (but from what I found upon visiting the site in Feburary of 2020, it doesn’t appear any activity in the buildings has taken place). As far as I have been able to establish, Motel Košuta is under no historical protection, which is not surprising, as few people seem to be aware of its existence, its architectural significance, or that it is the only Ivan Vitić designed building in all of Serbia.

A close up of two of the detached bungalows at Motel Košuta, Feb 2020. Photo credit: personal photo
A view showing the inner damage of the detached bungalows at Motel Košuta, Feb 2020. Photo credit: personal photo
A view of the steep stairs in the detached bungalows at Motel Košuta, Feb 2020. Photo credit: personal photo
A destroyed television inside one of the detached bungalows at Motel Košuta, Feb 2020. Photo credit: personal photo

All the more concerning for the future of Motel Košuta is that Vitić’s Adriatic motel in Biograd, Croatia was demolished in July of 2019. As such, barring any intervention, preservation or rehabilitation, Motel Košuta seems as though it could potentially follow a similar fate into the future. Being that Vitić is responsible for some of the most important architectural works of the Yugoslav-era, such as the Central Committee building (The Cube) or the Vitić Skyscraper (which are both in Zagreb), it thus seems hugely disappointing and unfortunate that the work of such a heavyweight of Yugoslav architecture could simply have their work torn down by commercial developers. It seems almost bizarrely surreal that Vitić’s work would be torn down in his home country only a few months after it was hailed and honored at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City during their highly-praised exhibition on Yugoslav architecture.

A close up photo of the rows of detached bungalows at Motel Košuta, Feb 2020. Photo credit: personal photo
A view of ruin and damage in the kitchen area of the main building of Motel Košuta, Feb 2020. Photo credit: personal photo
A photo of the stairs going up from the main lobby and receptioin area of Motel Košuta, Feb 2020. Photo credit: personal photo
A photo of one of the outer buildings of Motel Košuta being damaged by gravel piles at the site, Feb 2020. Photo credit: personal photo

However, being that the grassroots architectural activist group known as “Motel Trogir” (named after the Vitić Adriatic motel) have been able to work towards the government protective listing and preservation of Vitić's motel sites at Trogir and at Rijeka, it becomes increasingly clear that degradation and demolition is NOT the only future possible for these historical sites. Culturally significant Yugoslav-era architectural objects such as Motel Košuta are gaining increasing attention across the region and the world, especially as 20th century modernist architecture in the former Yugoslav region and Europe attracts both touristic and academic attention. Will Motel Košuta see the same fate as many other degraded modernist architecture, or will it be recognized, appreciated and preserved for the part of architectural history that it is?


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