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The Lost Legacy of Zlatko Ugljen's Exquisite Hotel Architecture

Updated: Aug 30, 2021

As one of the most significant and influential architects of the Yugoslav-era, Zlatko Ugljen was among the figures who blazed a trail in cultivating a unique architectural identity not only for himself, but also for Yugoslavia. While his corpus of work in sacral architecture often receives the most attention, his efforts in grand socially-minded hotel architecture are just as ambitious and distinguished. However, in recent decades, destruction, demolition and disfigurement have left his rich legacy of remarkable hotels nearly stricken from the landscape.


While many designers and creators pushed Yugoslav architecture in ambitious and innovative directions during the middle of the 20th century, only a handful of them can claim to have had a cultural impact equal to that which was achieved by Mostar-born architect Zlatko Ugljen [see THIS link for profile page]. Many Yugoslav architects were exploring the evolving style of modernism during this time period and were consistently innovating new ways of constructing increasingly futuristic and ever more exuberant building designs, which, as a consequence, often found themselves divorced from the local tradition architecture and landscape in which they were situated. Ugljen, on the other hand, never lost sight of the architectural roots he cultivated and was surrounded by during his youth in the historic town of Mostar. The idea of how the architectural heritage and tradition of a particular place can be expressed through contemporary visuals, materials and design was a concept which Ugljen explored throughout his entire career. In analyzing his work, the boundaries between tradition and contemporary blend together, so much so that a wholly new and distinct architectural language is created. With this new language, Ugljen blazes a trail across what is now the former Yugoslav region, but his most distinct impact was upon the region of Bosnia & Herzegovina, where he authored dozens of projects of all types, from monuments, to hotels, to restaurants, to sacral buildings and so on. In recent years, Ugljen has been greatly celebrated particularly in relation to the sacral architecture he has created over his long career. For instance, his most widely recognized architectural achievement was the White Mosque (Bijela džamija) in Visoko, BiH, for which he not only won the 1983 international Aga Khan Award for Architecture, but also had this work featured at New York City's Museum of Modern Art exhibition on Yugoslav architecture in 2018.

However, the exceptional hotel architecture which Ugljen created during the Yugoslav-era is a much less examined component of his creative work. Each distinct and groundbreaking in its own way, these hotels and lodgings that Ugljen crafted were singular efforts and are remarkable in the sense that they often came to reshape and define the landscapes and communities in which they were placed. One reason that Ugljen's hotel architecture is often less noticed and highlighted compared to his sacral architecture is because, unlike his sacral works, the majority of his hotel works have been either destroyed or highly disfigured in contemporary times. So, in this article, we will closely examine the quickly vanishing legacy of Ugljen's many Yugoslav-era hotel and lodging complexes, doing the best we can to examine their creation, their form, their impact, their fate and, in many cases, their unfortunate destruction. While this article will not be able to explore every single hotel project Ugljen was involved in, this list examines his most significant projects and/or the projects in which Ugljen was most closely involved.


Hotel Orijent, Travnik, BiH

A vintage Yugoslav-era postcard showing Hotel Orijent in Travnik.
A vintage Yugoslav-era postcard showing the two tombs in Travnik's Leipzig Square in front of Hotel Orijent.

Name: Hotel Orijent

Location: Travnik, FBIH, BiH

Years of creation: 1973

Current status: Hotel closed, awaiting demolition as of 2020/2021

Coordinates: 44°13'37.2"N, 17°39'39.5"E

Description: Sitting within the green hills of the Lašva Valley resides the historical town of Travnik, BiH. At the center of the town within Leipzig Square, Zlatko Ugljen, along with Sarajevo architect Smilja Janjušević, created Hotel Orijent in 1973 on the former site of the Travnik Bazaar. The fact that this hotel was built on the site of a former bazaar was no doubt the idea behind the name for the hotel, as a way of invoking the cultural tropes of the "Far East". While exhibiting some modernist flairs and accents, the hotel largely worked to reflect the local architectural vernacular of the area, with the low pitched roof, upper-floor bump-outs, use of bare wood and white plaster facade. Unfortunately, I found few photos of the original interior of the hotel, which would be particularly interesting to see in its full splendor as this was the aspect of the hotel that Ugljen had the most involvement in developing and designing. In addition to the hotel, next to it was constructed a modest shopping center right along Leipzig Square crafted in a similar architectural style. Upon their completion in 1973, this hotel and shopping center instantly became iconic local symbols and operated as the centerpiece of the community, doing so positioned right next to the most culturally significant historical site in the town "Turbeta pod lipom" or "Türbe under the Linden Tree", which are a pair of ancient tombs containing 18th century Ottoman Grand Viziers who lived in Travnik. Furthermore, even Yugoslav President Josip Broz Tito himself was a frequent visitor to Hotel Orijent, as it was along his regular route from Belgrade to Bugojno, where his favorite mountain hunting lodges were [see article HERE on Tito's residences].

Some vintage photos of the original interior of the Hotel Orijent in Travnik. Credit: Zlatko Ugljen archive
A recent photo showing the now derelict hotel after it had changed its name to "Hotel Lipa". Credit: GoogleMaps

As Yugoslavia began its process of dismantlement in the early 1990s, this, paired with the start of the Bosnian War during the same time period, lead to the Hotel Orijent quickly falling into decline and disrepair. After the end of the war, the hotel was privatized and changed its name to "Hotel Lipa". However, it was not long after the new management took over this deteriorating complex that they too permanently closed the hotel premises (as well as the shopping center). After sitting closed and neglected for many years, developers bought the hotel site in 2017 and are planning on tearing down the old hotel structure in order to build a new hotel and shopping center complex styled in a contemporary fashion. Local opinions are divided about the planned demolition of Janjušević & Ugljen's Yugoslav-era hotel. Concept art for what this new hotel will look like can be see in the above images. From looking at news articles online as of January 2021 in respect to this project, it appears as though demolition and new construction at this site may have already begun or is soon to begin.


Hotel Visoko, Visoko, BiH

Various views of Hotel Visoko which is located at the center of Visoko, BiH.
A vintage Yugoslav-era postcard showing various scenes from Hotel Visoko in Visoko, BiH.
A vintage Yugoslav-era image of a terrace at Hotel Visoko located in Visoko, BiH. Credit: Archive of Zlatko Ugljen

Name: Hotel Visoko

Location: Visoko, FBiH, BiH

Years of creation: 1971-1974

Current status: Closed down, for sale

Coordinates: 43°59'30.9"N, 18°10'55.3"E

Description: Situated between the two major cities of Sarajevo and Zenica along the Bosna River, Visoko is a vibrant community made famous in recent years as the result of claims it is home to the world's largest ancient pyramid. However, it was many decades earlier in the late 1960s that architect Zlatko Ugljen initially came to Visoko to exhibit his unique style. Firstly, after Ugljen successfully created a new central post office for Visoko, he was awarded the commission to construct a showpiece high rise hotel complex for this quickly modernizing town. Situated right on the banks of the Bosna River, Ugljen's tower was completed in 1974 and named in honor of the town itself, "Hotel Visoko". It was ceremoniously opened in 1976. The complex was designed in two parts, a horizontal segment and a vertical segment. Firstly, it was within the vertical segment functioned as the hotel segment where its 72 rooms were located, meanwhile, within the horizontal segment was originally housed a night club, a pizzeria, a cafe, terraces overlooking the river and so on.

Though these two distinct parts of the hotel differed as far as their spatial orientation, they were united in their sense of stylistic cohesiveness, borrowing greatly from the local vernacular architecture. For instance, the hotel's facade is dominated by smooth white concrete, a nod to the white plaster typical in regional abodes. Meanwhile, the hotel's tower bumping out in a series of overhangs is yet another typical feature seen in many buildings across the region. Ugljen even states in his monograph that his initial sketches of what would become the hotel were inspired during his walks through Visoko's Old Town. He then took these traditional elements, paired with his local inspirations, and cleverly combined them all with decidedly modern forms such as elegantly curving surfaces flanked by sharp abrupt geometry. It all beautifully comes together to develop an altogether unique architectural experience. Yet, even though the complex is dominated by its white tower, Ugljen's hotel is not lofty or elitist... it openly engages with its community, stretching out into the town with its horizontal arms, where it operated during its hey-day as one of the supreme cultural and social hubs of Visoko. A local news outlet in Visoko hosts on its website a photo gallery of dozens of Yugoslav-era photos from the hotel's lounge, restaurant and ball room testifying to the extent which local residents enjoyed Hotel Visoko. Ugljen was so pleased with his hotel and time he spent in Visoko, he came back just a few years later to construct the town's new Šerefudin mosque [1980], a project in which he would borrow numerous elements from his design of the Visoko Hotel. The Šerefudin White Mosque went on to earn Ugljen global fame and is considered one of the world's most significant modernist buildings of the 20th century.

A vintage Yugoslav-era postcard which includes a view of Hotel Visoko in Visoko, BiH.
A contemporary view of the condition of Hotel Visoko in Visoko, BiH. Credit: Stefano Perego

While this hotel operated as a central meeting spot and social hub for the town during the Yugoslav-era, the hotel was not able to function sustainably within the era of privatization. As such, by the end of the 2000s, the hotel closed its doors to the public and then found itself up for sale in the early 2010s. However, despite the hotel's closure, some of the cafes and businesses within the ground floor of the complex still operate, while the hotel's ball room and event center are still utilized by the local community. While recent photos show the complex to still be in a reasonable condition and state of repair, the years of disuse have no doubt had a negative effect on the hotel. It has remained for sale on the open market now for many years at the price of 3.5 million euro.


Hotel Ruža, Mostar, BiH

A vintage Yugoslav-era view of the exterior of Hotel Ruža in Mostar, BiH. Credit: Archive of Zlatko Ugljen
A series of vintage Yugoslav-era view of Hotel Ruža's interiors and exteriors. Credit: Archive of Zlatko Ugljen/
A vintage Yugoslav-era view of the exterior of Hotel Ruža in Mostar, BiH. Credit: Archive of Zlatko Ugljen

Name: Hotel Ruža

Location: Mostar, FBIH, BiH

Years of creation: 1974-1977

Current status: Demolished

Former coordinates: 43°20'16.6"N, 17°48'43.5"E

Description: The town of Mostar, BiH is picturesque community nestled within the valley of the Neretva River and is home to the famous UNESCO-protected Old Bridge historical district. It was here in Mostar that Zlatko Ugljen was born in 1929. Ugljen fondly recounts in interviews playing along the Neretva, particularly at a site near the banks where the tributary steam Radobolja flows into the river, just 200m west of the Old Bridge. It was here that stream broken into a series of rivulets that fed an orchard and was home to a popular summer cafe named "Ruža" or "Rose". In his adulthood, Ugljen was commissioned to build a hotel complex at this site to serve the ever growing tourist industry of Mostar. In planning this project, Ugljen set upon making priorities of not only respecting the natural site upon which he was building the hotel, but also respecting the town's local architectural tradition as well. Competed around 1977, what Ugljen created in "Hotel Ruža" (named after the old cafe) was a bold unification of both nature and tradition cast through the lens of modernist architecture.

Firstly, in preserving the environmental landscape of the setting, Ugljen integrated the rivulets of the Radobolja stream directly into the hotel itself, with segments of the hotel built on both sides of the stream connected by a series of small bridges. Smaller branches of the babbling stream were even allowed to penetrate into the interior of the hotel's main atrium, achieving a harmonious melding of indoor and outdoor spaces. Meanwhile, the design of the building itself was made on a modest human-scale (not exceeding three floors) in order not only to allow for greater personal interface with the structure, but also to preserve the atmosphere and aesthetic qualities of the historic landscape it was situated within. As with other hotels that Ugljen had crafted up until this project, for Ruža, he also opted for a pure white facade in order to keep attuned to the local architectural vernacular. Further reflecting local features were the hotel's exposed wooden beams, expansive balconies, protruding shop windows and the intricate play between dark shadows against white walls. As one source says "the games of white surfaces and warm shadows are a legacy of traditional architecture". As a visitor explored this play of light through the interior and exterior spaces of the hotel, they could find a myriad of tucked away rooms, playful arrangements of bright geometric forms, luscious gardens, water features, and light-filled surroundings of intimate warmth which Ugljen effortlessly crafted to feel more like a "living-room of the city" rather than the standard antiseptic impersonal hotel. Furthermore, despite being of the modernist style, the hotel still integrated in comfortably and seamlessly with the traditional architectural vernacular of the adjacent Old Town district.

A 1997 view of Hotel Ruža in Mostar, BiH after enduring the Bosnian War. Credit: UNESCO
A recent photo of the newly built "Marriot" Hotel that replaced Ugljen's demolished Hotel Ruža. Credit: Florian Rimml/GoogleMaps

Hotel Ruža stood as a landmark and modernist architectural icon in the city of Mostar during the Yugoslav-era, however, the hotel was completely ruined and devastated after the Bosnian War of the 1990s. In 2001, the ruined hotel site was privatized and sold to developers, at which point the remains of Hotel Ruža were demolished. After demolition, work immediately began on a new hotel complex, which would expand to over four-times of that of Ugljen's original hotel, growing in both its footprint and in height. However, as Mostar's Old City was added as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2005, questions immediately began to be asked about Ugljen's architecturally and historically significant demolished hotel. In a 2006 joint report authored by UNESCO and ICOMOS in reference to Ugljen's hotel, it was categorically stated that "we formally deplore the complete destruction of it by the investor of the new hotel, who, following the prescriptions, was obliged to restore it", while further attesting that "the original Hotel Ruža of architect Ugljen was an integral part of the morphology and townscape of Mostar". This conflict between the new developers and UNESCO resulted in a years long negotiation set upon finding a middle ground between the new hotel's design and the concerns UNESCO had about such extensive construction occurring within the zone of the World Heritage Site. The disagreements became so contentious at points that UNESCO even threatened de-listing Mostar's Old City as a heritage site. However, agreements and concessions eventually were made and the hotel's construction was given the green light by all agencies and groups. As of early 2021, this long-delayed hotel seems to be in the final stag