Zdravko Bregovac: An Architect of Yugoslav Pleasure

Perhaps one of the most prolific and influential architects of Yugoslavia that made a lasting mark upon the landscape and the hearts of the public that endures up to the present day is Zdravko Bregovac. While he crafted a wide variety of buildings during his four decade career as an architect, he is unquestionably most remembered for the countless hotels, motels resorts and other touristic facilities that he created from Slovenia down the Croatia’s Adriatic coast to Montenegro. Not only did Bregovac help to revolutionize Yugoslavia’s tourism industry with his resorts, bringing leisure-filled joy to the hearts of millions, but his avant-garde approach to design has left us with a stunning legacy of works that few have rivaled and that still have much to teach us today.

A photo of Zdravko Bregovac at the height of his career. Credit: Family archive Bregovac-Pisk

Born to parents Dragan and Marija in the small village of Dinjevac, Croatia on March 4th, 1924 (just 10km from Đurđevac), Zdravko Bregovac was a bright child who was born into a family that valued education as well as creativity. His father Dragan was a mathematics professor, which resulted in the family moving quite often as he took up teaching positions at various institutions across the region. Eventually, these moves resulted in the family relocating to Zagreb, where Dragan had secured a respectable position with the Ministry of Education. After graduating from high school in 1942, Bregovac began studying electrical engineering at the University of Zagreb, however, he did not find this direction fulfilling, so he quickly changed over his focus of study to architecture. He was trained through the course of his studies by the famous Croatian early-modernist architects Zdenko Strižić, Alfred Albini and Mladen Kauzlarić, while, at the same time, he studied alongside fellow students such future luminaries as Vladimir Zarahović and Vjenceslav Richter. After graduating in 1949, Bregovac moved to Rijeka where he began working for the “Central Design Bureau” (“Centralni biro za projektiranje”), focusing on expanding infrastructure around the region’s shipbuilding industry across Istria. However, Bregovac’s ambitions as a creator were not satisfied within Istria’s shipbuilding industry and he began to reconnect with his former university classmates from Zagreb.

After catching up with his former architecture school friends Vladimir Zarahović and Vjenceslav Richter in 1950, Bregovac was enlisted into their new artistic group named “EXAT 51” (Experimental Atelier). At its core, EXAT 51 was a small avant-garde collective of creators (inspired by Bauhaus and Russian constructivism) who objected to the rigid formalism of Yugoslavia’s state-prescribed “Socialist Realism” art style and felt that not only that abstract art (which was at that point frowned upon by the state) had a place within the socialist system, but that the “pure” arts and the “applied” arts could exist as a seamless unified whole. Also part of this group were other creators such as interior designer Bernardo Bernardi, graphic artist Ivan Picelj, artist Aleksandar Srnec, among others, who would all come to be integral in his professional collaborations throughout the rest of his career. However, Bregovac would come to work most closely with his friend Vjenceslav Richter. After quitting his job with “Central Design Bureau” in 1952, through the rest of the 1950s, Bregovac worked on a number of formative architectural proposals with Richter that would come to set the tone for the rest of his career, which included projects such as the City Museum of Belgrade (1954), a housing complex in Banja Luka (1955), the National Museum of Aleppo (1956) and the Museum of the People’s Revolution in Sarajevo (1958), some of which were built and some not. In addition, Bregovac also took on numerous commissions to construct pavilions on behalf of Yugoslavia at events not only domestically (such as the Tourist Pavilion he built at the Zagreb Fair in 1959), but also pavilions representing his country at fairs in Chicago, Helsinki and Vienna. In addition to this creative work, he also took part in a significant amount of scholarly work during the 1950s, acting as the editor-in-chief to the important Zagreb trade journal “Arhitektura” from 1953 to 1956, where he often used artwork from his fellow EXAT 51 colleagues as front-cover art for the journal.

A vintage postcard of the National Museum in Aleppo, Syria, created by Bregovac & Richter in 1956.

However, it was working on several touristic projects during 1959 and 1960 along the Adriatic coast (consisting mostly of restorations, bungalow resorts and modest hotels) that seemed to resonate most deeply with Bregovac. With numerous high-profile successes under his belt and a new spirited energy for tourism architecture, he moved to the Istrian seaside town of Opatija to start his own architecture firm named “Opatija-projekt”, which was to focus almost exclusively on the creation of hotel and resort complexes. He began with some noteworthy projects along the Istrian coast between Opatija and Rabac, as well as spearheading the construction of a new resort called “Bellevue” at Plitvice Lakes next to Marijan Haberle’s famous Hotel Plitvice [1957]. However, Bregovac’s real fame as an architect came when he completed the “Hotel Ambassador” in 1966, which quickly became one of Yugoslavia’s most famous and resplendent locales, visited by the elites and celebrities from all over the world. Afterwards. Bregovac went on to create even more stunning and elaborate resorts, hotels and even several motels across the region, especially along the ever-popular Adriatic Coastal Highway touristic route. To illustrate just how significant the hotel boom was in Yugoslavia during this era, between 1960 and 1970, the country doubled its number of hotels from 400 to 800, with the vast majority of them being built along its Adriatic coast.

The bulk of Bregovac’s resorts and hotels were either in a coastal Adriatic setting or a serene mountain atmosphere. So, when it came to his design approach, he had two very different ways in which he tackled creating an architectural concept for these two very distinct regional settings. While it can be openly admitted that Bregovac’s designs can often be compared to the International Style, a highly popular facet of modernism during this period, he nonetheless was able to imbue his works with his own personal touches and highlights of regional flair, thus, transcending the cold uniformity and regional decontextualization for which the International Style was often criticized. For example, in his coastal works, he expressed more “Mediterranean” aesthetics (such as white facades, red-tile roofs, lattices), while his mountain resorts took on a more rustic tone, often replete with warm wood finishes, steeply pitched roofs and darker color schemes. Also, towards the goal of maintaining regional character, Bregovac was also very keen on preserving the natural landscape in the area around which he situated his hotels, keeping as many trees, rocks and terrain features as possible. This approach was to protect the pristine character of the environment as well as to convey the impression that the hotel itself was part of (or an extension) of the landscape. It was such fussing over little details such as this (a tree here, a rock there) that made Bregovac’s hotels unique experiences. He was not surprisingly just as fussy over the hotel’s interiors, as he was well versed in the craft of artful interior design. For his resorts, he often threw himself quite deep into this process, building customized furniture, fixtures and even went as far as to personally design the shelves behind the reception desk for storing room keys in some instances. It must also be mentioned on the topic of interior design that Bregovac, in addition to building new hotels, also undertook the process of renovating the interiors of classic pre-war hotels such as Hotel Toplice in Bled [1968], Hotel Kvarner in Opatija [1971] and Hotel Istria in Rab [1974].

A vintage photo from the "American Bar" at Hotel Ambassador in Opatija, with mural by Edo Murtić. Credit: CCN Images

It is also important to mention that Bregovac employed within the design of his hotels the philosophies he took from EXAT 51, exhibiting that pure abstract art can successfully be combined with applied art. For example, many of his hotel interior’s were adorned with massive free-form art installations (often made by former EXAT 51 members) that integrated themselves seamlessly with the surroundings, almost to the point where they became inseparable with the hotel’s architecture and design.

Over his life, Bregovac, with the help of numerous other architects and artists, created more than two dozen hotels, motels and resorts across Yugoslavia and, in the process, helped to put the country on the map as a European travel destination by completely reimagining its idea of touristic architecture and the coastal/mountain resort experience. Through this pioneering work, he received countless awards and recognitions, such as the Borba Award, the "Viktor Kovačić" Award and the “Vladimir Nazor” Award for lifetime achievements. He even went on to teach his skills to students at both universities in Rijeka and in Zagreb, passing on his experience to the next generation. He continued creating new projects until the mid 1980s, at which point he retired. On February 8th, 1998, Bregovac passed away in Rijeka at the age of 74, at which point he was subsequently interred at his family plot in Mirogoj Cemetery in Zagreb. Today, Bregovac is fondly remembered by academics and art historians as one of Croatia’s most famous and accomplished architects of the Yugoslav era. Not only has Bregovac’s work had multiple retrospective shows at museums across Croatia in recent years dedicated to his legacy, but his work was also widely shown at the 2018 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City that was dedicated to Yugoslavia’s architecture.