Environmental & Architectural
Dalmatia, Urban Identity, and the War, 1991-1993:
Seeking Meaning in Urban Places
Violich is a Professor Emeritus of city planning and landscape architecture at the University of California, Berkeley. His research interests include urban design as place making. He wrote this paper for a conference, "War and the Environment," held in Croatia in 1993. © 1993, 2003 Francis Violich.
The announcement of Croatia's timely conference on War and the Environment came to me through a Croatian colleague, recently returned to California. By coincidence, I have been preparing a book-length manuscript that explores the ways that environments transform themselves through human use and creativity into places carrying deep, lasting meaning. In this process over generations, individual identity with place becomes collective and produces community life perpetuated as a cultural heritage.
An understanding of this force is needed in our era to offset the disconnectedness of people from their urban places caused by modernization. Dalmatia's lineal urban system and uniquely diverse natural environment, together with my own dual identity with that region and California, has made its cities, towns, and villages a focus for study on this subject.
The unexpected military events of 1991 impelled me to probe the environmental impact of the tragic Civil War. Since the attacks on Dalmatia targeted some of the very places I had already studied, I could determine quite specifically how the war would affect their sources of place identity.
Because of my earlier studies (e.g., Violich 1983, 1985), I had already concluded that the shelling of the Dalmatian cities and towns and total destruction of villages transcends by far the physical damage done. These mindless non-military attacks imposed lasting wounds on the human meaning that had been accumulated over centuries, symbolized in these places.
Background work, developed through trips to Dalmatia as early as 1937 and between 1968 and 1990, included a Fulbright Fellowship in 1979 at the University of Zagreb. In these exchanges I draw on the metaphor "the Bridge" established by my forbearers who came from Peljesac and Brac to California in the 19th century‑-thus the roots of my dual identity.
My own identity has been reinforced by studies of differing urban places in Dalmatia that include: the mainland cities of Zadar, Split and Dubrovnik; the seaside towns and villages of Hvar, Korcula, Sutivan, Pucisce and Bol; and mountain villages linked to the sea in the Kuna area of Peljesac and Konacle.
Through my direct, firsthand "reading" of these places on foot, I was able to experience these urban structural systems intensively in relation to the natural environmental setting, details of architecture, turning points in history, and patterns of use by residents. This phenomenological method evoked intuitive perceptual responses in an integrated and comprehensive way from which to derive specific sources of human identity with each place.
WAR AND IDENTITY WITH PLACE
Through these studies, all paths pointed to the phenomenon of human identity as the keystone of meaning in urban places. Several subsidiary concepts came forth as the basic properties of place identity. Here, I discuss some of these concepts and suggest how they might be used for the reconstruction that will come when peace ultimately returns.
• Place identity exists simultaneously in a hierarchy of spatial scales, which each has its own identity of form.
I found that to grasp the sense of identity in any one place through experiencing its integrated form, each stood in the context of another, larger place‑-an island, a surrounding sub-region, or Dalmatia as a whole. Thus, when one settlement, no matter how small, is assaulted or threatened, the other places that form its surroundings are also affected.
Such is the case of a single village in Konavle or other villages near Osojnik. Both are further affected by the shelling of Dubrovnik, the center of their sub-region. In turn, that famed urban masterpiece typifies Dalmatia degraded as a whole. Because of its physical and cultural uniqueness, the shelling of its medieval walls, unscathed throughout history, impacts our forbearers in California and the world at large.
• The deepest sense of identity develops at the local urban level, since it is here that the most habitual and intimate experiences of daily life take place.
Smaller places have been shaped directly by the creativity of the local dwellers in response to geography, the needs of everyday living, close social and family connections, and small pedestrian scale. As a result, the strong sense of connectedness over generations involves the inhabitants of these places in deeper, more personal and heartfelt reactions to armed assault. Larger cities are affected on a more collective, community level that, in turn, generates an activated response.
• The particular spatial pattern of an urban place plays a dominant role in generating identity with the environment.
The "urban reading" I carried out on foot exposed me to the enormous potential variety of spatial forms for urban places. The uniqueness of each is revealed when the entire system of streets, squares, open space centers and buildings is fully experienced, and deliberately compared, as I learned in Hvar vs. Korcula and Bol vs.Korcula (Violich 1985).
In different ways, each place generates a profound sense of connectedness for people that is apparent in everyday life. Each has its own most endeared architectural features that fix images in the minds of "insiders" and "outsiders."
Thus, for example, when we in California see video footage of the buildings on Dubrovnik's Stradun with flames pouring out of windows, a far deeper anguish is felt than for one of the luxury hotels outside the walls. Likewise, in Split, when Diocletian's Palace is threatened, or in Zadar, when its compact streets set in two-thousand years of history is targeted by shells, we feel in our minds the shattering of our revered images, possibly even forever.
• Qualities of spirituality, well beyond their physical and factual attributes, lie waiting to be revealed by the potential capacity for human meaning within ourselves.
Our expanded awareness of the full dimensions of identity with place tells us that places can transcend their material being. Yet, this will happen only to the extent we open our consciousness to a higher level of perception than the hurried visits of tourists or the everyday stress of home environments allow.
We can point, for example, to Zadar's compact streets or Split's dialogue of form between its contrasting builders‑-Rome, Venice, and today's irrelevant Manhattan skyline. The essences of these places, now at a time of violent attack with intent of destruction, suddenly evoke a spirit that rises in protest above and beyond the visual image we carry in our minds.
Let us picture the demolition of one element‑-e.g., Zadar's Campanile, or Split's colonnades, or Dubrovnik's Revelin Tower. What is also destroyed is the spirit evoked by an interdependent "oneness"that binds all the separate urban elements together to make a place. With this destruction evaporates our responses of admiration, beauty, and wonder at the intergenerational creativity that brought these ennobled places into being.
With the damage already done to Dalmatia's cities, towns and villages, we can see clearly that there is no "spirit of place," but, rather, that the place evokes the spirit within ourselves. And that, in itself, has become a target of war.
MAKING PEACE WITH PLACE
Ultimately, war comes to an end and a long period awaits in which to make peace with the ravaged environment. Fortunately for Dalmatia, in comparison with other parts of Croatia, armed aggression ceased in the early stages of destruction. For that reason, the prospect for renewal not only can begin sooner and take less time but can also offer a model of enlightened methods to be used elsewhere.
Indeed, evidence is already abundant that this strong sense of environmental identity in Dalmatia has not been extinguished; this conference on war and the environment is itself an indication that the groundwork is already being laid for ways to overcome the damage done. It is impressive that systematic monitoring and recording of each and every hit, hole and fire has been carried out through local historic preservation bodies, even as attacks were on.
Because of the important role that environmental identity plays in Dalmatia, the concepts suggested here could well become themes to guide reconstruction. As a central organizing device, identity with place could help repair both the physical and psychological damage.
Violich, F., 1983. "Urban Reading" and the Design of Small Urban Places: The Village of Sutivan. Town Planning Review, 54, 41‑60.
Violich, F., 1985. Toward Revealing the Sense of Place: An Intuitive "Reading" of Four Dalmatian Towns. In D. Seamon & R. Mugerauer, eds., Dwelling, Place and Environment: Towards a Phenomenology of Person and World. NY: Columbia University Press, pp. 113-136.