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Dalmatia, Urban Identity, and the War, 1991-1993:

Seeking Meaning in Urban Places

Francis Violich

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.


    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.


    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.