The Story of Zagreb through Architecture

By Sona Rao


Many say a photograph captures the present moment. However, if observed closely, it captures everything that has happened until that instant. The ephemeral moment of passing a building in Zagreb is like looking at a picture, but a closer look can reveal what stories lie in the foundation or in between the cracks. The architecture of Zagreb is special in that no two buildings are the same, yet every building is related through history. A walk through Zagreb can explain so much if travelers know where to look and how to look past the façade. Croatia has a history of constant change. With wavering borders, Croatia’s identity has transformed many times. A look at the architecture of Zagreb is an understanding of the cultural identity of Croatia. At the turn of every corner is a new page, and every district a new chapter.


The history and geography of the region parallel. The Medvednica mountains stand in the northern part of Zagreb and river Sava is in the south. The story of Zagreb begins in the 11th century when it was founded in Medvednica and the city expanded southward, creating an interesting gradient of time in the architecture throughout the city; the oldest structures are found in upper town near Medvednica and the newest are found in the south near Sava. Zagreb is a medieval city and remnants of Romanesque establishments, primarily churches and fortifications, still exist in Zagreb today. For example, Zagreb used to be surrounded by a city wall, a common structural element of medieval cities, that circled around upper town and ended at the present-day Dolac market. While majority of this wall has been converted to residential areas and promenades, portions of the wall still remain embedded in the buildings.

Zagreb was the size of upper town until the 19th century. Upper town has two main hills that housed different types of buildings: Gradec and Kaptol. While Kaptol was a religious center with many Romanesque churches, Gradec was residential and cosmopolitan. An example of a Romanesque building is St. Mark’s Church. Known for its colorful and symbolic exterior, the church was built in the 13th century but was renovated to a Gothic style in the 14th century, evidenced by the pointed archway of the southern portal with sculptures of the Twelve Apostles. The Zagreb Cathedral, one of Zagreb’s most recognizable landmarks, was also built in the 13th century but because of wars against the Ottoman Empire and earthquakes, the cathedral underwent a series of renovations throughout history. Today, the cathedral has two Neo-Gothic spires that tower over the city as well as an arched doorway engraved with intricate beige floral designs.

Roman Catholicism continued to be a focal point of Zagreb in the 17th century, but religious establishments had transformed into a dramatic Baroque style that had been spreading across Europe. An example of a Roman Catholic Baroque church is St. Catherine’s Church, which was built in 1632 and was the first sacred Baroque building in Zagreb. It is characterized by open spaces, grand colonnades and domes. A statue of St. Catherine is embedded near the top above evenly-spaced statues of religious figures and philosophers below her. Croatia’s long-standing continuity of religion was evident in churches like St. Catherine’s and its predecessors, until Croatia underwent a pivotal cultural conversion and external forces extended the city to the south.

The expansion of the Austro-Hungarian Empire into Croatia in the 19th century realigned the cultural center of the country, and its impact is clearly outlined in the streets of Zagreb in the transition from upper to lower town. Below Gradec and Kaptol lies Ban Jelacić Square, the heart of Zagreb’s festivals and main events. Ruled by the Habsburgs, Austria-Hungary absorbed Croatia until the 1920’s and was responsible for a majority of Zagreb’s praiseworthy architecture, particularly in the center of the city. Most of their buildings are found along the Green Horseshoe, a series of parks that wind through the streets, flanked by government buildings. In fact, Zagreb is often considered a “little Vienna” because of its secessionist-style architecture. Secessionist architecture, also known as Art Nouveau, was characterized by linear ornamentation, detailed patterns and a series of arches. Considered by experts to be one of Zagreb’s greatest architectural achievements, the Croatian National Archives building is the epitome of Art Nouveau that also blends Neoclassicism. The Archives is famous for its wide dome above the main façade and its opulent vertical openings. Overall, the multicolored secessionist buildings along the Green Horseshoe add life to the city and represent a major part of Croatia’s historical identity, however the country took another turn in the 20th century.


Croatia in the 20th century was a part of Yugoslavia. Tito and Mussolini’s influence had transformed the political and social structure into communism and socialism. Buildings from the 50s through 80s are seen mostly in southern Zagreb, but communist influence had spread throughout the city to Ban Jelacić square. Unlike Art Nouveau, buildings from this time period are utilitarian and lack character. The buildings have repetitive patterns of windows and are colored white or grey. This part of Zagreb was prominent until 1991, when Croatia declared independence as a nation for the first time in a very long history.

As the fulcrum of a country that has pivoted in so many directions, Zagreb is a multifaceted city with variegated architecture that mark different parts of its past. As travelers stand on the upper hills, they can see the tale of Zagreb from the medieval churches in the hills to the modern buildings by the river.


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