About a month ago, when I was writing about Art Nouveau in Vinkovci, I have made a promise to share some more Croatian Art Nouveau architecture with you. And really, I was saving the best for last! I have photographed an abundance of buildings in a city called Osijek. Showing all pictures at once is simply too much. So I have decided to first tell you about the history of Osijek, show you a few buildings, and in due course show you the more detailed pictures, one building at a time.
Currently, Osijek is the fourth largest city in Croatia with a population of approx. 114,000. It is the largest city and the political, economical and cultural centre of the eastern Croatian region of Slavonia, located on the right bank of the river Drava, at an elevation of 94 metres. This elevated position, which prevented Osijek from being flooded by the local swamp waters, gave the city its name, as Osijek comes from the Croatian word “oseka”, which means “ebb tide”.
The origins of human habitation in Osijek date back to Neolithic times, with the first known inhabitants belonging to the Illyrian tribes. Roman emperor Hadrian raised the old settlement of Mursa to a colony with special privileges in 131. After that, Mursa had a turbulent history, including several battles deciding the destiny of the whole region. The Croats who moved into the area and created a settlement near the ruins of Mursa, gave it its present name, Osijek.
However, in 1526, Osijek was damaged by Ottoman conquerors, and restored in oriental style. Suleiman the Magnificent built a famous, 8 kilometer-long wooden bridge over the Drava river and the swamps, facilitating the fast economic development of Osijek (by the way, the same Suleiman commissioned the construction of the world-famous bridge ‘Stari Most’ in Mostar). Osijek became the most important and probably largest town in Turkish Slavonia, only to be restored to western rule in 1687 when the Turks were ousted and the city was occupied by the Habsburg (Austrian) Empire. After the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1920, Osijek was relinquished to Yugoslavia.
In 1809, Osijek was granted the title of a Free Royal City and during the early 19th century it was actually the largest city in all (present) Croatia. The city developed along the lines of other central European cities, with cultural, architectural and socio-economic influences filtering down from Vienna and Buda (now Budapest). Cultural life mostly revolved around the theatre, museums, collections, and printing houses. City society, whose development was accompanied by a prosperous economy and developed trade relations, was related to religious festivals, public events (fairs), entertainment and sports.
The real impetus to Osijek’s economic development came when a solid road over the Baranja swamps was constructed. The road became an important link between Middle and Western Europe that had been cut of for about a century after Suleiman the Magnificent’s wooden bridge had been destroyed by the Habsburg army. Regular mail services were established from Osijek via Budapest to Vienna soon thereafter.
The economic progress further improved with the establishment of a Trade & Craft Chamber for Slavonia in 1853. New banks were set-up, new trade offices and crafts enterprises opened, and the local railways of Slavonia opened the line Osijek Nasice – Kapela in 1884. Soon lines from Osijek to Vrpolje (1905) and Vinkovci (1910) established links with Zagreb, Rijeka, Vienna and Belgrade. Horse-drawn streetcars were introduced in 1882, and replaced again by electric streetcars in 1926. The Public Telephone Company had 43 subscribers in 1884.
A Swedish match factory and a brewery started productions in 1856; various enterprises produced agricultural machines (1864) and furniture (1892). Manufacture of leather started (1873), of flax (1901), of sugar 1905, of candy and chocolate products (1907) and brushes (1920), soap produce works opened (1921) etc. The steam and electric mills commenced functioning in 1879 and 1911 respectively, an iron foundry worked since 1912. The electric power plant started operating in 1926 and electric light installations spread throughout the town. Osijek was the largest and industrially most developed town in Croatia in the first decades of the 20th century.
So, in a nutshell: Thanks to its geographically central position, the furtile agricultural land all around and the industrialisation from the 1850s onward, Osijek has known a wealthy cultural history. The broad treelined boulevard that streaks east-wards from Gornji Grad towards Tvrđa is famed through-out Europe for harboring one of the bestpreserved ensembles of Art Nouveau houses in this corner of the continent. Ranked side by side on the north side of the Europska Avenija (numbers 12 to 22), they were commissioned by filthy-rich industrialists and hot-shot lawyers in the years before World War II. Wilhelm Carl Hofbauer, Ante Slaviček, Franz Wybird, Viktor Axmann und Dionis Sunko were the Osijek based architects responsible for most of the work.
When I visited Osijek in October 2012, it wasn’t nearly as vibrant as it must have been in the past, but I could still feel the history and taste the magnificence of this remarkable city that is currently, really, in the middle of nowhere. Even though the city remains at the centre of an important agricultural region, most of the industries declined and in some cases closed completely during the 1990s war in Croatia. Clearly, the population lacks the funds to quickly restore the palaces as most of them still suffer from some sort of damage, most often superficial pockmarks from artillery and mortar fire. Other buildings are not yet repaired due to ownership problems.
But one can see restoration is in progress, and gradually they may actually be able to restore the city’s facades back into shape. Maybe organistions like Unesco or Art Nouveau European Route could help-out Osijek in becoming once again the glorious city it used to be…
Blog Alexander Zhurba
English Wiki page on European Avenue
English Wiki page on Osijek
German Wiki page on Osijek
Research of the remains of Suleiman’s Bridge
Secesija u Hrvatskoj – Forum
Secesija u Hrvatskoj – Partage Plus
Viktor Axmann – List of Objects
Kino = Cinema
Kuća = House
Ulica = Street