"Experience a version of history
without the homework"

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Sam Jacob's opinion on Dubrovnik

Opinion: Dubrovnik, with its Game of Thrones-buoyed tourism industry, is a historical drag act that exposes conflicting tensions between history, reconstruction and modernity, says Sam Jacob.


As you enter through the ancient gates of Dubrovnik, there are two large maps fixed to the stone walls. One is a typical tourist orientation map, picking out the main sites that you've probably already marked in your Lonely Planet guide to Croatia. The second, exactly the same size, is a map showing the "damages caused by the aggression on Dubrovnik by the Yugoslav army, Serbs and Montenegrins, 1991-1992". Black dots, triangles and red bars litter the map, indicating buildings damaged by direct impact, burned by fire, shrapnel damage and direct hits on the pavement.

Not that you'd notice now. The damage caused by 650 hits on the city during a seven month siege has all but been erased by a restoration programme coordinated by UNESCO. The fortified walls, marble-paved streets, cathedrals and towers of the World Heritage Site are now entirely (re)intact. Almost too intact. There's something in the too-red roof tiles that lends the city an air of unreality, a frag in the otherwise seamless image of history, realer and in higher definition than it should be.

The walled old city is now flooded by tourism. Giant cruise ships moored in the harbour disgorge their selfie-stick-wielding and GoPro-ed manifest, self documenting their lobotomised procession around the fortified walls before cooling off with a Fro Yo, snacking on a slice-o-pizza and grazing the souvenir shops for fridge magnets and costumed dolls. The massive stone structures of the city, once attacked from the exterior, have now entirely hollowed out from the inside like the human skin suits made by notorious murderer and body snatcher Ed Gein. The eviscerated body of the city is filled with the infrastructure of tourism.

In other words, a typical summer in European history.

Real history is hard though. Especially when what you really want is a relaxing holiday. All those dates, obscure figures, those years of politics, religion, war and culture are quite something to try and get your brain around. Luckily, in Dubrovnik you can experience a version of history without the homework. Capitalising on the city's starring role in the HBO hit, there are Game of Thrones tours – though you'll need to book a few days ahead due to popular demand. The tours take you to the very site of Joffrey's wedding, the battle of the Blackwater, the Red Keep and so on. The guides speak as though these were real events, real historical figures. In the minds of their audience, the characters emerge from the screen into the past of the city, its stones worn with the patina of imaginary footsteps. The unreal (in as much as it is to some extent a replica) reconstructed version of Dubrovnik is, for many of its visitors, realer in its role as fictional scenography.

Game of Thrones itself is a historical mashup, a collaged compression of thousands of years of European history recast as fantasy narrative. It’s the War of the Roses, the Crusades, the bible, classical myth all played back through a surface image of incredible perfection. It's history not as fact but as a contemporary sensation of history.

Ideal, in other words, for the zombified minds decanted from the floating hulks of non-place cruise ships on their Adriatic odysseys. Spend twelve nights aboard the good ship Serenade Of The Seas and you'll visit Rome, Naples, Messina, Split, Koper, Venice, Kotor and Corfu along with Dubrovnik. As Royal Caribbean say: "One of the best things about Europe is that there are seemingly endless ports of call. From Naples, Italy to Bergen, Norway, Royal Caribbean International® makes it easy for you to explore more historic European cities and countries in one fantastic holiday." With an itinerary like that it is no wonder that one might prefer to visit a fiction rather than a real city.

The problem of reconstruction is an old and hoary one. John Ruskin – from whom we can trace the philosophy of modern conservation – argued that "restoration" meant "the most total destruction which a building can suffer: a destruction out of which no remnants can be gathered: a destruction accompanied with false description of the thing destroyed". He goes on to say: "It is impossible, as impossible as to raise the dead, to restore anything that has ever been great or beautiful in architecture".

Ruskin assumes that architectural history is a static thing. But what if it's not. What if, instead of fixed fact, history and the present are constantly in flux. Perhaps that is the real truth of the anachronic vortex that Dubrovnik exemplifies. And for Dubrovnik, we might read almost any place in Europe rebuilt stone by stone after World War Two.

The relationship between war and tourism runs deep. We could think of the infamous Baedeker Raids of 1942 which saw the Luftwaffe use tourist guides to England to identify their targets. The Nazi propagandist Baron Gustav Braun von Sturm declared "we shall go out and bomb every building in Britain marked with three stars in the Baedeker Guide". By wiping out the cultural history of the enemy, the theory went, you would demoralise them.

The same theory underlies the destruction of the Stari Most, the Old Bridge in Mostar destroyed by Croat forces during the Croat–Bosnian War in 1993 (day trips available from Dubrovnik). The destruction of the 16th century Ottoman bridge was the destruction of a cultural landmark rather than the destruction of a site of military strategic value. It too has now been reconstructed – again under the auspices of UNESCO – to form a New Old Bridge whose presence is on the one hand a faithful historical reconstruction but, transformed by the acts of reconstruction, a monument to its own destruction too.

Tourism itself holds the possibility of reconstruction too. We see this in a University of Washington project authored by its Graphic and Imaging Laboratory. Here, the vast public collections of tourist photos available on the internet are reframed as a way of reconstructing entire cities. The three dimensional model of the city is derived by analysing and matching the photograph's common points and the relative camera positions.

This video shows the result of the Dubrovnik data set, downloaded from Flickr and processed into a three dimensional space, strangely echoing the map of the city's war damage in its agglomeration of 'shots'.

The idiot unseeing gaze of the tourist – those guys with the selfie-sticks and GoPros – unwittingly provides the deep and detailed record that Ruskin himself advocated.

It may well be impossible to raise the architectural dead, but maybe it is more of a mistake to think of a place like Dubrovnik as dead in the first place. It might be an ersatz version of its former self, a historical drag act, but what better place to experience the sheer difficulty of modernity.

Visitors can experience the city as an architectural reconstruction, as a piece of HBO's art direction, a 20th century war site and the capital of the historic republic of Ragusa. It's all of this, all at the same time. A fluid palimpsest of half remembered fact, half written fiction, whose endless destruction is intrinsic to its perpetual reconstruction.


Sam Jacob is principal of Sam Jacob Studio, professor of architecture atUniversity of Illinois Chicago and director of Night School at the Architectural Association, and edits Strange Harvest.

  • Anorak

    What a bitter, xenophobic, snobbish text. If your only reference to understand cultural heritage was Ruskin I pity your students.