Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.
What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation.
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened...
T.S. Eliot, Burnt Norton
Time Past in Time Present
Just as literature lives on ghosts that were given new lives writing and rewriting hundreds of versions of their many times multiplied actual and potential worlds, so are the art photographs of abandoned forts of Pula taken by Igor Zirojević, perceived as romantic ruins, the poetic records – one of many potential testimonies to a century of an utterly distinctive architectural futility.
In a city trapped in a cleft of confusion, a city that has it difficult to face a burden of its own history of long standing, of loud and onerous traces of finer eras which bequeathed their possessions mainly as a curse, rarely as a token of some better future days, the forts of Pula may well be an unmistakable example of staging some sort of the theatre of the absurd of architectural preposterousness.
Considering architecture’s mainly complex discourse and its procédé depending on the myriad given frames: specific expert elaborate studies, blueprints, essays, paradigms, historic circumstances and historic reformulations, social, cultural and philosophical concepts, the forts of Pula may be reflected upon in various manners, nevertheless, they are indisputable top-importance cultural heritage whose walls guard grand architectural knowledge per se as well as the phenomenon known as “fortification town” defined by its particular defensive purpose.
Carefully planned, designed and built during a rather long time continuum starting in the early nineteenth century that saw the construction of the first Austrian coast defence forts, even before Pula was officially declared the main Austrian naval base (Pula’s 1827 General Plan), until Pula’s official confirmation as the main military port in 1853 (Zentralkriegshafen) when the entire fortifying system was created in several building stages and the establishment of defence rings which would eventually end in destruction and conversion (partitioning and reusing iron parts) after WWI as the country was annexed to the Kingdom of Italy, it is obvious that the overall fortifying complex of Pula arose from a defence-against-the-big-attack (enemy) paradigm. If we look at their amazingly precise and detailed scheme, their communication interconnection in the perfect configuration setup based on the utmost respect for the given requirements of the ground that bears them, in whose soil they were inwrought, obsessive fortification for purposes of protecting the town from unwanted enemy incursions indicates a particularly interesting urban neurosis originating in a permanent fear of town wreckage. The attack that, nevertheless, never happened. At least not directly and in the manner imagined and anticipated in the military engineering prediction built in the core essence of their architectural creation.
Whilst many other European forts, as those in Verdun, Belgium or in Slovenia (Fort Kluže, Fort Hermann in Bovec in Slovenia, to draw a parallel between the neighbouring areas), really did serve their defensive purpose in certain military conflicts, preventing army incursions and resisting hostile attacks, changing, i.e. actively participating in the historic outcomes of war scenarios, Pula’s forts, despite their thoughtfully elaborate ring-shaped system concept that turned Pula into a “fortification town” phenomenon, have never served their purpose, which in turn turned their construction into an example of futility.
The reason, clearly, is not that the forts, a direct sequel to urban planning considerations of Pula’s territory as the main Austro-Hungarian military port, were meant merely to intimidate rather than fulfil their tasks as wheels of war machinery. Nay, designed in detail by eminent military engineers and architects who divided Pula into numerous defence sectors and subsectors, whose fortifications were permanently modernised and upgraded alongside technological developments and numerous innovations such as cannon recoil mechanism, brisance explosives or progress in ballistics, Pula’s fortifying architecture indeed did arise from the concept of having a clear purpose aimed at defending the main military port’s geostrategic position. Moreover, Pula’s fortifying system, naturally blended into the landscape, modifying and technically perfecting almost every fort on the hills around the town with minimal interventions in the terrain configuration, is a particularly interesting chapter of one’s of the most significant Croatian, Mediterranean, European and even world fortifying systems.
Yet, some hundred years later, their appearances stolen by the photographer’s lens, regardless of the shooting angle – weather an aerial shot or a close up, from within, from the living body of the fort itself – keep emerging as eternal marks of testimonies made by the noble Arcadian ruins left to languish in the gutter of pervading urban cluelessness.
The silence of Pula’s forts in these photographs writes out yet another chapter in an immense archive of the city void. It is a void that could never have been walled in, filled up, not even spanned by some new utility in the sea of blind spots and empty thoughts.
Drowning in a tidal wave of barren visions, one finds the last comfort in the primordial force of nature, in leafiness that embraces them compensating for the human failure in preserving the scale of an eternal beauty.
Constantly moving between the meanings within and the meanings without, between the autonomy of the object and its integration into the wider context, between creating a meaning (purposefulness) and representation, questioning the core essence of their unfulfilled (defence) purpose, the photographer does not perceive the forts of Pula merely as history marks – monuments.
On the contrary, questioning their aesthetics within time i.e. historical context, notably lining up their appearances like chapters in a book about the town, he finds a brand new challenge therein. The challenge, due to all deconstructions, to be estranged from dealing with the idea and meaning of space.
The photographs of forts of Pula are the frames in which the photographer questions the polysemic field of the meaning of experience seen in the projection of the idea of absolute timeless beauty.
Feeling, closely listening and evoking the matrix of past times in these photographs does not provoke an active attitude. There are no illusions of some better, more prosperous era that bore them, for the obvious reason of their being built as quite functional forms of architecture born from the imagery of an overwhelming chaos of war (the walls raised up against doom and death). In fact, one might say these photographs are one of possible poetic endings to a never written novel of agony of the city collapsing under its own burden.
Albeit loudly pulsing with the artist’s eternal aspiration to aestheticize his perception, these photographs may well be the purest evidence of discomfort in perceiving that, in the whole world, there is nothing more certain in human nature and humankind than the certainty of human doom itself.
And there comes the doom as a handsome groom beautiful robes sporting rather than hood and scythe holding...