Miasto i mosty

Cities for Thought

The City and Its Bridges

Publication: 11 October 2021

NO. 5 2011



Today building a bridge is no longer a feat. The Old Bridge was reconstructed to the most minute detail a few years after its destruction and the Mostar Old City has been inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List since 2005. Spanning the banks of the river is not a problem, in contrast to building bridges to mutual understanding between people.

The city emerged on a bridge. What gave rise to it was the Old Bridge on the Neretva. The city was called Mostar[1].

In the 16th century the construction of such a bridge was not easy. This architectural feat connected together two previously isolated sides of the river. And they became one city, with the Bridge rising in the middle. Without crossing it daily in both directions the social, economic and political life of the city would be unimaginable. Over the centuries the Bridge has been the most important thoroughfare of Mostar.

In the place where nature had dug a valley so that the Neretva current would define two separate banks, the bridge was put across the river as an expression of the human need for contact, encounter, dialogue, security. Without this “subversion”, without this cheeky interference into natural topography of the place, the city would not come into being here. Besides the river the surrounding landscape is defined by high rocky mountains, which flank the city from two sides and form a kind of corridor for strong and unpleasant winds, which sweep across Mostar. The Neretva flows from the north to the south, so the wind may blow only in two directions. The south wind from the Adriatic is warm and humid, the north wind, dry and cool, brings a better weather and sunshine to the Mostarians.

The circulation of water and air follows a constant pattern here. It had been so before the city emerged and it remains so. Nature dictated just one direction here: north-south. The bridge and then the city in a sense were built against nature, against its forces, vectors and energies. For they defined a new direction – of perceiving the world, its development but also of the problems to be struggled with by the city.


The art of a builder and an architect is composed of ideas and experience, aesthetic values and technology; they are accompanied by the courage of vision, of going forward. By their actions they change the external world, our surroundings, but they often do not think about the social, political, military and cultural consequences. A man is curious about what is on the other side of the river, about what he does not yet know, has not yet seen. Hence the powerful need to challenge nature. Through his labour, reason, curiosity and will man overcomes limitations imposed on him by nature.

Civilisation rediscovers the world, crosses borders, organises space, creates cities.

Civilisation destroys the world, creates borders, disorganises space, kills cities.

Several centuries after the bridge spanned the two banks and gave rise to the city, in the 1990s during the Balkan wars all bridges in Mostar were destroyed (apart from the Old Bridge also five others from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries) and Mostar was divided into eastern and western city.

Civilisation built it. Civilisation destroyed it. Civilisation is rebuilding it…

In the last decade of the previous century the city was stuck in a state from before civilisation. For without bridges Mostar does not exist.

But we must make it clear that it was not the Neretva that divided it again. Today’s frontier between the Bosnians and the Serbs runs along a street in the very centre of the city, called Bulevar (Boulevard) by the Mostarians. Until late 1950s a railway line passed through here. But it hampered the development of the city on the western bank of the Neretva. So in the new zoning plan the rail tracks were diverted outside the city centre, which created space for a new commercial, administrative and educational centre of Mostar. Residential buildings took up the whole left side of the Boulevard. The main square, a park, a school, a medical clinic, new churches, administrative and commercial facilities were located to the north and on the western side of the street. Still farther to the west there were orchards with family houses. Then factories started to colonise the suburbs – the inhabitants find employment there but the demand for labour is constantly increasing. The Mostar orchards are disappearing and housing estates are mushrooming. Urbanisation of the western part is running out of control. New city, new architecture, new lifestyle.

Eastern Mostar, with the Old City and the bridges across the Neretva, represents a different process. It is a city growing organically, evolving, with late-nineteenth century edifices – in the neo-Mauritanian style of the Austrian Herzegovina – merging with the earlier Ottoman fabric into a European-Oriental hybrid, which we may venture to call an “architectural dialogue” – an architecture of encounter.

So the Boulevard separated evolution from revolution.

During the war, in the final years of the twentieth century, the Boulevard was completely shattered and the former city centre was turned into a cordon sanitaire isolating the eastern and western Mostar from each other. The Old Bridge and the remaining five bridges have been rebuilt and they again join together the two banks of the Neretva but they do not unite the ethnically divided city. Today building a bridge is no longer a feat. The Old Bridge was reconstructed to the most minute detail a few years after its destruction and the Mostar Old City has been inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List since 2005. Spanning the banks of the river is not a problem, in contrast to building bridges to mutual understanding between people. It is the human “bridges” that are lacking in Mostar. And not only there but in most metropolises in the globalised world, needing a lot of “bridges” – “bridges over the dry” – contact between divided and confused individuals and communities.

Since the world began, our struggles with nature have been an element of development of civilisation; “domesticating” nature has been an achievement making life more comfortable and safe. And the war meant destroying civilisation, it has been a “human hurricane” destroying and killing man and his “buildings”. And therefore the man infected with warring, hatred and killing has to be “domesticated” again or – as Heidegger put it – teach him to dwell in the world so that he could build. To succeed in this task we need a “bridgeworks”, a workshop where you can learn to dwell in the world and later to build.

Today’s Mostar is divided by the Boulevard, just as it was once divided by the Neretva without bridges. During the three years of war (1992–1995), which were destroying the city, the frontline ran along the whole length of the street, making it an arena of cruel fighting between the Bosnian army and the Croatian troops. The central thoroughfare remains the border of their respective cities for the Bosnians from the eastern part and the Croats from the western part. The division established by the war is additionally entrenching the parallel character of the ethnic political, economic, sporting and cultural institutions as well as the school curricula, which differ not only in the language of instruction but above all in the propagated “truths” about the particular Balkan nations, their history and the wars they have fought against each other. For the second decade running these two feuding communities have been living side by side and hating each other.

Everything is divided

Divided city, divided communities, political and cultural institutions, schools. Continuous segregation and discrimination based on ethnicity and religion; artistic groups not working together, fights between sports fans after matches seen life and on television being in fact battles about national symbols and myths – an ersatz of the unfinished war and the persisting political status quo. Two stadiums, two post offices, two bus stations.

Everything in Mostar is divided. The only thing in common is the border.

The Boulevard is the daily source of fear for the Mostarians. It is a theatre where two ideologies, two nationalisms – although encoded in the colours and emblems of football fans – are in combat against each other. There are regular fights on the Boulevard. By controlling the Boulevard the police are trying to maintain peace in the city. But the policy and strategy of urban development should not be identified with police control and police interventions. Such short-term actions only reinforce the wall along the Boulevard.

But a border is not only a line of confrontation but also a space of dialogue, a place of conflict but also of encounter. So how should we build new Mostarian bridges?

When I speak about a “bridgeworks”, I mean a place/workshop where “two autonomous cosmopolitan communities” are acting towards rebuilding the Boulevard, neutralising the demarcation line and turning it into a “between” zone, into a space of dialogue. They both base their actions on social, educational and artistic activities. Those participating in them are simply “different”. Not adapted to living in uni-ethnic and uni-religious groups, they created here two border houses: United World College in Mostar (UWCiM)[2] and Young People Cultural Centre “Abrašević” (OKC Abrašević)[3].

UWC is a house for 150 secondary school students from all over the world and from Mostar, with the curriculum preparing for international final exams. Knowledge may be acquired here by foreigners and courageous young Mostarians (“others”) who want to live and learn in a border zone. OKC Abrašević is an organisation with roots in left-wing working class movements from the early twentieth century. It comprises people from various groups – socially underprivileged, ethnic, religious and sexual minorities, artistic and alternative groups – and create a space for alternative social and political activities. Interesting artistic, architectural and urbanistic ideas and conceptions are created but it is not only artistic actions and installations which are to perforate the Mostar wall but even the very seat of Abraševiĉ becomes an experimental transobject.

A mirror helps

The residents of Viganella, a small town in the Italian Alps, suffered for they had no sun. The surrounding mountains cut them off from sunlight. They existed in constant shade. Little wonder that they were not very happy. But one day they finally decided that they had had enough. And they procured a huge mirror directing sunlight straight on the main square. They mounted it on a mountain slope – a gigantic, 48-metres square mirror. Controlled by a computer. From mid-November until early February the reflected sunlight warms up the main square. Such a sunny news was reported by a local Mostar newspaper.

A mirror helps! And light helps even more. In Mostar there is plenty of light. This is what the Noble Prize winner Ivo Andrić wrote about the Mostar light: “When you spend a night in Mostar, you are woken up in the morning not by sounds but by light. I never had enough of looking at this light, although I encountered it everywhere. I always thought that when light enters you, you are permeated with love of life, courage and joy, the sense of measure and creative work. What I remember best from Mostar is the light.”[4]

A mirror helps! A meeting helps even more. What is lacking is not light but meetings, respect for the other and dialogue.

Each of the two parts of Mostar has its main street, its promenade. In the western part it is Kralja Tomislava Street (named after the Croatian King Tomislav). Earlier (before the war) it was called Avenija. Eastern Mostar has a long promenade (Fejićeva Street), penetrating the Old City and ending at the Old Bridge. Both promenades run to the Boulevard parallel to each other.

Mostar is not a large city. It has only one hundred thousand inhabitants; and yet Mostarians do not know how their city looks like. They live in ghettos.

More than seventy percent of them walk only in their part of the city. The Mostar west and east have not been in contact with each other for almost two decades. Almost eighty five percent of teenagers from western Mostar do not know how the Old Bridge looks like, although it is visited every year by millions of tourists from across the world. A similar percentage of their peers from the eastern part has to use a map to be able to move around the western part.

Within a social and artistic project by the Abrašević team special screens will be mounted alongside the main promenades in both parts of the city. In Avenija, where the residents of “the west” walk daily, images from “the east” will be relayed, goings on from Fejićeva Street will be shown. A similar transmission from Avenija will be shown in Fejićeva. Both sides will see each other. They will make a common cinematic walk…

If the mountain does not want to come to Mahomet, Mahomet must go to the mountain.

Mostar does not need a mirror reflecting light. But it needs a “mirror” reflecting the daily life and the unseen and unvisited parts of the city, which will help the residents to discover the “other” in their own city. It s a step towards breaking the prejudices and myths about co-residents belonging to a different religion and nationality. Prejudices are produced daily by nationalist media and irresponsible politicians in order to reinforce the division and to maintain the possibility of continuing to spread hatred and to hamper social dialogue.

Passageways and crossings

In the seat of Abrašević a passageway “perforating” the building was created, which made the border between the two Mostars more mobile and less clearly defined. In this transition zone the two Mostars will overlap. There will be posters, classified ads, photographs, sound recordings and films, gathering in one place information about activities of artists from both sides and events organised there. The passageway will not only be a safe bridge joining the two cities but also Mostar itself, in miniature.

We will go across without a sense of violating the border, for the border will be filled with Mostar.

Announcements of cultural events and audio and video reports from them will mix and create an extraordinary mosaic, showing the power of art in the divided city.

The passageway will stop the ambler. He will no longer run, frightened, in order to leave the no-man’s-land – the domain of emptiness and fear, a space of suspension – as soon as possible and find himself back in a domesticated area. The building, in a sense part of the infrastructure of the Mostar wall, will become a “buffer”, a soft crossing between the street and the interior, between the interior and the street.

The west – the bridge – the east.

The passageway at the border as a place teeming with life.

The bridge – the code – Mostar.

For centuries the city code of Mostar has been defined by bridges. Today we have to build bridge-like structures in the form of architectural or artistic installations, in order to heal and revitalise its social fabric. In the distant past Mostar would not become a city without the two banks being joined together. Today it needs bridges again to become a city once again.

The bridge turns out to be the best remedy against urbicide and an impulse leading to the recovery of city life in the south Balkans.


[1] Most means bridge in Serbo-Croatian, and in Polish (tr. note).

[2] web.mac.com/scodrington/UWC/Mostar.html

[3] www.okcabrasevic.org

[4] Ivo Andrić, Zuko Džumhur, Mostar, Mostar 1982, p. 5.

About authors

Husein Oručević

Political scientist, journalist and activist, involved in the politically, socially and architecturally committed project OKC Abrašević and in the multimedia programme of implementing new info technologies – abrasmedia.info in Mostar. He is also a consultant of the ArtInDiCities (Art in Divided Cities) programme and a broadcaster in Polish Radio Kielce and BH Radio 1 in Sarajevo.


Copyright © Herito 2020