Wrecked by war, bridge again spans cultures
A 16th-century arch, symbol of prewar diversity, soars again, aided by two Phila. professors and a Bosnian architect.
By Inga Saffron
Inquirer Architecture Critic
MOSTAR, Bosnia-Herzegovina - The friendship between the two Philadelphia professors and the Bosnian architect began here on a 16th-century Ottoman bridge that once connected, and then separated, the Muslim and Christian neighborhoods in this divided city.
This Friday, the three friends will meet again on Mostar's Old Bridge for the first time since the soaring, saber-shaped structure was gunned down on Nov. 9, 1993, during the frenzied height of Bosnia's nationalist civil war.
It will be no ordinary reunion. The three will gather on the newly rebuilt footbridge for its official dedication. As they gaze at the turquoise waters of the rushing Neretva River, they will be taking measure of how their work advanced Bosnia's reconstruction over the last decade.
The friendship between Temple University's Brooke Harrington, Drexel University's Judy Bing and Mostar native Amir Pasic originated with an obscure scholarly research project, but evolved into a crucial component of Mostar's rebuilding. Through their partnership, the two Philadelphia architecture professors helped Pasic pursue his dream of making the ruined span whole again.
Along the way, they helped bring together people who once glared at each other across Mostar's bitter ethnic divide. The west side of the river is largely, but not entirely, Croatian and the east side is predominantly Muslim, with a Serbian minority.
"It's wonderful that the bridge has been rebuilt. But it's even more wonderful to see the effort that people in Mostar made to put it back together," said Harrington, who visited the bridge this spring when it was still shrouded in scaffolding.
Scampering along a metal beam like a veteran construction worker, Harrington inspected the underside of the bridge to see whether the stones had been correctly aligned. He was so moved by the rebuilt arch that he spontaneously planted "a greasy handprint" on the creamy white stones, a small signature to a decade of work. "No one will ever be able to touch the bridge there again," Harrington noted with satisfaction.
From the time of its completion in 1566, until its destruction in 1993, Mostar's Old Bridge was famed for its balletic, 90-foot-high arch. The 12-foot-wide span was beloved as a city emblem and meeting place, in much the same way that Claes Oldenburg's Clothespin sculpture is in Philadelphia. But after Croatian nationalists turned their artillery on the narrow and strategically useless footbridge, it emerged as a symbol of Mostar's pre-war diversity. People from all sides risked their lives to cover the injured crossing with car tires and blankets in the hope of softening the blows.
Because of the manner of the Old Bridge's death, the 11-year struggle to bring it back to life was more than just another reconstruction project. It became a catharsis for an emotionally wounded city.
For the last 10 summers, Harrington and Bing have contributed to the healing by presiding over an architectural think tank whose mission was to imagine how Mostar should be rebuilt.
Working with Pasic, they brought students and faculty to the city for workshops that produced detailed plans for low-cost housing, renovation guidelines for the badly damaged Ottoman quarter, and a rebuilding scheme for a once-grand boulevard that during the ethnic fighting became a bombed-out no-man's land. The projects were chosen because they could help knit the city back together. "Mostar's future," Bing said, "is contingent on being one city."
Perhaps their biggest achievement was helping Pasic and others win international support to reconstruct a historically faithful copy of the Old Bridge.
"Amir was everything. He kept the rebuilding from being political, from being sectarian. He is a great visionary," said Jerrilyn Dodds, an architectural historian at City College of New York who participated in the summer workshop that Harrington and Bing oversaw.
Their workshop played a quiet, but important, role in the bridge's rebirth, Dodds added. It enabled Pasic to bring in "outsiders with fresh ideas. They kept the locals honest."
While rival forces no longer trade gunfire across the Neretva, Mostar remains a wary and divided place. The city was run by two separate municipal governments - one Muslim, the other Croatian - until this spring, when the United Nations administrator, Paddy Ashdown, ordered them to merge. Its school system remains segregated, although international authorities vow to integrate the high school this fall.
But the ethnic enclaves still exist as largely self-contained worlds. Until recently, "if you lived on the Muslim side, the Croatian pizzerias wouldn't deliver," said Richard Medic, who works for an international agency in Mostar. Right now, the only integrated group in the city of 100,000 is the swim club, and that's because there is only one pool.
The Old Bridge, which cost $8 million to rebuild, may be one of the few things on which both sides agree.
"If it brings tourists here, maybe it will be worth all the money they spent on it," said a Croatian woman hurrying from evening Mass at the sprawling new Catholic cathedral. The cathedral's 30-story-high concrete campanile was designed so it towers above Mostar's tallest minaret.
Because Mostar's future is so intertwined with the revival of its tourist industry, even many hardened Croatian nationalists grudgingly welcome its dedication next week, said Robert M. Beecroft, who heads the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which works to nurture democratic institutions in Bosnia.
He believes that Bosnia's future hinges on Mostar's ability to resolve its ethnic differences. "Mostar is in every way the crucible," said Beecroft, a University of Pennsylvania graduate. "If Mostar works, the country works. If Mostar fails, the country fails."
Harrington, 60, and Bing, 58, who are married, first met Pasic (pronounced PA-seech) in 1988, while on a research trip to Mostar to study its delicate wooden architecture. Pasic, 51, Mostar's city architect, was the local expert, so they looked him up.
Pasic, who taught architecture at the University of Mostar, had just finished a major restoration of the city's Ottoman quarter, a project that won him the Aga Khan Award, the most prestigious architecture prize in the Muslim world. He proudly took his American guests to see the old quarter's twisting streets of whitewashed shops, diminutive mosques, and ornate Hapsburg palaces.
Finally, Pasic led them up a steep, cobbled street to the footbridge built when Bosnia was under the sway of the Ottoman sultan, Suleyman the Magnificent. Bing said she will never forget the way the limestone arch did a perfect jetÚ over the green Neretva. It was almost 90 feet from bank to bank, almost as long as it was high.
"It was an iconic representation of connectiveness," Bing said. "First it bound together the mountain chasm, then the people on either side."
By the time the Philadelphia professors had a chance to return Pasic's hospitality, the Old Bridge's milky stones lay at the river's bottom.
Croatian forces had spent months trying to bring the bridge down. They fired at its keystone, until an engineer advised gunners to aim instead for the spring points at the base. With two well-placed shots, the 430-year-old Ottoman bridge crumbled like a cracker into the Neretva.
Pasic arrived in Philadelphia the following month. Harrington and Bing had invited him to lecture at Temple University and to open an exhibit on the ruined bridge. Suddenly a refugee, Pasic was uncertain of his own future, yet strangely confident about the bridge's.
Pasic greeted Harrington by handing him a colorful postcard of the bridge. It contained a formal invitation to its dedication ceremony. The date was Sept. 15, 2004, at 5 p.m. - 11 years in the future.
Pasic wasn't too far off in his scheduling. The dedication will take place eight weeks ahead of his 1993 prophecy.
At every university where Pasic lectured that winter, he handed out his invitations. "People laughed," Pasic recalled. Some found them a charming quixotic protest against the war. Others thought Pasic was crazy.
Pasic said he was just planning ahead. He knew that someday the Bosnia war had to end and reconstruction would begin. There would be a scramble for international aid, and he wanted Mostar's Old Bridge to be one of the first in line. By producing the invitations, he was simply borrowing a page from American advertising. He was creating a buzz.
It would take more than pretty invitations to persuade donors such as the World Bank and UNESCO, the U.N. cultural agency, to rebuild the bridge. During his stay in Philadelphia, Pasic asked Harrington and Bing to help him organize an international workshop to plan the city's reconstruction. He asked the professors whether they could hold the first workshop that summer - in Mostar.
Harrington and Bing were speechless. Croatian forces were still raining artillery fire on the city.
They promised to help, although they told Pasic that Mostar was still too dangerous in 1994 for students. So the first workshop took place in Istanbul, Turkey.
By 1997, Harrington and Bing thought that Mostar was safe enough. Harrington persuaded Temple to create a competitive fellowship. Drexel did the same. They hoped their best students would vie to spend their summers in a city with erratic electricity, spotty food supplies, and nightly gunfights.
While the workshop was churning out plans, Pasic was lobbying for international financing. The Center for Islamic History, Art and Culture gave grants to support the workshop and bring in preservation experts. "I've never seen any monument anywhere in the world that attracted the energy and passion of this bridge," said the group's Istanbul-based director, Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu.
By 2001, his group, the World Bank, UNESCO, the Bosnian and Croatian governments, and others had committed funds for the rebuilding. Many of Pasic's former students from Mostar's university were hired to oversee the work, yet he took no official role.
As a construction project, the bridge was easy. Although the original drawings by its Ottoman designer, Mimar Hayruddin, had been lost, the span had been precisely mapped before the war using photogrammetry. Architects knew the exact size, shape and placement of every stone. What they didn't know was precisely how the medieval masons had glued them together. All the evidence lay in the Neretva.
Workshop participants were arguing about the best approach when NATO soldiers stopped by and offered to help. They dispatched divers to inspect the stones. Hundreds were dredged up from the riverbed and arranged in an open field so that scholars could study them.
The scholars knew that Hayruddin's craftsmen had used a mortar of eggs and goat hair, but they learned that those workers reinforced the connections with other techniques. Most surprising was the discovery that the medieval construction workers had devised a surprisingly modern system for reinforcing the bridge.
Before each stone was used, it was fitted with several metal tabs. Stonemasons then chiseled narrow channels along the sides of the stones. As the stones were set in place, workers folded the interlocking metal tabs together, as if they were modern twist ties. Next, they poured molten lead into the channels. Once the lead cooled around the tabs, they were locked in place with a strong, tight seal. The triple seal of mortar, metal tabs and lead is one reason the bridge stood solid, even against the barrage of mortars.
The workers who started reconstructing the bridge in 2002 copied that medieval construction technique. Stonemasons were brought from Dubrovnik, Croatia, about two hours away, to chisel the stones using the old methods. Preservationists had hoped to rebuild the bridge with recovered stones, but most were too eroded by years under the Neretva. Only 1,088 stones, barely 30 percent of the total, were incorporated into the rebuilt bridge.
Many of the workers on the bridge are Croatian. Tihomir Rozic, who studied architecture with Pasic and remains a good friend, became the assistant project manager. He doesn't consider it odd to be rebuilding an Ottoman bridge that other Croatians destroyed. "We've always been able to work together," he answered, apparently forgetting five years of fierce fighting.
With two months to go before the bridge's reopening, city officials summoned Pasic to a meeting. Tito Street, the main street leading to the bridge, had been completely dug up, and the city couldn't decide how to repave it. Should the Ottoman boulevard keep its steep slope, or be sculpted into a modern series of terraced levels that would be easier to climb?
Pasic and Harrington arrived to find the heads of the city's construction departments - streets, water, gas and planning - circled around a table. They represented the newly unified city government, and included Croatians, Muslims and Serbs. It was the first time since the war that they had been in the same room. The discussion was as intense as any political debate, yet this time they were arguing about reconstructing the city, not destroying it.
Tito Street is central to Mostar's social life. People climb it on the nightly stroll known as the corso, ending up on the Old Bridge, where they can gaze out at the Neretva.
Pasic sat at the head of the table and asked questions, before suggesting a Solomonic solution: Divide the street down the middle. Make one side sloped, the other terraced. The gruff bureaucrats nodded in agreement.
On the way out, Pasic winked at Harrington. The meeting had been a big success, and not merely because the technical issues had been resolved. People were working together again.
"The bridge isn't going to be the end of the reconstruction," Pasic said. "Just the beginning."
Contact architecture critic Inga Saffron at 215-864-2213 or email@example.com.
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