In the second half of the 1930s, in what was at the time the Kingdom of Italy, the Istrian Coal Mines of Raša Company (Istarski ugljenokopi Raša), as a part of the Italian coal mining enterprise called Azienda Carboni Italiani – A.Ca.I, was undergoing a phase of strong expansion. The modern mines were witnessing a significant growth in the production of coal, which was approaching one million tonnes per year. At the same time there was an increase in the number of employees, which was nearing 10,000. It was precisely because of the need to provide accommodation for its employees that the company decided to build two workers’ settlements, first Raša (Arsia), in the period from 1936 to 1940, and then Podlabin (which at the time was given the name of Pozzo Littorio d'Arsia, that is Lictor Shaft of Raša, given the fact that the settlement belonged administratively to the municipality of Raša), from 1939 to 1942. Due to the misleading fascist propaganda, in professional literature it is often stated that the settlements were built because it was Mussolini who wanted them, which is not true. They were, of course, built in his time, with his support and as some of the newly built towns known as città di fondazione, but our case studies were primarily built in order to meet the mine’s accommodation needs.
Podlabin is the last settlement that was built in the so-called fascist era, from 1940 to 1942, and solemnly inaugurated on 28 October 1942, marking the 20th anniversary of the March on Rome, which brought Mussolini’s fascists to power. By building the flats the company wanted to retain the workforce and thus solve the great problem of its employees’ fluctuation. On the one hand an employee who worked in the mine for a longer period of time depended on it, which is why he was more favourable and loyal to it, on the other hand he gained a precious experience as a miner and was more rarely injured, and thus ended up being more productive.
The town planning and architectural design project for the new town was assigned to a young, but already well-established architect, Eugenio Montuori (Pesaro, 1907 – Rome, 1982), a staunch follower of modern, functional and rational architecture, who had acquired experiences in the same field by working on the planning of the new towns of Sabaudia (in 1934), Aprilia (in 1936) and Carbonia (in 1937), whereas in Rome, together with Vitellozzi, he had achieved great success with the inspirational and modern design of the Termini Railway Station façade.
Montuori builds the new settlement of Podlabin on a relatively flat plateau, about 220 metres above sea level, with a surface area of 100,000 square metres, beneath what is the heart of Labin’s historic Old Town, some five kilometres from Raša. Like the latter, Podlabin was also built in the proximity of the local mine, but separately from it, because the architect wanted the residential part to be as clean as possible and free from pollution caused by its industrial part.
The layout of the town is simplified to the greatest extent possible. As in the planning scheme of an ancient town, that is of a Roman military camp (we should not forget that Italian Fascists presented themselves as the natural heirs to ancient Rome), the streets intersect, as much as possible, at right angles creating an illusion of perfect order and harmony. Within such an “insular” screen carried out in a consistent manner, Montuori places a series of two types of houses oriented equally north-south, in order to prevent the north-eastern wind (bora) from hitting the main façade. According to the original plan, in Podlabin 14 big two-floor residential buildings (called kazarmoni) and 50 smaller one-floor houses (which were called kazakape) should have been built, but in the end only 12 larger and 41 smaller buildings were constructed. The centre of the settlement, that is the town square, is traced in its south-western part, on the outskirts. In an area completely separate from that part of the settlement, right beneath Labin’s hill, another 20 one-floor houses (so-called vilete) were built. The three types of houses are a reflection of the rigorous hierarchical division of the mine employees into: miners and support staff, supervisors and office workers, and technicians and engineers. The overall housing facilities of Podlabin consisted at the time of about 600 flats for around 2,400 to 3,000 inhabitants. During the construction of Podlabin local materials, especially stone, sand and cement, were used to the greatest extent possible.
Following the then principles of rationalism and functionalism, even in Podlabin Montuori creates the idea of his buildings with the use of clear-cut, simple and symmetrical volumes and clear-cut and smooth surfaces, with mostly horizontal lines, which gives everything a Mediterranean feel. A contrast to the smooth walls is created by the bases’ ashlars made of local stone.
The town square
Situated at the intersection of the two main roads, the town square has an elongated rectangular shape. There are, in fact, two spaces, the larger of which having a civic function and is primarily intended for trade, allowing at the same time mass rallies and religious gatherings. The smaller space is somewhat elevated in relation to the larger one and separated from the latter by a porch having four square openings, everything being made of stone; it has a religious use given the presence of the church and its bell tower. The larger part of the square is dominated by a prominent corner tower. Between the tower and the building standing next to it (known as Ceva), in the street-level section of the building, an opening-passage to the town farmers’ market was left. In the larger part of the square, instead of the usual fountain, the architect left a big tree to grow defining it by placing around it a larger circular stone bench on which the inhabitants can talk or rest. Montuori wanted to put a special emphasis on two elements in the square: the corner tower or, better, the Lictor Tower, as a symbol of political power and the bell tower as a symbol of religious power. The square offered three possibilities of enjoying a beautiful view towards the neighbouring streets with their houses of the same height in harmonious and rhythmical alignment. By looking towards the east it was possible to admire a nice panoramic view of the Old Town. On the fourth side, in the south corner of the square, there was a view towards the harmonious complex of the church of Saint Francis and its separate square bell tower, which provided the whole complex with the necessary vertical accent.
According to Montuori’s plans, the following contents should have been built next to the square: a dopolavoro (a room for different activities after work), a cinema, an elementary school, a kindergarten, premises for young people with a sports hall, a municipal office, a post office and a hotel for bachelor miners, a canteen for office workers, whereas a bit farther an outpatient facility with a community hospital for 40 people and a children’s health care facility. Most of these contents remained on paper and were never carried out. The designation dopolavoro was given to the freestanding one-floor building near the crossroad in the direction of Ripenda. Most health care institutions never started operating. After the war they were enlarged and turned into the local secondary school.
The original harmony of the square was severely and irreversibly disrupted after World War II. First and foremost, the porch facing the church was bricked up and thus a barrier was created in front of it. In addition, to all residential edifices in the square one or two floors were added, so that the Lictor Tower lost its dominant position. Through these interventions and annexes the architect’s idea of the square was completely devaluated.
The Lictor Tower and the Ceva house
In the first part of the square dominant are the elevated Lictor Tower with a square layout and the Ceva house. At the time of its construction, the tower was called torre littoria, which is an indication of the Roman fasces, the symbols of strength, harmony and unity. Nevertheless, ideologically, it is basically associated with the tradition of the medieval municipal palaces-towers, functioning as the seat of government and sacrosanct administrative power and governance. The tower was meant to provide protection against possible air raids, which is why its exterior walls are covered, as if it were a fortification, with ashlar string courses. The compact massive walls have openings only at the top, where there are five narrow rectangular windows. On the façade facing the square, at the level of the first floor, a balcony was carried out, and it was meant to be one of those speaker’s platforms from which fascist leaders would address the crowds assembled beneath. The tower is in fact the only concession that the architect was forced to make to the fascist ideology, which explains why it housed the headquarters of the Fascist Party (P.N.F). With its striking height, the tower topped and outshone all the two-floor buildings around it. After World War II it lost its dominant position, as well as the balcony, the symbol of the rhetoric of fascism.
The Ceva building was named after the initials of its architect – Cesare Valle. Such a facility, with the same name and slightly larger, can be found in Carbonia as well, which clearly indicates the adoption of the same architectural solution. The building has in its layout the form of the letter L and on the ground floor it is enlivened by a playful row of semicircular arcades behind which there are premises for retail businesses. The first and the second floor are occupied by flats. Because of the lack of residential space in Podlabin, after World War II to the Ceva house two more floors were added.
The church of St. Francis and its bell tower
Montuori paid special attention to the design of the church as the most important building in the square. Considering the orientation and dimensions of the square, the church could not have the east-west alignment, as the Catholic tradition suggests. Directly in front of the church there was supposed to be another porch, a smaller one and open, with pillars and stairs. Later on it was walled up sidewise. On the eastern side of the church a wall was erected and behind it there were several trees, which is why the architect designed this area as a town park.
In order to emphasise the importance of the church, the architect imagined, as a setting, a high, monumental façade, larger than the real dimensions of the church. The monolithic façade is broken by a bigger, oval stained glass window representing Saint Francis. Inspired by renowned Tuscan Renaissance examples, Montuori divided the façade into regular horizontal layers of smoothly formed stone, in two different shades. He repeated a similar playfulness on the bell tower. The church has three naves among which the main nave is exceptionally accentuated so that the lateral naves seem like narrow aisles from which it is almost impossible to participate in services, especially because of the massive pilasters. The altar area, apsidal in form, and the pilasters are covered with a layer of larger black marble panels. The apse window openings are narrow and their heads are semicircular. The windows of the main nave are rather big, long and rectangular, while the windows of the lateral naves are rectangular, laid horizontally and darkened at a later time. Beside the church, at the back, a parish house was built.
Inside the church there is an inscription testifying to the fact that the church was erected in honour of the Blessed Francis of Assisi and that on 18 August 1943 it was consecrated (HAEC ECCL. IN HONOREM BEATI FRANCISCI ASSIS. CONF. AEDIFICATA AC 18.VIII.1943. BENEDICTIONE INAUGURATA). St. Francis was probably chosen as the patron saint to commemorate the convent of the same name which had been active for centuries not far from here, next to where the existing stadium lies. Later on, the patron saint was changed and the church was consecrated to Our Lady of Fatima, while in recent times the original name was restored.
In the church there are three valuable works of art: the expressive painted crucifix made by Eugen Kokot, a local artist, the work "Jeseovo stablo" (The Tree of Jesse), an oil on wood by Antonio Moreschi from the beginning of the 17th century, which, unfortunately, lost its originality because of bad restorations, and the work "Maslinova gora" (The Mount of Olives), an oil on canvas by Valentino Lucas from the second half of the 19th century.
The separate bell tower, of Italic type, with a square layout, narrow and tall, intentionally arranged along the axis of the main access street leading to the square, fits perfectly into this complex and represents the necessary counterbalance to the church façade compactness. The string courses of the bell tower contribute to an impression of its stability, while at the top it is open on all sides, having four narrow vertical openings. The bell tower ends with a shallow hip roof covered with half-round tiles.
Deriving their name from the Italian word villette, meaning “small villas”, these buildings were built for the mine’s managerial staff, which is why they are more comfortable. Each building was connected to the hot water system of the mine, allowing heating the premises with radiators, which in those days was an innovation ahead of its time. Four viletes had their interiors especially designed for the mine directors. The viletes originally had two four-bedroom flats with approximately 100 square metres on the ground and upper floor. Today these buildings have four two-bedroom flats each occupying a surface of 50 square metres, two on the ground floor and two on the upper floor. Each flat has a separate entrance with a small anteroom from which an interior narrow staircase leads to the upper floor. The ground floor is a little elevated, which allows excellent ventilation and prevents moisture in the ground-floor flats. It also permits building the necessary basement premises below ground level. Every house, that is each flat, has a larger green area suitable for a flower or a vegetable garden. The ground-floor flats have direct access to the green area through a balcony opening. The walls are flat and smooth, while on the ground floor they are enriched with the use of the local ashlar stone used to build an elevated base. The hip roofs are covered with half-round tiles. The larger window openings allow the maximum use of daylight. The elevated ceilings of the premises contribute to the spaciousness of the flats.
Originally derived from the Italian word casermone, meaning “large house”, kazarmoni, intended for miners and common workers, have an elongated rectangular main part with three distinct protruding bodies (corpo avanzato), which are almost square in shape. On the first and the second floor the protruding parts of the buildings are connected to the main body by structures referred to as bridges which, by their rhythmical repeating, create a feel of indentation and even of a richness of shapes, despite the overall simplicity. Each bridge has its own internal staircase. The architect accomplished a residential building with 27 two-bedroom flats by repeating nine times on three levels the basic element consisting of two bigger (56 square metres) flats facing one another in the central part and a smaller flat (45 square metres) in the protruding part of the building.
The elevated base was built of stone. The façades are smooth, the windows are relatively large and the roofs were originally flat. During its later renovations the kazarmoni buildings were given a hip roof covered with half-round tiles.
Each flat in the prominent parts has a hall, two bedrooms, a kitchen-dining room, a toilet and a small pantry, while the flats in the main part have, instead of a pantry, a small terrace-balcony. Below the ground-floor levels, in the central part there is a basement area that did not meet the needs of the tenants, which is why wood-sheds were built on the clay courts between the kazarmoni buildings. Until the 1970s, coal, bought by the miners at special prices, was used as a fuel for the built-in kitchen stoves.
Deriving their name from the Italian designation Case per i capi, meaning “bosses’ houses”, these buildings were intended to be inhabited by the middle class among the mine’s employees, that is by work-sites bosses, supervisors and clerks. The buildings have four three-bedroom flats, two of which occupying 72 square metres on the ground floor and two of 69 square metres on the first floor, each with a separate entrance. The ground-floor flat entrance has a smaller semicircular covered porch to which a few stone stairs lead, which means that the level of the ground floor is elevated compared with the ground level. An elevated stone base reaching the ground-floor level encircles the whole building. Below the ground-floor level there are ventilation openings running diagonally from one façade to the other. The external lateral stone staircases lead to the upper-floor flats. Both the porch and the staircases bring to mind the so-called baladur, a frequent element of the Istrian rural building tradition, so it is only in this segment that it would be possible to find a connection between Montuori’s solutions and the local architectural heritage. On the opposite façade the ground-floor flats have a larger balcony opening leading to a spacious terrace, which is directly connected to the green area of the garden. Each flat in the kazakape buildings has a plot of land. Originally, green areas were larger in proportions, but in the 1960s they were reduced in size because of the construction of garages.
The kazakape buildings have a hip roof covered with half-round tiles.
The flats are designed to have two larger and one small bedroom, a kitchen connected to the dining room, a hall and two toilets unequal in size, a pantry, as well as a wood cellar. Their large windows allow a better use of daylight, while their elevated ceilings give each room an impression of spaciousness.
The administration building
The administration building, located at the edge of the mine’s industrial zone, has an elevated central part, rectangular in shape, to which two lower parts are connected, one in the direction of the square and the other one in the direction of the shaft headgear (šoht). In the central part, on two levels, there were various offices for the needs of the mine management. The spacious main entrance is elevated a few stone stairs. The luxurious marble staircases lead to the upper floors from the main lobby. After World War II, to this part of the building two floors were added, with all the administration necessities.
In the part orientated towards the square there was the miners’ canteen which after World War II was popularly known as “Cetrti obrok”.
Another entrance once used by the miners, elevated a few stone steps, is situated on the ground floor on the side of the building. What followed was a hallway opening on its right side into a spacious hall (today known as marble hall), covered in grey marble, and offering a whole range of counters at which the miners could find a solution to everything they needed to solve in relation to to their work. To the left of the hallway there was a dressing room, bathrooms, toilets and a connection to the lamp house known as lamparna, from which it was possible to access the shaft headgear lift. Below this level there was a morgue, a facility which was, unfortunately, indispensable to the mine. According to some estimates, during the four centuries of mining activities in the area of Labin around 750 miners had lost their lives in the local mine, until the 1980s. From then on, no more fatalities were recorded.
After the closure of Labin’s shaft in 1988, what followed is a long period of progressive abandonment and devastation of the whole complex.
The lamp house, lamparna, was the first building that was salvaged and renovated thanks to the Labin Art Express association.
In more recent times, the Town of Labin launched a series of initiatives with the aim of renovating and reusing the whole mining complex and one of the results achieved was the recognition of the area of Pijacal as a site of cultural heritage listed on the Register of Cultural Heritage of the Croatian Ministry of Culture. Moreover, with its own financial resources and with a support of both the Ministry of Culture and Istria County, the town administration announced an urban and architectural design competition for the renovation of the hallway, marble hall and a part of the bathroom facilities and their adaptation into the town’s public library. The competition was won by a team of young architects and designers from Zagreb (Damir Gamulin, Margita Grubiša, Marin Jelčić, Zvonimir Kralj, Igor Presečan, Ivana Žalac), who were very successful at adapting the space to its new needs with a maximum respect of its values and implementing functional and aesthetic criteria. In the marble hall with the library there is a predominant whiteness and a luxurious amount of light passing through the many glass blocks of the ceiling. In other parts the emphasis is on complete blackness. The powerful black-white contrast clearly alludes to the mining activities which used to be carried out here. The library was moved into its new premises in 2013, whereas the best proof of the successfulness of this intervention are two national awards won the same year for the best realisations in the field of interior design: one is the award assigned by the Croatian Architects’ Association and the other one is the Vladimir Nazor Award assigned by the Croatian Ministry of Culture.
The whole of the industrial zone of the mine is encompassed by the term Pijacal (from the Italian word piazzale, meaning “square, a spacious delimited area”). There were all the necessary facilities needed for the maintenance of the mining machinery, including a wide range of mechanical, electrical, woodwork and other workshops where all the machinery and tools used in the mine were repaired. In addition, there were spacious warehouses and a chemical laboratory. Right next to the entrance into Pijacal there was a scale for measuring the weight of empty and full transport vehicles. A little farther a heating plant was built, with two powerful water-heating boilers for the needs of the mine, as well as for those of a part of the town. Next to it, in the 1970s the factory of thermic appliances (TTU) started to operate by producing mainly a wide variety of central heating boilers.
What lies east of it is a high building with a rectangular layout, made of brick and strengthened with reinforced concrete string courses, in which there was a large winding engine with two enormous drums around which there was an almost constant wrapping and unwrapping of steel ropes used for lifting and lowering the shaft lift. On the south-east side, at the edge of Pijacal, there is a large building, long and rectangular, which was home to some mighty compressors, continuously operating, producing large amounts of compressed air needed for the activation of almost all machines in the mine.
After the closure of Labin’s shaft, most of the facilities in Pijacal were abandoned and devastated. In the new state of Croatia through the process of privatisation these edifices ended up being run by private owners, so that various entrepreneurs have given these facilities a new function. A smaller part of them kept their industrial character, whereas most of them were turned into various kinds of retail businesses.
It is very important that Pijacal was recognised as a cultural heritage site and that it was added to the national register because this means that all future interventions and alterations will be coordinated by the authorised conservation and restoration department.
Not far from the compressors, across the winding engine building, there is the headgear, a tall steel tower. It started to operate in 1940, when the production in Labin’s shaft commenced. At its top it has two very large wheels, the movements of which were synchronised, one would move forward, the other one backwards, thus lifting and lowering the lift cages. The latter, each having three levels, transported miners (16 in each cage at each level), full or empty coal wagons and many other materials. Vertical shaft guide rails were made of a special type of wood, that is of larch, which proved to be the safest in the event of stopping the lift. The lift rope, made of interwoven steel threads, was inspected and lubricated on a daily basis.
The headgear height is 32.50 metres and the depth of the vertical shaft is 570 metres. Today, the tower is largely covered in rust, requiring urgent improvements and renovation.