He never felt loneliness except when he was happy. He turned, once in a while, to look back at the red glow of the sky over the mills.
-Ayn Rand, "Atlas Shrugged" (1957)
Just when I thought Croatia couldn't surprise me any more, it went all industrial architecture on me.
After spending a month in Split, I headed up the coast to Rijeka, where I hunkered down for three cold, rainy weeks. During that time, I learned a bit about the port city's rich and complicated industrial history, from its sugar mills that appeased the Austro-Hungarian empire's sweet tooth starting in 1750 to the factory where the world's first torpedo was invented to an oil refinery, shipyard, and paper factory. Let's start with the latter, the now shuttered "Hartera" paper factory (tvornica papira) and I'll do my best to summarize this slice of industrial heaven that continuously operated for 180 years, with 66 buildings totaling 72,186.6 square meters of space.
In 1821, Andrew Louis Adamich established the paper mill in a valley along the Rječine river and its modern, award winning paper making machines driven by water wheels produced goods exported to Brazil and England. In 1833, the mill unveiled the first steam machine in the Balkan Peninsula and by 1878, production increased and products became available domestically. A major flood in 1852 devastated warehouses and machinery, but instead of ceasing production, an entirely new factory was built thanks to major renovations and modernization. Turbines replaced water wheels, concrete replaced wood, new dams were built and steam engines were installed. By the late 1800s and early 1900s, the factory acquired the world's first automated paper production machines while confronting economic crises and repeat fires, without pausing production of its fine, thin paper for cigarettes and bibles. The state took over production in 1945 and the factory expanded even further, modernizing again in 1962. But with the war in the early 1990s and the years following the breakup of Yugoslavia, the paper factory lost its former market, declared bankruptcy, and tragically closed its doors.
Since ceasing operations in 2005, the former paper factory complex has taken on a life of its own, serving as a venue for the annual Hartera electronica music festival, attracting tens of thousands of participants and performers from all over the world, including notable bands like Röyksopp. The abandoned factories and warehouses also act as informal, grassroots art galleries and international design students and firms have recently tripped over themselves crafting bizarre "interventions" for the once bustling industrial site (we get it, you guys know how to use AutoCAD). While I was in Rijeka, I visited the paper factory complex four or five times and went inside only a handful of buildings that were easily accessible. The entire site is a maze of industrial architecture spanning different periods and worth further exploration, although many buildings are tightly secured, occupied by businesses (including a dentist), or renovated for private housing. Despite the area's run-down appearance, there are plenty of people wandering about and doing who-knows-what inside the buildings.
Visiting the paper factory reminded me of my own industrial roots, my hometown of Martinsville, Virginia. In this sleepy Southwest Virginian city, which once held the enviable title of "sweatshirt capital of the world" until NAFTA came along in the 1990s, furniture and textiles were the backbone of the community. While my father worked at American of Martinsville furniture, our next door neighbors were the Hookers of rival Hooker Furniture. (Don't even get me started on the Bassetts of Bassett Furniture down the street.) Since the factories closed and work moved overseas decades ago, Martinsville has yet to regain its footing, and in recent years, wealthy residents have left, schools have closed, and industrial accolades have given way to the state's highest STD, teen pregnancy, and unemployment rates.
In both Rijeka and Martinsville, I saw firsthand the devastating effects of what happens to a community when industry disappears. It breaks my heart to think of the hardworking, blue-collar families that struggle to find relevance in this "modern" world; seeing buildings that once housed powerful machinery and provided livelihoods for thousands of locals, now reduced to concrete skeletons and graffitied walls, especially saddens me. I sincerely hope that both Rijeka's paper factory and Martinsville are two communities on the brink of change, sleeping giants suspended in time and poised for a powerful comeback.
Onward and upward, my glorious factory towns.
This is one of the paper factory's newer buildings, built likely in the late 1920s. It is definitely the most notable of all the buildings, and the interior is stunning.
Building behind "main" paper factory
This interconnected cluster of buildings goes on for days, and I couldn't help but imagine turning the large concrete vats into jacuzzis. Hmm.
Two buildings used for Hartera festival
East side of Rječine river
The same side as the paper factory's "main" building.
West side of Rječina river
Žakalj mill remains
A bit north of the paper factory are the remains of this mill from the 1800s. There is very little left of the buildings, and thick vines and tree roots are slowly swallowing the crumbling stone walls. According to rijekaheritage.org, the mill was built to provide power to sawmills, wheat and barley mills, and wool cloth fulling mills. In one of my visits to the paper factory, I met Rijeka local Milan who introduced me to this place and said it's magical in the spring.