Post-War Urban Conservation and Rebuilding
Mostar, Bosnia-Herzegovina

Zachary M. Kron


This case study addresses research and proposals of 1997 concerning the conservation of the city of Mostar in Bosnia-Herzegovina, focusing on the efforts of the Stari Mostar Foundation and the Mostar 2004 Workshops under the leadership of Amir Pasic. Although the city underwent extensive preservation work in the early 1980's, Serb and Croat military aggression has left the city's monuments and infrastructure in shambles. The organizations in question are currently documenting the remains and making proposals for funding the implementation of a full conservation effort.


Mostar straddles the Nereteva River just inland from the Adriatic Sea in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The city is dominated by masonry-based architecture with heavy stone shingled roofs with cut stone walls and facades typical of a more coastal region. The buildings originally constructed along the river were mainly mills and tanneries while smaller shops clustered around either end of the main bridge. All featured timbered ceilings with vaulted stone roofs. (See images of Mostar Aerial, Mostar Plan, and the Bridge Joint)

The area has the same early history as other Central European countries, having been part of the Roman Empire from the third century BC. It then became entirely Christian, later splitting along the river into Catholic and Eastern Orthodox regions in the 11th century. The town itself did not come into existence until the arrival of the Ottoman Empire in the 15th century, the famous Stari Most (Mostar Bridge) wasn't constructed until the mid-16th century. From the Ottoman period through the Austro-Hungarian takeover in 1878, the city grew as a single unit, although the river itself became the border of Islamic culture in the region. Stronger regional divisions then arose due to the town's containment on the east by mountains. While the dominant religion in the area during the rule of the Ottoman Empire and thereafter was Islam, there was a strong presence of Christian, Eastern Orthodox, and Jewish populations. Each group within the culture left an architectural legacy and the separate, imported styles eventually mixed into a regional vocabulary.

After World War I, the nation state of Yugoslavia ("Southern Slavs") was formed largely under the control of Bosnia's eastern neighbor Serbia. This entity was dissolved by the Nazi's during World War II, during which time Bosnia and Herzegovina became incorporated into the German controlled Independent State of Croatia. Following WWII, under the socialist government of Tito, Bosnia and Herzegovina was once again joined with Serbia and Croatia. All the Republics, along with Macedonia, Montenegro, and Slovenia, had equal status within a federation again known as Yugoslavia. National unity during this time was ensured by a fairly repressive and totalitarian regime. After the break up of the USSR and the death of Tito, the separate republics began vying for control of portions of other republics, with Croatia and Serbia (now calling itself Yugoslavia in partnership with Montenegro) claiming portions of Bosnia and Herzegovina as their own state. It was during this time, between 1990 and 1993, that the city of Mostar suffered the most damage from both Serbia and Croatia, culminating in the destruction of the Stari Most by the Croatian army in November of 1993. (Image. Stari Most now) The city remains divided along ethnic lines with the Muslim population occupying the eastern side of the city, including both banks of the river.

Before the outbreak of war, the city of Mostar had received an Aga Khan award for restoration work completed in 1986 under the guidance and inspiration of the Bosnian architect Amir Pasic. (Image. Restoration) During the war, in anticipation of the destruction to come, Pasic began laying the groundwork for restoration of the city. Leaving Mostar in 1992 for a teaching position in Istanbul, he began lecturing in Turkey and worldwide on the art, history and culture of Bosnia, as well as teaching in the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture at MIT. During this time in the United States, several months before the destruction of the Mostar Bridge, he initiated the idea of Mostar 2004, a grand reopening of the city in twelve years following an anticipated conservation effort. There followed a series of Mostar 2004 Workshops in several countries, and finally one in Mostar in 1997. At this time the Stari Mostar Foundation was inaugurated as a central organizing force for reconstruction efforts in the city, and as a fund raising and distribution network.


Cites with urban layouts and architecture similar to Mostar are Sarejevo and Banja Luka. Each city is partially fortified, spans a river and finds it's heart at the point where it was originally bridged. The degree to which the Ottoman Empire built up these three cities has resulted in settings of comparable appearance. They all share the typical Ottoman settlement pattern around a bazaar whose edges are defined by a mosque and a bath at the intersection of major roads (here, a road and the bridge), a scattering of smaller mosques, and a healthy minority of Eastern Orthodox and Catholic architecture. The three cities sustained extensive damage due to the recent war. (Fig. Sarejevo)

The characteristic architecture of Mostar, Sarejevo, and Banja Luka dates from the mid-16th to the mid-17th century, soon after the original Ottoman invasion. Regional differences in these cities are found in the residential architecture, with wood construction being more prevalent in the inland area around Sarejevo, and stone construction in the more coastal area of Mostar. Unfortunately, the decay of the architecture of Sarajevo has been accelerated by the conversion of wooden buildings into a ready supply of heating fuel.


During the Mostar 2004 Workshop of 1997, three separate types of intervention in Mostar were discussed: Neretva River projects, housing, and restoration of public monuments. The river interventions are focused on reestablishing a public space and an area for both residents of Mostar and visitors to participate in shared activities. The river has been the center-point of the city throughout Mostar's development and its enrichment as a public gathering space is an important gesture to future reunification of the now divided city. The housing projects are intended to rehabilitate the remnants of old neighborhoods for private residences. With most of the housing stock decimated this is an essential first step in making the city a livable place again. The public monument projects aim to reestablish a community spirit and sense of place through the revival of buildings unique to Mostar and emblematic of its multicultural history.

Neretva River Projects
The Neretva River projects consist of four separate interventions along the bank of the river with the general goal of creating public gathering spaces. None of the projects is a direct conservation effort regarding physical artifacts, rather the intention is to reconstruct the civic nature of Mostar and revive the river as a place uniting the banks rather than dividing them.

In the Stari Grad/Spile Area underneath the famous Mostar Bridge, the proposed intervention involves the creation of a children's playground and terraced sunbathing/rest area. The proposal assumes the soon-to-be rebuilt Mostar Bridge will be the focal point of a resident's experience, but also creates a facility to experience it from, as well as creating an amenity to boaters and swimmers who currently use the area. It was also noted that children are at risk of playing in areas with land mines, thus the provision of a safe open space is also of practical necessity. (Fig. Stari/Spile)

The Mejdan project similarly attempts to establish a recreational area along the river with facilities for boaters and sightseers. Additionally, the proposal calls for the creation of a new bridge joining the projected civic center and performance area on one bank with the outdoor amphitheater on the other. The designers stated intent is to create a social space that is an alternative to the "functional zoning" of the Stari Grad area. Financial support for its construction is hoped to come spontaneously from donations stimulated by a high profile international competition to select an architect. (Fig.Mejdan)

The Bunur project replaces a recently built, modern, industrial looking pedestrian bridge with a presumably more contextually sensitive structure. The ends of the bridge are to be configured as "points of destination," which are loosely defined as a community center on the East bank and high density housing on the West. The design is articulated at least as much in words as in drawings, the latter describing a fairly generic arch bridge and the community center and housing as boxes with labels. (Fig. Bunur)

In Carina Most, the area around the city's train station would combine recreational facilities and the river setting to create new housing and tourism facilities that offer a "a sustained tourism that is not only oriented towards Stari Most." The existing bridge was the first to be replaced after the war due to it's high traffic needs, traffic which the designer wishes to lessen by installing a ring road to bring it directly to the train station. Additionally, the project includes the provision of agricultural facilities to the existing university as a food supply and a laboratory for the agricultural program. (Fig. Carina)

The housing projects attempt to deal with the disastrous condition of the residential neighborhoods while maintaining some semblance of the particular historical configuration of Mostar homes. Particularly important to each of the proposals was a sense of the mahala. The mahala is a Bosnian word meaning a particular neighborhood defined by the presence of a patron who would look after the surrounding community. This patron would usually undertake the building of important community structures such as mosques and facilities for the poor. Communities like this were invariably diverse in social, economic, and religious background due to the availability of support for the underprivileged. The projects also attempt to address the chaotic state of ownership of the existing housing. While many families fled Mostar, abandoning their homes, many more came to the city fleeing other areas of the dissolving Yugoslavia. Adding to the strain placed on housing, those families whose homes were destroyed moved directly into abandoned ones.

While the proposals for contextually sensitive rebuilding are fairly conventional (limitation of building heights, regulation of window proportions, respect for the street wall, etc), there are several proposals which attempt to make the rebuilding appropriate to the traditional social fabric of the neighborhoods. In particular, the proposal for the Brankovac mahala calls for the presence of a neighborhood representative who conveys local grievances to the municipality. This person then comes to fill a contemporary role of the traditional mahala patron. (Fig. Brankovac1-4)

Restoration Projects
A proposed re-use project for a nearly demolished girls' high school, one of the largest buildings in Mostar, involves its redesign as either a school of restoration with related institutions, a hotel plus restoration school, or a hotel plus office space. The building was constructed in 1890 of masonry bearing walls and brick vaulted floors between iron beams. Fires set in 1992 by the Serbian army, then bombing by the Croatian army, gutted the interior. All that remains are the exterior stone walls which, having already been chemically altered by the heat of fire and explosions, is now suffering water damage because there is no roof. Local residents are currently scavenging for building supplies in what's left of it. As a landmark and well known public building, the girls' high school was deemed of sufficient historical value to warrant the stabilization of the exterior walls, now dubiously able to support even their own weight. The design proposals are all determined to maintain the points of entrance as well as to continue using the ground floor as commercial space. The reconstruction of the general building configuration as well as the structural system of vaulted ceilings on the ground floor will attempt to imitate the original artifact, except for the additions of an underground garage and a semi-public courtyard space. (Fig. GHS 1 & 2)

The restoration of the only public bath (hamam) in Mostar faces the problem of scant documentation and several completely demolished portions. In attempting to salvage the remaining mid-16th century walls of the frigidarium and tepidarium, the designer proposes to incorporate these elements into a modernized bath house, thereby preserving the activity and the memory of the building. Any reconstruction of major elements is discouraged as there is little documentation (despite it's restoration in 1955) of the pre-war condition of the building. The building forms one corner of a popular square, the opposite side formed by the Tabacica Mosque, one of the oldest in the city. The designer emphasizes that the maintenance of the traditional use of this building is necessary to retain the continuity of the entire area's particularly Islamic character with mosque, public space, and bath. (Fig. Mostar Hamam and Most Hamam 1)

Finally, the Tabacica Mosque, built in the mid-17th century, is currently undergoing restoration procedures. Bombed repeatedly by both the Serbians and Croatians, the minaret and roof were entirely erased. Rain damage has severely decayed the painted interior. While this is the only site mentioned in the 1997 workshop that was, at the time of writing, actively undergoing restoration, the designer proposes to cut the work short. Poor documentation and rushed craftsmanship currently jeopardize both the integrity of the final product of reconstruction as well as the viability of retaining any evidence of the original structure. The final design proposal in this case is the halting of further reconstruction to allow for more thorough documentation. (Fig. Mosque before, Fig. Mosque 1 & 2)


While tackling the usual difficulties of conservation, the Mostar 2004 team's approach also attempts to account for many added complexities associated with post-war reconstruction. The more general difficulty of reconciling preservation with the desire to accommodate changing needs are addressed very simply with the idea that "The challenge is to build within the historic context without becoming a slave to it." Mostar's situation, as with other conservation efforts, reveals the tension between short-term practical expediency and a longer-term investment in the historic development of the city, but in a more extreme way. The short-term needs are great, 75% of the housing stock has been destroyed and the simple provision of shelter must supercede the needs of historically respectful rebuilding should the two conflict. However, the possible loss or gain of a rich history in the process of rebuilding cannot be overlooked and the design prerogatives of the group clearly state a need to "dwell upon both cultural and pragmatic interpretations"1 of the sites in question.

The specific situation faced by the Mostar 2004 group involves the mending of the purposeful and almost mechanical destruction of all physical evidence of the history of the city. Mostar has sustained a direct attack not on military installations, but on cultural artifacts. The attack's goals were to break the spirit of the Bosnian people, as well as erase any evidence of their occupancy of the city. The city of Mostar has been nearly destroyed and any attempt to rebuild that does not make a concerted effort to acknowledge the past will only succeed in building a city without any history. There seemed to be consensus within the group concerning this fidelity to continuity with the past, none considering the decimated areas as a tabula rasa.

Although in the program directives it is stated that for most of the world the practice of reconstruction is "banned," there must be a special allowance made to the reconstruction of Mostar. "If the Bosnian people can not recover some of their monuments by rebuilding, they will have no landmarks to claim their presence and historic links with the place."2 Reconstruction in the case of Mostar is directly linked to the (re)establishment of a cultural and national claim to the land.

The participants in the conservation effort have been careful to state the need for local control and participation in the process. Both the Serbians and Croatians predicated the attack on Mostar on a claim of ownership, and it therefore must be a Bosnian effort to reassert the identity of the city. The role of international agencies is viewed with skepticism: "the Geneva, 1954 Hague, and World Heritage conventions have failed to protect registered historic sites and to insure orderly and efficient post-war reconstruction processes . . . Can these ineffectual legal declarations continue to justify an authoritative role for supra national agencies in the reconstruction process?"3 However, it is acknowledged that the city scarcely has the resources to sustain itself on a basic level, let alone accomplish a project of this size.


Amir Pasic, the original architect of the pre-war conservation effort has been the primary motivating force behind the current project. He has mainly used the Research Centre for Culture in Istanbul as the base from which to organize the involvement of other participants. The groups he has organized participate in the Mostar 2004 Workshops, which have convened every summer since 1994. The first meeting involved students of architecture, urban planning, and historic preservation from the U.S. universities of Columbia, Temple, and Yale, Yildiz Technical University and institutes within Bosnia, as well as faculty from these institutions.

The workshop in 1997 involved a similar group, with additional scholars, politicians, and professionals from the city of Mostar. Notable members were the President of Bosnia-Herzegovina as well as the Co-Chairman of the Council of Ministers, and the Vice-Mayor of Mostar. The opening ceremony featured the President of the World Monuments Fund and the Vice President for Programs. While many of the sites have been identified as world cultural sites and UNESCO has prepared a master plan and restoration priority list for the city, there is little evidence of collaborative efforts between this group and the Stari Grad.


The Research Centre for Islamic History, Art and Culture in Istanbul has been the primary sponsor for both the Mostar 2004 Workshops, as well as the publisher of the resulting papers and proposals. They have also provided the site for the workshops in Istanbul, as well as worked in conjunction with the Municipality of Mostar in the organization of workshops in Mostar. Additional sponsors for the 1997 workshops included the United Nations Development Program, the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, and the World Monuments Fund.

The fundraising effort currently underway is attempting to reach many smaller donors. Residential and infrastructure reconstruction has been awarded funding as part of the Dayton Accords, as well as $150 million from the European Union. However, these monies are not directly related to funding for elements of cultural heritage. For the rebuilding of the Stari Most and the surrounding area, it is hoped that a "Donor's Conference" can be convened to raise the estimated $36 million necessary. Each individual donor will be credited with a single stone in the bridge, and this stone will be linked to the cost of reconstructing a portion of the surrounding town. Although largely a symbolic financial structure, it's emphasis is on the need to reconstruct the setting of the famous bridge and not simply the object. A Hungarian builder has already pledged to donate his work for rebuilding the bridge.


Although many of the workshop participants speak of the need for the residents of Mostar to have ownership of the restoration effort, little seems to have been done to incorporate them into the process. Many professionals from the city have been brought into the process, but none of the "panel of experts" are local, and only 12% of the professional participants of the conference held in Mostar were from Mostar. In addition to this lack of skilled participation, there does not seem to be an active enrollment of the more general populous, either through scheduled meetings with the community to present findings, or through enlistment of the community in the research process. Because of the international composition of the workshop participants, the seminars, lectures, and presentation materials are in English.

This apparent absence of active involvement of the community is also manifest in the failure to take serious steps in addressing the issues of private ownership of buildings. With the abandonment of numerous residences and the appropriation of these structures by displaced persons, investment of national and international funding in residential rebuilding will surely be more difficult. Research into the housing situation has focused more on understanding and codifying the structural and aesthetic character of the buildings to be conserved, rather than understanding the nature of occupancy.

The stated mistrust of international agencies' active role in the reconstruction process indicates a conflict within the organization. While the stated desire is to look to a multitude of individual donors to support the conservation effort, the organization has no difficulty using the high approval ratings it has been given by international organizations for the purposes of publicity. UNESCO's concurrence on the level of priority given to different historic monuments and the Aga Khan Award of 1986 are frequently noted throughout the essays. Finally, it is difficult to reconcile the sentiment of mistrust of international agencies with the international character of the organization itself.

More generally, the program seems to suffer from an inability to look beyond what the buildings are, or how they appear, to how they function in the community, both past and present. The success in the proposal for conserving the hamam is found in the designers' understanding of the relationship between the building itself, the adjacent mosque, and the square it borders. This design gives consideration to the historical interrelationship of traditional structures, not simply to how facades inform the street level urban character of Mostar. The Girls' School project makes some effort to re-use the building for educational purposes, but this is done almost incidentally without seeking to understand why this particular building in this specific location worked in this role for so many years. The disregard for contextual investigation is belied by the interchangeability of the proposed project programs of hotel, office building, and school. This project seems most interested in creating a literally hollow shell, without truly making this remnant a monument to the past.

It is this awkward and conflicted attempt at re-use that seems problematic in the Mostar 2004 project. The struggle involved in attempting to insert self-supporting structures into structurally insufficient ruins seems particularly odd given the number of entirely vacant lots left by the carnage of the war. It is questionable whether it is necessary to shoehorn new programs or even continued uses into spaces whose merit lies in their memory value. The housing projects have vision not because of the decisions to maintain the simple function of housing or to maintain the street facade, but because of the acknowledgement and strengthening of the traditional community social network of the mahala (neighborhood).

While the housing and restoration projects generally seek to create continuity with the past by conserving objects, the bridge projects attempt to reinforce a general Mostar identity by refocusing the attention of residents on a physical place, the river and the bridge. These projects are quite literal in their approach, bringing the people of Mostar physically closer to an actual barrier to create a sense of unity. This is not in itself a mistake, but the manner in which people are to be attracted is questionable. Two of the projects propose the erection of a fairly generic community center with an assumption that a space designated for public gathering coupled with proximity to the symbol of Mostar will buttress the unique Mostar identity. However, the community center itself, even as a conceptual design, is in a global, if not purely Western or even American style of architecture. Mostar's civic identity was, in the past, defined by a much more complex set of relationships, such as the bazaar, the mosque, the hamam, and the spaces generated between them. The aspirations to a more "sophisticated" or cosmopolitan identity is evident in the financing scheme that proposes an international competition be held to attract a high profile designer. Unfortunately, these proposals do more to make Mostar like any other city in the world rather than identify what is unique about the place. The hope for these projects lies in the presence of the seeds of a movement to go beyond the conservation of physical objects to the conservation of a way of life that generated, maintained, and venerated them for centuries.



1. Professor Brooke Harrington in Mostar 2004 Workshop Report 1997, (Istanbul: Research Centre for Islamic History, Art and Culture, 1997), p. 25.

2. Mostar 2004 Workshop Report 1997, (Istanbul: Research Centre for Islamic History, Art and Culture, 1997), p. 41.

3. Ibid.


Architectural Heritage Today. Brochure for workshops on Istanbul and Mostar 2004 - July 1 to August 17, 1995. Istanbul: Research Centre for Islamic History, Art, and Culture, 1995.

Dodds, Jerrilyn. "Mostar: Hearts and Stones." Aramco World vol. 49, no. 5, (September/October 1998): pp. 2-9.

Mostar 2004 Workshop Report 1997. Istanbul: Research Centre for Islamic History, Art and Culture, 1997.

Mostar: Urban Heritage Map and Rehabilitation Plan of Stari Grad (CD-ROM). UNESCO, 1997

Pasic, Adnan. Interview with the author, Nov. 13, 1998.

Pasic, Amir. Islamic Architecture in Bosnia and Hercegovina. Istanbul: Research Centre for Islamic History, Art, and Culture, 1994.


All photographs and illustrations courtesy the Aga Khan Fund, MIT Rotch Collections, unless otherwise noted below:

Figs.1,3 & 5 from the Mostar 2004 Workshop Report.


















1. An image of the Bridge Joint in Mostar.

2. Another view of the Mostar Bridge.

3. Mostar Plan.



4. An aerial image of Mostar.























5. Image showing a mosque that is being restored.


6. A view of the Mostar bridge

7. An aerial image of Mostar.

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