Retrofitting and Reusing: From a Military Barrack to Community Centre

rojc community center

Visitors are always impressed when they come to the Rojc Community Centre for the first time. Its physical dimensions immediately strike the eyes of visitors, particularly its external and internal shape, which speaks clearly about the building’s military past and purpose. Long hallways, easy to get lost in, once had dormitories and classrooms on both sides. The windows in the hallway all face the internal prison-like yard. As an aesthetic objection to this architecture, the hallways were decorated and painted when the building was retrofitted. But most striking is the fact that, today, the Rojc Community Centre is home to 110 civil society organizations and radiates an atmosphere of great activity and energy. The building is governed through an innovative model of public-civil management, which makes Rojc even more unique.

 How it all happened

Thanks to its geographical location, Pula has been strategically important during various historical periods, including periods of rule by the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Kingdom of Italy, and the Republic of Yugoslavia. This strategic importance is the reason why the city’s military heritage is so prominent in its built environment. Most of the former-military buildings from the preceding eras are today the property of the state. There is still no plan for the utilization of most of them, nor for handing them over to the local public administration or other interested actors. They remain vacant and abandoned. The passing of time and vandalism have greatly contributed to the fact that it has become financially difficult to restore and repurpose them. The number of buildings and entire built-up areas that are currently empty and devastated is remarkably wasteful. The former-military barracks Karlo Rojc (named after a Second World War hero) – colloquially called Rojc, and today the Rojc Community Center, is situated in the centre of Pula. Its astonishing proportions are probably the reason why Rojc has not been subjected to the kind of commercialization plans that have been proposed for many other former-military spaces in the town, which are now decaying because of the failure to realize these illusory tourism development projects. The building has a rectangular shape, with a surface area of 17,000 m2 , not including the internal yard, with three floors on the southern side and five on the northern side. The external yard covers a further 29,000 m2 . Rojc was built during the second half of the 19th century by the Austro-Hungarian Empire as a naval college. This purpose was maintained under Italian rule, when it served as a cadet school. Under Yugoslavia, it first became a Partisan engineering school and then in 1976 was transformed into military barracks. The Yugoslav Army left the building in 1991, after which Rojc was used to accommodate war refugees. Following the departure of the refugees, the building was abandoned and fell into a state of devastation. In 1997, squatters –civil society organizations– moved in. During this period the residents of Pula would avoid the building and its surroundings, repelled by the dark, dirty building and its terrible hygienic conditions, settled by what were perceived as “nasty” people. It was also in this period that associations residing in the building started restoring “their” spaces, and cleaning actions were organized to rehabilitate some of the common areas, such as the long hallways and the external yard. The precondition for all these activities was the availability of free water and electricity, which neither the owner – the Ministry of Defence – nor the utility companies ever turned off after the abandonment of the building. The City of Pula, even though formally not the owner of the building, began to realize that it was impossible to deny the fact that the building was being used by more and more organizations. As a solution, in 1999, they offered to contractually formalize the utilization of the spaces. However, the attempt to make the organizations pay rent was unsuccessful. The City of Pula also began to help restore some of the common spaces, such as the toilets and hallways; introduced a janitor’s service during the day; organized a night guard service; and provided cleaning and other services. Finally, in 2007, the Ministry of Defence declared the building as unfit for military purposes and agreed to give it to the City of Pula for non-profit purposes. The organizations with premises in building pay their own electricity and phone bills, and those that use a significant amount of water also pay the water bill. At the end of 2016, the City of Pula adopted a decision on minimal rent payments for spaces leased to civil society organizations. Today, Rojc is home to 110 non-profit organizations. Such a wide variety of organizations working under the same roof is unique. Most of these organisations work in the fields of art and culture. The second most represented category is sport and recreation. In addition, Rojc is home to organizations for children; people with disabilities; national minorities; technical culture; the environment; war veterans; and others. The associations resident at Rojc organize many events in the building and outside it, such as festivals, concerts, exhibitions, theatre, and other public events.

An innovative participatory model for the management of public goods

In 2008, after years of dissatisfaction with the management of the building as well its related financial management, Rojc’s settlers organized a large public protest. Their main objections were the irrational expenditure of funds on poor building maintenance and the City of Pula’s lack of both interest in or capacity to create and implement a development policy for Rojc. The same year, the Rojc settlers began an initiative to effectively manage the building. The users of the space continued to draw attention to irrational spending and ineffective financial management, and proposed remedial measures along with a counter-measure – to create a common body with the power to control and decide on expenditure on and the management of the building. Prompted by its unsuccessful management and by the occupants’ initiative to get involved in decision-making mechanisms and to take over part of the responsibility for management (which had been solely in the hands of public authorities until that point), the City of Pula established Rojc Coordination in 2008 – a body in charge of the building’s management. The committee consists of three representatives from among the organizations resident at Rojc and three representatives of the City of Pula. The beginning of the coordination body’s work was marked by numerous obstacles and disagreements, mostly caused by the lack of willingness of the City of Pula to truly involve Rojc representatives in decision-making with respect to financial management. This situation resulted in the associations revolting again, culminating in another protest gathering in February 2009. In the negotiations that followed, the Rojc occupants sought full partnership rights with the City. The number of representatives of the Rojc Alliance (which works in the interests of the building’s occupants) and the City of Rojc Community Center, Pula in the Coordination body is equal, so decisions are not taken by a voting majority but through deliberation and consensus. Rojc representatives are delegated by the Rojc Alliance Assembly, and the representatives of the City are appointed by the mayor. Their mandate lasts two years. Every year, the City allocates money from its budget, to be used for the maintenance of the building and necessary services, which together with revenue from renting the roof to mobile operators for antennas, amounts to approximately two hundred thousand euros per year. Costs include a janitor’s service, night guards, a cleaning service, insurance, accounting services, etc. The role of the coordinating body is to monitor expenditure and ensure efficient management, and to decide on maintenance and investment priorities. The users of the premises have an interest in ensuring its efficient management and to improve the overall condition of the building. The advantage of the partnership with the City is the provision of steady budget financing. This management model also ensures the participation of interested occupants in the Rojc Community Center’s management; a steady institutional framework and budgetary financing for the building’s basic maintenance; and also public control over a public good and public spending. The involvement of citizens and stakeholders in the management of public goods is one of the most efficient ways to solve the problem of the perception of the public administration as a “bad master”, and dispels the myth that the privatization of public goods is the only alternative to poor public administration. The participatory management model of a public good, as described, is much more effective than cases where management powers reside in the hands of indifferent, bureaucratically-minded, and often corrupt public administrators. Yet, it is far from perfect, and the associations continue to seek to revise and improve it. Its main weakness is the timeliness and inefficacy in executing decisions, and its limited possibilities for public control over public procurement procedures. The power to implement joint decisions remains in the hands of the City of Pula, which is burdened by the usual modus operandi of public administrations. Several years ago, the associations prepared a study on the development of the Rojc management model, and proposed the creation of a hybrid public-civil institution – in other words, the institutionalization of the City’s partnership with the civil society sector. Such a solution would solve the problem of the long term uncertainty of the present management model, which relies on the good will of the present political structure. The City of Pula has recognized the importance of the Rojc Community Centre and has supported it for years. A hybrid public-civil institution would be another step in the same direction. In this process, dialogue is the most important element, as well as mutual trust, which can, of course, generate other solutions to current problems.

Rojc Alliance

In 2012, the Rojc Alliance was founded with the aim of strengthening cooperation among associations in Rojc, developing common programmes and improving both the management model in cooperation with the City of Pula and working conditions at the Community Centre. The focus has been on the further development of all aspects of the centre. In just a few years, in cooperation with the City of Pula, the first common space in the building – the so called Living Room – was restored and furnished, and its management was awarded to the Rojc Alliance for 10 years. Its purpose is to enable organizations at Rojc and other non-profit associations and initiatives to present their work. The Rojc Alliance launched a website, Rojcnet, and regularly publishes a bulletin, VeznikPeople of Rojc. 103 programmes were implemented in the Living Room in 2015. That same year, a number of documents were produced for the realization of future plans, including mapping the resources and potential of the community centre; a sustainability plan; a plan for the development of social entrepreneurship; and a marketing plan. The Rojc Alliance has taken responsibility for developing an artists in residence programme, as well as a hostel, and for those purposes has agreed a 10 year contract with the City of Pula for the necessary space at Rojc. The plan for the future of the centre includes an urban garden, a bicycle repair shop, a community cafe and a children’s playground. The Rojc Alliance has become a member of the network of European cultural centres Trans Europe Halles, and in 2017, will organize a meeting at Rojc of 200 representatives of cultural centres from across Europe.