This might be my favourite landscape architecture project. On the seaside promenade in Zadar, Croatia, a simple set of seating steps descend unremarkably into the water. Beneath the steps, however, is concealed some inspired design and engineering. Here a series of sea-driven organ pipes provide an ever-changing, evocative and surreal soundscape reflecting the moods and events of the Mediterranean. Scores of people congregate on and around the landmark that provides expression to the elements and a unique experience for visitors.

The designers, led by Nikola Bašić, largely (thankfully) resisted any urge to articulate the ‘instrument-ness’ of the landscape. Sound emanates from discreet apertures in the stair risers and a small opening behind the top most step provides a succinct clue as to the inner workings. A nearby seating edge that recalls piano keys strays a touch too far into literal territory for my liking and the light bollards seemed an odd choice, but these elements are far enough removed from the main stair to not compromise its clarity.

The Sea Organ is complemented by the adjacent solar-powered LED-light installation, ‘Greetings to the Sun’. In similar fashion, this installation harnesses the day’s sunlight – which is typically substantial – and utilises this to power a nightime performance reflecting solar and cosmological patterns (plus has plenty left over to power most of the kilometre-long promenade). It’s great and kids love it, but it’s not the star of the show.

The projects resulted from a substantial extension of the city promenade’s western flank to accommodate cruise liners. The opportunity was seized to create something iconic at the terminus of the historic western promenade, which is itself spectacular. The promenade might, by contemporary urban design norms – which so often preference vibrancy through commerical activity – be considered overscaled but its vastness creates a generous, genuine public space. From it can be witnessed, according to the master of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock, “the most beautiful sunset in the world”.

By giving voice to the sea the project creates a landscape in which natural phenomena and the space are the event. People sit enthralled amongst the stair’s acoustic spasms, entertained by the occasional agitated episodes resulting from the wake of a passing boat. There is a drama and novelty created that enriches an already exceptional landscape and for a contemporary set of steps to become an historic town’s primary attraction, the design defnitely got something right. -NJ

(Photos include some from the broader promenade. See here for more of the organ itself)