The prolific life and career of Svetlana Kana Radević, Montenegro’s first female architect

The prolific life and career of Svetlana Kana Radević, Montenegro’s first female architect

Svetlana Kana Radević was a woman of many firsts: the first female Montenegrin architect, the first and only woman to win Yugoslavia’s top architectural prize, and one of the first women to pursue a PhD in architecture in the United States. And yet, although her physical legacy abounds — not least in the shape of her most famous building, Hotel Podgorica — her name has largely been wiped from Yugoslavia’s architectural history.

Two decades after her early death in 2000 at the age of 62, Radević’s memory had been relegated to a cousin’s spare bedroom in Petrovac na Moru, cluttered with photographs, sketches, slides, and drawings. But now, a new exhibition celebrating her oeuvre is opening as part of the 2021 Venice Architecture Biennale: Skirting the Centre: Svetlana Kana Radević on the Periphery of Postwar Architecture. The Calvert Journal spoke to exhibition curator Dijana Vucinic about the life and work of the architect still lovingly known in Montenegro as Kana, why her legacy remains largely forgotten, and how the exhibition hopes to bring Radević the recognition she deserves.

Beginnings

Radević was born in 1937 in Cetinje, the medieval Montenegrin capital. Right after graduating from the Faculty of Architecture at the University of Belgrade, she submitted her proposal to a competition for a hotel design in Titograd (today’s Podgorica) — and won. Radević, who was only 27 at the time, set off to make her first, and one of the most important buildings of her career: Hotel Podgorica, an avant-garde resort on the banks of the Morača River. The hotel opened its doors in 1967, and Radević became the only woman to win the Federal Borba Prize for Architecture, the most prestigious architectural prize in Yugoslavia. At the age of just 29, she was also the award’s youngest ever laureate.

The prize catapulted Radević onto the international scene. Until 1972, Radević worked for the Republic Institute for Urbanism and Planning in Podgorica, where she was the master planner of Jaz, a Montenegrin coastal town. Shortly after, she moved to the United States, where she pursued a Masters and a PhD in Architecture at the University of Pennsylvania. From the US she moved to Tokyo, to work in the atelier of renowned Japanese architect Kishō Kurokawa. In the 70s and 80s, Radević oscillated between Philadelphia, Tokyo, and Podgorica, while still designing buildings in Yugoslavia, where she returned in the late 80s.

Hotel Podgorica. Image: archive of Pobjeda

Work

Radević’s work came at a pivotal moment in post-war Montenegro. Podgorica, where most of her creations stand, was bombed 84 times during the Second World War, leaving the city’s traditional architecture decimated. At the same time, Montenegro was seen as being on the outskirts of Yugoslavia — both geographically and in officials’ psyche — leaving the city overshadowed by the likes of Belgrade, Zagreb, Sarajevo, and Ljubljana. Funding and interest in the city and its reconstruction were limited.

In contrast to indifferent Yugoslav officials, Radević’s work was wedded to Montenegrin nature and society. The architect pioneered the use of local, sustainable resources, and knew a great deal about the local building industry. As Vucinic explains, the most prominent feature of Radević’s design are its “fascinating material poetics”. The architect endowed her creations with a local cultural identity, both innovating and adapting the concrete structures associated with the prevalent socialist modernist style, and typifying the buildings with a local touch.

One of Radević’s most significant oeuvres was her debut, Hotel Podgorica, where the walls of the three-storey resort are covered in pebbles from the Morača river, rendering the avant-garde structure with a mimetic touch. Also among her most prominent works are Zlatibor Hotel in Užice, Serbia, a sand-covered apartment building in the seaside town of Petrovac, and the Monument to Fallen Fighters in Barutana, an anti-fascist memorial covered in local stones and concrete.

Monument to Fallen Fighters in Barutana. Image: Luka Bosković

Legacy

Despite Radević’s prolific overseas career, Montenegro remained at the heart of her work. She successfully navigated the obstacles of working from the fringes in many ways: as a woman running her own practice in a male-dominated industry, as an architect from a provincial city, and as an artist dealing with the geopolitical divisions and architectural currents of the time. Complex negotiations of place, gender, and architectural discourse appear across her work, and in her wider creative identity,

“She became an architect in a country with barely any architectural heritage,” explains Vucinic. “Working and creating out of the periphery made it extremely hard for her to be truly recognised within the wider context. She never became part of the university system in Yugoslavia, was never invited to teach or be involved in academia much outside of Montenegro. Being a woman in this male-dominated profession and culture while working from the fringes — even though she established an international career — excluded her from the spotlight.”

Many of the unearthed archive photos that feature in the exhibition show Radević in glamorous, cosmopolitan outfits with her signature square acetate sunglasses, accepting prizes from all-male juries, or surrounded by male peers, while authoritatively presenting projects. She is always the only woman in the crowd.

Radević receiving an award in 1967. Image: personal archive

Yet while she is well-known in her home country, few outside of Montenegro have heard of her. As exhibition curator Anna Kats points out in Architectural Review, she is often ignored in retrospective histories of Yugoslav architecture. Even her trajectory and works remain largely unexplained: her experience in the United States, her work during her time in Japan, her sudden return to Montenegro. Skirting the Centre seeks to explore and celebrate Radević‘s legacy, not only as an architect but as a powerful female figure.

“By seeking to re-centre her historical figure, long relegated to the peripheral fringes of modern architecture’s normative history, this exhibition recovers her distinctive role as a negotiator of the spatial contract—between state and citizenry, between centre and periphery—as a case study in facilitating social consensus and cultural exchange for contemporary practitioners,” explains Vucinic.

Thanks to her cousin’s archive, who is an architect herself, Skirting the Centre may now shine a light on the life and legacy of Montenegro’s pioneering architect. “While going through her photographs, projects, texts, correspondences, and documents, we realise that her legacy is yet to be outlined, maybe even for decades from now.”

Skirting the Center: Svetlana Kana Radević on the Periphery of Postwar Architecture will be on show at Venice’s Palazzo Palumbo Fossati from 22 May until 21 November 2021.

This article is part of our series Women, Recollected, an ongoing project shining a light on the forgotten women pioneers of 20th century culture.

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