What’s behind the recent craze for Yugoslavia’s modern architecture?

A landmark exhibition at MoMA, new books and documentaries: it seems people can’t get enough of the architectural and monumental marvels of the former Yugoslavia. But why Yugoslavia, and why now?

2018 was a vintage year for Yugoslav architecture. The socialist federation may have disintegrated a quarter of a century ago, but the modernist gems built during its heyday have been experiencing something of a resurgence — the highpoint of which was a much-lauded, six-month-long exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Toward a Concrete Utopia. The year also saw a new book, Spomenik Monument Database, devoted to the dozens of otherworldly war memorial monuments that dot the countryside of the six former Yugoslav republics; as well as two documentaries about Yugoslav buildings, Hotel Jugoslavija and Centar, which debuted at the Berlin International Film Festival and Doclisboa respectively.

It seems odd that, some four decades since Yugoslavia’s postwar construction boom came to an end, the country’s unique take on the modernist style has suddenly captured the imagination of the world. As a native of New Belgrade who has always felt a profound affection for this sort of architecture, this global recognition feels both long overdue and slightly confusing. Why Yugoslavia, of all places, and why now? And does the renewed international interest chime with feeling within former Yugoslav nations?

Vladimir Kulić, an architectural historian, university lecturer, and one of the curators of the MoMA exhibition, tells me that this recent interest is a byproduct of numerous factors: the faddishness of the spomeniks, for one, as well as a social media-driven Brutalist revival that has afforded modernist buildings mislabeled as belonging to that school a new lease of life. But the motivation for the MoMA show came from a desire to broaden the scope of their exhibitions by shining a light on the architecture of countries not usually at the centre of attention; in 2015, the museum staged a similar exhibition on Latin American architecture.

A spomenik at Kosmaj. Image: MikelandjeloS under a CC licence

“Yugoslavia is very interesting as a small geographical and cultural space that managed to produce a really great variety of architectural experiments that were actually implemented on the ground,” says Kulić when I ask him about the appeal of Yugoslav architecture abroad. “The intensity of these various experiments and the entire architectural cultures that developed in Yugoslavia are perhaps the most interesting thing about it.”

The architecture of Yugoslavia truly was distinct. Unlike the mass-produced, identikit housing blocks of Soviet Russia, Yugoslav architecture was so eclectic that grouping it together under a single, catch-all label tends to irk academics who specialise in the subject. From Belgrade’s Military Medical Academy, which is shaped like a medic’s cross, to the fungal Brutalism of the Kosovo National Library, Yugoslavia’s architectural canon is as vast as it is varied.

Liberated from both the strictures of central planning as well as the constraints of the market, Yugoslav architects were supported by the full force of the state while still being free to experiment

This architecture might be seen as a physical expression of the nation’s ideology. Liberated from both the strictures of central planning as well as the constraints of the market, Yugoslav architects were supported by the full force of the state while still being free to experiment. The state sourced designs through architectural competitions, which, by their very nature, nurtured inspiration and free thinking. Winning submissions would then be passed on to self-managed construction firms tasked with their realisation.

Yugoslavia’s internationalist foreign policy, which straddled both East and West, also facilitated a cross-pollination of ideas that contributed to the state’s built eclecticism. Edvard Ravnikar was one of a number of Yugoslavs who worked for Le Corbusier in his Paris studio, while Svetlana Kana Radević was taught by Louis Kahn at the University of Pennsylvania. Kenzo Tange, one of Japan’s most famed architects, devised a new masterplan for the North Macedonian capital Skopje after the city was devastated by an earthquake in 1963. (One of the eventual landmarks of Tange’s unfinished plan, Janko Konstantinov’s Central Post Office, featured prominently in the MoMA exhibition.)

Brutalist housing blocks in Skopje. Image: Vase AMANITO under a CC licence

Closer to home, the architecture of Yugoslavia served the purpose of forging a unifying cultural heritage in an ethnically heterogeneous federation. Donald Niebyl, the author of Spomenik Monument Database, thinks that this ideological goal can help explain the sudden international appeal of the spomeniks and Yugoslav architecture more broadly.

“I think [people] see this universality that was engineered into the monuments,” he says. “Because these monuments weren’t designed as monuments to one ethnicity or religious or cultural viewpoint. They were meant to appeal to all of Yugoslavia in a very universal way. And I think that in the age of the Internet, that universality just spilled out in a way that nobody ever intended and these messages that are contained within the sculptural forms resonate internationally.”

Exploring the true meaning of Spomeniks, Yugoslavia’s modernist war memorials
Read more Exploring the true meaning of Spomeniks, Yugoslavia’s modernist war memorials

Viewed as a whole, the statement buildings and monuments of Yugoslavia could thus seem both bolder and more creative than the received idea of Eastern Bloc architecture, and — thanks to its ideological purpose — more exotic than the modernism of the West. But to focus on an increase in interest amongst interested but still distanced international onlookers risks neglecting the significance of this architecture in the successor states that emerged from Yugoslavia’s destruction. This is why Hotel Jugoslavija and Centar are interesting. While the MoMA exhibition and Niebyl’s book are designed to inform an international audience, the two documentaries are much more sentimental and homegrown. Although they differ formally, each film uses a socialist-era New Belgrade landmark to reflect on the demise of the Yugoslav state.

In Hotel Jugoslavija, the Swiss director Nicolas Wagnières (whose mother is from Belgrade) presents the titular building as a microcosm of the country in which it is located. Mixing archive footage, interviews, and his own footage of the hotel’s interior and exterior, Wagnières jumps between the past and the present day, depicting the Jugoslavija as a silent colossus that has stood watch over the shifting tides of history. Once upon a time, this was the most luxurious hotel in the Balkans; by the 90s, it had been taken over by mobsters, who turned it into a casino. The hotel, like Serbian society, has changed in accordance with the political values of its time.

Viewed as a piece of architecture, the Jugoslavija is a fairly unspectacular building. But for those who, like Wagnières, share personal ties with the country it is named for, the architectural remnants of the socialist era are never just a source of visual fascination. Instead, they function as monuments to a lost political vision. “It was as if the building sent me back to my own memory and, at the same time, to a collective memory, an experience shared by a country that had vanished,” Wagnières says in the film.

The Sava Centar conference hall, which was built to host the 1976 Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe conference, serves similar ends in Ivan Marković’s Centar. The film, which consists entirely of drawn-out shots of cleaning crews going about their work with a kind of monastic rituality, only shows us the building from the inside. When I speak to Marković about his work, he tells me that the “film focuses on this sort of isolated temporality contained within [Yugoslav] architecture, particularly Sava Centar, which was conceptualised as a vision of the future. That ‘future’ never materialised, so it’s something that has passed by without ever really happening.”

For post-Yugoslav progressives, the federation’s architecture continues to fascinate because it serves as a concrete reminder that a different politics and a different society are possible

This “future” that Marković speaks of was part of Tito’s grand vision for the country that, at its peak in the 1960s and 70s, represented arguably the world’s most successful attempt at constructing socialist statehood. This was, of course, ultimately derailed by Yugoslavia’s unravelling, but inside the Sava Centar, it’s almost as if the premise of that aborted future remains suspended in time. It’s a place where that fictive historical destination feels tangible.

Although it’s not quite so on-the-nose as it is in Hotel Jugoslavija, there’s an undeniable nostalgia to Centar. The building is quietly celebrated as a monument to the high-minded ambition of the Yugoslav state. There isn’t any dialogue or commentary in the film, except for its closing slide, which gives a very brief written bio of the Sava Centar and makes note of plans to privatise the building. This last detail carries a hint of bitterness, since it highlights how the priorities of the state have changed since the Yugoslav era. Utopianism has been replaced by crony capitalism, and politics, like architecture, is guided solely by the bottom line. For post-Yugoslav progressives, the federation’s architecture continues to fascinate because it serves as a concrete reminder that a different politics and a different society are possible: if it’s been done before, perhaps there’s hope that it can be done again.

Perhaps this sense that architecture can represent the possibility of political change as much as nostalgia for past achievements is what unites international and domestic interest in these buildings. Is it a coincidence that this fad for socialist modernism has coincided with a renewed enthusiasm for leftist politics in the West, from Bernie Sanders in America to Jeremy Corbyn in Britain? After decades of political cynicism, we’re starting to rediscover the power of genuinely progressive thinking — and looking for concrete examples for inspiration.

Read more

What’s behind the recent craze for Yugoslavia’s modern architecture?

Concrete clickbait: next time you share a spomenik photo, think about what it means

What’s behind the recent craze for Yugoslavia’s modern architecture?

Block party: meet the people who live among the brutalist edifices of New Belgrade

What’s behind the recent craze for Yugoslavia’s modern architecture?

After overthrowing its government and changing its name, North Macedonia faces up to the urban crisis in Skopje