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Svetlana Kana Radević (1937-2000)

Radević’s purposeful oeuvre deserves careful study if we are to elucidate our understanding of the first female Montenegrin architect

The architectural review angus vasili svetlana kana radević 5

The architectural review angus vasili svetlana kana radević 5

Illustration by Angus Vasili

The assembled papers of Svetlana Kana Radević, one of the few women architects to command a profile of national prominence in socialist Yugoslavia, are kept inconspicuously in a cousin’s spare bedroom in Petrovac-na-Moru, Montenegro. They are assembled in the loosest sense of the word: no archivists or librarians have ordered their motley contents or developed an organisational logic for the abundance of correspondence, photographs, slides, visa forms, other bureaucratic paperwork, and diverse ephemera that are neatly bundled into sacks and stored in low-light quarters. 

‘Marginalised even in retrospective histories of Yugoslav architecture, Radević has been relegated to near-total obscurity in global architectural history’

Radević’s drawings are grouped by project and representational purpose in rolls of varied dimension, many with the original tape she affixed to keep them closed still semi-intact. More drawings are kept elsewhere: a smaller selection of duplicates in the library of the Faculty of Architecture at the University of Montenegro in Podgorica, and the rest in the cousin’s country house, where storage space is plentiful. That cousin is herself a practising architect, one with an avowed commitment to preserving as best she can the documentation that Kana (as Radević is still known in Montenegro) personally possessed when she died in 2000 at the age of 63. Yet the papers’ predicament bespeaks the dearth of institutional architectural archives in Montenegro, and Radević’s global legacy remains almost completely unknown and inaccessible outside her native country.

Portrait radevic architectural review

Portrait radevic architectural review

Source: Personal Archive of Svetlana Kana Radević

The papers, though incomplete, attest to the complex negotiations of place, identity, gender and architectural discourses on materiality and form embodied in Radević’s built oeuvre and her lived example. Both in her built work and in the geopolitical circumstances of her professional life, Radević embodied the architect as a mediating force across societal registers: regionally, negotiating between vernacular building tradition and the globalising tendencies of late Modernism; nationally, designing celebrated civic spaces and social condensers that facilitated a progressive public sphere between the Yugoslav socialist state and its citizenry; and internationally, articulating a decentred, post-colonial axis by which the Montenegrin architect worked between Philadelphia, Tokyo and Podgorica, at times simultaneously engaged in all three milieux. 

Radević’s significance is precisely in how she navigated these networks: that she chose to maintain Montenegro as the centre of her practice, while embedded in the architectural cultures of Philadelphia and Tokyo, contravenes the dichotomies of centre and periphery that inform the canon of architectural history. Her work still stands to be examined relative to the international contexts she navigated during her lifetime: her youth in Montenegro, her undergraduate education in Belgrade between 1955 and 1963, and her early career in Yugoslavia during the decade thereafter; her studies in Louis Kahn’s Master Class at the University of Pennsylvania in 1972-73, and her ensuing enrolment in the school’s doctoral programme between 1973 and 1977; and her work in Japan, in Kishō Kurokawa’s Tokyo atelier and elsewhere, from the late 1970s.

Radević continued to build in Yugoslavia throughout this period: in Montenegro, stereotyped as provincial and patriarchal even within the context of socialist Yugoslavia, Radević operated a successful practice under her own name, achieving a degree of authorial autonomy and public prominence that eluded women architects in both the capitalist West and the communist sphere of influence during the 1960s and 1970s. 

Rocket radevic architectural review

Rocket radevic architectural review

Source: Personal Archive of Svetlana Kana Radević

Called ‘the rocket’ by some Užice locals Hotel Zlatibor was completed in 1981 to replace a former, postwar hotel that had been demolished 

Born in 1937 in Cetinje, the medieval Montenegrin capital, Radević moved to Podgorica for high school and witnessed the capital’s reconstruction after two-thirds of the city was destroyed by Axis bombing during the Second World War. She went on to the Faculty of Architecture at the University of Belgrade in 1955, her undergraduate thesis a typological study for a congress centre that separated programmatic components into a low volume and adjacent office tower. The project indicated broad familiarity with contemporary American and Brazilian architecture: a predilection for transparency, slab buildings and curtain walls in the tower is juxtaposed with the hall’s ambitious urban scale and curvilinear expressiveness, redolent of Brasília.

The attention paid to the rendering of a generic landscape, meanwhile, prefigures the sensitivity to site of Radević’s first building, the Hotel Podgorica. The project for the Hotel Podgorica is noteworthy not only because it amounts to a swift and pronounced departure from the International Style affinities of her thesis – she won the project in competition in 1964, just a year after graduating from the Faculty of Architecture. Abandoning her former corporate inclinations, Radević developed instead an idiosyncratic formal lexicon that draws on the specificity of the site to achieve a symbiosis between the Montenegrin context and contemporary Brutalism. The building follows the undulating bank of the Morača River along which it stands, and the material poetics of the truncated three-storey walls, impregnated with pebbles drawn from the river that flows below, frame the residential quarters and the common facilities, further reconciling landscape and building. 

Hotel podgorica radevic architectural review

Hotel podgorica radevic architectural review

Source: Personal Archive of Svetlana Kana Radević

The balconies of Hotel Podgorica faced the river as the building followed its bend

Hotel podgorica drawing radevic architectural review

Hotel podgorica drawing radevic architectural review

Source: Personal Archive of Svetlana Kana Radević

Hotel Podgorica met with acclaim even before the building opened to the public in 1967, gracing the cover of Arhitektura Urbanizam, a prominent professional periodical in socialist Yugoslavia. Two years later, Radević became the only woman and, at 29, the youngest-ever laureate of the Federal Borba Prize for Architecture, the most prestigious architectural award in socialist Yugoslavia. The prize, established by the newspaper of the Socialist Alliance of Working People of Yugoslavia and awarded annually to the country’s best new building, turned architecture into a media spectacle by spurring public debate on its civic significance and elevating individual architects out of anonymity. Deemed the Nobel Prize of Yugoslav architecture, the Borba was so popular among both architects and the general public that it created an architectural star system in Yugoslavia. 

Radević was its sole female member. Her archive includes a photograph of her accepting the prize, clad in a black velvet dress, an ornate lace collar, and a large, confident smile as she shakes hands with the all-male jury – just one of many portraits among Radević’s papers that show her cultivation of the glamorous, feminised public image of an elegant cosmopolite. Among the many photos Radević kept of herself, she is often pictured at the centre of a group of male colleagues who watch as she speaks, gestures authoritatively at project boards, or otherwise commands attention and palpable admiration.     

Hotel podgorica arhitektura urbanizam radevic architectural review

Hotel podgorica arhitektura urbanizam radevic architectural review

Source: Association of Belgrade Architects

The Hotel Podgorica featured on the cover of Arhitektura Urbanizam

Even as she entered Yugoslav architecture’s elite ranks, Radević remained a committed civil servant. As an employee at the Republic Institute for Urbanism and Planning in Podgorica from 1963 until she moved abroad in 1972, her myriad projects included masterplanning Jaz, a Montenegrin coastal town, as part of her work in the late 1960s on the expansive South Adriatic Regional Plan. She worked at the Montenegrin regional planning agency while also running her own atelier, navigating deftly between public and private practice, between urban and architectural modes of engagement. In the latter capacity, Radević further experimented with the sculptural qualities of surface ornament and structural articulation in her 1968 design for a compact apartment block in Petrovac-na-Moru. The building’s relatively modest scale draws attention to articulated structural elements on the exterior: each identical facade punctuated by three columns that span the structure’s three-storey height. Halfway up the third floor register, the attenuated rectangular columns expand into triangular posts that appear to carry the weight of the building’s exposed concrete frame, above which floats a concrete roof volume. The holistic visual effect is that of uncanny lightness – as if the roof’s mass is held up by markedly thin structural supports and a porous ground floor that appears to contravene the laws of gravity.       

Prize radevic architectural review

Prize radevic architectural review

Source: Personal Archive of Svetlana Kana Radević

In 1968 Radević accepted the Federal Borba Prize for Architecture, at only 29 years old

Petrovac apartment radevic architectural review

Petrovac apartment radevic architectural review

Source: Personal Archive of Svetlana Kana Radević

Like Hotel Podgorica, her design for an apartment block in Petrovac incorporated local pebble in its concrete

Radević arrived at the University of Pennsylvania on a Fulbright Fellowship in August 1972, the sole woman in her 22-person cohort in Kahn’s Master’s Class, and one of only 16 women to graduate from the Master’s Class in its 19-year duration. None of her assignments from that year survive, though it seems that Radević excelled in Philadelphia, matriculating to the PhD programme immediately after finishing her MArch in 1973. She completed coursework, language requirements and comprehensive exams within three years of finishing Kahn’s Master’s Class, but never wrote a dissertation.

A 1977 letter from the chairman of the Graduate Architecture Group notes that her funding had been cut. The particular details of her travels between 1977 and 1988 are not extensively documented, but her departure from Philadelphia occurs shortly before construction begins on the Hotel Zlatibor in Užice, Serbia, completed in 1981. The project responds to the urban environment – a historic Ottoman-era old town surrounded by a modern city – by distinguishing an intimate scale of sculptural articulation from the monolithic expression of the second-floor public spaces in highly textured concrete. Kahn’s influence is betrayed in the iterative geometries of its upper and lower registers, his pedagogy also evident in her Monument to the Fallen Soldiers of Lješanska Nahija, an anti-fascist memorial in the hills outside Podgorica – as is the enduring impact of Bogdan Bogdanović, the prolific Surrealist architect of anti-fascist memorials across Yugoslavia and Radević’s thesis adviser in Belgrade. In the reconciliation of disparate references, however, of the idiosyncrasies of context and site and multivalent programmatic needs, Radević developed a formal language that is noteworthy for the sensitivity of her oeuvre rather than the prominence of her mentors.  

Monument soldiers ljesanska nahija radevic architectural review

Monument soldiers ljesanska nahija radevic architectural review

Source: Ivan Botica

The Monument to the Fallen Soldiers of Lješanska Nahija is a ‘spomenik’. Spomeniks memorialise a variety of events ranging from acts of atrocity to heroism

‘Archival deficit’, writes Anooradha Iyer Siddiqi, ‘is a familiar crisis in women’s histories or even in art and architectural histories.’ After an initial survey of the Radević papers, a great deal of ambiguity and open questions remain about her life, work and travels.

Why did she leave Philadelphia after 1977? What took her to Japan, when precisely did she work for Kishō Kurokawa’s office, and which of his projects did she work on while there? The answers to even these seemingly straightforward questions are not readily available in her papers, complicating the effort to trace lineage and assign influence. Marginalised even in retrospective histories of Yugoslav architecture – not least for her gender and her Montenegrin extraction – Radević has been relegated to near-total obscurity in global architectural history. The work of recuperating her legacy is still incipient, and is a matter of celebrating the enduring relevance of her work, to reverse the vantage point from which history is written.

Key works 

Hotel Podgorica, 1967

Apartment building in Petrovac-na-Moru, 1968

Hotel Mojkovac, 1974

Monument to the Fallen Soldiers of Lješanska Nahija, 1980

Hotel Zlatibor, 1981

Lexicographic Institute, 1989

Quote

‘I am not for a monument that is experienced in one moment of intense emotions, in pain, in suffering, but rather for a continued experience, for the liberation of the sanctity and dignity, for the feeling that life triumphs over death’

The Monument to Hanged Patriots has sometimes been misattributed to Radević, including in our print issue (April 2020). It was actually deigned by Vukota Tupa Vukotić, and we hope this note will assist in correcting the record.

This piece is featured in the AR March 2020 issue on Masculinities + W Awards – click here to buy your copy today