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Toward a concrete utopia: Yugoslavian architecture 1948-1980

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MoMA’s powerful exhibition on Yugoslavia’s architecture is testament to the successful heterogeneity of a failed socialist state

That an unabashed homage to the architecture of a socialist state should, in appearing mere steps away from Fifth Avenue, still feel surprising or incongruous in the 21st century, is testament to the legacy of the Cold War and the ideological antagonisms that continue to shape our world. And yet, here in MoMA’s architecture department, are the relics of Yugoslavia’s concrete utopia, as the title of the exhibition puts it: monuments to anti-fascist partisans, vast social housing projects and community centres designed to produce the agents of a self-managing socialism – all just two blocks south of Trump Tower. 

This belated recognition of what is, as the show makes clear, a significant body of Modernist architecture, could perhaps be attributed to the relatively safe distance we have attained from the failed Yugoslavian state, which collapsed into vicious ethnic conflicts in the early 1990s. These buildings are, from this perspective, now museum pieces, to be wondered at in their otherness. The most active response they could elicit on these terms would be an impulse to preserve them from the neglect of successor regimes. But this architecture speaks not only of the failures of the past – it also throws the failures of the present into stark relief, not least the miserable architectural culture of the United States and the utter inadequacy of housing in neoliberal economies.

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Laginjina Street, Zagreb

Perspective drawing of an apartment building on Laginjina Street, Zagreb. Image courtesy of Ivan VitiĆ Archive, Croatian Academy of Sciences and Arts

It is in this context that the rediscovery of socialist architectures has become so relentless over the last decade as to be almost tiresome, at least in its more superficial forms. (One notable exception is MoMA’s 2007 show, Lost Vanguard: Soviet Architecture, 1922-32.) Instagram accounts and coffee-table books devoted to ‘cosmic communist constructions’ continue to proliferate, with Yugoslavian war memorials a fixture of these formats. And yet, while it would be absurd in some respects to place this exhibition in the same category as a 2019 Brutalism calendar, it cannot be seen removed from the same situation, which has produced reactions in registers political and aesthetic, high and low.

The canonisation of these buildings is doubly belated given that Yugoslavia was never really on the other team. It severed ties with the Soviet Union in 1948, thenceforth following its own path under the leadership of Josip Broz Tito. To the United States, this made the state an attractive bridgehead on the USSR’s periphery, and so it became the recipient of much economic and military aid, and also of cultural diplomacy. To the Yugoslavians, this break instigated a rejection of the Neoclassical architecture of Socialist Realism in favour of the legacy of the region’s interwar designers, as well as a keen attentiveness to developments in the West. 

Le Corbusier’s studio was a particularly fecund source of ideas, hosting numerous Yugoslavian students during the postwar period. These international links are emphasised in the catalogue essay by Martino Stierli, for whom this is the first exhibition as chief curator of architecture and design at the museum. Historic ties between the two states, spearheaded by MoMA’s own travelling exhibitions during the postwar years, reveal the relative ideological palatability of Yugoslavia at the time. It later instigated substantive economic reforms, marketing its socialist economy with impressive results.    

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Yugoslav Pavilion at Expo 58

Yugoslav Pavilion at Expo 58 by Vjenceslav Richter. Image courtesy of archive of Yugoslavia

Nevertheless, as the exhibition amply demonstrates, for all these international cross currents, the result was a strikingly original programme of building and urban planning, motivated by an irreducibly heterogeneous ideological programme. The Yugoslavian state was a federation of six socialist republics, themselves composed of disparate ethnic and religious groups. That this patchwork system was overseen by Tito’s authoritarian command can be in no doubt, but it nevertheless paid far more than lip service to the idiosyncratic doctrine of self-managing socialism. The constituent regions became ever-more devolved from the centre and, in the quasi-liberalised economy, workers had substantive control over their own destiny. Yet this was all still subordinated to a project of socialist development.

In architectural terms, this resulted in a highly differentiated network of institutions and firms – unlike in the Soviet Union, the state was not the sole or even the pre-eminent employer of architects – and an impressively varied built output. This is represented in the exhibition via the usual media of photographs, videos, models and drawings, but the novelty of the subject and impressive coherence of the show void any risk of the tedium that sometimes attends architectural displays and the necessary distance of their objects. Indeed, the quality of material is itself superlative: the excellent photographs commissioned from Valentin Jeck show the buildings as they are today – that is, frequently sadly decayed but nevertheless objects of use. The models have mostly been produced by students at the Cooper Union and are also of a high standard, and the drawings are fascinating and, in many cases, virtuosic. Many of these are shown here for the first time, having been assembled over years of painstaking research by Stierli and his co-curator Vladimir Kulić, together with curatorial assistant Anna Kats. The depth of inquiry behind the show is palpable and makes the architectural exhibitions of British institutions look terribly thin in comparison.   

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Miodrag Živković’s Monument to the Battle of the Sutjeska

Miodrag Živković’s Monument to the Battle of the Sutjeska, 1965-71, in Tjentište, Bosnia and Herzegovina. Image courtesy of Valentin Jeck for MoMA, New York

Among the most striking structures on display are several hotels, demonstrating Yugoslavia’s vibrant culture of socialist consumerism. The variety of these bears witness to the heterogeneity of the nation’s architecture: the luxurious Haludovo Hotel (in present-day Croatia), for instance, designed by Boris Magaš and partly financed by Bob Guccione of Penthouse; or the more restrained but equally sophisticated Hotel Podgorica (in Montenegro) by Svetlana Kana Radević. Radević’s work is also a key example of the contribution made by women to the Yugoslavian scene. Although they did not achieve the parity promised, women nevertheless made much greater strides here than in the capitalist West – Radević set up her own practice after studying with Louis Kahn in Pennsylvania. 

The kind of international exchange evinced by the foreign training undergone by many Yugoslavian architects did not only run in one direction. They also had a significant impact in other member nations of the Non-Aligned Movement, especially Nigeria, where Milica Šterić, head of architecture at massive construction firm Energoprojekt, oversaw the construction of the Lagos International Trade Fair. (She also designed the company’s own headquarters back home.) Another section of the show focuses on international exhibitions, especially the show-stopping pavilions designed by Vjenceslav Richter for fairs in Brussels, Milan and Turin. Richter, also a prominent member of Yugoslavia’s artistic avant-garde, often exhibited abroad, and some of his striking artworks are included here. 

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traffic connections and internal circulation, 1973, for Lagos International Trade Fair, Nigeria

Plan of external traffic connections and internal circulation, 1973, for Lagos International Trade Fair, Nigeria, 1973-77, which was overseen by Milica Šterić, who hailed from what is now Serbia. Image courtesy of the personal archive of Zoran Bojović

MoMA’s exhibition documents the work of foreign architects on Yugoslavian territory too, most substantially in the case of the reconstruction of the Macedonian capital Skopje after the massive earthquake of 1963. An international competition resulted in a masterplan by Kenzo Tange, represented here by a huge contemporaneous model. Among the completed elements of Tange’s plan was a fabulous opera house, designed by Slovenian studio Biro 71, that glides down to the river in planes of concrete – a clear precursor of Snøhetta’s Oslo Opera House.

In recent years Skopje has been subjected to a programme of postmodernification, with hopeless Neoclassical buildings thrown up on every corner. An ugly screen now hides the opera house from view, while a later addition to the Post Office and Telecommunications Centre complex has been reclad with columns. Ironically, this has left the country looking far more Stalinist than it ever did under socialism.

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Janko Konstantinov’s striking Post and Telecommunications Centre in Skopje

Janko Konstantinov’s striking Post and Telecommunications Centre in Skopje sits behind Zoran Staklev’s National Electricity Transmission System Operator of Macedonia (MEPSO) building. Image courtesy of Darmon Richter / monumentalism.net

The search for a Yugoslavian architecture – or an architecture appropriate to a state composed of several disparate republics – did not only look beyond the nation’s borders for inspiration. In 1957 Dušan Grabrijan and Juraj Neidhardt published Architecture of Bosnia and the Way towards Modernity, represented in the exhibition by the book’s few remaining original illustrations. The fruit of a research project begun in the 1930s, the work argues that an architecture adequate to the nation’s modern conditions could be built on vernacular foundations. The result is a fascinating precursor to the discourse of critical regionalism that would emerge in the 1980s. Although Neidhardt built little, his ideas had a significant impact, not least via the work of his student Zlatko Ugljen, author of perhaps the most impressive building in the show, Šerefudin’s White Mosque, which absorbs the regionalist ideas of his mentor.

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Architecture of Bosnia and the Way to Modernity, 1957, by Dušan Grabrijan and Juraj Neidhardt

Architecture of Bosnia and the Way to Modernity, 1957, by Dušan Grabrijan and Juraj Neidhardt. Image courtesy of the private archive of Juraj Neidhardt

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Zlatko Ugljen’s Šerefudin White Mosque

Zlatko Ugljen’s Šerefudin White Mosque, 1969-79, in Visoko, Bosnia and Herzegovina. Image courtesy of Valentin Jeck for MoMA, New York

The final section of the exhibition is devoted to the monuments that are now the most familiar of Yugoslavia’s Modernist constructions. These were built to commemorate a variety of subjects, especially the Communist-led partisans who fought the fascists during the Second World War. They are also extremely disparate in formal terms. In Kampor, Croatia, a relatively subdued memorial to a concentration camp designed by Edvard Ravnikar evinces the influence of both his tutor Jože Plečnik and the time he spent in the studio of Le Corbusier. More idiosyncratic yet are the designs of Bogdan Bogdanović. These sinuous forms owe much to the biomorphic language of Surrealism, and are sometimes arrayed in compositions reminiscent of prehistoric earthworks, as at Slobodište in Serbia. Here the vital importance of landscape becomes apparent, as well as the inadequacy of representing these objects as singular events divorced from their physical and historical contexts. They are evidence of the struggle for socialism that created Yugoslavia, a struggle that thereby created the conditions for all the architecture that has preceded these monuments in the show; at the same time, their sad decay speaks of the ultimate failure of that project in the face of resurgent nationalisms. As such, these artefacts, like all the others gathered in this exhibition, still emit the glimmering radiation of utopia, illuminating the contradictions both of their context and our own.

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Kosovo national library in Pristina

Kosovo national library in Pristina by Croatian architect Andrija Mutnjaković. Image courtesy of Valentin Jeck for MoMA, New York

Toward a concrete utopia: architecture in Yugoslavia, 1948–1980

The Museum of Modern Art, New York from July 15, 2018 to January 13, 2019

Lead image: Exhibition poster for a 1984 retrospective of the works of Janko Konstantinov. Image courtesy of the personal archive of Jovan Ivanovski

This piece is featured in the AR February 2019 issue on Failure – click here to purchase your copy today