Toward a Concrete Utopia: Architecture in Yugoslavia 1948–1980
Museum of Modern Art, New York

The war between capitalism and socialism is fought not only on the ideological terrain of politics and economics but also in the quotidian domain of everyday life and culture. A recent book by an anthropologist, for example, sets out to prove Why Women Have Better Sex Under Socialism. Was architecture better under socialism, too? If there is a tendency among some to dismiss it all as irredeemably tainted, to see a gulag in every Russian natatorium or playground, there is equally a reverse impulse among proponents of socialism to shower it with praise while offering only perfunctory admonitions about the societies that gave rise to it.

A much more extensive and nuanced assessment was recently on offer in a remarkable exhibit on postwar Yugoslavian architecture at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York. Its title tiptoes gracefully around the larger political questions. The one certainty of a phrase like “Toward a Concrete Utopia,” after all, is that the goal was never achieved. The failure may prompt a wince or worse, as we all know how badly this attempt ended—and not just for the buildings. Yet many of the relics of that massive and in the end misguided effort to build utopia are still with us, battered by war and neglect, monuments to social experimentation as well as social tragedy. They call out for appreciation and a better understanding of their conception.

Yugoslavia’s buildings are monuments to social experimentation as well as social tragedy.

The exhibit, which closed in January, was not an island. Eastern Bloc architecture has recently enjoyed a publishing boom, spearheaded first by photo volumes seizing on surreal singularities and lately fueled by a resurgent interest in socialism in the West. Cosmic Communist Constructions Photographed, first published in 2011 and rereleased this month by the renowned art press Taschen, is one evocative, yet typical, title, composed of photographs by Frédéric Chaubin of what the cover copy calls the “spectacular forms and austere aesthetics” of “extreme” architecture in the final years of the USSR. These photography-heavy volumes tend to focus on curious, if unquestionably great, standouts and emphasize the ghostlike quality of “totalitarian” structures that have survived the states that gave birth to them. They are beautiful, without question. Subsequent books have been more comprehensive, with a higher ratio of text to photos. Excellent work has been done in such corners as the architecture of the Non-Russian Soviet republics, and Owen Hatherley’s fascinating travelogues, which venture beyond individual buildings. 

Overlooked, except in one fine study, are the drab majority of Soviet buildings, the ones you see ringing nearly every former Eastern Bloc city but never visit. This oversight is neither surprising nor altogether objectionable; most books on architecture in the United States aren’t about split-levels, after all. But it does leave readers with an incomplete picture of the full range and significance of the architectural productions of the most extensive communist regime in the history of the world.

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Yugoslavia offers an illuminating and fresh way into the socialist past. Since its very origins in 1918 it occupied a liminal place, yoking together diverse peoples (Slovenians, Croatians, Serbians, among others) and looking to both the socialist East and the capitalist West. The MoMA exhibit spans more or less the same years as the rule of Josip Broz Tito, the most successful Partisan leader of World War II, a Communist who waged large-scale combat against the Axis Powers for years.

Instead of calling these buildings strange, we might call our own unambitious.

In the immediate postwar era Tito entered into close accord with the Eastern Bloc, yet in short order he broke decisively with Stalin and was ostracized by the Communist Party, and by 1949 Yugoslavia was receiving Western aid. Its relations with the Soviet bloc improved again after Stalin’s death in 1953, but in the following decades—up until its dissolution beginning with the Yugoslavian wars of 1991—the country followed a distinctive path within the ranks of communist states. It remained genuinely independent of party diktats, tied fairly closely to the western world, and consequential within the sphere of the Non-Aligned Movement—that geographically diffuse group founded in 1961 in Belgrade, knitting together Indonesia, India, Egypt, and Ghana.

These ties are a product not of natural cultural or material interest but of the political exigencies of the Cold War. They resulted nevertheless in real exchange and, more to the point, real buildings. This disparate configuration of linkages helped produce a thrilling variety of architecture. Tito’s split with Stalin—his reputation as the man not behind but opposed to the Iron Curtain—has tended to obscure his own authoritarianism. Still, Yugoslavia did chart a unique course, with more freedoms than elsewhere in the Eastern Bloc and with constructions that avoided much of the prefabricated monotony of the communist world.

Of all communist states, the space between the typical and the exceptional building was perhaps narrowest in Yugoslavia. The country enjoyed an unusually high number of unique talents and far more variable standards of mass construction. This state of affairs reflected in part the relatively robust federalism of the Yugoslavian state: if it fell short of democratic freedoms, it nevertheless granted significant autonomy in many spheres, including architecture. The buildings were and are a genuinely exceptional blend of influence and inspiration, from both distant and domestic currents. If they have been subsequently altered and in some cases literally bombarded amidst the state’s dissolution, they have not entirely been forgotten. Their sheer diversity has been a boon to their easy publicity. As one of the curators, Vladimir Kulić, commented at a preview for the exhibit, “Whatever way you try to brand it, something falls out.”

The federalism of the Yugoslavian state granted significant autonomy in many spheres of cultural life.

The distinctive modernism that took root in Yugoslavia in this period was certainly helped by the state’s greater openness to international influence after 1948. But its proximate cause was not so much trade policy as homegrown talents. Modernism revived a tendency that had flowered in interwar Yugoslavia, just as it had in Turkey, Czechoslovakia, and many other modern states formed after World War I. Domestic innovators had been repudiated in favor of Stalin-pleasing dowdy neoclassicism during the years of Soviet accord from 1945 to 1948, but later they were actively encouraged to resume their experiments as a useful physical manifestation of Yugoslavian independence.

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The more inventive examples of Yugoslavian architecture are often characterized by Western writers as space age or alien. Their futuristic “Spomenik” monuments to Partisans in World War II, which look like they might be transmitted from Mars but instead dot the Dinaric Alps along the Balkan Peninsula, have been featured in their share of photo monographs and clickbait. Many other works in this exhibit are dazzlingly unusual.

If you sheared off the non-structural concrete from the buildings in this exhibit, you could house thousands.

But instead of calling these buildings strange, we might call our own unambitious, failing to exploit the full potential of materials that Yugoslavian examples show can sustain a remarkable degree of experimentation. Among the nation’s most impressive structural innovations is a dome at the Belgrade Fair, the world’s largest dome until 1963 (and Europe’s largest to this day), still the world’s largest made specifically of prestressed concrete. The range of work in this exhibit eloquently demonstrates the expressive potential of concrete, with a full range of preposterous cantilevers and diagonals and curves and ornaments. Some of these elements are textbook examples of modern structural clarity, but others are absurdly embellished. If you sheared off the non-structural concrete from the buildings in this exhibit, you could house thousands. As feats of artful daring they are splendid, their merits on fine display in recent photos by Valentin Jeck.

If a fairground dome is not your idea of utopia, they had others. The outré and “brutalist” occupy most of the exhibit’s attention (though the latter term is mostly a retrospective characterization, rather than the expression of a conscious stylistic undertaking by the architects themselves). But Yugoslavia built a wide range of architecture, including structures that engage specific local traditions, generally established principles of traditional urbanism, and plenty of materials beyond concrete.

Some live up to their titular and material bombast, from the the Palace of Youth and Sport in Pristina to the State Hydrometeorological Institute in Skopje, but many others are more modest and contextual. Edvard Ravnikar—a student of Jože Plečnik, the godfather of Slovenian urban form—often designed for continuity rather than radical departure. His Ferantov VRT residential building in Ljubljana, constructed largely of brick, sports a facade that gives due respect to its older neighbors, even if it spills and terraces in ways they never do. The postwar reconstruction of the city of Zadar, Croatia, followed its traditional dense arrangement in spirit, foregrounding pedestrian streets and plazas while using frankly modern forms. Expansion of the fellow Croatian city of Split along hills oriented around pedestrians attracted praise even from urban sociologist Jane Jacobs.

“There is no colloquial equivalent in the Yugoslav languages for the Czechoslovak panelák, the German Plattenbau, or the Hungarian panelház.”

If modernism sometimes elided regional differences, architects nevertheless often sought to synthesize traditional forms in their local works. Juraj Neidhardt stressed the proto-modernism of traditional Bosnian architecture, channeling its essence into new works. One of the most-photographed works in the former Yugoslavia, Andrija Mutnaković’s National and University Library of Kosovo, sought to nod to the varied traditions of this disparate autonomous state, with a series of lattices and cubes topped by domes, a tradition of Byzantine and subsequent Islamic architecture.

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The postwar revival of modernism was felicitously timed, converging almost precisely as it did with U.S. efforts to promote modernism as the symbolic métier of the Western world. Indeed, MoMA’s connection to Yugoslavian modernism is more than a matter of taste: just when the United States was dispatching military aid to Tito, the museum sent repeat traveling exhibits abroad. A 1956 exhibit “Modern Art in the United States” made a stop in Belgrade. Its 1958 exhibit “Built in the U.S.A.: Postwar Architecture”—featuring work by Mies Van Der Rohe, the architectural firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, Eero Saarinen, Frank Lloyd Wright, and others—made four stops in Yugoslavia. A 1952 Boston Institute of Contemporary Art exhibit on Le Corbusier made only two European stops—in West Berlin and Yugoslavia. The tenth International Congress on Modern Architecture took place in Dubrovnik, and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Belgrade explicitly took MoMA as its model.

Freed from both Eastern diktats and Western chain styles, architects were liberated to play with their form on numerous Adriatic hillsides.

The connection to the West runs deeper still. Many Yugoslavian architects pursued education or apprenticeships in the United States and Western Europe, the stamp of eminent instructors readily evident in their work. Georgi Konstantinovski, who studied at Yale under Paul Rudolph and then interned with Pritzker prize winner I. M. Pei, infused a taste of each into his City Archive of Skopje in Macedonia. The Podgorica Hotel was designed by Montenegrin Svetlana Radević, who studied with Louis Kahn at the University of Pennsylvania. It is no surprise that the Netherlands and Scandinavia—states with a strong social democratic ethos (sans dictator)—were particularly strong sources of influence for Yugoslavian architects. A striking post office and telecommunications center was designed by the Macedonian Janko Konstantinov, a former employee of the Finnish architect Alvar Aalto.

Russian and other Eastern Bloc architects weren’t very significant to Yugoslavian design, but the country was building structures in greater accord with Eastern aims than with Western ones—large amounts of social housing and numerous public facilities, from experimental schools to community cultural centers—even as they often departed from the Eastern standard. Yugoslavia’s system of worker management, its unusual variant of state socialism, and its complex federalism meant that even the construction of social housing was carried out in more heterodox a fashion than elsewhere. “It is indicative that collective housing in Yugoslavia never became so closely identified with its structural nature that it derived a name from it, as was the case elsewhere,” Kulić and two co-authors note in a previous book on the topic, Modernism In-Between: the Mediatory Architectures of Socialist Yugoslavia (2012). “There is thus no colloquial equivalent in the Yugoslav languages for the Czechoslovak panelák, the German Plattenbau, or the Hungarian panelház.”

The nature of Yugoslavia’s experiment with worker management made for a different and considerably more diffuse structure of design than most states. Maroje Mrduljaš writes in one essay in the exhibit’s accompanying monograph:

The massive, centralized design institutes characteristic in many other socialist states gave way to a wide range of professional organizations in Yugoslavia. Architects most often practiced as employees of architectural offices organized as small, self-managing companies, or working at the in-house design offices of large construction companies, or in the larger urban planning institutes established in each federal republic and in major cities.

Separate systems flourished, with more than one mode of prefabrication. A rare centralized source of construction was the Yugoslavian People’s Army, which built a surprisingly broad range of facilities from apartment buildings to social clubs.

One of the largest and more dubious undertakings of the Yugoslavian state, which MoMA’s exhibitors aptly compare to the Chandigarh of Le Corbusier and the Brasilia of Lúcio Costa and Oscar Niemeyer, was the construction of New Belgrade in 1948 on former marshland across the Sava River from old Belgrade. Though it features a number of daring buildings, the city is planned around broad boulevards surrounded almost entirely by housing towers and a few civic structures. A more interesting feat of urban planning was the reconstruction of Skopje following a 1963 earthquake. This plan, overseen by the United Nations, included the first substantial postwar international commission for a Japanese architect Kenzō Tange, and a broad assortment of structures designed by architects from other states.

The dome at the Belgrade Fair remains the largest in Europe to this day.

The United Nations was also involved with an effort to plan the arrangement of the Adriatic coast to provide for recreation and the preservation of natural beauty. Some 90 percent of these international visitors were Western, but the coast was also a conventional holiday spot for most Yugoslavians. It saw a strange and intriguing variety of leisure constructions. One hotel was built by Edward Durell Stone, architect of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in New York and the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi. Another of the best, the Haludovo Hotel, even featured as curious an investor as Penthouse founder Bob Guccione.

The welcome thing about these structures is that their architects, freed from both Eastern diktats and Western chain styles, were liberated to play with their form on numerous Adriatic hillsides. And it wasn’t just the world that came to Yugoslavia. The country also sent its architects abroad, many to Africa. Several spectacular buildings in Nigeria—Zoran Bojović’s International Trade Fair and Stefan Kolchev’s National Theater in Lagos (featured in another recent exhibit and monograph African Modernism), Bojović and Milica Šterić’s Ministry Complex in Kano—endure as testaments to the physical underpinnings of association in the Non-Aligned world.

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All this, of course, came to a crashing halt. Even with its more decentralized socialism, Yugoslavia was subject to the forces that impeded economic production elsewhere in the socialist world, and even its milder form of authoritarianism still obstructed personal freedoms, jailed dissidents, and maintained a secret police. These factors exacerbated the principal source of collapse—as the ethnic discord that the state had managed tolerably well spun out of control—and we come to the end of the story we know too well.

The exhibit’s first caption noted that this Yugoslavian legacy “demonstrates architecture’s potential for social engagement and transformation in ways that have continuing relevance today.” It is useful to think about how exactly it did so in the context of recent debates over the character of the built environment of the communist world. Yugoslavia is likely treated a little too gently in recent accounts, and yet it seems a far more useful example than the rest of bygone communist states. It is also a more complicated place, whose architecture involved large numbers of commercial structures, targeted both at its large tourist population and the internal market, a considerable system of independent home construction (both within and without official channels) and considerably less standardization than much of the Soviet bloc.

It was, as Kulić writes, a “vibrant architectural culture irreducible to simple ideological slogans.”