Toward a Concrete Utopia: Architecture in Yugoslavia, 1948 - 1980
July 15, 2018 – January 13, 2019
Before its ethnic rivalries exploded in the internecine wars of the 1990s, Yugoslavia lived a relatively happy 45-year period under the authoritarian rule of its communist leader, Josip Broz Tito (1892–1980). The Marshal came to power in 1945, and inspired by the solidarity of the partisan struggle, believed Yugoslavia’s many identities could only coexist and thrive through a federation of socialist republics united under the banner of the country’s official ideology of “Brotherhood and Unity.” Tito argued that progressive decentralization, workers’ self-management, limited free enterprise at home, and a politics of Cold War non-alignment would bring about a pluralistic, secular, and multiethnic modern society in which emancipation would be achieved on all fronts.
Tito’s nation-building project was an ambitious, idealistic one, to be sure. But it was perhaps its open-ended, utopian nature that spurred Yugoslavia to undertake one of the most interesting, diverse, and distinctively modernist, socially-minded architectures of the postwar era, as chronicled in the Museum of Modern Art’s sweeping Toward a Concrete Utopia: Architecture in Yugoslavia, 1948 – 1980. As curators Martino Stierli and Vladimir Kulić illustrate, in Tito’s Yugoslavia, architecture was not only viewed as a way to reconstruct a physically ravaged country, and promote Pan-Slavic identity; it was also believed to be capable of making the abstract idea of a better society tangible. In other words, architecture wasn’t simply a means of sustaining a rapidly urbanizing and industrializing society, or of improving the living conditions of the Yugoslav masses by providing spaces for healthcare, education, and cultural programming—it was a means of revolutionizing life itself.
Yugoslav architects did not achieve this alone: many active in the postwar period received European training; some even worked with Le Corbusier, the putative father of modern architecture, in the 1930s. When the time came to rebuild Yugoslavia and turn it into a modern, socialist nation, many architects looked Westward and benefitted from mutual cultural exchange with the West and other developed nations such as Japan. Throughout the 1950s, shows on European and American architecture traveled the country, and Yugoslav architects were invited to participate in Western biennials and fairs. As the first section of the exhibition, “Modernization,” discusses, entire Yugoslav cities were built according to Le Corbusier’s idea of functional urbanism and the aesthetic principles of Brutalism and International Style: freestanding towers and high-rise slabs surrounded by abundant greenery defined many urban landscapes, and new postwar governmental buildings and housing developments explored the expressive and sculptural possibilities of reinforced, raw concrete—the Brutalist material par excellence.
New Belgrade, the federal capital, might be the most famous example of Corbusian ideas put into practice, with a city plan whose ambitiousness easily rivaled Oscar Niemeyer’s Brasilia; but the viewer will be most struck by the room dedicated to the reconstruction of Skopje, destroyed in 1963 by an earthquake that levelled more than 80 percent of the city’s buildings. The subsequent reconstruction effort—summarized through sketches, photographs, as well as a huge model—was led by the Yugoslav government and the United Nations, and brought international architects and local firms into collaboration. The masterplan of the city, realized only partially, was designed by Kenzo Tange in accordance with the tenets of Japanese Metabolism, while Macedonian architects led the on-the-ground rebuilding of the provincial town, turning it into what would become a modern, cosmopolitan metropolis.
Within the Skopje display, one’s eye is naturally drawn to a huge photograph shot by Valentin Jeck—one among many that punctuate the exhibition—that highlights the discrepancy between modernist architecture’s original promise and its current reality. The photograph of the Telecommunications Center of Skopje, shot at night, represents a building evidentally left to neglect—one whose curved volumes and tubular shapes encase a glass facade oozing an eerily green light. If there is a building that embodies the ominously dystopian side of Brutalist architecture, and the failed promises of socialism, it is this one.
Luckily, the show is not all threatening fortresses and impervious megastructures. Yugoslavia was extremely culturally diverse, with three official languages and religions, two alphabets, and a myriad of ethnic groups. And, in the second half of the show, which turns to Yugoslav style and regionalism, a different country emerges—one that is less draconian, freer, and more creative. As the exhibition moves away from showcasing big buildings and urban centers, the architecture and objects it features becomes more inventive. The room dedicated to Yugoslav design, displaying dozens of household items, paints a portrait of a society where commodity fetishism, anathema of any socialist society, was excused by an aesthetics at once affordable and elegant. Highlights are the nimble, timelessly simple Rex folding chair, designed in 1956 by Niko Kralj, and the K67 kiosk, designed in 1966 by Saša J. Mächtig. Made of fiberglass-reinforced polyester, the kiosks were rounded, futuristic cubes sporting bright colors that could stand on their own or be assembled in clusters or rows for commercial activity and impromptu social interaction. Like the REX Lounge, they soon became ubiquitous throughout Yugoslavia (and a red specimen acquired by MoMA awaits the visitor at the show’s exit).
One of the nicest surprises is a small room dedicated to Adriatic Coast tourism facilities, probably the most accomplished example of successful ethnic integration in Yugoslavia. Each summer, these hotels provided space for thousands of Yugoslav vacationers, who benefited from the socialist state’s provision of leisure time for all. These “multipurpose social condensers,” as the wall text describes them, welcomed local populations and Yugoslav tourists and foreigners of all different ethnic and class backgrounds. What’s so exciting about these buildings, built in huge numbers throughout the 1960s, is seeing how architects designed them with a consideration for the environment, adapting the modernist idiom to the ragged Mediterranean coastline: a slideshow of old, yellowed photos shows the series of buildings beautifully blending into the landscape through a series of terraces descending towards the sea.
No official architectural style was prescribed in Yugoslavia; and in a country where self-expression was a core value, regional schools flourished, and architects were permitted to hone unique aesthetics. Serbian Bogdan Bogdanović, notably, used his background in Surrealism, anthropology, and Jungian archetypes to contribute to the memorialization of the Yugoslav effort in the People’s Liberation War through monuments characterized by excessive organic forms and ornamentation. Others decided to refurbish traditional vernacular architecture, maintaining, like Croatian Juraj Neidhardt (co-author of Architecture of Bosnia and the Way to Modernity), that Balkan indigenous style was in effect a precursor to modernist architecture—modernism avant la lettre.
The best examples of continuity between Balkan architectural tradition and modernism are those that emphasize Ottoman influence in the region. The Šerefudin White Mosque, designed by Zlatko Ugljen for Visoko, Bosnia, and the National and University Library of Kosovo, designed by Andrija Mutnjaković, are both cases in point, though their respective styles couldn’t be more different. Endowed with a minaret, and freely inspired by the pyramidal structure of traditional mosques, the minimalism of the first recalls Le Corbusier’s Notre Dame du Haut; while the latter’s dizzying exterior of ninety-nine domes intersecting in as many cubes covered by hexagonal aluminum grillwork, pays an exuberant homage to Kosovo’s two defining religions, Islam and Orthodox Christianity, and also to filigree, a form of metalwork cultivated by Kosovar master craftsmen for centuries.
Toward a Concrete Utopia, however, ends on a note of melancholy—perhaps, inevitably so. After the end of WWII, a panoply of spomeniks, war memorials in Serbo-Croatian, covered the surface of Yugoslavia, commemorating the casualties of both the anti-fascist struggle, led by Tito’s Partisans, and the war of liberation. Combining sculptural virtuosity and cutting-edge technology on a massive scale, these imposing, abstract monuments—some of which look like they were dropped from outer space—proliferated in remote sites in the countryside. They were vandalized or destroyed during the Balkan Wars of the 1990s; and today, most suffer from deliberate neglect. Their concrete structures eroded by time, they now memorialize not fallen socialist heroes but the decline of socialism and rise of the extreme right in Europe.
The show’s biggest shortcoming is not sufficiently engaging this tension between idea and end result, present in the spomeniks, the Skopje reconstruction, and throughout the exhibition. The curators’ main objective was inserting this era of modernism into an architectural canon whose Western-centric boundaries MoMA itself helped establish. (And as far as this is concerned, the show is totally successful—Yugoslav modernism was, indeed, outstanding.) However, the exhibition is not nearly as politically critical or nuanced as it should be. Although Toward a Concrete Utopia tries not to fetishize Yugoslavia—mostly avoiding the pitfalls of so-called Yugo-nostalgia—by ending its narrative in 1980, when Tito’s political creature still seemed a durable reality, and privileging abstract design over historical legacy, it misses a chance to seriously find out what went wrong in socialist Yugoslavia and, by extension, with its modernist architecture.
One should not dismiss the Yugoslav project wholesale due to its evident shortcomings—Tito was a dictator, after all—or its ultimate failure. Still, it feels equally short-sighted not to acknowledge that something, in fact, went wrong. Instead of interrogating its contentious legacy, the show takes Yugoslav modernism at face value, and considers Tito’s Yugoslavia a genuinely positive project that failed only in practice. (What about the fact that, even at the peak of its prosperity, only ten percent of the Yugoslav people identified themselves as such?) In failing to consider the intrinsic problems of Yugoslav social and urban planning, Toward a Concrete Utopia also fails to teach us how to make better socially-minded architecture for tomorrow.