Modernist Architecture in Serbia

Ljiljana Blagojevic, Modernism in Serbia: The Elusive Margins of Belgrade Architecture, 1919-1941. MIT Press in association with Harvard University Graduate School of Design, 2003.

When young Charles-Édouard Jeanneret, who under the name of Le Corbusier became the most influential architect of the twentieth century, arrived in Belgrade in 1911 during his travels across Europe, he did not hide his disappointment with “ridiculous capital, worse even: a dishonest city, dirty, and disorganized .” On a map of his travels he was marking places he visited with an I (industry), a C (culture), or an F (folklore). And while all the places in western and central Europe were marked with an I or a C, all the places from Belgrade further into the Balkans were marked with an F. Jeanneret considered the local folklore tradition as the only relevant one in this part of Europe and thus defined this space as pre-modern. Later, his contacts with Belgrade continued to be defined by the initial impression: in a 1946 book, he referred to a solution by Branko Maksimovic, without referencing the Belgrade architect, as an example of a superficial understanding of modern urban planning, and then nine years after that, he commented on the photos of Belgrade’s most outstanding buildings: “Good God, how ugly!”

Maybe these anecdotes conclude the story of Jeanneret’s contact with Belgrade, but they open a book which introduces an international academic community to the historical and theoretical beginnings of Belgrade modern architecture, Modernism in Serbia: The Elusive Margins of Belgrade Architecture, 1919-1941. The book is a co-publication of the MIT Press and Harvard University Graduate School of Design , and its author is Ljiljana Blagojevic, a practicing architect, an architectural and visual culture theorist, and a professor at the Faculty of Architecture, University of Belgrade. The appearance of this book is not just an exceptional event in professional circles; the book is a stimulating, original, highly informed, and theoretically grounded discussion of the beginnings and the fate of modernization in Serbia. Apart from being a useful monographic survey of the most influential interwar architects and their projects, the book is also a convincing diagnosis of the too often abandoned, untimely, and misunderstood processes through which Serbia became a part of modern Europe as well as its “elusive margin,” including the character and the fate of the avant-garde art and the overall progressive thought in Serbia.

Thus, the author’s starting premise for understanding Belgrade modern architecture is unorthodox within local professional frameworks. The search for models that created and defined modern architecture does not lead the author to a continuity or a gradual development of those models, but to the visionary role of avant-garde artists who, like the zenitist Jo Klek, considered architecture a part of a bigger Weltanschaung (in 1937, Klek, under the real name of Josip Seissel, designed the Yugoslav pavilion at the international exhibition in Paris). For Blagojevic, Klek’s visionary draft for the Villa Zenit becomes a model for a radical understanding of modern architecture and its main characteristics, such as an open floor plan, roof terrace, spatial continuity between interiors and exteriors, along with influences of cubism and Adolf Loos. Zenitist architecture never took off but it remained a pretext and a subtext for many realized buildings. The first of those is the family house of the architect Milan Zlokovic on Neimar, which makes a clear break with the historicity, sentimentality, and “petit bourgeois reality” of the existing beliefs about urban living in Belgrade. The house remains an example of an anti-organic, anti-expressive, anti-synthetic, and anti-nostalgic architecture, which addresses, as put by the cited Massimo Cacciari, “the conditions of the metropolis as Grossstadt, with its ‘nervous life’ , alienation, and autonomous individuality.” However, Blagojevic is not interested only in the architecture of this house but also in the intriguing “photo session” that Zlokovic put together and that showed his awareness of the changing perceptions of urban environment under the influence of avant-garde movements and new media of mechanical reproduction: “These carefully framed fragments stand as images in their own right, almost totally independent of the architecture they represent. In fact, they form a set of references, not necessarily following the actual architectural narrative, but having an autonomous status as visual evidence of modernity.”

Certainly, the destroyed and the very provincial post-world war I Belgrade was far from a vision of a modern metropolis. This is why Blagojevic gives a lot of attention to the housing question in interwar Belgrade, marked by an absence of basic living conditions, by diseases related to non-hygienic and cramped dwellings (tuberculosis, for instance, was the cause of death of every third citizen of Belgrade) and by permanent administrative confusion. Therefore, the priority was given to those projects which for the first time offered responsible solutions for collective housing and provided basic living conditions for the poor. Such were the projects of the Czech-born architect Jan Dubovy for men’s and women’s workers’ shelters, small model workers’ settlements, or the projects of other architects, such as the colony for the poor by Branko Maksimovic.

The central role, regarding the monographic aspect of the book, belongs to the Group of Architects of the Modern Movement (GAMM), founded in 1928, whose leading members, apart from Zlokovic and Dubovy, were Branislav Kojic and Dušan Babic. The group did not have a firm ideological position, but it provided a forum for an exchange of opinions, mostly without forming a unified position on basic questions about modernist tendencies in architecture. As Kojic put it, “The Group did not have a firm position on some tendencies in our architecture which still showed characteristics of the past, only in a new form, such as an inadequacy of functional and constructive principles, combined with a compromise with decorativeness”. While the group faced a crisis as early as 1932, the early 1930s saw the appearance of the first modern buildings in Belgrade, among which Kojic pointed out in particular Jan Dubovy’s Observatory complex on Zvezdara as “the first monument of pure modernism in Belgrade.”

The study gives special significance to the life and work of Nikola Dobrovic. Dobrovic is considered Serbia’s most important modern architect although he built only one building in Belgrade towards the end of his career, lagging behind the ideas he advocated in the 1920s and 30s. The building, completed in1963, is today Belgrade’s most famous ruin: the Federal Ministry of Defense building on the corner of Miloševa and Nemanjina streets. Having built several exceptional smaller buildings in Prague and having worked on several bigger unbuilt projects and a handful of built ones in the 1930s, like the hotel on the Lopud island near Dubrovnik, the Prague-trained Dobrovic dedicated himself to the still unfinished problem of Belgrade urban planning: Terazije Terrace. Dobrovic’s solution, his “cinematographic caracter of cognition”, Blagojevic argues convincingly, would have radically changed the look of the city, opening it up towards the Sava river and the future New Belgrade. The project was never realized, not even after the World War II, when Dobrovic became a director of the Belgrade Urban Institute and when he devoted all his energies to planning a new city across the Sava, which today bears little resemblance to his original plan. It is only the building of the Federal Ministry of Defense that retained some of Dobrovic’s plan for Terazije Terrace, but more than anything, this building has become a monument to the fate of modernism in Serbia, defined primarily by postponement and untimeliness.

Regardless of the social conditions that condemned modern architecture in Belgrade to the status of “undeveloped” or “incomplete modernism,” this book (supported by an exceptionally rich visual material) convincingly refers to many exemplary works of architecture we walk by today only to notice their bad shape due to careless maintenance and inadequate support. Those buildings are Zlokovic’s University Children’s Hospital on Tiršova street and the then Fiat Automobile Service Building on Autokomanda, Brašovan’s building of the Printing Bureau (BIGZ) and the building of the Royal Airforce Command Hall in Zemun, as well as the twenty-eight apartment buildings by Momcilo Belobrk, which became the symbol of Belgrade in the 1930s. Added to this is a series of successful family homes that speak best of the partial influence of the new times on the Serbian middle class, which was expected to embrace the new influence yet remained trapped in anachronistic fantasies of historical styles, ornamentation, sentimentality, and close-mindedness. In many cases, especially concerning the relationship between interiors and exteriors, the domineering bourgeois taste “deradicalized the original avant-garde text and adapted it to the social and cultural space as well as to the aspirations of the middle class.”

While following the historical narrative, Ljiljana Blagojevic’s theoretical approach owes most to Benjamin’s interpretation of the modern city as a perceptive machine, and it further includes contemporary theoretical debates about architecture, historiography, and even psychoanalytical theory. The book departs from existing surveys of Serbian architecture: it develops a specific discursive practice embraced not so much by Serbian academia as by independent educational institutions, particularly the School of History and Theory of Art, where some of the ideas from this book were first introduced. The significance of the book far surpasses a limited interest in the history of architecture as it raises key questions of the process of modernization of Serbian society and the overall societal resistance to a thorough implementation of the process. Within its scope, the book analyzes many contradictions between local conditions and international modern movement. Quite exceptional are Blagojevic’s reflections on the relationship between modernists and regional paradigms considered in relation to the ideology of the national style (especially in the chapter on Zlokovic, but also in discussions of Kojic and Brašovan), as well as the reflections on a clash between proclaimed modernism and the technically non-existing building conditions, which instead of moving modernism to a new architectural epoch turned it instead into yet another style built by local “brick-layers” method. An incomplete modernist project is characterized by formalism and superficiality of the new style or the canon, and frequently by structural symbolism, which, for instance, Dobrovic and Kojic had noticed in their critique of Brašovan.

Finally, Ljiljana Blagojevic’s Modernism in Serbia: The Elusive Margins of Belgrade Architecture, 1919-1941 is extraordinarily timely since it discusses a city that has never come to terms with its development, a city which tends to forget individuals who dared to change a regressive mindset, and a city in which the reach of architecture is perceived in nineteenth-century terms, as a “house of the dreaming collective” (Benjamin), which means today a church or a shopping mall, or even a private home resembling both.

Translated by Ljiljana Coklin

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