The un-vanishing act
The Cold War was a fairly rotten time for many things, but a good one for architecture fans. The Iron Curtain separating East from West was more than just a physical boundary – it also served to separate artistic traditions, leading to extremely localised works which sprang up independently of each other and had to respond to opposing demands and influences.
Perhaps the best examples of the inventiveness and variety it inspired can be found in what used to be known as Yugoslavia and is now the Balkan states. The site of a whole series of proxy wars between East and West, the Balkans were and are a fascinating mixture of the ideals and realities of both sides of the conflict.
The architecture of Yugoslavia – a unique spin on socialism, brutalism and modernism – remains largely unknown to the general public but it has had a far-reaching influence on modern urban architecture. An exhibition to be launched at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York in January 2019 will set out to explore this and bring wider attention to this fascinating branch of international architecture.
By concentrating on the period between 1948 and 1980, the MoMA exhibition will shine a light on influential architects such as Bogdan Bogdanović, Juraj Neidhardt, Svetlana Kana Radević, Edvard Ravnikar, Vjenceslav Richter, and Milica Šterić, and explore work as varied as the White Mosque in Bosnia, the post-earthquake reconstruction of the city of Skopje, and the housing blocks and civic structures of the New Belgrade new town.
What makes all of this particularly interesting is the aforementioned isolation of Yugoslavia from the Western world. By the time the Cold War ended, architectural trends such as brutalism had fallen by the wayside in most capitalist countries. With the discarding of large-scale socialism in the 1980s the construction of brutalist social housing blocks, for example, was considered a remnant of the past and more spread out suburban developments were pursued instead. The idea was consigned to the past by many architects, meaning that Yugoslavia essentially acted as a time capsule when it was fully opened up to the West again.
Forms which had mostly vanished from Western architectural discourse suddenly reappeared again. Impressive examples of ‘old’ styles of architecture were suddenly on show again and demonstrated the benefits of left-behind principles in contexts that were different from anything that had existed in the West – in this way, the past pointed towards the future. The unique aspects and ideas of Balkan architecture began to spread and wield influence once more.
Balkan architecture was never intended to be anything other than functional, but the fall of the political ideologies that spawned it – such as the revolutionary communism of Josep Broz Tito which led to the construction of the Yugoslav Memorial Home and the Political School in Croatia – ended up turning these buildings into living museum pieces.
These displays of radical socialist and communist architecture are understandably the subject of growing attention in the current climate; socialism is once again gaining political momentum across the world on the back of the financial crash of 2008 and the consequent crisis in the political legitimacy of capitalist politics, and we are trying desperately to house more people in a shorter time span than at any time since the end of World War II.
The world’s most influential architects are once again beginning to focus their energies on solving the social problems of the age rather than spending their energies almost exclusively on fancy skyscrapers or secluded show houses; in this context, the MoMA exhibition on the socialist architecture of Cold War Yugoslavia might prove to be very timely indeed.