anemoia [noun] – nostalgia for a time you’ve never known
On the 15th of June this year, The Museum of Modern Art in New York (MoMA) opened the exhibition of Yugoslav architecture titled Toward a Concrete Utopia: Architecture in Yugoslavia 1948-1980.
On the morning of 15 June, while passing through a crowd of tourists in front of the Church of Scientology, we debate whether the title of the exhibition should have used the syntagm “Yugoslav architecture” rather than “architecture in Yugoslavia”. The project in Skoplje created by most certainly non-Yugoslav Kenzo Tange disarms that debate a few hours later, although we’ve pretty much forgotten about it by then. This is also the first epithet I would assign to the exhibition – disarming.
First of all – the exhibition was tailored to the Western eye and its curators had to address the prevalent political stereotypes held by Western societies. MoMA’s interest in this topic was an opportunity to include Yugoslav socialist architecture into contemporary research in the field of architecture, but it was also an opportunity to present the Yugoslav society of that era to the American public – which often perceives it as part of the Eastern Bloc community. The current atmosphere in the U.S. in the era of post-truth and rise of right-wing tendencies could be nicely contrasted against the story of Yugoslavia, since the progressive, egalitarian identity of our former country highlights an alternative to the current power paradigm of the country that loves to call itself free. This, in fact, is the most important aspect for international audiences: the exhibition clearly outlines the social and political context of the brutalist aesthetic, which, although experiencing a revival on global art platforms in the recent years, seems to have been reduced to material and form without an understanding of its essence.
If it appears that the ignorance of the global public is the big issue that could be tackled by this exhibition, this notion gives way as soon as we remember the skeletons in our own back yard. This amazing exhibition is a detailed revision of a period which hardly receives any public praise in the Balkans. October elections are an excellent reminder of the paradox of institutional treatment of socialist architecture: the more time – and credible institutions like MoMA – reveal the value of Yugoslav heritage, the louder the arguments against this period become. The thesis that touts totalitarianism and absence of all freedoms, including artistic, during the Yugoslav era is the favourite tool of political establishments in all countries of the former state and their attempts to discredit an almost invisible ideological adversary, which even to this day – although long gone – fills them with dread. This totalitarian thesis is refuted by the exhibition in more ways than one. It presents a broad range of architectural expressions across the whole of Yugoslavia and the various periods of its existence, while the exhibits themselves serve as evidence of freedom and actualised potential. Fortunately, this pretentious political defamation of socialist architecture is a view that is not shared by the citizens. Rather than looking at election results, one should look at the demand and prices of apartments in excellent socialist residential architecture across the former state, such as in Novi Beograd and Split – or Sarajevo for that matter.
Residential architecture shown in the exhibition is all the more valuable in the present day, when similar modern buildings are perceived as luxury, while back then they were a normal consequence of social and cultural development and were available to the working class. By the 1970s this typology evolved to a point where almost every apartment had a balcony or terrace and the future tenants were often involved in design decisions, allowing them to participate in the articulation of their living space. Open plans and continuous circulation through the apartment negated the tradition of apartments as a set of closed boxes. This standard of quality was achieved primarily through public contests, which served as drivers of innovation in residential modalities. This trend could also be seen in urban planning, where the design of Split 3 project stands out due to its re-articulation of urban block space.
As visitors move through rooms dedicated to individual architects (Richter, Neidhardt, Bogdanović, Ravnikar) towards those displaying collective achievements (Modernization, Global Networks, Everyday Life, Identities), they witness decades of continuity of this shared idea and effort. Continuity is reflected not only in related transgenerational research, theory and practice (e.g. Neidhart – Ugljen), but also in the approach chosen by the amazing team of organisers. Curators Vladimir Kulić and Martino Stierli and asistent curator Anna Kats, supported by experts from former Yugoslavia whose expertise and contacts – more than the institutions in charge – made sure that exhibited works produce a harmonious whole easily interpreted by a foreign eye, fully contextualised and free from errors of its predecessors who presented the heritage of socialist Yugoslavia merely as photogenic ruins of a lost world (such as the book Spomenik by Jan Kempenaers). The exhibition catalogue best portrays this regional cooperation through a series of essays and studies of the exhibits, where the organisers’ intent was to showcase the value created in the socialist period with the aim to have its importance recognised in practice, through adequate long-term preservation and care.
In a sea of amazing exhibits, I would venture to say that visitors were most interested in the monuments. Their bold and expressive forms that celebrate the hard-won freedom and commemorate those who gave their lives for it still look extraordinary and futuristic, even though they were designed half a century ago. But the exhibition does not stop at the form; it also highlights the fact that they were not individual phenomena but rather a whole artistic movement brought to life. Looking at the contemporaries of Yugoslav monuments across the globe, it is difficult to find something that could match up: Yugoslavia produced a series of objects that were dedicated to the socialist revolution and celebrated emancipation, thus creating an intensive culture of remembrance with completely new values embedded in highly specific political and economic circumstances that made it all possible. That political context is key to the existence of everything shown in the exhibition – and this makes the debate from the start of this text obsolete, together with a widely held view that Yugoslav architecture never existed. The complexity and quality of the Yugoslav space can be seen in the existence of individual, clearly profiled schools of architecture as well as the common framework, i.e. the state that made sure that those schools operated in near-identical conditions and, more importantly, created an environment that fostered intensive interactions between them. If any proponent of strictly national architecture tried to map the location of each exhibit and the present-day nationality of its author(s), the map of Yugoslavia would be covered by a densely entangled grid – in stark contrast to the clustered, differentiated map they would like to see.
Unfortunately, that map would lack many important buildings. A visitor from ex-Yugoslavia would certainly note the absence of several important projects, such the Sava Centar or Ciglane. The reason for their absence is MoMA’s strict policy of displaying only original materials, which, sadly, were not available in many cases. This was the case with Sarajevo’s Skenderija, a landmark that receives a lot of public attention in the recent years due to its poor treatment and activist efforts to preserve it. Presentation of Skenderija at this exhibition would certainly contribute to the effort to save this piece of architectural heritage, but the original drawings of Skenderija were destroyed by a grenade that hit the home of Živorad Janković in the early 1990s. An even more tragic fact is the total absence of archiving culture in Bosnia and Herzegovina (the situation is similar or just slightly better in most ex-Yugoslav countries, with the exception of Slovenia) that could easily result in exclusion of many other valuable buildings. Archives held by universities, major companies, institutions and associations were all but destroyed in the post-war period through sheer neglect and disdain. The only reason why a visitor can see some of the iconic landmarks of socialist-era Sarajevo are the private archives of the artists and their families
So I find that the most important aspect of this exhibition for our ex-Yugoslav community is the matter of approach to our socialist heritage. The socialist period produced a body of new architectural knowledge that spanned the whole region and yet seems to have all but vanished due to selfish political interests, leaving a gap that greatly impacts our quality of life today. And for this reason – as utopian as the exhibition itself – I expect this exhibition to inspire us all to document, contextualise, theorise and act in the spirit of the most progressive and most humane period of our architectural history.