Enjoy Your Yugoslavia!

Modernism In-Between: the Mediatory Architectures of Socialist Yugoslavia (Vladimir Kulic, Marjore Mrduljas, Wolfgang Thaler, 2012) is a truly excellent book, with luminous and eloquent writing about a stunning body of architecture.  An overview of some its many accomplishments should start with the images: abundant, colorful, of impeccable quality, and, most importantly, making available for an English readership, perhaps for the first time in such abundance and combination, a dizzyingly rich corpus of buildings.

What the buildings show, above all, is variety and originality.  This is an important point, since previous scholarship on architecture in the context of socialist states (and especially in the Soviet Bloc, in which, granted, Yugoslavia did not belong), has shown that standardization, series, and formal economy were the leading concerns. Instead, one finds exhilarating examples of formal freedom, from the biomorphic efflorescence of Bogdanovic’s structures to the geometric rigor of the Federal Executive Council Building in New Belgrade. In place of the relentless concrete structural panels and modules that defined millions of housing units in the Soviet Union, Romania, Czechoslovakia, and so on, one finds a proliferation of materials and building technologies, from pre-stressed concrete structures of breathtaking spans (the work of engineer Branko Zezelj), to pre-Gehry experimentation with metal cladding, to more traditional materials like brick and wood.  Instead of vast collectives of nameless architects, the book brings forward strong idiosyncratic figures with recognizable creative voices.

The typological diversity is also striking.  To take just an example, in Romania, kindergartens and schools were standard buildings deployed by the thousands throughout the country with little accommodation for different contexts (rural or urban) or for the special characteristics of their little users; by contrast, the book presents a range of Yugoslav examples of buildings meant for children, from kindergartens to medical facilities, which, for an eye used to the expressionless prisms of centralized and standardized norms, are thrilling in their formal playfulness, attention to detail, explorations of spatial intimacy, and textural richness.

The formal, typological, and programmatic inventiveness of the Yugoslav production in the context of the aesthetically restrained architectural culture of socialism is perhaps the most immediate and palpable impression produced by the book, and the heady abundance and quality of the architecture amounts to a powerful – though perhaps not fully intended – manifesto for Yugoslav exceptionalism. Here one should hasten to say that Modernism In-Between is a very different kind of publication from the recent spate of photographic extravaganzas about former communist lands.   Kulic and Mrduljas’ writing is far from being an uncritical celebration of this fantastic Yugoslav legacy.  It is also much more than a simple overview, and once the reader becomes absorbed in the chapters, the visual content quickly subsides to a more quiet supporting role.

What one finds instead in the book is a series of sophisticated efforts to gather and partly tame the cascading material along analytical channels.  A significant amount of thought must have gone in the organization of the book, which foregoes the predictable chronological or geographical arrangements in favor of subtler narrative paths.  The ambition is deeper than that of a catalogue, and the book not only produces its own categories but also includes a reflection on these categories and on the reality they capture and the ones they leave aside.  In each chapter, the authors approach their astonishing body of buildings through a different thematic:  architecture’s relationship to the two poles of the Cold War, East and West, Soviet and American spheres of influence (“Between Worlds”); the intricate question of separate regional and national identities versus a single, federal one (“Between Identities”); the urban context (“Between Continuity and Tabula Rasa”); the concern for the forms of everyday life, from housing to consumer goods (“Between Collective and Individual”); and finally, architecture’s relationship to historical time, from forward-looking technology to WWII memorials (“Between Past and Future.”)  The interesting and perhaps paradoxical outcome of these categories is that they bring together buildings as outlandishly different, in stylistic terms, as the wire-clad cubes of the National and University Library of Kosovo and the classicizing monolith of the Municipal Assembly Building in Kranj by Edvard Ravkinar.

The theoretical armature of each chapter varies in complexity:  “Between Identities” builds a fascinating dialectic of the regional and the international, by showing how a search for a vernacular identity inevitably merges, even at the level of the architectural language, with transnational forms; on the other hand, in “Between Continuity and Tabula Rasa” projects succeed each other in a more linear way. Intriguing arguments emerge in each chapter, but the book in itself, as a whole, constitutes a serious historiographic project, with implications that deserve attention and reflection.

What are the larger historical categories at work here? One such obvious construct is, of course, Yugoslavia, the cultural and political project of a multi-national, multi-ethnic entity – and a category the book deploys steadfastly against the strong nationalistic head currents that have led to the violent disintegration of the former federation.  The conviction that there is some benefit in tracing the contours of a coherent, if not uniform, Yugoslavian architecture, rather than fragment its history along national lines is modestly announced in the introduction.  The claim, however, that Yugoslavia is a valid category of architectural history, is not a minor one.  Nor should it be taken for granted, given that a significant part of the scholarship on the architecture of the region seems to follow the boundaries of the successor states, with Slovenia, Serbia, and Bosnia pursuing energetically their own independent architectural history project.  By not acquiescing to the current identity politics, and by courageously holding onto the historical category of Yugoslavia as “more than the sum of its parts,” the book makes one of its most important contributions.  The authors resist the common suspicion about the state as cynically instrumentalizing architecture for authoritarian purposes.  As a result, the book implicitly carries within its wake the possibility of collective harmony and reconciliation against postmodern relativism – at least in architectural terms.

There is, however, an even larger point that is so evident that it is worth insisting on its unobtrusive potency. Like in a series of nesting dolls, the book’s outer layer that ultimately encloses all the intermediary figures of region, nation, state, political system, periodization, and so forth, is provided by the notion of modernism.  This is made quite clear in the title, in which modernism is singular – the stable, fixed signifier – while architecture is pluralized.  This constitutes an interesting reversal of the recent trend of publications that have, on the contrary, attempted to pluralize the former at the expense of political or geographic constructs. Modernism, then, more than any other kind of allegiance, provides the anchor, the cement, and the ultimate capacious container for manifestations as dissimilar in function and form as New Belgrade’s massive structures and the sensitive, delicate shells of the Serefudin White Mosque, Vjenceslav Richter’s transparent Pavilion of Yugoslavia at the Expo ’58 and the padded shell of Ravnikar’s Globus Department Store in Kranj.  It is an optimistic and dynamic modernism, propelled by earnest attempts to build a better Yugoslav society outside the seductions and constraints of capitalism, and developed around commissions and investments directed at the public good.

Many readers will sympathize with the choice to foreground an enlightened architectural modernism.  It does, however, come at the price of putting the political in second place.  It is not that the political is entirely evacuated: the book makes sustained references to specific aspects of the Yugoslav political and economic system, such as the existence of self-managing companies (architectural firms among them) in a state-controlled market, or the quasi-absence of the private, single-family home as a field of architectural research.  But the authors repeatedly find evidence of an architectural lingua franca that transcends architecture’s distinct role in a socialist society.  However exceptional the structures of political power in Yugoslavia, the buildings it produced are ultimately and inexorably corralled into the large family of modernist architecture.

The point is perhaps best formulated as a question that goes beyond this quite extraordinary book: has modernism become our new de-facto operational category, the largest matryoshka of architectural history, able to accommodate within its roomy contours everything that was built in the 20th century’s second half, regardless of geographical or political context?

Juliana Maxim, University of San Diego

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