The Many Lives of Modernism in Socialist Yugoslavia

The book offers a thoughtful and fascinating survey of the diverse architectures of socialist Yugoslavia.  While each postwar socialist state defies attempts at easy categorization, the former Yugoslavia probably remains the most bewilderingly idiosyncratic of all. As a rare occurrence, the country was largely self-liberated in World War II. It was a close ally of the Soviet Union until it abruptly broke with the communist bloc in 1948 to later become a leading player in the Non-Aligned Movement. Its economy was socialized and planned but also promoted workers’ self-management and market mechanisms. As a result, it had a well-developed consumer culture while its citizens were also relatively free to travel. This is why to visitors from socialist Eastern Europe Yugoslavia always felt much more part of the West than the East.  As the authors note, it was common to describe socialist Yugoslavia “as one country with two alphabets, three languages, four religions, five nationalities, six constituent republics, and seven neighbors” (22). One of the book’s great strengths is that even though its primary focus is architecture and the built environment, it shows forcefully how architecture can provide a lens to better understand this complex geopolitical and cultural position as well as the various forces that created, shaped, and eventually destroyed it.

The book also contains strong theoretical implications, as it calls into question widely held assumptions about the relationship between countries in the core and the periphery. It argues that the innovative, experimental and variegated architecture of Yugoslavia became in large part possible because the country lay on the geopolitical periphery, in the interstices of Cold War power fields between East and West. The distance from the center loosened the grip of ideological and political control allowing for greater freedom in testing, questioning, and modifying ideas disseminated from the center. Therefore, for instance, the program of architectural modernism was never fully and dogmatically embraced but evolved as a “floating,” mediatory project, trying to balance a wide variety of contradictory demands and influences. The book fundamentally challenges the way we think about intellectual exchange between East and West, between core and periphery, and between global North and South, and this aspect should make it appeal to a broad audience that may otherwise not necessarily be interested in the specific case of Yugoslavia.

Rather than aiming to construct an exhaustive chronological survey of architecture in socialist Yugoslavia the authors opted for a more engaging and effective conceptual frame. The book’s narrative is built around exploring various dimensions of the “in-betweenness” they identify as the most distinctive feature of socialist Yugoslavia and its architecture. After a concise introduction that outlines the architectural history and legacies of the region (stressing how it brings large and disparate architectural traditions such as those of the Roman, Ottoman, and Austro-Hungarian empires into unusual proximity), the introduction of modernism in the interwar period, and the postwar transformation of the architectural profession, the authors turn to the first important aspect of “in-betweenness”.  They highlight Yugoslavia’s shifting foreign policy between the First, Second, and Third Worlds and how the resulting liminality shaped the international exchange of architectural ideas and know-how. They show how foreign models (socialist realism, International Style) “were consistently reinterpreted, transmuted, and subverted, albeit with varied levels of self-awareness” (49) or how modernism grew into a tool of political and cultural emancipation. In discussing the second aspect of “in-betweenness,” the authors examine architecture as an integral part of identity-making strategies in socialist Yugoslavia, mapping the various architectural schools and their role in constructing and representing Yugoslavia’s constituent nationalities as well as their commitments to diverging understandings of regionalism. The third aspect focuses on the intellectual and physical space between continuity and tabula rasa tracing processes of postwar urbanization and accompanying theoretical debates about the urban form in a rapidly modernizing and urbanizing Yugoslavia. The fourth aspect zooms in on a range of building types that best capture the reconfigured relationship between the individual and collective in a socialist society, revealing how these everyday building forms (schools, housing, or holiday resorts) provided sites for architectural experimentation. Finally, the authors explore the vast and complicated terrain architecture had to fill between past and future, reflecting on the relative lack of utopian projects and the rich and often monumental memorial architecture (e.g., the work of Bogdan Bogdanović).

In my view, the book focuses primarily on the enormous productive energy and creative force that emerged from Yugoslavia’s “floating,” mediatory, interstitial position, which makes for an inspiring read. But I kept wondering if there were also downsides to this “in-between” position: whether the contradictory demands and competing influences also became sources of conflict and antagonism among various architectural schools, modes of representation, or in envisioning the links between architecture and politics (especially vis-à-vis the interaction between state and local politics).

Wolfgang Thaler’s photos that illustrate the book are carefully and beautifully composed, and for the most part lack false nostalgia or melancholy, though some of them make it hard to resist the temptation to book an impulse trip to the Adriatic Coast. They also add another layer to the narrative as they illuminate the varied post-1989 destinies of the buildings.  Nevertheless, my favorite photo is the very last one, showing a group of local men playing bocce at the foot of a housing block in the massive Split 3 housing estate. It is one of the rare images in the book that offers a glimpse of everyday life as it unfolds in the built environment that survives socialist Yugoslavia. 

Virág Molnár, The New School for Social Research

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