Refuting Exoticism

Already in 1974, Henri Lefebvre asserted how “leisure is as alienated and alienating as labour; as much an agent of co-optation as it is itself co-opted. […] Once a conquest of the working class, in the shape of paid days’ off, holidays, weekends, and so on, leisure has been transformed into an industry, into a victory of neocapitalism and an extension of bourgeois hegemony to the whole space.”[1]

The “bourgeois hegemony” over spaces of leisure that Lefebvre reproaches is truly unrelated to the type of socio-political settings of a particular context, be it socialist or capitalist. However, making any two cases commensurable for the purposes of evaluation is never ideologically neutral, and histories of post-socialist development in Central and Eastern Europe often run the risk of an inherent exoticism. Socialism can indeed seem as a valid common denominator that offers a meaningful frame to discuss and compare specific building cultures; it can perform as an appropriate expedient of comparison but only if it simultaneously questions the rootedness of its own discourse.

One of the achievements of Holidays After the Fall is precisely a successful attempt to present a comparative study without resorting to unfruitful essentializing. Although the intention of the volume might have been to highlight the specificities of Bulgarian and Croatian tourist development based on a common past, Holidays After the Fall reveals the differences more than it underlines the shared characteristics. As such, it is a more than welcome contribution to the deconstruction of exoticizing and essentializing tendencies of the post-socialist discourse.

As much as the discourse of transitology is hinged on the existence of the “other” and on examination of its oftentimes perplexed metamorphosis, the tourism industry is equally based on the production of enjoyable and desirable “others”. The working class whose convalescence prompted the development of tourist architecture in Bulgaria and Yugoslavia longed for a romanticized retreat from its quotidian routine. The numerous foreign tourists were drawn by the allure of the “socialist” exotic and added this desire to their wish lists. The establishment’s expectations were more fixated on the economic and ideological gains from the tourism endeavor. In the midst was architecture – a highly politicized nexus for mitigation of numerous ambitions from these various constituencies. The architecture of tourism, together with the sea, sun and – mainly in Bulgarian case – the sand, thus not only formed the scenography of the idyllic getaway for the drained masses of workers, but also had to deliver numerous other effects.

While this volume works quite successfully in defining and delineating those political, social and economic realms that shaped the two tourist environments, it indicates the existence of an intricate space of specifically architectural concerns that still requires illumination in order to obtain a more holistic picture of the developments under analysis. This particularly concerns the situating of the built environments of tourism in a specific historical, cultural and architectural context of each country; other than the socialist heritage, both Croatian and Bulgarian spaces also possessed their inherent and specific cultural memories and multiple layers of geographical and social histories.  These must have played an important part both in each country’s respective tourist product, as well as in its tourist architecture. It would be worthwhile to understand how the architecture and urbanism of tourism were incorporated into complex spaces in and upon which they prospered in more multifaceted ways than just as a response to either the specific Bulgarian, gently sloping topography, or the Croatian, ridged mountainous coastal topography. In a way, how did  “holiday” architecture figure into the complex existing spaces of  “seaside architecture”?

As we can learn from the case studies, the design of these built environments had been predominantly fueled by domestic architectural knowledge. It resulted from local architectural substrates that had, in both cases, mainly accepted and purposefully modified the functionalist and symbolic postulates of high modernism. However, the two design cultures that have given birth to oftentimes their best performances, must have had a greater stake in conceptualizing and creating these exemplary works, and did not stop short by only tweaking modernism and introducing the dashes of their respective vernaculars.  These intriguing exchanges with the architecture of tourism must have reverberated in the local design discourse. In his chapter, Maroje Mrduljaš does recognize the fundamental influences of modernist discourse, namely CIAM, on the Croatian architectural scene, while Elke Beyer and Anke Hagemann address the importance of the UIA Congress in Bulgaria in 1972 for local architectural culture.  However, it would be rewarding to discover how these developments were situated within the local architectural discourse: were they successors of, or precursors to subsequent important design developments?

[1] Lefebvre, H. The Production of Space. Oxford, UK / Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1991. p. 383.


Igor Ekštajn is a PhD student in architecture at Harvard University Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. He obtained his Master of Architecture degree from the University of Zagreb in 2005. He spent several years working in Croatian architectural firms njiric+ arhitekti and Randić-Turato. In 2011 he received his Master in Design Studies degree in History and Philosophy of Design from Harvard University Graduate School of Design. Igor also served as the Deputy Curator of the Croatian Pavilion at the 14th Venice Architecture Biennale in 2014.

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