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The Balkans are a region geographically and historically inextricable from Europe, writes Maria Todorova in her 1997 book Imagining the Balkans. Yet culturally they are often viewed as a perpetual Other, a timeless repository of negative characteristics atop which a positive, self-congratulatory image of the Western European is constructed. As such, it is all the more surprising to see MoMA — a beacon of self-congratulatory Western European narratives if there ever was one — do such a terrific job with Toward a Concrete Utopia: Architecture in Yugoslavia, 1948–1980, a runaway triumph of a summer exhibition, which opened to strong critical acclaim in July. This exceptionally designed show succeeds in distilling the architectural legacy of a country best known, in and outside of it, for falling apart. It introduces audiences to a bold modernist tradition forged by radical, multi-ethnic communities with utopic, collective ambitions. Most remarkably, the exhibition focuses on the innovative projects of Yugoslav architects, rather than the ultimately doomed project that was Yugoslavia itself.
The Federal People’s Republic of Yugoslavia was formed in 1946 after the communist Partisans, led by Josip Broz Tito, liberated the area from Nazi rule. However, the exhibition title’s date range (1948–1980), chosen by curators Martino Stierli, Vladimir Kulić, and Anna Kats, is significant. After a brief alliance with the Soviet Union, a 1948 conflict between Tito and Stalin resulted in the country’s expulsion from the Eastern bloc, allowing this fledgling federation of six republics — Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia (including the regions of Kosovo and Vojvodina), and Slovenia — to pursue a policy of neutrality that it would maintain throughout the Cold War. Politically, Yugoslavia was a unique experiment: although it was unambiguously under Tito’s dictatorship, the country’s official policy was one of “worker self-management,” wherein collectives of workers held significant decision-making power. The worker collectives of Yugoslavia were thus able to develop a “third way” between Western democracy and Soviet totalitarian communism, one that began to crumble only after Tito’s death in 1980.
Toward a Concrete Utopia is packed with masterpieces of daring construction and innovative design, never before exhibited to American audiences. Organized thematically, rather than chronologically, it avoids the pitfalls of a teleological “rise and fall” model, which is especially tricky in the case of Yugoslavia, whose history is bookended by inter-ethnic atrocities. Instead, the galleries are divided into four broad categories: Modernization; Global Networks; Everyday Life; and Identities. The first suite of rooms is, appropriately, devoted to the rapid urbanization and technological advancement that marked Yugoslavia’s post-war history. Due to its unusual neutral stance, Yugoslav companies could export to both Western and Eastern markets, and Yugoslav architects responded to paradoxically clashing demands and influences, producing buildings in which Western stylistic approaches were expanded to meet distinctly socialist needs.
Leaving foreign policy behind, the next set of galleries focuses on the relationship between the state and its citizens under Tito’s ideology of “worker self-management.” In direct opposition to the Soviet Union’s centralized, heavily-bureaucratic government, management of economic resources was transferred from the state to decentralized, local worker councils. Cultural autonomy and artistic freedom were seen as specifically Yugoslav values, granting architects and urban planners an outsize role in implementing self-management principles. Eventually, an architectural theory of “social standard” emerged, which attempted to reconcile massive development projects with an individualized experience of space. Quality of life was of paramount importance. Services such as education, healthcare and cultural programming, which were offered for free to the entire population, became integral elements of urban planning, just as they did in the Soviet bloc.
Quintessentially Yugoslav, however, was the pervasive commitment to interpersonal sociability and a personal enjoyment of one’s surroundings, perhaps best exemplified by the country’s booming tourism industry. Massive resorts were built to house thousands of domestic and foreign tourists along the Adriatic coast. A number of representative examples are included in the exhibition, introduced with a looping slideshow of vintage summertime photographs.
This clever choice allows the visitors to appreciate the sophisticated interplay between the buildings and the natural landscape. Brutalist in style, dense concrete structures like Branko Žnidarec’s Hotel Adriatic II nevertheless wrap themselves organically along the curves of the rocky shore, achieving a high capacity of accommodation with minimal incursions into the topography. The surrounding landscape was kept pristine through strict regulation and a policy of universal free access: new developments were built at least 300 feet from the shoreline and the space in between was declared public land accessible to all.
Another of the exhibition’s stronger points is its emphasis on the different regional responses to the Western tradition, including the way architects incorporated local architectural traditions and attended to particularities of local landscapes. Gutted by WWII bombardment, for instance, the Croatian city of Zadar had to be rebuilt around its (largely intact) ancient Roman and Renaissance core. The winning plan, by architect Bruno Milić, met the challenge with meandering modernist buildings interspersed with numerous small piazzas that follow the city’s Roman orthogonal grid and narrow street which actively encourage random social encounters. The inherent sociability of the public realm was, and still is, one of the more striking cultural features throughout the former Yugoslavia.
Beyond the coast, the mountainous region of Bosnia presented its own challenges. The architect and theorist Juraj Neidhardt spent two decades developing the ideas published in his landmark 1957 study, The Architecture of Bosnia and the Way towards Modernity, in which he pointed out the proto-modernity of the traditional Bosnian dwellings, with their whitewashed walls, built-in furniture, and large windows overlooking lush greenery. Later on, Neidhardt’s student, Zlatko Ugljen, put the theory into practice: his Šerefudin White Mosque (1969-1979) in the Bosnian town of Visoko is defined by a shell of sculptural concrete pierced with skylights. It reimagines the region’s traditional Ottoman mosque architecture with remarkable ease, and offers a mature example of a specifically Bosnian interpretation of modernism.
When MoMA announced the exhibition, the region’s critical press was both elated and nervous, fearing that MoMA would partake in the problematic gawking at Yugoslavia’s best-known architectural landmarks — the hundreds of futuristic WWII memorials scattered throughout the country. Recently popularized as “spomeniks” (simply the Bosnian-Serbian-Croatian word for “monument”), these memorials are more complex than they appear in viral photographs online, given the particular history they commemorate. The curators do a good job of recognizing this complexity, by hand-picking only a small number of memorials to explore in-depth, thus toning down the potential for sensationalism. Avoiding the Orientalist narrative, which portrays these works as “alien” and incomprehensible, the show focuses instead on the way architects and sculptors marshalled geometric forms and abstraction to foster unity among Yugoslavia’s multi-ethnic population, which included both the perpetrators and the victims of the crimes being memorialized.
The exhibition’s intellectual peak, however, may lie in the galleries devoted to residential architecture; it is in these that the curators can make the most cohesive arguments for including Yugoslavia’s “concrete utopia” in the architectural canon of the 20th century. The housing policy of Yugoslav socialism and its “worker self-management” ideology was both anti-state and pro-market, resting on the belief that it is the duty of society as a whole — rather than the state itself — to provide its members with housing. The apartment became a basic human right, formally enshrined in the Yugoslav Constitution and universally granted to all citizens.
The Yugoslav society took this commitment seriously, using labor surplus to fund numerous new socially owned housing projects to meet the ever-growing demand, which resulted in a boom of architectural competitions across the country. From giant 1950s development initiatives, such as New Belgrade (at the time, the largest construction site in Europe), to later projects like the sleek towers of the Split 3 residential complex, built on the Dalmatian coast in the 1970s, architects envisioned a variety of solutions that were densely packed yet flexible, allowing sweeping views through apartments and balconies that open up onto majestic landscapes. Providing universal housing and keeping the commitment to the social standard, the winning proposals also extended beyond the residential buildings themselves — in order to ensure quality of life, the designs included schools, kindergartens, parks, farmers markets, emergency rooms, and social clubs, all of them self-run and freely available to all.
“Split 3 makes me feel so optimistic, Thank you!” wrote the great American urbanism pioneer Jane Jacobs during a visit to one such construction site in 1981. As an in-gallery video loops aerial footage of the sunlit Split 3 towers and their pleasantly meandering, palm tree-lined walkways, it is easy to see why. Panning across the façade, the camera occasionally captures details of individual intimacy — someone’s jeans on a clothesline, a couple sipping coffee in the shade of their balcony — and one glimpses a culture of dwelling in urban space that is, or was, both inspiring and truly different from anything the West or the East had to offer.
Toward a Concrete Utopia: Architecture in Yugoslavia, 1948-1980, curated by Martino Stierli, Vladimir Kulić, and Anna Kats, continues at the Museum of Modern Art (11 West 53rd Street, Midtown, Manhattan) through January 13, 2019.