When I arrived in Yugoslavia as a 17-year-old exchange student in 1986, everything seemed wildly foreign. Of course the language — but also the air, scented with cigarette smoke and diesel exhaust; the cuisine, which insisted on certain things like soup and pickled cabbage at nearly every meal; and the bathrooms, with the mysterious absence of shower curtains and toilet paper that took the form of individual, stiff, almost waxy pink paper rectangles.
And then there were the buildings. I had grown up in a small town in West Virginia, where grandiose, lumber boom-era architecture mingled with modest storefronts, wooden frame houses, and occasional squalor. In Yugoslavia, everyone, it seemed, lived in identical multi-story apartment buildings. A few of the buildings in Kragujevac, where I lived, dated to the 19th century, but the rest were Modernist slabs. Modernism was as much a part of the taste and tang of the place as tiny cups of Turkish coffee and milk sold in heat-sealed plastic bags.
Unlike the terrible toilet paper, which has no fathomable explanation, the architecture was the result of a concerted national effort to modernize and unify. As has become eminently clear since its dissolution, Yugoslavia was a construct. It was stitched together after World War II from six distinct, primarily rural republics and two autonomous regions, speaking five languages, and occupying territory about the size of Ohio. Its self-fashioning extended to international politics: wedged between the Iron Curtain countries and the West, it aligned with neither, instead finding common cause with countries such as Indonesia and Nigeria.
An exhibition simultaneously improbable and significant, Toward a Concrete Utopia: Architecture in Yugoslavia, 1948-1980 at the Museum of Modern Art takes up the topic of Yugoslavia’s Modernist architecture. The show argues for its importance to both the erstwhile country and 20th-century architectural history. As such, it is an opportunity for revelations as much as nostalgia about the country that was and the concrete buildings that remain, like the bleached bones of dinosaurs.
Except for a timeline at the entrance to the exhibition, which extends through 1991 and the beginning of the war that ripped the country apart, the show hews rigorously to its time period, largely resisting any overt foreshadowing of ethnic tension. In a subtle archaism, the architects are all identified as Yugoslavian, no matter which former republic might claim them today. Video installations by the filmmaker Mila Turajlić, although she was a mere tween when the country cracked up, help create the Yugoslavian bubble. The video at the entrance, “Mi gradimo zemlju — zemjla gradi nas / We build the country — the country builds us!” (2018) plays a snippet from a song in which the singer exclaims, hoarse voiced, “Jugoslavijo!” This is the country’s name in the vocative case, used when calling out to someone. It reverberates through the first part of the show like an invocation.
The video installations are one of several strategies for bringing the buildings to the exhibition. They are also represented by architects’ sketches and plans, many autographs; scale models of buildings, lovingly created in balsa wood by architectural students; and photographs commissioned by MoMA. The standardized apartment blocks essential to the Yugoslav cityscape — the ones that I was most familiar with — appear only as bit players in some of the sections on urban planning. The majority of the show is devoted to more ambitious structures, some of them apartment buildings, but most of them libraries, government buildings, cultural centers, and hotels. The primary building material is reinforced concrete, and the sensibility is epic and daring. The urge to cantilever, apparently, was strong.
Take the Zlatibor Hotel in Užice, designed by Svetlana Kana Radević and built between 1964 and 1967. Rising at least 15 stories, it weds a strongly horizontal ground level to a vigorous vertical. The base plays with rectangles and portals — I especially like the three massive overhanging eaves that resemble hangar entrances — while the tower looks like four airplanes, resting on their tails, bound together to bracket the central mass of the building. These “tails,” an assortment of stepped balconies, seem to hover provocatively over the horizontal base. Thanks to this, and the powerful vertical ribbing above them, the whole ensemble appears ready to blast off.
One manifestation of Yugoslavian architectural self-fashioning was the style seen in the Zlatibor Hotel, which sought to transcend time and place. Another often integrated local cultural traditions with Modernism. I was slightly disappointed, though I remain understanding, that my old apartment building in Kragujevac was not included in this part of the exhibition. It is meant to evoke a rustic Serbian communal village habitation, the zadruga. The apartments face each other around a large central hall to encourage neighborly cooperation, and the façade is accented with tiled half-roofs that reference Serbian village architecture. When I lived there, the rustic effect was enhanced by the morning announcements of a nearby rooster.
Two buildings that made the cut introduce elements of Ottoman architecture: the Šerefudin White Mosque in Visoko, Bosnia and Herzegovina (1980), designed by Zlatko Ugljen, and the University Library in Priština, Kosovo (1971-82), designed by Andrija Mutnjaković. In the mosque, Ugljen retains the sculptural geometry of a more typically Modernist building like the Macedonian Opera and Ballet in Skopje but softens it with long curves and hidden skylights. The structure suggests the remote corner of the domed reaches of a much bigger building, creating an effect that is both cozy and monumental. The library is assembled out of 99 cubes topped with domes, each module varying in size. These are organized into a rough square and clad in hexagonal metal mesh to reference the local tradition of filigree. Rather than pretty, it looks presciently protective.
The last quarter of the exhibition features monument design, maybe the purest expression of Yugoslavian Modernism. Often sited in remote locations where battles or Nazi atrocities took place, these are huge, ponderous things, represented by photographs that are a sort of emotional antipode to a project like, for example, “hot guys with baby animals.” These are “abandoned Modernist monuments in bad weather.” (I would like to vouch personally, despite these photographs, for the possibility of perfectly pleasant weather throughout the entire former Yugoslavia.) The monuments are somberly outrageous in their flights of design, blossoms of concrete, metal, and stone unfettered by the need for functional demands.
Toward a Concrete Utopia calls attention to an interesting swath of buildings in a complicated part of the world during a political moment that turned out to be on a limited run. Even setting aside ethnic animosities, Yugoslavia didn’t work: the federation of republics failed to address, among other things, the striking difference in wealth among the republics — clear enough here if you compare the buildings and their settings in rich, industrial Slovenia to those in poorer, largely agrarian Macedonia, even before it was devastated by an earthquake. Though more open to private business than most Socialist countries, Yugoslavia wasn’t so much suppressive as stultifying to innovation. Graft proliferated. As for the buildings — on a cold day, they draw down winds that blow through the thickest coat, and sometimes one just wearies of the uncute starkness of it all.
In a darkened room toward the end of the show, a slide deck of promotional images from the 1970s of hotels on the Adriatic runs on a loop. This is the bubble within the bubble — the most vivid self-imagining of the country’s prosperity, unfolding on its gorgeous coast (in these photos it is finally sunny). In counterpoint to this, the exhibition concludes with an excerpt of a film on the Roma Holocaust by the Slovakian director Robert Kirchoff. The film is set inp a monument from the Jasenovac Memorial in Croatia, which marks the site of a former concentration camp. As damp snow pours around them, a few men talk about the atrocities affecting the Roma people of the former Yugoslavia. Although it refers to the past, it’s a light push back into the fractured now.
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.