During Belgrade’s population boom in 1920s and 30s, its better heeled citizens decided that they wanted to create suburban neighbourhoods which would guarantee them a degree of comfort away from the town’s hustle and bustle. While then, like now villas in neighbourhoods of Senjak and Dedinje were considered the best addresses in town, the educated (upper) middle classes sought also wanted to get away from the sprawling city which, was bursting at the seams with slums like Pištolj and Jatagan Mala.
The first of these leafy subrubs was Neimar on the southern slope of Vračar hill – initially named Kotež Neimar – after the Serbian take on the French word “cottage” and “Neimar” the real estate development firm which owned the land where it was built. The plans for a scenic neighbourhood overlooking two streams which traced the course of present-day Južni Bulevar and Belgrade-Niš Highway, were drawn up by Emil Hoppe and Otto Schönthal a talented duo of Viennese architects, students of Otto Wagner.
After the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Hoppe and Schönthal tried to expand their practice eastward towards the newly minted kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, bringing with them Viennese style and new ideas about architecture, namely the then-fashionable ideal of a garden city: an urban environment organically intertwined with a sea of greenery. Although they tried their luck at the largest competitions in the country – including that for the master plan of Belgrade – their greatest accomplishment in Serbia beside the plan for Neimar, (produced between 1921 and 1924) was the building which currently houses hotel Ekscelzior.
Although the real estate developers were keen on creating a neighbourhood of detached and semi-detached houses and gardens, Belgrade’s municipal authorities were suspicious, and it took three years for the plans to be approved – a particularly long time, given that back then (like now) there were many unplanned settlements and buildings sprouting all around. Although the plan for the development was finally accepted, Hoppe’s and Schönthal’s plans for what buildings would look like were not.
Instead, the neighbourhood’s new residents – many of them architects – set out to design their own houses, each more wonderful than the other. Architect Momir Korunović, a proud Freemason and aficionado of neo-byzantine style, built a house with many vaults, emblazoned with Masonic compasses. Fellow architect, Zloković built a house which to this day epitomises the best principles of Belgrade Modernism with its art-deco reliefs and geometric shapes. Beside theirs, there were villas housing doctors, scientists and clerks looking like anything from Parisian townhouse to Swiss mountain hut. Thanks to its neat plan, the eclecticism of buildings made the neighbourhood look more cosmopolitan.
This multi-cultural air, got an additional boost when French Assumptionist nuns and priest decided to make it their headquarters in Yugoslavia.
Due to the strong ties between Paris and Belgrade after WWI, the French nuns founded a school for fashionable young girls in 1920 in the building which is now occupied by the Faculty of Dentistry, while the priests built a church in 1929 in the very heart of Neimar. Next to it there were plans to build a bigger monumental church of the Assumption of Virgin Mary which would mark the Franco-Yugoslav alliance in WWI and even include a grave of an unknown French Soldier. This, however was not meant to be due to the outbreak of WWII, and the church remained unfinished until 1987 and was used for various purposes, including as a recording studio for Radio Belgarde. Despite its difficult history and failing to attain its intended monumentality, in 1988, it was elevated into the status of a (co-)cathedral for Belgrade’s Catholics.
Much like its religious French contingent, Neimar went into decline after WWII, as bourgeois housing went out of fashion, but that in a way increased its appeal. Ivy-covered facades and overgrown gardens gave it a mysterious, aged air. The real decline however started recently, in late 2000s, when investors, flush with cash, decided to tear down some old houses and gardens and start building tasteless new developments for Belgrade’s new upper middle class. The ingenuity of Neimar’s first architects, seems lost on their current colleagues, who happily sacrifice the beauty and comfort to add more parking spaces and a few more flats, which – building by building – decrease Neimar’s allure.
Thankfully, this plague of ugly architecture is still at its first phase and it is still well worth to wander around Neimar’s streets to sense what good life meant to Belgarde’s elite almost a century ago.