There are few better ways to study a country’s history than by observing its built environment. No amount of books, photographs and paintings can give you the same immediate knowledge of its history as seeing its buildings and monuments.
The facades explain how its founders wanted to be seen, their floor plans trace how its inhabitants lived and worked, while the size and quality of the materials and craft tell stories of economic booms and busts.
While many ascribe Belgrade’s chaotic (or, euphemistically, eclectic) mix of architecture to multiple destructions in the two world wars, much of it also reflects the often dramatic ideological and political shifts that happened in Serbia, and later, Yugoslavia.
This is best seen when one looks at Belgrade’s official buildings, which were the primary markers of where the country wanted to be seen to be heading and which at the same time reflected and influenced the way Serbian or Yugoslav identity shifted.
From Istanbul to Vienna and back
While many stress Serbia’s rush to escape from its old Ottoman heritage after it won autonomy in the 1830s under Prince Milos Obrenovic, the buildings of that time in fact reflect a great degree of continuity with the Ottoman rule.
To signal his still close relationship with the Sultan in Istanbul, Prince Milos’s palace in Topcider and his wife Ljubica’s palace in the city were built as if for the wealthy Ottomans of the period, with hammams, separate male and female quarters and furnishings of luscious carpet and wood.
While some new, smaller houses were now being built in European styles, most of Belgrade and its skyline, dotted by minarets, still looked distinctly Ottoman.
It was only when Milos was overthrown by the rival dynasty of the Karadjordjevic family that Belgrade’s architecture started looking West, more precisely towards the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which was then Serbia’s ally against the Ottomans.
The first example of that was the building that now houses the Belgrade University Rectorate, built by a wealthy merchant, Misa Anastasijevic.
This ambitious merchant expected his daughter to marry what he hoped to be the heir to the principality of Serbia, and he set to build a suitably grand palace, designed in an eclectic style popular at the time by the Czech architect, Jan Nevole.
While Anastasijevic’s ambitions were thwarted by the return of the Obrenovics to power, Serbia’s increasing independence from Turkey and its westward turn gained pace under Milos’ son, Mihailo Obrenovic.
Highly educated and powerful, Mihailo worked hard to pull Serbia away from its Ottoman past and forge a new Western identity. After the last Ottoman Garrison left Belgrade in 1867, he set about transforming his capital.
The ancient winding alleyways of Dorcol were straightened and new, sumptuous buildings were designed by Serbian architects who were often born and studied in the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Belgrade’s main Orthodox church was refashioned in Central European Baroque style and an elegant theatre was built at the place of the main Ottoman city gate.
This trend towards establishing an identity that was firmly Western continued after Mihailo’s assassination in 1868.
As Serbia grew more prosperous, more of the old Ottoman houses gave way to buildings erected in Western neo-Classical, neo-Renaissance and neo-Baroque styles.
The minarets of mosques gave way to church spires and the turrets of the Old Royal Palace, now much altered and housing the City Hall – on which little expense was spared when Serbia was elevated to the status of fully independent kingdom in 1882.
Towards the end of the 19th century, as Ottoman power ebbed and Austro-Hungarians solidified their presence in the Balkans by occupying Bosnia in 1878, Serbia started seeing Vienna as less of a patron than a threat.
Richer and more educated and ambitious than ever, the Serbs wanted to craft a distinct local style. As turning back to Ottoman traditions and aesthetics was not an option, the focus turned towards Serbia’s own medieval past.
Ironically, Oriental and neo-Byzantine architecture was also all the rage in Vienna at the time as well.
Church architecture first saw the transition from neo-Baroque to the emerging national style.
The escalation of tension between Serbia and Austria-Hungary after the coup against the Obrenovic dynasty in 1903, as well as the popularity of less regimented Art Nouveau style, brought this new national style into public buildings in the early 20th century.
The old building of the Serbian Education Ministry at Terazije and the building of the Serbian telegraph signalled to the world that Serbia was no longer playing catch-up with the West but had its own identity.
Monumental buildings try to forge common identity
The creation of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes after World War I meant that the new country, spanning much more territory and containing diverse peoples, needed grander buildings to project its power and impress a new common identity onto its citizens.
The influx of Russian architects escaping the communist regime served the Karadjordjevic dynasty well to create a sense that the new kingdom was an emerging European power.
Nikolay Krasnov, famous for designing imperial palaces in Crimea, was commissioned to build government buildings along Kneza Milosa and Nemanjina Streets, as well as the new Royal Palace in Dedinje.
Ivan Mestrovic, an impressive sculptor, a passionate Yugoslav and no stranger to megalomania, created numerous iconic monuments for the new country with allegorical compositions that drew in equal parts from Classical antiquity and local culture.
His vision gave Belgrade the Victor monument in Kalemegdan and the Tomb of the Unknown solider at Avala.
Finally, the pre-World War I Serbian national and neo-Byzantine styles were not forgotten but were made less specific, for many schools, community centres and municipal buildings across the country, providing a sense of stylistic unity and culminating in the grandiose project for the St Sava Church.
Pomposity and monumentality was somewhat countered with the emergence of Belgarde modernist style in late 1920s, which aimed to be more functional and less encumbered by the past. Unlike some of their more radical colleagues abroad, Belgrade modernists did not do away will all decoration, but they still created crisp, elegant buildings of the city’s booming educated middle class which were in line with the times.
After the assassination of King Alexander in 1934, the Yugoslav government reacted by strengthening of state control and the aesthetics turned even more authoritarian.
The sleek lines and coolness of Belgrade’s Main Post Office by the parliament building, as well as the headquarters of Yugoslavia’s Export Monopoly in Obilicev Venac, demonstrate a façade of unity and strength just as the country was about to plunge into chaos.
New Yugoslavia embraces its international image
After Yugoslavia was taken over by the communists, the new country’s image needed to reflect its allegiance to Stalin and the Soviet Bloc.
As Belgrade was chosen to be the centre of the Communist Information Bureau, or ‘Cominfrom’, a grey, boat-shaped building was built to serve as its headquarters, close to the cemetery of the Red Army soldiers, and Socialist-Realist statues of muscular proletarians popped up around the city.
However, when in 1948, Tito turned his back on Stalin, a new style, to reflect Yugoslavia’s role, was refashioned. Rather than looking solely to the East, Yugoslavia embraced the international style of Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe, in rebuilding itself from the ruins of World War II.
The style served the rapidly industrialising country, as it was functional and relatively easy to build, but was also helpfully universal, which not only made it homely to foreign dignitaries from both political blocks and newly de-colonised nations, but also avoided the nationalist heritage of the country’s various nations.
Nevertheless, the country still needed monumentality, best reflected in the Federal Executive Council building, the first one to be built in New Belgrade.
This yearning for universality was also present in the way the country commemorated its identity-forging struggle during World War II. Rather than statues literally depicting suffering or battles, abstract but poetic compositions were used, which made them timeless and stunning.
More cynical critics allege that the move to abstraction was done to make them difficult to interpret and so sidestep the uncomfortable fact that not all Socialist Yugoslavs were on the same side throughout the war.
Nevertheless, self-consciously looking outward to the new friends around the world in the Non-Aligned movement and buoyed by what will turn out to be excessive debt, Socialist Yugoslav architecture flourished and then hypertrophied, as evidenced by poetic monumental buildings, such as the iconic concrete-clad Genex Tower and Rudo Buildings, as well as the more graceful Museum of Contemporary Art and 25 Maj Sports Centre in Dorcol.
With Tito’s death, the subsequent debt crisis in 1980s and rising nationalism and separatist movements, this period of Belgrade’s architecture came to an end, to be replaced by a post-modern mishmash of styles.
The crises of the 1990s and 2000s were reflected in Belgrade’s architecture as well. Unplanned, ugly private extensions started metastasising on Belgrade’s buildings, while the tacky mega-homes of the new rich showed the obsession with money and corruption of the increasingly chaotic state.
The largest architectural project in Belgrade of our days, the Belgrade Waterfront, also rhymes with the times.
Vaguely contemporary but somehow cheap-looking, it is planted illegally in the middle of the city on unstable soil – serving the interests of the anonymous lucky few.