When thinking of an ideal home, almost no one in the world would immediately think of Eastern European socialist suburbs. However, it seems that socialist suburbs are making a well-deserved cultural comeback, at least in Serbia, as Cerak Vinogradi became the first socialist neighbourhood to receive listing as a protected cultural area in the country in January 2019.
Most often depicted in popular culture, both in the West and East, as very photogenic architectural symbols of societal and ideological decay, socialist suburbs were seen at best as hubristic feats of social engineering, and at worst as places of soul-crushing ugliness whose grey concrete was best visual representation of perceived repression of systems that birthed them.
Their reputation was certainly not helped by the fact that the systems that built them was ultimately defeated in the Cold War, and that consequently it was the American suburb, filled with McMansions and malls, that won the battle for what middle and working class should look like.
Indeed the importance of what suburban life and house look like in the battle between the East and West was most famously shown at the American exhibition in Moscow in 1959, when Krushchev and Nixon battled over kitchen appliances in the idealised American suburban home presented in Sokolniki park. Less well known is the similar charm offensive by the Americans which took place in Yugoslavia in 1957, when the American pavilion at Zagreb fair presented a suburban home and a supermarket.
Throughout its existence, Yugoslavia like other socialist countries tried to counter the siren song of Western style single family homes with ambitious state-funded affordable housing projects for which it enlisted its best architects. They were often sent abroad to Western Europ and the Nordics (especially Finland) to learn from the best architects, and bring their knowledge both to Yugoslavia as well as to Middle Eastern and African countries where Yugoslav construction firms worked on important projects.
Among those, two wife and husband duos emerged as masters of socialist housing projects in 1980s Belgrade: Milenija and Darko Marušić and Ljiljana and Dragoljub Bakić.
Although their masterpieces came after the golden age of Yugoslavia and were created in front of the backdrop of the country’s declining finances and stability, they managed to create two suburbs which combined socialist ideal of affordable housing which fosters community life, with the increasingly important demands of comfort and spaciousness which filtered to Yugoslavia though the US pop culture.
Cerak, designed by the Maručićs and their colleague Nedeljko Borovnica, was built in Belgrade’s Čukarica municipality on the site of an oak grove, and received its first inhabitants in 1981. That same year, the designer team was honoured with Oktobarska nagrada, the most prestigious architectural award in Yugoslavia, however they continued expanding the residential neighbourhood until 1988. The beauty of Cerak lies in the interplay of housing blocks, whose shapes were inspired by the sloping roofs of traditional Balkan mountain houses, little piazzas and tree-lined pedestrian streets. There are also all amenities needed for a neighbourhood of about 13,000 inhabitants: from stylishly designed schools and medical facilities to supermarkets and small cafes.
Built above a hot spring which flows into the Danube, Višnjička Banja is one of the most luxurious socialist-era suburbs in Belgrade. It is little wonder that its architects, Ljiljana and Dragoljub Bakić, decided to make their own home inside one of the many single-family red-brick row houses, after the first stage of construction finished in early 1980s. The relative luxury of the houses earned them a nickname Karingtonke (which they share with a similar development in Bežanijska Kosa), after the Carrington clan featured in the popular soap Dynasty, as well as criticism from the parts of the socialist establishment who saw them as wasteful excesses. Due to the crises in the 1990s the neighbourhood and amenities such as the schools and shops were never finished according to the project. Although in an ironic turn of events, Višnjička Banja is now plagued by illegal construction of post-transitional, Serbian version of McMansions, most of the original buildings still retain their elegance and are the whole suburb is recognised as one of the most successful housing projects built in the Yugoslav times. Its value has recently been recognised internationally, earning Ms Bakić a place on the list of the best European Female Architects in the past century.
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