Beyond Brutalism: Belgrade’s Magical Pre-WWII Architecture

Although best known for socialist modernism and brutalism, Belgrade’s architecture is (in)famously eclectic due to the various political twists and turns that shaped the city’s identity (as I’ve written here).

Although through much of the 19th century, Belgrade’s foreign and foreign-educated architects were trying to find their feet by copying architecture of Serbia’s powerful neighbours, in early 20th century and arrival of art-nouveau, which embraced folk styles, their style became more creative, creating two distinct styles which gave central Belgrade many of its most beloved buildings: Serbian-Byzantine revival (aka National) style and Belgrade modern. While both owe a lot to the prevailing fashions in Europe of their times, they infused them with local flair making them unique to the city.

From 1903, when Obrenović dynasty was deposed, Serbia started to more confidently chart its own path both politically and aesthetically. This trend can first be traced from the colourful interiors designed by Dragutin Inkiostri Medenjak and the intricately decorated buildings of Branko Tanazević, who drew on the art of Serbian medieval monasteries. In the meantime, elaborate  art nouveau buildings, like Hotel Bristol and Rossiya Palace (aka Hotel Moskva) started springing up around the city showing that it can keep pace with Europe.

After WWI, and creation of Yugoslavia, “national style” became more muscular, as demonstrated by the works of Momir Korunović, whose Ministry of Post building, hidden in Palmotićeva street is chockful of masonic and Serbo-Byzantine imagery and even includes his self-portrait.  Beside schools, Sokol halls and ministries, many residential buildings were built in the national style and can be recognised by orate portals and facades filled with rosettes and reliefs showing animals and maidens.

After 1925 World Fair in Paris created Art Deco, Belgrade’s architects caught on to the new, “modern” style and adapted it to the local tastes. Milan Zloković, Jan Dubovy, Branislav Kojić and Dušan Babić, formed a “modernist” association in 1928 and organised Belgrade’s first architecture Salon in Cvijeta Zuzorić pavillion, designed by Dušan Babić.

Architects of Belgrade modern style differed greatly in their approach from the sleek , sexy marble clad Sima Igumanov place, built by Branko and Petar Krstić,  and PRIZAD buliding, designed by precocious Bogdan Nestorović, to functional, airy works of Jan Dubovy and Dragiša Brašovan. Nevertheless, this period gave Belgrade some of its most monumental residential and office buildings, built to serve the booming, ambitious city.

1941 bombing and Nazi occupation, and the subsequent liberation of Belgrade by Tito’s Partisans in 1944, put an end to these styles. After WWII many of these wonderful buildings and their architects fell into oblivion due to a mixture of ideological and economic reasons. Nationalisation took most of these buildings from their owners, while the great damage that Yugoslavia suffered during the war, made renovation of elaborate façades from pre-war times a low priority for the state. The city turned to more practical and cost-effective international (socialist) modernist style that was shaping New Belgrade. The marvellous old buildings of central Belgrade were left to decay, and were replaced as city’s symbols by concrete behemoths rising around them.

In future posts, I hope I will be able to  go into more detail about some of the more interesting buildings and people behind them, however I hope this post will encourage you all to look up more and see that there is much more to Belgrade than grey concrete, as majestic as it may be.

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