Hidden Belgrade (61): Old School Belgarde

Ever since the First Serbian uprising in 1804, education was a major component in building the nation, as well as its identity, in large thanks to the two major personages of Serbian Enlightenment: Dositej Obradović and Vuk Karadžić.

The first major educational institution was the Great School, which was operational between 1809 and 1813. It was devised by Obradović and attended by Karadžić and was located inside 18th century Ottoman style house, which used to be the residence of the treasurer of Belgrade in Zerek. It currently houses the Museum of Vuk and Dositej and is more than worth a visit.

Another major site in Belgrade’s educational history is the current home of Serbian Museum of Pedagogy. This neoclassical house from 1830s, started off as the home of Cvetko Rajović, a mayor of Belgrade, but after a brief stint as the British consulate (and the site of Belgrade’s first Western-style ball), it housed “Realka” a High School from 1867 until the Second World War.

The first two purpose built schools in Belgrade were Dorćol primary school (completed in 1894), built over the site of an old Jesuit covent, and Palilula primary school (1895) both showed how serioudly education was taken in the Kingdom of Serbia. Both are built in sturdy neo-classical styles (evoking Anicent Greece) and were extremely modern for their times.

The buildings of King Peter I school (which traces its history all the way back to 1718. when the first Serbian elementary school was opened close to the Orthdox Cathedral) and the Third Belgrade Gymnasium, show that school buildings were meant to invoke awe and beauty in their pupils. King Peter I is also notable as it was designed by the first Serbian female architect, Jelisaveta Načić, and is emblematic of her elegant, and considerate style.

As Belgrade expanded after WWI, there was a need for a greater number of purpose built schools and many of them were built in the increasingly fashionable modernist styles. Buildings of the First Girls’ Gymnasium (now the Fifth Gymnasium) and the First Gymnasium are two of the most elegant examples. Although characterised by a stripped down facade, the First Girls Gymnasium still shows the traditional and almost mystical attitude to education in the three reliefs over its old entrance which depict groups of girls learning. On the other hand, Milica Krstić’s curved design of the First Gymnasium, on the ruins of the old Vidin gate is imaginative and almost looks like an elegant Art Deco cruise ship.

This however is not her most notable work: she switched to the equally fashionable National (Serbo-Byzantine) style when designing the Second Girls’ Gymnasium, arguably the most beautiful one in Belgrade. This style is also present in the design of the old Merchant’s academy, which would not be out of place in Thessaloniki with its large pillars and the playful facade.

Socialist government after WWII only strengthened the position of schools in Serbian culture. They were not only needed to house the many kids born in the baby boom after the war, as their parents went off to rebuild the country, but were also seen as key in building new socialist men and women. School kids were solemnly sworn in as Tito’s pioneers with special uniforms and schools were meant to be both functional and inspiring to their pupils. Although old playful ornamentation and references to old times were done away with, the architects used colour and bold shapes to make them exiciting. Some of the most interesting examples of Yugoslav school architecture can be found in New Belgarde. Blok 23 and Blok 28 have two of the best designed schools in Belgrade, while Žarkovo’s Alpine looking Đorđe Krstić school is also an exciting example of the Socialist-era school design.

In order to unburden women from childcare (and make them available for work) SFRY also made pre-school and day care centres popular and some of them are also quite imaginatively designed. The most dreamy is Zvezdani gaj, which is located deep inside Zvezdara forest and looks like a Scandinavian forest hut. On the other hand, New Belgrade’s Blok 28 UFO-shaped daycare is also a fascinating testament to how architecture can be made to be inspiring for kids.

The multiple crises of 1990s and 2000s not only did not lead to more creative schools being built, but they also meant there are fewer kids to enjoy them as fertility rates collapsed and many young parents decided to emigrate. However, it is not all bleak as at least now there are many projects to restore the existing, wonderful educational facilities.

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