Build Better: How a Belgrade Firm Built the World

Energoprojekt, the most famous firm based in Belgrade, is celebrating 70 years this year, and thanks to the great people of BINA (Belgrade International Architecture Week) I got acquainted a bit further with both its amazing HQ in New Belgrade as well as its accomplishments around the world.

The frim, founded in 1951, initially focused on major energy projects in Yugoslavia, building its coal and hydro plants, only to become a major architectural bureau and a global player after Belgrade hosted the first Non-Aligned Movement conference in 1961. Initially its architectural arm was headed by Milica Šterić, a true female trailblazer in the architecture world, but it created many great Yugoslav architects whose impact was felt the world over.

The first landmark building Enegrgoprojekt (or rather Šterić) designed and built was its HQ in Zeleni Venac, which dominated Belgarde’s city scape with its 13 storey tower, and which was a major selling point for the NAM leaders who wanted to create socialist utopias in their home countries. The building, as the ironic ark of history dictates, was found to be asbestos-laden and is currently a major skeletal, abandoned eye-sore awaiting yet another redevelopment.

However, the other Energoprojekt projects in Yugoslavia and the around the world met a better faith. The firm pushed for its place on the world stage initially with projects in Zambia and Uganda, and dazzled the African market with Lagos Trade Fair Complex in 1977, designed by Zoran Bojović. The project showcased the best features of the Yugoslav approach to architecture: commitment to functionality, with sufficient interest in making the buildings work in local context, through embracing local aesthetics, adapting to immediate environment as well as embracing vernacular building techniques. Rem Koolhas positively commented on the approach Bojović took in referencing Kano architecture in the project.

This global expansion meant that Energoprojekt needed a larger and more showy HQ in New Belgrade, whose construction started in 1977. The project was made by Alkesandar Keković, a Cetinje-born architect who was in his late 30s back then, and who made his name with various Yugoslav hotel projects, as well the unrealised project for the Nikšić Museum of the Revolution.

Going against the negative perception of the Socialist architecture as ahistorical and inhumane, Keković decided to not only conceptualise the building in line with the medieval Serbian fortresses like Smederevo, but also draw upon African vernacular ventilation technology and adapt the work spaces to be energy efficient and green, with a lot of tropical plants inside. The building was also famous in Belgrade for its roof windows that open up to let in fresh air, natural lighting as well as its modular, flexible designed which foresaw it changing use through the years.

The building, completed in 1983, heralded the Golden era of Energoprojekt. The firm built not only the Sheraton in Zimbabwe, as well as major government projects in Kuwait, Iraq and Central Asian states like Uzbekistan. Finally, Energoprojekt got into Yugolsav pop-culture through the comedy “It is not easy with men” starring Milena Dravić.

The 1990s and the sanctions imposed on Yugoslavia made work difficult for Energoprojekt, but the firm stayed afloat thanks to its international operations. Unlike most Yugoslav megafirms – Jugobanka, Genex, Rad – it stayed afloat and even achieved to win major projects in Peru, Ghana and Central Asia in 2000s and 2010s.

Its beautiful HQ still stands and, although rarely opened to the public, reminds Belgrade of the high architectural standards of the yesteryears when architects could dream big.

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