Belgrade Post-Modern: Ruins at the End of History

“The only way for us to become great, or even inimitable if possible, is to imitate the ancients.

Johann Joachim Winckelmann 

As is the case with the weather: rain and storms from the West reached us and so did Postmodernism. At the very beginning of Postmodernism, a great conference was held in Zagreb on that topic, which identified vectors and positive values ​​of the movement that was supposed to stop the boredom and calcification of the ideas of an important [Modernist] epoch in global art history. Unfortunately, the Zagreb Conference could not stop the cunning of the mediocre and the untalented to turn Postmodern into a mechanical and routine collage factory, in which stylistic elements were extracted from stylistic breviaries, from the Classical (mostly from it) to Art Nouveau, and then all of with, with a bit of added “salt” of their own, merged into some kind of construction work. There have certainly never been moments in the history of architecture so ideally arranged for desperate and accidental architects. Postmodernism polluted the architecture of Serbia

Mihajlo Mitrović

At least ever since John Soane allegedly presented the Governor of the Bank of England with the design of what he thinks his the Bank compound in Threadneedle street would look like in thousand years’ time, architects have tried to not only understand their place in history and build inspired by their predecessors, but make sure their works age as they would wish them to.

Soane was a lover of architectural pastiche, and thus a good predecessor of postmodern architecture. His ideas about buildings as future ruins, was later repeated by the romantics in 19th century, and most infamously by Albert Speer who self-consciously thought about the ruin-value (Ruinenwert) of his ambitious buildings for the Reich. He insisted that his most ambitious projects, like the Nuremberg Zeppelinfeld’s Tribune, are made of stone and not concrete or glass, so that they could both impress a sense of timelessness and also eventually, when their time is finally up, end up as marvellous ruins.

This conscious obsession with of timelessness, even after one’s demise, as well as with the projection of power, which was a feature of most ambitious projects since Soane (if not, in less self-consicous way, from the dawn of humanity), fell out of fashion both ideologically and economically after WWII.

The new, hopeful, post-war world was to be about the small pleasures of now, in part because the destruction wrought on Europe required things to be built quickly, and in part because of genuine belief that functionality should take precedence over the top grandeur and world-historic ambition with all the unsavoury things they imply.

Yugoslavia, as both a relatively poor country that suffered horrific destruction of its cities during WWII, due to Nazi and Allied bombings, and a country emerged out of the war with a new, socialist system, was very much happy to put the past and bourgeois grandeur behind and embrace modernisms’ hopeful and economical message. Ideologically, intentional modernism, with its stripped down gleaming towers (like CK/Usce tower) and sprawling compounds (like SIV/Palace of Serbia), could wow but also show that one belongs to a wide, global community, built around the values of transparency, rationality and tolerance.

However, as the great Serbian architect Mihajlo Mitrović noted, their stripped down character could easily bore and become mannerist after enough of the world is covered in modernist structures.

On top of that, hopeful rational, internationalism and boom years of 1950s and 60s, were already challenged in 1970s both ideologically (by the hippie movement) and economically (as the Bretton Woods system crumbled), and this disarray was slowly seeping into architecture, first in the West and then in Yugoslavia. Since the early 1970s, the country’s approach to its identity was challenged by resurgent nationalism (Croatian spring), calls for decentralisation (Constitution of 1974), and disagreements about the way its culture should be developed and managed (Congress of Cultural Action in Kragujevac) which started reflecting on its built environment.

First came brutalism of 1970s, and then slowly a sense of history and its accompanying understanding of the system’s mortality, long buried and often denounced, started coming back. Historicity was never fully eradicated of course: Yugoslav modernism always had a penchant for using vernacular architecture to give itself character, from Ivan Antić’s housing blocks with pitched roofs in Zvezdara to Kurtović’s National Library of Serbia which references Balkan architecture.

However, from the 1980s onwards, as the country was entering its death spiral the pressures for showing something new intensified and thus post-modernism came on the scene. Its love of pastiche and breaking of all rules made It perfect for a country in flux: the buildings could look futuristic and reference tradition at the same time, and also use more affordable materials to look, if not good, than flashy.

The wider world, more stable and hopeful about the future than Serbia/Yugoslavia were in the late 80s and 90s, also required an architecture fitting to celebrate the “end of history“ after the fall of the Berlin wall.  

Ambitious and fanciful designs were in the air, bud did not often materialise well on the ground: thanks to that many of the grand projects of late 80s and 90s were failures. Some, like the Rad building (designed for a major construction company) in New Belgrade, began in 1989, literally proved structurally unsound, while the others – like many ambitious buildings by the heroes of Serbian transition, Karić family, crumbled financially as they were made in turbulent times, and are still ruinous.

In a strange way, Serbian Po-Mo buildings perverted Soane’s and romantic reverence of ruins as many of them were ruinous from the start, in the least marvellous ways, although they did intend to tie themselves either to some tradition or hyper aestheticized future.

As I was born in 1988, my first memories of new architecture and grand projects were tied to these Po-Mo buildings.

Throughout my childhood and early adolescence, they were ambitiously announced (like Miloević era plan to build “Europolis” by 2000 on the area that became Belgrade Waterfront), stopped, left to remain ruins and some of them eventually got completed. My friends and their families were waiting years, some even decades to move into the flats their companies promised to build for them and were often trapped in small homes, pining for larger, fancier houses.

On the other hand, many of the smaller projects that were finished, usually private houses, contributed to the feverish, bizarre sense of that era. Ražnjatović residence, housing Arkan and Ceca across the road from Crvena Zvezda stadium, built in roided up neoclassical style, Karić family’s glitzy faux-classical McMansion style as well as many castle-like mansions, were seen as callous affronts to the general poverty of Serbian in 1990s and seemed almost insuting, especially given that many of their owners were regarded with (justified) suspicion by the public. Add to that the crazy futurism of places like YUBC in New Belgrade, and the insane growth in the number of kiosks and often very unseemly extensions to old buildings, Belgrade in late 90s, when I first became fully aware of it, seemed surreal.

Even now, many of these places remind me of de Chirico’s paintings due to their strange haunted air.  The effect is even amplified as they were/are decorated with the rather darkly dreamy works of the era – painted by Olja Ivanjicki,  Vladimir Veličković, Milić Stanković (od Mačve), Ljubomir Popović and Dragoš Kalaijić – which often included surreal, haunting themes.

What I always remember when I see these Po-Mo buildings is that the scent of their interiors was unlike anything I smelled before or after. As I was going to visit my family friends’ new flats what struck me that it was not the happy, optimistic smell of a new building (the secent of paint, and cleaning liquids and drying wood) but a sort of mustiness hung heavy in the air (and always mixed with a faint cigarette smell if they were offices).

This Po-Mo wave continued well after the fall of the Milošević, and many buildings around are still built to look oversized, cheap and ovely ornate.

However, as pandemic started and I was forced to spend even more time wandering around Belgrade, I started being a bit nostalgic about the peak Po-Mo aesthetic of 90s. Despite the general low quality and strange looks, they had a certain whimsy and even ambition to tie themselves to history and their surroundings, either though badly referencing some older style, or by being self-consciously futuristic. Given that we are now back in the perma-presentist, soullessly unambitious “globalist” style in architecture – where buildings that are design could fit equally well in Buenos Aires, Dubai or Shanghai – I wonder if we are due for another resurgence of fanciful pastiche… or maybe, hopefully, just return (or rather RETVRN) to good old pre-WWII architecture and materials that made people not only love their cities, but understand that they are not an end-point of the great arc of history, but that they occupy just a small slice of it, like their ancestors did, and their descendants will.

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