For a very long time, SIV, for me, was just a drab government building.
While I passed it fairly often, unthinkingly, on my regular walks between old Zemun, much like the whole of New Belgrade – with the exception of Sava Centar – it was unremarkable, melding into the grey mass of what I (and many around me) termed as “uninspiring socialist architecture”, something that was to be looked over for the pre-war buildings of my starting and finishing points. Even my parents – educated, relatively Yugonostalgic – would never point it out as anything remarkable.
It was just SIV – savezno izvršno veće, federal executive council – one of the many acronyms whose point I barely understood as it belonged to an era of which I had only a vague understanding of and only a tenuous connection to, which in my mind implied homonymic “sivilo” – greyness, drabness.
Around 2007, maybe just before I left for the UK, my older, chic cousin, who lived most of his life outside of Belgrade, came back for brief jaunt and remarked that SIV was featured in Wallpaper (I think) magazine because of its amazing interiors and that he wanted to see it, SIV changed for me. The fact that I could not help him visit it gave the place an almost mythical aura and it became, maybe the first building in Belgrade that I would be truly excited to see (as I was for Uffizzi, St Peter’s and the British Musem), if only to be able to brag to him that I got in and thus stop being an unglamorous, fat, young cousin that he had to endure at family dinners.
My interest in SIV, and the SFRY architecture in general, grew from then on. What I thought until then as awful concrete buildings became symbols of home and whenever I went to London on day trips from Warwick University I was drawn to places like the Southbank and the Barbican as they felt like home. As an expat in the West – or given that I came from Serbia – an immigrant – I was always excited to read about things from back home that were celebrated in my new home and also keep the idea of the civic pride by being able to list various artistic or whichever achievements that would make Serbia stand out, and SIV with its treasure trove of Yugoslav art was up there as a thing to be proud of.
My rediscovery of the SFRY art and architecture, coincided with the increased popularity of the “socialist” and mid-century modernist aesthetic in both the West and in Serbia. In late ’00s and early ’10 Western photographers and journalists were “discovering” the Wild East, bringing photos of, often decaying, modernist beauties which, altered the way that the socialist legacy was perceived. What was seen solely as an obsession of ageing nostalgics who cannot adapt to the new “transition” world, became trendy as people like Jan Kempenaers rediscovered “Spomeniks” and other amazing artistic and engineering feats, These were the things that the locals discarded, thinking that they were too ugly or ideological and not fitting into their dream of how their newly bourgeois countries should look like, hoping that they could swap the humiliating hard concrete for Beaux Arts fantasies they yearned for when visiting the West. Indeed, I became brutally aware of this discrepancy of perception as, during one of my internships at an investment bank, one Swedish colleague remarked that while he was sick of West London and Kensington and Chelsea (he prided himself of never going west of Aldwych), he was not surprised that I liked it as I was from a country that anyway looked like Shoreditch or worse.
During my gap year back home, I entered SIV twice, for some nebulous conference and a meeting. I barely restrained myself from bringing in a camera (I was there, once again, as an intern) and I was completely awed by what I saw inside. There were several more attempts to see it mostly during Museum nights however they all failed, apart from two visits to the exhibition dedicated to the founding of Yugoslavia which was organised on the ground floor of its main part by the Museum of Yugoslavia. I however managed to see it on film, in artworks in the Museum of Contemporary Art and I got an amazing coffee table book “SIV – A time capsule” by Dušan Đorđević. All of these made me even more excited about the prospect of entering the various, beautifully designed salons and seeing the great artworks – from elaborate mosaics to stunning carpets in person, up close.
When that day finally came, I was stunned. There are truly no words to describe the ingenuity and elegance of the designs at SIV, and there are already many who wrote extensively about both the history of the building, its art collection, and how free and ground breaking the artists were allowed to be in capturing the essence of their national cultures.
What I found as mind boggling as the interior, was the fact that SFRY, despite being known for its showy nature, never made a big enough deal of SIV. While I appreciate that it was off limits to most as the main seat of the government, it was never made into a cult place that people yearned to visit as are the White House, the Capitol building, the Buckingham Palace, or even the now demolished DDR building in Berlin. Indeed, a popular 1980s guide – Blago na putevima Jugoslavije – which lists in detail all the notable cultural treasures across Yugoslavia, doesn’t even mention it, let alone enumerate all the stunning art it contains. That is very much at odds with its very symbolic design, with many elements make it seem not only as the government building, but as the temple dedicated to SFR Yugoslavia. In its holy of the holies, the Yugoslav meeting room which is lit by the solar-shaped mega chandelier, the scenes on the art-works are elemental and deeply allegoric, almost mystical, from Lubarda’s Helios’s chariot to the mosaics depicting choirs of nations. Standing inside, one cannot but think that in only the SFRY invited more worshippers inside, and made a greater deal of itself, the flame of its national cult would not have dimmed out as it did.