Serbia’s and Yugoslavia’s embrace of modernist architecture after WWII has been so thorough that any thought of reviving architectural styles before 1920s is seen as automatically kitschy and a no-no amongst our architects. While some structures were restored (the building housing the National museum, Central Belgrade palace complex) after extensive aerial bombings during WWII many were replaced with new modernist buildings, but there was also a particularly strong push to completely remake cities in the new style, which resulted in places looking more like Coventry than the restored parts of Warsaw.
Indeed, Kruševac, which saw little damage during the war was modernised with major changes to its centre, while similar unnecessary destruction befell many places in smaller part, occasionally costing them distinctive monuments and replacing the with mundane buildings (two major losses are Pančevo synagogue – which housed a hair salon for a while and Novi Sad’s Armenian church, which was torn down to make way for a street).
Thankfully, economic hardship and dissenting voices saved us from some of the most outlandish ideas. For example, Nikola Dobrović, one of the most esteemed mid-century architects who was in charge of rebuilding Belgrade after WWII, even had a radical idea of pretty much obliterating the Belgrade fortress and proceeding the pre-WWII plan to build an Olympic stadium and two high rises.
Although there was a strong conservationist current within SFRY (that is how the White Angel of Mileševa was discovered!) and by the end of it many post-modern architects played with older styles, much of the enthusiasm for (re)building things in pre-modern style was destroyed during 1990s, when a lot of transitional nouveau-riche built their McMansions in very tragic “classical” styles. This embrace of historicism by Serbia’s rich is actually now getting its crassest monument, a mega-mansion in vaguely french style for Pink’s Željko Mitrović which is to tower over Dedinje.
Even when architects try to integrate old structures, the end results are tend to look awkward and show little understanding what made previous buildings nice and valuable. Thus the destruction of Belgrade’s precious few old buildings continues and many of them are replaced by truly generic architecture, such as the proposed demolition of historic building in Admirala Geprata from which PM Zoran Đinđić was shot.
However, as the attitudes towards traditional and historicist architecture are changing, with a lot of successful re-building projects taking place in Central Europe from Berlin’s rebuilt palace to Budapest beautification projects, and King Charles III being (in)famously pro-traditional architecture, one can hope that our architects and urbanists in Serbia will realise that there are good examples to be followed and lessons (and skills) to be (re)learnt.
Indeed there are some good steps towards rebuilding of beloved old structures such as the old National library and Đumurkana,(both destroyed during WWII), repurposing of the derelict art deco “Snaga i svetlost” power plant into Nikola Tesla museum and return of the old ornate facade, designed by Momir Korunović to the post office in Savska.
There have also been a few good restoration projects (former Romanian embassy in Kneza Miloša and Hotel Bristol in Karađorđeva) and some successes in integrating new and old buildings (the development in Kneza Miloša at the previous location of the US Embassy is quite good).
These projects are yet to really start, but they are far from the only things that would be great to see returned to Belgrade’s streets. On this list, I tried to focus on buildings that could realistically come back and interventions that would not cost too much and would actually help fulfil the needs to the city.
Bet Israel Syangogue in Cara Uroša
Now that Narodni Muzej, Serbian Historical Museum and Museum of the Serbian Orthodox got many of the replicas of medieval frescoes from the Gallery of Frescoes in Cara Uroša, it would make sense for the current building to be torn down, and have its predecessor, Bet Israel Sephardic synagogue built at its place. The restored building would not only enrich Belgarde’s architecture with a neo-moorish gem, but would also provide an attractive setting for the Jewish Museum (currently housed in relatively small space inside the Jewish community centre). The building could also be expanded to also be a gallery of Narodni Muzej, maybe showing artefacts related to Jewish life or national migrations in the Balkans.
Hotel Washington in Karađorđeva
As the area around Belgrade Waterfont is getting gentrified and is expected to be a major tourist hub, it would make sense to rebuild the old Hotel Washington in Karađorđeva. The site is currently occupied by the old Hotel’s remains (it was damaged in WWII and one wing is compltely gone), turned into unseemly shops so some remains of the structure could be used.
Royal park gates and domes
Pionirski park used to be a royal garden up until 1945, and it had truly stunning gates towards Kralja Milana street. The Old palace, which currently serves as Belgrade City hall, used to be topped by domes with crowns which were removed in the post-war reconstruction. It would be great to both the gates and the crowned domes back. I would also return the five pointed star to one of the towers, wither on the Old or new Palace, as a nod to our socialist past.
Hercules of Topčider
I have already written about about Roman Verhovsky‘s Hercules which graced Točider park. Although the sculpture appears to be lost there seems to be enough photographic material for artists to at least reinterpret it. Although this is my favourite lost Belgrade monument, it would be good to see Kneginja Zorka and Molitva back at Kalemegdan (more here).
Slavija’s cinema was one of the most storied buildings in the city, which started off as a hall promoting sobriety, run by Belgrade’s favourite Scotsman, Francis Mackenzie. Although I was a kid when it was torn down in 1990s, I still fondly remember passing it by and my parents and their friends, hold it in fond memory. While I am aware that rebuilding of a historic cinema would make no economic sense, it would at least be good to see a reference to its final, art deco facade in whatever is finally built at Slavija.
War museum’s circular tower in Belgrade fortress
The present day War museum (past Military institute) used to have a an additional circular neo-romanesque tower as part of its structure. I am not sure what happened to it, but it really made the building look even more imposing. In case the museum ever needs expanding it would be great to see it re-built, maybe even in a contemporary interpretation.
Whenever I look at the old photos of Belgrade I am struck by the beautiful design of street lights, fences, benches and kiosks. One of my favourites is a kiosk in vague neo-byzantine/national style that was standing at Terazije in front of Albanija palace. It would be amazing to see it rebuilt inside the park by Hotel Moskva (instead of that strange olympic clock) and maybe have it as a stylish coffee and newspaper mini shop. If that is too difficult, Sača Mehtig’s good old K67 would also do. Anything but the current ugly kiosks, really.
A few more ideas
I like daydreaming while going though the amazing Beobuild forum topic on Belgrade’s lost buildings so here are a few even more fanciful ideas. Hotels Palace and Petrograd (now Belgrade City Hotel) should get their domes and roofs back. Old senators should once again climb up on the facade of Kinoteka (former Belgrade city hall). Art Deco musical pavilion from Topčider should go back up. Turul bird should once again perch on Gardoš. Finally, as we are in the middle of building lots of stadia around the country, one of them should reference Momir Korunović’s groundbreaking wooden stadium built for a Belgrade Sokol slet.
A slight return to the past will help us be more creative in the future, as so much of the architecture and design now is just ugly and uninspired, so the great examples of the past might rekindle our creative spirits.