The ruins of Yugoslavian modernism can be enjoyed as exotic curios from a bygone age, but ask hard questions of the present, says Agata Pyzik.
What is it that makes the recent comeback of interest in socialist-era East European architecture and design so unappealing, so flattening, in most cases? The growing distance from 1989 means we don’t have to see the former Eastern Bloc through the same set of Cold War clichés. But in turn, it introduces new clichés, of aesthetisation and exoticisation. We find ourselves in a wave of books, where the ‘horrible late-communist eyesores’ are now seen as attractive, even ‘cosmic’ (to cite Frederic Chaubin’s lush CCCP, published by Taschen last year). Partly it is justified by the sheer panache and the full-on formal invention of this architecture, partly a result of a fascination with the ‘bad guys’, but somehow, eastern European architecture became an object of desire for design mags and conference organisers. This revival has basically two kinds of approach: mostly it culminates in the production of coffee table picture books, with splendid photographs and little thought-provoking commentary (or, often, any writing at all). At the same time, eastern European scholars, who have their own interests in explaining their recent past to themselves, have started using this popularity to their advantage.
Two recent projects on the architecture of the former Socialist Federated Republic of Yugoslavia show both approaches. Armin Linke’s pictures in Socialist Architecture: the Vanishing Act (with annotations by architect Srdjan Jovanovic Weiss) elicits the almost painful but increasingly familiar melancholy of now-deserted, once endlessly futuristic and ambitious structures. They’re dedicated to socialist power (army HQ), industry (museum of aviation), culture (Skopje Opera and Ballet House). Ideology and leisure were certainly not mutually exclusive here. Most controversially, there’s the many spomeniki (monuments) dedicated to the Partisan war against Nazi Germany, which were a nest for especially fantastical projects. Some buildings, like the Home of the Revolution in Nikšić, Montenegro, are now deserted and falling apart, with grass growing inside, evoking the ubiquitous myth of Tarkovsky’s Zona; Eastern Europe as full of abandoned signs of a dead civilisation. Jovanovic Weiss isn’t much interested in why this happens, but prefers general musings on ideology and remarks about the history of the constructions. In fact, the current decay occurring to many of the gems of Yugoslav architecture is more a sign of the massive economic crash that happened after the disintegration of the state than the collapse of earlier ideology. It is financial catastrophe, not ideological negligence, that turns them into picturesque ruins. In fact, contemporary ex-Yugoslavians, some of them very young, increasingly look to the socialist past to learn something from its ambition and efficiency. A good example is Unfinished Modernisations, a touring exhibition (and catalogue) currently at Belgrade’s Museum of Yugoslav History, put together by a think- tank of historians and architects, very aware of the ahistorical dangers of judging the past from the contemporary point of view.
Still, everything – most of all the famous Yugoslav ‘self-management’ (a form of economic planning where factories and enterprises were democratically controlled by their workers, for a time an efficient mix of both socialist and capitalist economy) and massive plans for modernising the federation of six countries – gets a frank, often critical examination. There’s a complicated story here of the ‘Non-Aligned Movement’ and the economy of a Third Way, independent of both Cold War camps, which doesn’t fit any simple binaries. Yugoslavia oscillated between the USSR and the West, to liberating effect – it had one of the highest growth rates in the world in the 1950s and 60s, that dragged alongside it an ambitious plan to rebuild the country according to the new rules of communality, cooperation, affordability and equality. A titanic task for an affluent country, nearly impossible for one so massively unequal at the start, with an under-developed south-east (Kosovo, Bosnia, Montenegro, Macedonia, much of Serbia) and a better-off north-west (Slovenia, Croatia). Thus a social experiment started: housing on a gigantic scale, with the most notable examples being the new towns of Novi Beograd and Novi Zagreb. These city-building projects were equally inspired by American, Japanese and Constructivist modernisms, an openness shown by Kenzo Tange’s plan for earthquake-damaged Skopje (1965). All this accommodated the flow of the rural population to the cities to work in the factories to service that modernisation. So why did they remain unfinished, why is there a tone of regret? The causes are numerous. At Novi Beograd, for instance, because of incoherent planning and political changes, the housing proceeded in incremental bits and bobs, with shanty towns emerging where it failed. On the other hand, to accommodate lots of different ideas in one project created a diversity, showing Yugoslav socialism’s will to self-correct and adapt. More to the point, these modernisations were stopped by the financial crisis of the 1980s, and then dissolution, civil war and, last but not least, the war with NATO in the 1990s. The vastness of the project reconsidered by Unfinished Modernisations stands proudly in comparison to the contemporary conformity, not least because of the way it was conceived and financed.
Agata Pyzik is a writer. She blogs at Nuits Sans Nuit and is the author of a forthcoming book on post-communism from Zero Books.
First published in AT299, June 2012