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The Architecture of Yugoslavia

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I managed to see the exhibit at MOMA on the architecture of Yugoslavia and it was basically one of the very best exhibits I’ve ever seen. You can say that communist architecture was ridiculous–and maybe it was–but it had real ideas behind it that are worth being taken seriously. Anthony Paletta has a Boston Review essay about the exhibit.

The more inventive examples of Yugoslavian architecture are often characterized by Western writers as space age or alien. Their futuristic “Spomenik” monuments to Partisans in World War II, which look like they might be transmitted from Mars but instead dot the Dinaric Alps along the Balkan Peninsula, have been featured in their share of photo monographs and clickbait. Many other works in this exhibit are dazzlingly unusual.

But instead of calling these buildings strange, we might call our own unambitious, failing to exploit the full potential of materials that Yugoslavian examples show can sustain a remarkable degree of experimentation. Among the nation’s most impressive structural innovations is a dome at the Belgrade Fair, the world’s largest dome until 1963 (and Europe’s largest to this day), still the world’s largest made specifically of prestressed concrete. The range of work in this exhibit eloquently demonstrates the expressive potential of concrete, with a full range of preposterous cantilevers and diagonals and curves and ornaments. Some of these elements are textbook examples of modern structural clarity, but others are absurdly embellished. If you sheared off the non-structural concrete from the buildings in this exhibit, you could house thousands. As feats of artful daring they are splendid, their merits on fine display in recent photos by Valentin Jeck.

If a fairground dome is not your idea of utopia, they had others. The outré and “brutalist” occupy most of the exhibit’s attention (though the latter term is mostly a retrospective characterization, rather than the expression of a conscious stylistic undertaking by the architects themselves). But Yugoslavia built a wide range of architecture, including structures that engage specific local traditions, generally established principles of traditional urbanism, and plenty of materials beyond concrete.

Some live up to their titular and material bombast, from the the Palace of Youth and Sport in Pristina to the State Hydrometeorological Institute in Skopje, but many others are more modest and contextual. Edvard Ravnikar—a student of Jože Plečnik, the godfather of Slovenian urban form—often designed for continuity rather than radical departure. His Ferantov VRT residential building in Ljubljana, constructed largely of brick, sports a facade that gives due respect to its older neighbors, even if it spills and terraces in ways they never do. The postwar reconstruction of the city of Zadar, Croatia, followed its traditional dense arrangement in spirit, foregrounding pedestrian streets and plazas while using frankly modern forms. Expansion of the fellow Croatian city of Split along hills oriented around pedestrians attracted praise even from urban sociologist Jane Jacobs.

If modernism sometimes elided regional differences, architects nevertheless often sought to synthesize traditional forms in their local works. Juraj Neidhardt stressed the proto-modernism of traditional Bosnian architecture, channeling its essence into new works. One of the most-photographed works in the former Yugoslavia, Andrija Mutnaković’s National and University Library of Kosovo, sought to nod to the varied traditions of this disparate autonomous state, with a series of lattices and cubes topped by domes, a tradition of Byzantine and subsequent Islamic architecture.

The exhibit recently closed, but it was great and these ideas are worth considering the modern era of crass capitalist architecture.

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