They say he did not like to talk or write about architecture, he would lose interest in a building he designed once the constructional works had been completed, he would bring each and every detail to perfection, he would spent entire days on the construction site. He was one of the greatest architects in Socialist Yugoslavia. Ivan Antić, professor at the Faculty of Architecture in Belgrade, one of the rare academics among architects wrote in his memoirs in 1991: ‘The only thing I have always wanted was to have geometrical form, pure form. A rational form. To have square, triangle, circle, ellipse. One can see that in my work.’ And, one can indeed see it. His masterpiece, Belgrade’s Museum of Contemporary Art (with co-author Ivanka Raspopović), he designed and executed in the first half of the 1960s. He was present on the architectural stage for another forty years, but not one building (and there were many), came even close to the museum at Ušće. The museum’s crystal-like structure thrills outsiders and experts still today, just as it did half a century ago. Observed from Kalemegdan, this building is a fascinating, promising entrance to New Belgrade.
At the beginning of the seventies, when he designed the 25 May Sports Recreational Centre at the foot of Kalemegdan Fortress, on the opposite river bank, Ivan Antić was – thanks to the Museum of Contemporary Art – a respected, awarded and internationally recognized architect. It can be assumed that this made his position during the creation of plans and execution of buildings, which were of unusual appearance and very courageous constructive solutions in those days, easier to a large extent. The sports centre is an ambitious multi-purpose complex, built for the needs of the World Swimming Championships, and includes roofed and open Olympic swimming pools and a number of smaller swimming pools, sports grounds, a restaurant, bowling alley and accompanying contents. It was built in just one year and the hardest part of the job was carried out in extremely unfavourable meteorological conditions, during autumn 1972 and winter 1973. It is situated at the lower end of the old part of Belgrade, outside the main city and traffic flows, and is still today reached via a ruined subway crossing which served as a motif of an alienated, abandoned urban landscape to the Serbian surrealist Vane Bor in his famous series of photographs Ten Seconds before Murder. A residential area is situated in the immediate surroundings and, a little bit further, there is a devastated river marina on the Danube. On the other side, it is connected to the port on the Sava by a quay. It spreads over nine hectares and only one third is occupied by buildings, paved surfaces and pathways. The shell-like roof construction, not thicker than 14 cm, reminds one of huge leaves or set sails, and the quay on the right bank of the Danube has become a favourite promenade. Josip Broz Tito once had lunch in the restaurant with the most beautiful view of the city, and a memorial plaque on the ground floor of the building still reminds us of the event today. In the same decade, Ivan Antić signed another two huge sports complexes: Pinki in Zemun and the Olympic swimming pool in Poljud, Split.
After the world championships, the pool was used by college students. We used to attend obligatory swimming classes with less than enthusiasm. It was cold, in the water and out of the water, we soon found out each and every thing that did not work properly, and we revealed how many things were not completed due to the lack of time. However, even after more than thirty years, Antić’s sports centre, although in dilapidated condition and untended, still fascinates with its size. Wherever possible, the building was roughly partitioned and divided into clumsy premises which have been rented.
Transition has brought about new rules of the game. What was owned by the state, quickly and without any control has become private. So, the once impressive state-owned restaurant, Dunavski Cvet (Danube Flower), was leased by the owners of one of the better fitness centres in the city, who hired studio 4of7 (Đorđe Stojanović and Vladimir Pavlović). They wanted to have a special interior in the new Wellness Sky Centre: luxurious, attractive and utterly different from any other in the city. It was not difficult to achieve something different. Ivan Antić had already taken care of that. ‘We tried to retain the character of the building, but also to bring significant changes to the interior, to achieve a more contemporary expression,’ says Đorđe Stojanović. ‘We found Antić’s constructive solutions particularly interesting, in other words, his synthesis of constructive and architectonic logic – here, I’m thinking of the huge corbels and continuing line of openings on the façade. Antić had an excellent insight into geometry. As in the Museum of Contemporary Art, geometry is also very clear here. This we found interesting. We saw an opportunity here to establish continuity, not to have a banal or routine solution, but an essential one.’
The large room which hosted the restaurant was stripped all the way to the construction. As a result, a gallery of excellent proportions emerged, which until then had been hidden by the ventilation system. What remained was the concrete floor and ceiling with a continuous glass horizontal of windows and bare spiral stairs with the imprints of board formworks in concrete. ‘Antić designed by means of a grid with equilateral triangles, with sides of 7.3 metres, which is reflected in the organizational and constructional logic of space,’ explains Stojanović. ‘The space’s new purpose required the creation of a new spatial expression. We decided to apply it on the ceiling, in fact a lowered ceiling made of a triangular steel construction. We obtained 390 panes which belonged to a restricted and controlled set of spatial variation in their form and size.’
Between the ceiling level and this lowered ceiling there are lights which, as on the stage, changes the atmosphere, depending on the time of day and meteorological conditions. In the evening, the ceiling and indeed the entire space leave an ethereal impression, the edges are blurred, and it seems as though the space levitates and is almost unreal. The line of glass becomes a mirror when illuminated with artificial light, and if observed from the outside it reminds one of a spacecraft drenched in greenish light. During the day, the space looks sharper, daylight changes the atmosphere depending on the weather. The gym equipment increases the surreal impression even more. The other rooms – the changing rooms, administration and reception – were designed in a very simple and elegant manner. Everything is secondary in relation to the huge space. The body is getting fit, and the spirit is being relaxed by the view of the confluence of the Sava and the Danube. If the weather is good, one can clearly see Zemun and part of the Novi Beograd area. Every step of the way reveals that the architects struggled for each and every centimetre of their idea in the process of realization, and it is obvious that they lost the battle many times. There are poorly executed ideas, negligently executed joints, wrong nuances.... After a photo session for specialist magazines just before opening for business, the owners made some changes on their own which seemed to be trying to spoil the sense of the architects’ efforts. Although they were forced to make many compromises, the authors still managed to make the basic idea happen in the manner they conceived it. The flexible, well-calculated multifaceted ceiling is the essence of this interior, as is the simplicity of Antić’s bare construction. Whatever one sets between the floor and ceiling can be ignored in this case. And changed. Here, Stojanović and Pavlović’s sensibilities are similar to those of Antić. They are willing to make compromises, but they also have priorities which they will not abandon.
The interior was received with approval by both domestic and international audiences, expert and lay alike. There were manipulations with the name of the former restaurant, the former president-for-life was mentioned with a sneer, the facts were dealt with incorrectly, but there were some serious presentations.
These days, Belgrade’s professional circles and media enthusiastically comment on frequent visits by Daniel Libeskind, who recently ardently defended his master plan for the Danube banks before over-crowded amphitheatre at Faculty of Architecture – from Pančevo Bridge to the residential blocks in the immediate vicinity of Antić’s sports complex. Apart from Libeskind, Dane Jan Ghel participates in the project. Both men’s eyes are focused on the old centre of the city. The traffic and visual connections with Republic Square, on the upper end of Francuska Street are being worked out, and Libeskind is placing a high building at its low end – a marker, on the very bank. Neither of them has observed what is placed on the bank, outside the boundaries of the defined terrain, so the courageous layout of Antić’s sports centre has remained unnoticed once again. Because, many years ago and in different political and social circumstances, this building was created with the same idea that serves as a guide to Daniel Libeskind today – to set a prominent and attractive city landmark on the Danube bank.
With their reconstruction, Đorđe Stojanović and Vladimir Popović have shown that it is possible to enter a serious dialogue with the building heritage of modernism daringly and sincerely. They created the interior in a much more serious manner than was probably expected of them. If we compare today’s investors and the socialist ones of the past, the latter had a huge advantage. With insufficient historical distance, no matter to how harshly we judge the mistakes of the former socio-political system, it has to be admitted that at that time, if only for ideological reasons, there was understanding for architecture as a significant bearer of progressive ideas. Today, everything is uncertain, especially money, and there is no time or ambition for great gestures. It is enough just to throw some glittering dust in front of one’s eyes and everything will pass. The Wellness Sky Centre was supposed to be the glittering dust, but something quite the opposite has happened. Antić upgraded. He, as a man of great acts and huge ego, would, I believe, agree.