A Boat on the Bank

architect Dragiša Brašovan
project Belgrade Publishing and Graphics Institution, Belgrade, Serbia
written by Snežana Ristić

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Politika, 1 January 1934, page 10: For erecting the new buil­ding of the National Printing Institution in Belgrade, the Ministry of Education requires a plot without any buildings in the area of the Sava banks, starting from Duke Mišić Street and inclu­ding as far as the sewerage system in the following streets: Mi­loš the Great Street, King Milan Street, Prizrenska Street, Branko­va Street, as well as the the street that stretches from Bran­kova Street, along the Saborna Church to the entrance of the Lower Town.

This plot has to have 6000 to 8000 square metres, there has to be an operational sewerage system constructed next to it and if possible, it has to be in a city block or at least at the corners of two streets.

Offers for this plot with a sketch and price per square metre should be submitted to the Department of General Affairs at the Ministry of Education in a sealed envelope by 12.00 am on 10 January 1934.

(From the Office of the Department of General Affairs, the Ministry of Education)


Recently, on the Internet:

Marseille: In my opinion, the BIGZ [Belgrade Publishing and Graphics Institution] building is one of the ugliest buildings in Belgrade, the huge cube-shaped communist construction ruined Belgrade! I would best like to demolish it.

Illiricym: The BIGZ building was constructed before the war. At the time, it was the most up-to-date printing plant in Europe. Belonging to the same period and movement were Air Force House in Zemun, FIAT next to the Faculty of Veterinary Science (ah, the potential that building has!), the Children’s Hospital in Tiršova Street, etc. The only thing that is needed to be done there was to clean it up, replace a couple of windows, and place something meaningful for the 21st century inside. Otherwise, it is perfect.


The history of one of the anthological buildings of Belgrade Modernism is told summarily in these texts. It was designed by Dragiša Brašovan who realized his great modernist trilogy in the fourth decade of the twentieth century: Air Force House in Zemun (1935), the building of the Danube Banovina in Novi Sad (1936–39), and the mentioned monumental building of the National Printing Institution (1933; 1937–40) – today known as ‘the BIGZ Building’. In the 1930s the Kingdom of Yugo­slavia was building its prominent buildings and often in­vol­ved architects of modernist orientation. At that time, other architects of Belgrade Modernism had important realizations: Milan Zloković, Branislav Kojić, Momčilo Belobrk, Dušan Babić... Built at that time were: the Faculty of Law; the Der­ma­tology, Children’s and Obstetrics and Gynaecology Cli­nic in Belgrade; the Oceanographic Institute in Split; the Fa­culty of Veterinary Science and the Technical Faculty in Zag­reb; the ‘Skyscraper’ and Modern Gallery in Ljubljana; post office buildings in Split, Bijeljina, Čačak, Titel; housing buil­dings for officials of the Postal Savings Bank in Zagreb and Ljub­ljana; palaces of justice in large city centres, schools, sports stadiums, industrial plants and office buildings... Also, so­me important foreign exhibitions were held in Belgrade: ‘The Exhibition of German Visual Arts’ was held in the Cvije­ta Zuzorić Art Pavilion in 1931. It had a great influence on strengthening the movement of modernism in Serbia. Works by Walter Gropius, Erich Mendelsohn, Mies van der Rohe, Otto Bartning, Peter Behrens and so on were displayed. The con­servative professional and cultural public was still not ready to choose the new movements in architec­ture and arts and so the exhibition was not received with great delight. Resistance made the breakthrough of contemporary archi­tectural and artistic ideas rather more difficult, but the enthusiastic and determined architects of the modernist mo­ve­ment did not give up. Educated in large European cities, they had already had sufficient experience in building and also found investors among industrialists on the rise, and even in governing structures.


Dragiša Brašovan, an architect who was also able to design in academic style, won the Yugoslav architectural competition for the building of the National Printing Institution in Belgrade in 1933. Drago Ibler was also one of the competitors, and second prize was won by the Zagreb office Kiverov, Korka and Krekić. Subsequently, the investor organized a study journey for Brašovan to technically and technologically highly developed Germany. In this manner, he was able to be introduced directly to new tendencies in architecture and to see how the technologically most con­temporary printing plants and industrial buildings looked. He saw for himself that the exaggerated decorative quality of façades had lost its importance and that the functionality of a building was pushed to the fore. And this especially referred to industrial and housing buildings.


Brašovan formed the building of the National Printing Institution as several strong, horizontally set parallelepipeds, placed next to one vertical parallelepiped. A fragile curvature around the staircase on the very top of the building as well as the elegant railing on the roof terrace with, as they seem when observed from downstairs, hovering candelabras are both discrete homage to Bauhaus. The roof terrace looks as if it belongs to quite another building; we could easily imagine it on a luxury hotel or as a deck on an ocean cruiser. Today, one can access it from an improvised jazz club and a wonderful view of the Sava and Belgrade stretches from it. Brašovan solved the façade canvasses by means of different rhythms of glass surfaces and in this way he defined various functions of the building in egalitarian manner. In one of the horizontal parallelepipeds, one could see an indication of the purified façades on his future hotel Metropol (1953).


The building of the National Printing Institution is the first building in Belgrade with a skeletal support system made of reinforced concrete. The complexity of the programme enabled Brašovan to form the building’s floor plans and façade canvasses freely in a much more radical manner that had been customary until that time. Although the skeletal system was used, the building does not hover; on the inside, it looks much heavier that it seems on the outside. Some spaces remind of ambience in Fritz Lang’s famous film Metropolis of 1928 – monumental stairs, lifts in metal cages, an endless dimly lit labyrinth of corridors...


By unfortunate historical coincidence, the building of the National Printing Institution did not have time to entirely take root in the city tissue. As soon as it was completed, the Second World War started for the Kingdom of Yugoslavia with the German bombing of April 1941. Photographs taken at the end of the war depict a rather damaged building. In the heyday of post-war renovation, it was repaired and functioned as the printing plant of the Belgrade Publishing and Graphics Institution (BIGZ) with almost 3000 employees.


The printing plant was built in a suburb of Belgrade, a city that between the two world wars tried frenetically to catch up with large European cities and to compensate for lost decades. At the beginning of the new millennium, it became part of the very centre of the city. In the 1990s, when the socialist concept of huge nationalized companies collapsed, the building was abandoned and left to ruin. During the last ten years, young artists, musicians, designers, architects etc. moved in. It functioned as an informal cultural centre. The new owner, after unclear privatization, has been offering the spaces for rent, but has not invested in renovation at all. Nevertheless, it is impossible not to no­tice it if you travel on the motorway from west to east. On the right side of the road, although neglected, it dominates that part of the city and attracts attention when you cross the Sava over the recently renovated Gazelle bridge. It has been announced that a luxury hotel will soon be built next to it.


In a country where everybody, from politicians to the heads of residents’ committees, is dealing with global politics and competing in patriotism, no one poses the question why one of the city’s most striking landmarks, a monument to architectural heritage, a building that could even today be a ministry, luxury hotel or attractive cultural centre, has been left to ruin so mercilessly. But then why would it not be when only a few streets away, on the most important junction in the city, opposite the neo-classicist palaces of the Government of the Republic of Serbia, within the sight of all of us, one of the most important buildings of post-war architecture which was heavily damaged by missiles 12 years ago – the General Staff Headquarters by Nikola Dobrović – is falling apart?