Unfinished Modernisations – A Review

written by Agata Pyzik
captions Maroje Mrduljaš

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With the 20th anniversary of the dissolution of Yugoslavia last year, together with that of the collapse of the Soviet Union and with 2009 marking 20 years from the end of the Warsaw Pact, we are now at enough of a distance to see the late communist and socialist regimes, but also the regimes which came after them, in a proper perspective. If you asked the average citizen of a post-communist country, especially someone who didn’t particularly benefit from the introduction of capitalism, how he values his ‘freedom’, what you’d get would be probably quite a disillusioned and grim response. The current economic crisis after the shock therapy and capitalist transition in the countries of ex-Yugoslavia and in general in the ex-Soviet Bloc is prompting certain groups of progressive intellectuals to look again at the previous ideology, previous forms of life, perhaps in search of new/old solutions to the new problems.


But ex-Yugoslavia always displayed more nostalgia for its own version of socialism than the other, quickly neo-liberalising, countries of eastern Europe. And despite the current ambitions of the poorer part of the former SFRY (Serbia, Macedonia) to achieve quick accession to the European Union and privatization of everything, this creates the chance for unprejudiced research and reassessment of the past. ‘Unfinished Modernisations’, an exhibition curated by Vladimir Kulić, Maroje Mrduljaš and collaborators, and which took place in Maribor, Belgrade’s May 25th Museum and the Ducal Palace in Zadar, documents a few years’ research by the most progressive architecture scholars from ex-Yugoslavia to speak about the failures and successes of Marshal Tito’s regime. It also feels as if it was organised in reaction to the ever more popular exploitation of the ‘style of the cold-war modern’ across the galleries of Europe and coffee-table books (CCCP: Cosmic Communist Constructions Photo­graphed by Frederic Chaubin or Socialist Architecture: the Vanishing Act by Armin Linke), reproducing constantly the same, to a western eye extraordinarily looking, inventive socialist buildings, Houses of the Party, Museums of Revolution or facilities devoted to the space programme. Through attraction (the looks) – repulsion (the ‘bad’ ideology), they turn former socialist states into lands of western fantasy. ‘UM’, just like another project worthy of mention also coming from Eastern scholars, ‘PRL™ Export Architecture and Urbanism from Socialist Poland’[1] in 2010, focused on the meaning of ‘under­development’ in the Eastern Bloc and the Non-Aligned Movement, was created in reaction to such exoticisation.


‘We need to tell the story again to ourselves’ seems to be the commu­niqué coming from the Maribor installation, catalogue and now also the book – and to go beyond a black-and-white image. There were good as well as bad things about the SFRY, and architecture reflects it. As someone both from the ex-Bloc (Poland) and the West (living in London) I could finally build myself a more coherent narrative about the post-war years of so-called social democracy in Europe. Today, surrounded by blocks of luxury flats that no one can afford, we look at the equality of the social planning and housing of the Yugoslav era as a paradise. There was a time when both West and East wanted to build socially and equally, but for quite different reasons. While the outcome may be similar, social democracy in the West was still undoubtedly capitalist, as SFRY was socialist. Therefore, a very different proportion of social housing: only 40% at the very most in Britain, with 100% in SFRY within the economic context of ‘collective ownership’.


People may have been well-off, living in spacious flats in Novi Belgrade’s GENEX Tower (a company which allocated flats to their workers equally, regardless of their status), not necessarily like Londoners, but not far off their West German equivalents, but the reason the building where they lived was built and the values they believed couldn’t be more different. The West sported a welfare state while believing in individualism, ‘getting on’, personal success; their Yugoslavian peers were brought up in collectivity, to believe that housing is supposed to be equal for everybody and their work served the construction of the new state. Anyone living in social housing in Great Britain or France, would respond with laughter at the suggestion they live in a socialist country. Even if all this sounds like some uncanny utopia, ‘UM’ shows that SFRY maybe wasn’t paradise, but it wasn’t a utopia either. There was an admirable push towards modernization of a terribly unequal country: with an under-developed south-east (Kosovo, Bosnia, Montenegro, Macedonia, much of Serbia) and a better-off north-west (Slovenia, Croatia). The noble notion of ‘privileged dwelling in a privilege-free society’ resulted in a social structure that wasn’t divided by class, but by poor rural and more affluent urban; and by geography: some enjoyed the living standards of Austria, but others – of Albania. Workers travelled from south to north to work in cities, but modernization couldn’t keep up: shanty towns started to emerge. Kaluđerica, ‘the biggest wild settlement in the Balkans’, with 30,000 inhabitants at the time, was so far away from the normal solutions of urban development that it had to come out with its own. It’s fascinating, because it can be seen both at the top and at the bottom of the idea of self-management. It escaped planning, which, as we see now especially sharply with the free market moving wildly across our cities without any control, was rather good. On the other hand, with the contemporary Serbian state trying to legalise (=privatize) every building, it showed the benefits of a soft modernity, as many squats and communes in Western cities, now being shut down one after another, could assert.


Yugoslavia benefited from oscillating between the USSR and the West, creating a society which, though based on equality, was not unaware of the pleasures of consumption. The exhibition points this out with a suppressed irony, e.g. in displays of department stores or hotels. Endowed with the natural beauty of its coast, Yugoslavia had to be prepared for sudden mass and inter­na­tio­nal (mostly, Western) tourism, a great source of hard currency. Leisure facilities and hotels in why so many holiday resorts, sometimes planned with UN financial support and in international teams, unveil the creativity in respecting the natural environment from urban excess, preserving local context and experimentation of vast, sculptural forms. The idea of ‘everybody can afford a little bit of luxury’ mixed with the alleged availability of lifestyles worthy of Yugo equivalents of James Bond and his entourage, are displayed at stylized photo-shoots in magazines.


The debates on how and if 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 economies) really worked continue today and ‘UM’ contributes to this, exposing communality, cooperation, affordability and equality as much as the often low quality, national inequality, and the constantly pondered unfinishedness. Despite one of the highest growth rates in the world in the 1950s and 60s, a titanic task even for an affluent country couldn’t be completed, so no wonder for the rest of its existence SFRY struggled with eco­nomic instability. Also, it allowed quite a lot of de­centra­lization, shown here by the variety of national styles reflected in modern architecture, e.g. sacral structures in Bosnia and Herzegovina, or, more controversially, monuments devoted to the Partisans’ struggle against Nazism and Fascism, testing the flights of fancy of Yugoslavian designers, linking architecture, landscape and sculpture. There was a political and economic clampdown after nationalist movements grew in power in 70s Croatia and 80s Serbia, some decided decentralization went too far and brought more censorship and less social openness.


What is also worth mentioning is how the show stresses the archi­tectural awareness of this area and its participation in the international movement. From the 1920s there were strong schools in Belgrade, Zagreb, Ljubljana (with contacts esta­blished with e.g. Le Corbusier) and, after the war, in Sarajevo or Skopje, producing such original architects as Vjenceslav Richter, Milan Mihelič or Edvard Ravnikar. From 1966 there was a national prize, Borba, established to promote talent and create an equivalent of starchitects. The many very different architects, who referred to brutalism, metabolism as much as some sort of neo-constructivism, still remained exceptionally original, especially Ravnikar, whose sculptural, expressionist towers on Ljubljana’s Republic Square have no western equi­valent.


This openness comes of course from the economic openness of the Non-Aligned Movement, which could take from the People’s Republics’ nationalised architectural practices/combinates like Miastoprojekt Kraków. Similarly SFRY had Energoprojekt in Belgrade and other successful companies which worked for Middle Eastern and African countries, members of the Non-Aligned Movement. This brings us to the fascinating topic of competitiveness within the context of a socialist economy and in general, the attra­ctiveness of Eastern technology, which was at least for a while, an alternative to the growing 80s neo-liberalism and post-modern architecture. Because even the craziest Yugo-constructions are expansively modernist, in form and in con­tent.


From today’s perspective of extremely poor quality and unaffordably high-priced new housing in the West, Novi Beograd and Novi Zagreb look like a dream. So why did they remain unfinished? The reasons are many. For instance, because political and economic changes brought incoherent planning and the housing proceeded in bits. 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. This opened architecture to American, Ja­panese and Constructivist modernisms, most prominent being Kenzo Tange’s plan for earthquake-damaged Skopje (1965).


What we see is mostly architecture exposing its commu­nality and publicness, which didn’t stop experi­men­tation: universities, libraries (for some reason the one in Priština was called the most hideous building in the world in some sensationalistic ‘top-lists’) dedicated to socialist power (the Army and League of Communists HQ), industry (Museum of Aviation in Belgrade), culture (Skopje Opera and Ballet House), sport (Stadium in Split). Ideology went hand in hand with leisure, but the largest part of the show is devoted to the less picturesque but crucial notions of city planning. Projects display consciousness of the importance of planning, new solutions, but also beauty, style, scale.


The last question is that of money. In Belgrade such gems of Yugoslav architecture as the Museum of Modern Art are decaying as a result of the economic crash that happened after the disntegration of the state, more than from the collapse of the earlier ideology. More to the point, these modernisations were stopped by the financial crisis of the 1980s, and then dissolution, wars and, last but not least, the war of Serbia with NATO. The vastness of the project reconsidered by ‘Unfinished Modernisations’ stands proud in comparison to contemporary conformity, not least because of the way it was conceived and financed. Instead of producing albums with picturesque ruins, young scholars of the ex-Yugoslavia search for the reasons of successes and failures of the Yugoslav project.


[1] Another exhibition, ‘Postmodernism Is Almost All Right’, held at the Warsaw School of Economics in 2011 also looked at a similar subject, of the movement of architectural practice from involvement in the Non-Aligned countries before 1989 and afterwards towards new buildings in Poland which often evoked Socialist Realism more than Modernism.