Tuesday, 22 January 2013

A Thousand and One Look at Yugoslavian Architecture

[first published, in a different version, in ICON #114]

Modernism In-Between
Maroje Mrduljas, Vladimir Kulić
protographs by Wolfgang Thaler

Why we’re looking at Yugoslavian modernism now? Because the ideological war on interpreting the socialist legacy has taken a new phase; capitalist crisis brings socialist solutions back on the agenda as in most ex-communist countries discussing the past in a positive way was a taboo. At the same time, we had a triumph of postmodern vagueness in writing history, seeing traditional analysis as “monolithic”, which preferred to focus on random elements of defunct ideologies and philosophy of “memory”. This means we lost a wider image and that is why coffetable books with melancholic landscapes of deserted lands of communist utopia are now practically only books available on the subject. It’s not difficult to see how this approach limits our understanding of history in the current moment. People in the ex-Yugoslavia, like historians Maroje Mrduljas and Vladmir Kulic, who were involved in important research think tank Unfinished Modernisations, refuse to participate in a boring ideological war and with Modernism In-Between, provide a necessary compendium of socialist era architecture for the English speakers, in the times, where the Soviet or Yugo-modernism is suffering the label of "toxic", deadly, bad for you - just in time to demolish it and build there museums of modern art, no doubt to a "Bilbao effect".

I am not arguing for preservation of the ruins, but first we should know what caused them to become ruins. What we should try is to look at the buildings without the ignorant hatred of the past, but with an understanding of history. This isn’t a classic picture book, although it contains many photos by Wolfgang Thaler. But unlike the usual, the pictures do not base only on the extraordinariness of some of the best examples of fantastical from today’s point of view social housing projects on colossal scale. It does the justice to the architecture in all its variety, which even if some of it is crumbling, most is in good shape, and definitely of much better quality and architecturally superior to the post-transitional speculative housing, that emerged without much regulation. Neither pretentious nor just purely documentary, the photographs make us appreciate the variety of housing schemes and spectacular rebuilds, like Novi Zagreb, Novi Beograd or the new Skopje, built after the earthquake in 1963 by international team of architects, rather than picturesque stadiums, conference centers or operas.

Which doesn’t mean, that the Poljud stadium in Split, Opera in Skopje or churches, like Serefudin White Mosque in Visoko, shouldn’t be admired as stupendous examples of innovative architecture. Skopje’s case is discussed in the book in detail as one of those strange Cold War events, where the war between the blocks was suspended, as at the same time an international agreement in limiting the ban on nuclear weapons was signed. Yes, a  different historical scenario to the one we know now was possible. The world could’ve looked differently.

There's also ideology, mostly expresed in the now-exploited monuments - spomeniks. But Modernism in general rejects any black-white simplifications, which means we have to get deeper into the context. There’s a shocking amount of text for a picture book, in which architecture is not simply seen as a result of socio-political and cultural tensions, but, in this case, as an attempt at a paradoxical independence of its authors and an intervention in social reality.

The title’s “in-between” refers to the built environment in all its six republics (Serbia, Bosnia, Slovenia, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, with Kosovo and Vojvodina having unofficial status) on many levels: we’re here between cultures, between various socialisms, between economical inequalities of the north-east and south-west, also, having have to deal with nationalisms, that were emerging again and again, and, on the top of that, strange positions between two cold war camps. 

If Yugo-sotsmodernism was “in between”, that meant it was attempting a kind of architectural universalism, to make “universalism one’s own”. It was against nationalistic fetishizations of style, instead investing in self-managed socialism, brotherhood, independent foreign policies. They were trying to follow demographical patterns, in a rapid urbanization assuming sometimes traumatic effects on often rural population, but still, from the contemporary view of housing shortages, it becomes relativised. Yes, the initiative to house everybody was a whole with the political program, but it really tried to improve level of life for everybody.

Yet, authors seem disintrerested in further discreditation of the idea of socialism, at the same time not succumbing to the Yugonostalgia. Mostly completely unsentimental about the shortcomings of the system: it didn’t realise its promises, it didn’t built enough, appreciate certain aspects of this inbetweenness, like trying to surpass the ethnic disruptions within the Yugoslavia, which resulted in such tragic way at the end of it. at the very least, the book allows us to see Yugoslavia not as a defunct land of memory, but as a once living organism.

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