Exhibition Review: Towards a Concrete Utopia—Architecture in Yugoslavia, 1948-1980

In late July, I flew from Belgrade to New York. Leaving my Serbian homeland’s summer colours, I found myself immersed in the monochrome simulacra of Yugoslavia. At the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), the ongoing exhibition Towards a Concrete Utopia: Architecture in Yugoslavia, 1948-1980 conjures a vision of Balkan utopianism where the aura of concrete takes on almost mythic qualities.

Towards a Concrete Utopia: Architecture in Yugoslavia, 1948-1980
“Monument to the Battle of the Sutjeska,” by Miodrag Živković, 1965-71, Tjentiste, Bosnia and Herzegovina. Photo by Valentin Jeck.

Curated by Martino Stierli and Vladimir Kulić with assistant Anna Kats, the exhibition charts three decades of architectural expression in the erstwhile Socialist Federalist Republic of Yugoslavia. The multi-ethnic state helped launch the non-aligned movement after a schism with the Soviet Union in 1948. During the federation’s short life—it dissolved in 1992 in the throes of war—rapid urbanization and cultural evolution built up an impressive legacy of late-modernist architecture. Decades later, many of those war monuments, cultural centres, government edifices and apartment blocks remain. At MoMA, they  are brought before Western eyes through scale models, drawings, films and, above all, photographs.

Beckoning the eye in every room, Valentin Jeck’s dramatic, saturated photographs (commissioned by the museum) depict buildings and monuments that reach out from the landscape like relics of some alien civilization. Atop a blanket of snow, Miodrag Zivković’s kinetically charged Monument to the Battle of the Sutjeska enters the composition like an otherworldly entity, jagged and impossibly angular against the sublime and yet desolate landscape.

From Priština to Ljubljana, Skopje, Belgrade and Zagreb, the same ominously darkening sky furnishes the stereotype of a nameless and vacant eastern European city. Grand architectural relics of Yugoslavia loom over their surroundings, as if impervious to any nature or humanity surrounding them. In all that concrete, Jeck finds the heroism within it, if not the humanity around it. Form and texture are artfully conveyed, but to the detriment of context—and of reality. Where is everybody? How does it actually feel to be there?

Towards a Concrete Utopia: Architecture in Yugoslavia, 1948-1980
Avala TV Tower, 1960-65, by Ugliješa Bogunović and Milan Krstić. Built on Mount Avala near Belgrade, the tower was destroyed in 1999 and rebuilt in 2010. Photo by Valentin Jeck.

Bookending the exhibition hall, a restored example of Saša J. Mächtig’s Kiosk 67 offers a rare moment of tactility and colour. Once ubiquitous across Yugoslavia, the modular red kiosks served as everything from grill-houses and newspaper stands to private boxes at stadiums. You can still see a few of the grimy little bastards in business on street corners: run-down receptacles for hawking cigarettes and beer and hosiery. The transplanted kiosk installed at the MoMA exhibition serves only as an information booth on the third floor lobby. Restored to a brilliant lustre, it’s prettier than the ones you’ll see in the former Yugoslavia, and less alive. As Alexandra Lange put it in Curbed, “I longed to see it back on the street, selling Slavic candy, doing a real job.” To see it robbed of its ordinariness is to see it robbed of its essence.

Toward a Concrete Utopia: Architecture in Yugoslavia 1948-1980
The MoMA’s installation of a Saša J. Mächtig-designed vending kiosk, repurposed here as an information booth. Photo by Martin Seck.

Still, if the photographs, models, drawings and video installations rarely convey more than a sense of architectural spectacle, the exhibition does offer crucial historical context. It’s encouraging to see the likes of Milan Mihelič, Zlatko Uglijen, Stojan Maksimović and Andrija Mutnjaković solidify their places in the Western canon, and it’s especially invigorating to see women architects like Svetlana Kana Radević and longtime Energoprojekt manager Milica Šterić given prominence. What’s more, the exhibition and its catalogue provide vital political and ideological context for Yugoslav architecture. From the Titoist principles of workers’ self-management to the evolution towards more mixed-use planned communities (with a thin veneer of socialist feminism) a meticulous historicism frames the prevailing architectural ideologies.

It makes for an engaging and occasionally stirring exploration of Yugoslav architecture, though one that nonetheless threatens to flatten its subject under the weight of aesthetic fetishism. The sanitized monochrome of Jeck’s photography plays up the otherness and supposed austerity of the Balkans, while newly commissioned scale models tell us little about what these concrete behemoths might mean. And amidst all those plans, maps, models and photographs, there is almost no sense of place. Enamoured with the optimism and sheer “weirdness” of Yugoslav architecture, the exhibition tells us plenty about how architecture might have been imagined, but relatively little about how it was (and continues to be) experienced.

Towards a Concrete Utopia: Architecture in Yugoslavia, 1948-1980
“Monument to the Fighters Fallen in the People’s Liberation Struggle,” by Živa Baraga and Janez Lenassi, Illirska Bistrica, Slovenia,1965. Photo by Valentin Jeck.

However astounding these structures may seem, most of them also exist in an environment of banality and sheer ordinariness. In New Belgrade, a master-planned community comparable to Brasilia in scope, a series of similarly expressive, massive, and downright bizarre buildings are also the backdrops to everyday life. Across former Yugoslavia, even Bogdan Bogdanović’s strikingly expressive war monuments—sometimes compared to UFOs—are occasionally torn from their photographic mythos. On the back cover of MoMA’s own Bogdanović by Bogdanović catalogue, we find our view of a dramatic monument obfuscated by a gaggle of children, sitting at its base and climbing its strange concrete wings. They might know something we don’t.

These simple daily realities invite the sort of rich questions that the exhibit largely evades. How does socialist brutalism shape daily life? What power does the architecture of socialist utopia still carry under late Balkan capitalism? After wars, privatization, McDonald’s, Apple and Amazon, what does all that old concrete mean? After the empire has fallen, how do we make sense of its relics? The answers, whatever they may be, are thousands of miles from New York.

Towards a Concrete Utopia: Architecture in Yugoslavia, 1948-1980 exhibits at the Museum of Modern Art in New York until January 13, 2019.

Stefan Novakovic is the Associate Editor of Canadian Architect.