The country of Yugoslavia may no longer appear on any physical maps, but it remains on many people’s mental maps; though Yugoslavia may be dead forever as a political entity, it lives on as a cultural project.
Yugoslavia’s material and cultural production inspires many people to make art and products. And a lot of them have little or even no lived experience in or memory of it.
These are their stories.
Part 2 of many: New Belgrade.
With Igor Simić (Golf Club Wasteland), Jovana Radujko (Brutalizam i Renesansa), and Donald Niebyl ([New Belgrade Database]). Featuring music by Autopark (Belgrade) and from Radio Nostalgia from Mars: Golf Club Wasteland (Original Game Soundtrack).
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PETER KORCHNAK: This is Remembering Yugoslavia, the show exploring the memory of a country that no longer exists. I’m your curator Peter Korchnak.
You’re listening to the second installment of the new series here on the podcast, Inspired by Yugoslavia. In the first, in the previous episode, you heard from a couple of young filmmakers who are making documentaries in the contemporary era they consider Yugoslavia’s future. You heard from an academic collaborating with her peers from across the former country to elevate women researchers in Western higher education institutions. And you heard from an artist making a graphic biography of her mother. A range of projects with but a thin thematic thread uniting them Today’s projects inspired by Yugoslavia are connected more concretely. What inspired them is New Belgrade, that part of Serbia’s biggest city that the socialist Yugoslavia’s government had built as an extension of the capital and a showcase of sorts.
New Belgrade was envisaged and built as a new city on the swampy left bank of the river Sava. The new metropolis would be functionally separated into areas, or bloks, within which residents could fulfill their basic needs and, correspondingly, would have less need to move around. Residential towers and slabs were placed in various configurations, with green spaces and functional buildings, like shops and schools and medical offices in between; the bloks were divided by major arterial roads and crisscrossed by additional longitudinal roads. Whatever transportation was needed, among blocks and to other parts of the city, was to be serviced by trams, busses, trolley busses as well as state-owned service vehicles. And so it went, except nowadays vehicular traffic far exceeds the planners’ vision.
With over 200,000 inhabitants, New Belgrade has been experiencing a sort of a resurgence, in public imagination, business investment, world attention, as well as on Belgrade’s real estate market. The three projects I’m going to talk about today are, in a sense, part of this trend. All that socialist urban planning, architectural design, and, well, ordinary life in the place has had consequences far beyond the imagination of New Belgrade’s creators, builders, and residents. I guess I should call this episode Inspired by New Belgrade.
But before we cross the Rubicon, I mean the River Sava, I want to acknowledge and thank a few people who are making this adventure happen. Thank you Dijana, Fatmir, Marianne, and Merima for your generous support. Your donations are what helps keep the podcast rolling.
If the stories you hear on Remembering Yugoslavia resonate with you in some way, if they enrich your life, or you learn something from them, or, hey, if the podcast helps you fall asleep, join Dijana, Fatmir, Marianne, Merima, and dozens of other good people and make a contribution to support the show on Patreon or by PayPal. New as of this episode is also the option to subscribe to the show through Buzzsprout, this podcast’s hosting platform. All the links are in the episode shownotes, right there in your podcast listening app; and at RememberingYugoslavia.com/Donate.
Golf Club Wasteland
IGOR SIMIĆ: My name is Igor Simić. I was born in 1988. I’m Serbian American. And I’m the CEO and creative director of [a] gaming and animation company called the Demagogue Studio.
PETER KORCHNAK: Simić’s father moved to the US in the 1960s to pursue his education and stayed there. Simić was born in Belgrade and has lived in the US off and on throughout his life.
IGOR SIMIĆ: I went to Columbia University in New York. I ended up a double majoring in film and philosophy at Columbia. And then I was accepted to the MFA program for film at Columbia but I ended up not going basically because of Paul Schrader, the screenwriter of Taxi Driver, director of American Gigolo. And he said to the students, “you’re basically wasting your time and money by going here.” And he said to them, “if you think that you will be a kind of indie New York filmmaker, you would already quit school and you’d be out there making films but it’s also highly unlikely that that era were will return of Spike Lee and Jim Jarmusch,” and so forth. “If you want to work within the film industry, you should simply move to LA.” But he said, “if I was you in your position, I wouldn’t even go into film, I would learn to code.” And he said at this moment, this was 2011, my senior year, and he said, “at this moment, you have an exhibition at the MoMA by an artist called Marina Abramovich, and regardless of what you think of her art, what is interesting is that it’s interactive. You have to sit across from her, it’s not simply a painting on a wall. And by the same token, in mainstream culture, what is making most revenue is a new edition of the game GTA, Grand Theft Auto.” So he said, “everyone in film industry is talking about Avatar, but in reality GTA is making more at the box office and has more space for experimentation in terms of narrative and interactivity.” So he said, “if you figure out a way of merging Marina Abramovich and GTA you’re basically creating a new art form.” So that just lingered in my mind and that’s what eventually led to me entering gaming.
PETER KORCHNAK: You’ve made other games. But this one captured my attention for its use of monuments. So tell me about some of the evolution of the game and how did you come to use those monuments and other, obviously other architecture in it.
IGOR SIMIĆ: Shortly after college, I realized that when I make short films, I can peddle them as short films but also as video art to art people.
PETER KORCHNAK: One short Simić made in 2016, “Melancholic Drone,” ended up in the collection of the Museum of the Contemporary Art in Barcelona. In the film, a military drone flying over New Belgrade acquires a conscience, realizes he likes the place, and breaks free.
IGOR SIMIĆ: I realized that New Belgrade is interesting, and that I created this extremely low budget sci-fi simply by employing the architecture of the place I grew up in. This opened a kind of new possibility.
When we discussed doing a game, my friends and I, they said to me, your artsy fartsy stuff, that’s all cool, but try to come up with an idea that might have some commercial potential. So I mulled over it, and I knew the world building has to come from our architecture, because it’s fresh.
I knew that a lot of sci-fi recently is inspired by Hong Kong or Bangkok and so forth, but I’ve never been there. And it oftentimes smacks of some sort of cultural appropriation by people who don’t really care or are interested. And by the same token, I saw that some Australian glasses company used the monument in Jasenovac for their commercials which obviously is insensitive.
So I just thought to myself, if Jean Luc Godard can use Paris for his sci-fi dystopia, Alphaville, or Stanley Kubrick can use London for Clockwork Orange, perhaps we can do the same with Belgrade. And that was one starting point.
Then the other thing was we were watching the news and it was becoming clear that Trump will be an actual candidate for president, and simultaneously, Elon Musk was becoming this celebrity entrepreneur. So, somehow a concoction of these ideas happened in my mind. And I realized, okay, if Donald Trump is building golf courses and if Elon wants to go to Mars, the best case scenario is that we all die, all humankind, it just evaporates while the 0.1%, they escape to Tesla City on Mars. And that basically means they get a clean slate on Earth. So a decade later, they can come back and just freely play golf in the ruins, and it’s kind of ideal. So that’s how the idea came about.
And then when we started building the game, all of the Yugoslav architecture, but also Central European architecture was modernism. Because the idea was modernism believed in progress and that technology will save us on this grand scale, and this sunny city of Le Corbusier was a huge influence on Yugoslav architects. So I thought it’s kind of funny that all of this highfalutin speaking about the future of the new city is now just a ruin in our game. And then, over those ruins, we can place these kitsch pink neons that refer to contemporary so-called post-ideological society and memes. And that’s most clear in one shot in the game where you have the monument of Podgarić, obviously, an anti fascist monument, and then right next to it, you have a pink neon that says Covfefe.
PETER KORCHNAK: You can see this shot in the trailer for the game.
[SOUNDBITE – “Life Flies By” by Radio Nostalgia from Mars]
PETER KORCHNAK: Other Yugoslav monuments in the game include Kosmaj in Serbia and Tjentište in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
They play the role, basically, of creating a certain kind of landscape. They’re part of the landscape that the protagonist, a golfer, is going through playing his game and obviously the person playing the game is going through as they play the game.
And so the use of monuments in that sense, the use of National Liberation Struggle monuments in that way, has been criticized for trivializing the message that they have, basically mis- or abusing them for a different purpose. And that, you know, we see Podgarić, we see Kosmaj, we see other other places used for their aesthetic value rather than what they signify what they commemorate. And so have you faced this criticism before? And what’s your response to that?
IGOR SIMIĆ: We haven’t, and I think one of the reasons is that they are actually used as a backdrop in a game by a company that comes from that region. And we have collaborators on the soundtrack—the soundtrack is massive—from Croatia, from Bosnia and so forth, from Macedonia. It’s in a way a regional project. And, to an extent, we are using our own heritage.
That said, using the monuments in a kind of context that is not reverential, was precisely the point because we have, for example, a monument to Elon Musk that is fully based on the monument to Karl Marx in Germany. We have a complete mishmash of ideology and messaging. And that was the point.
So the monuments already have a very complicated place within Yugoslavia, because some of these countries after the breakup, might interpret them as a kind of imposition because they were built by Yugoslavia. This complication makes it all the more funny. And it’s a kind of humor, like watching a comedy about the Second World War. And we are living in a time where all of these things are relativized. So the game is about it but for people who experience it closely it’s about much more, such as the survival of humanity on a very kind of basic level.
PETER KORCHNAK: One parallel or additional line to that was, or typically is that, if I look at the monument as a prop or as an aesthetic part of the landscape in a commercial product like this, I don’t know what it’s what it is, I don’t know what it commemorates, I don’t know the history there so I’m just looking at the form rather than what it signifies.
But what you’re saying or adding to this is that you’re adding another layer of meaning to all these meanings that have been layered upon these structures already and putting them in also in context of the whole game, you know. If, as a Yugoslavia, quote, unquote, Yugoslavia, watcher, former Yugoslavia watcher, all I see is the monuments or in your case, of course, the modernist architecture, I just see that, whereas what you’re saying if it’s put into context of the whole landscape, all the other monuments, all the other architecture, because obviously there are other significant architectural and architectonic structures there, it acquires a whole another meaning that you kind of have to get or understand or see by playing the game. Not just by like isolated incidents of Oh, my God, they’re using this in this non contextual way.
IGOR SIMIĆ: Yeah, on that kind of more philosophical level, there are two main ideological cornerstones of the game. One is this East-West-Middle of Europe. So we have, for example, Alex Platz in Berlin. So it’s funny because Alex Platz is next to a building that has a huge Weltschmerz neon, and this East-West division is almost kind of how the game progresses. And it puts that into question and also kind of makes it funny.
The other cornerstone is Silicon Valley as a kind of dominant ideology today. And the game kind of is a tongue-in-cheek proposal that early Soviet or even broader speaking communism and some ideas even that come from Russia about solving the problem of death and industrial spreading of industrial capabilities is very similar to ideas that you might find traces of in the ideology of one Elon Musk or Zuckerberg or one Peter Thiel. Peter Thiel is obsessed with solving not-dying, and not-dying is one of the prerequisites of having a fully egalitarian society because if no one ever dies, then it’s, you know.
So there’s a lot of these ideas about progress and what it means to be equal and what authoritarianism means, which is an undercurrent, because in the radio program, the Tesla City on Mars, which is supposed to be this ideal place and Utopia, ends up also being authoritarian.
And we also make fun of East-West division, because the CEO of this venture of moving to Mars is called Musković.
We purposefully blur all of these tropes. If you sell sunglasses and you use the Jasenovac monument, that’s one thing, and that’s completely pulled out of context, and it’s an Australian company. But if you use it in a project like this, which is a commercial project, but it’s also an art project, it was exhibited in Palazzo Strozzi in Italy, it was exhibited on Priština of all places, in an observatory within a youth complex that was built during Yugoslavia. So this complication is the poetry of the project.
PETER KORCHNAK: What have you heard from players from people about the game? What’s the feedback that you’ve been getting?
IGOR SIMIĆ: We mostly get praise from the culture here, simply because it’s kind of unheard of that you open the app store or Sony store and suddenly, the first thing you see is Genex. So there is almost a kind of element of pride.
People are kind of shocked because the premise is a golf game. But it’s— the function of golf is almost like imagine that Samuel Beckett was a game developer, that type of absurdity. The apocalypse has happened, ostensibly there’s [sic] no humans left, and the guy is golfing over ruins. That throws them, and then when they realize that there is Radio Nostalgia for Mars, which is— has nothing to do, literally nothing to do, with yugonostalgia but is nostalgia for Earth. So it’s almost like a Proust type of rumination about the past and about certain small experiences like driving a bicycle in the city, being able to have simple things in life, like friends going out, having air (there’s no oxygen on Mars, there’s no gravity there, like we have here). So all of these memories are tied to things we take for granted currently. So it’s a meditation on the present moment from a future event, vantage point, the radio show; and then all of the music is from the future, so it’s kind of retro future music.
People are moved by that. The game is almost like an audio book that you listen [to] and then you also have these picture and interactive elements. And we have comments where someone cried at the end of the game because the main character decides to stay on Earth, even though the new environment will kill him eventually (his immunity can’t cope but will decide to say because of this mutant kid that he meets on Earth. And the mutant kid is kind of inspired by me growing up in New Belgrade and comes from the rubble of kind of a brutalist neighborhood.) So it’s more about [the] atmosphere, and people dig the atmosphere, because they recognize the atmosphere is genuine.
Mostly they comment on the music, they comment on some Easter eggs, neons and graffiti that we have peppered around the world building, so it’s mostly positive.
PETER KORCHNAK: 2023 will see the release of a Golf Club Wasteland prequel and sequel games, Highwater and The Cub.
IGOR SIMIĆ: What we are working on is to make our own TV series eventually an animated or maybe even live action series based around this world because we’re doing two more games that will roll out next year within the same world building. So hopefully, this culture and all of this background that we’re discussing now will be woven in and have a new life, a new relevance, and a new openness is for discussion within the region, thanks to something that is so multifaceted and exists in various media in music and animation and gaming.
Brutalizam i Renesansa
JOVANA RADUJKO: So I was born in 1992, in Belgrade, living in New Belgrade for all of my life.
PETER KORCHNAK: Jovana Radujko is the creator of brutalizam i renesansa (Brutalism and the Renaissance), an Instagram account where she shares her line drawings of brutalist and modernist buildings from Belgrade and beyond.
JOVANA RADUJKO: I’m really fond of Belgrade, but especially of New Belgrade because of my childhood memories, stuff like that, are from here, so that’s my favorite part of the city.
Here we’re a big community here, every building is like a community for itself and then every block is a community for itself.
I grew up with my grandma, she was living at New Belgrade as well. So I spent a lot of time maybe with older people, with old neighbors, grandmas, grandpas, and stuff like that. So I got, I don’t know, that feeling of being I don’t know, in a community, you know. So that was like, really important for me.
PETER KORCHNAK: You’ve used the word community a number of times. Especially in the West, the image or maybe the stereotype is that the kind of housing that New Belgrade represents, that apartment blok, apartment towers housing, is really kind of alienating, and you know, it’s just basically like dormitories for workers and you seem to have a different experience different take on this. So what would you say to people who think all Belgrade is just apartment blocks and it’s cold and lifeless and so on? How does that actually work in real life?
JOVANA RADUJKO: I mean, I guess it’s working in a specific way here, because I know they’re blocks all over the world. But here, I don’t know, maybe it’s like a post-war thing, you know. I think back in [the] 90s and early 2000s people were like, really friendly with each other because of all the stuff that happened. And we were like, functioning like really like a little community because people were like, can I go to my neighbor to borrow some, I don’t know, coffee, to borrow some tea, some blah, blah, blah, so people will drive for a living like one big family.
My favorite memories from my childhood are that, because I was able to go and knock on my neighbor’s door and be like, “Hello, can I get some blah, blah, blah,” and they were like, of course, and so on. So maybe that thing that people just wanted to be there for each other. When I say community, I think of that.
In my blok, we have like nine buildings, we have between all those buildings, we have parks, we have like school playground and stuff like that. So I think we had different surroundings than people living in [the] center, I believe it because the blok was ours, the streets were like boundaries of the blok, and we just had our place in [the] blok to play around, and so on. And so we had like, little little communities all over the place. And I don’t get the feeling that it’s like that in the city center or somewhere else.
PETER KORCHNAK: So you’re in Blok 3, is that right?
JOVANA RADUJKO: Yes.
PETER KORCHNAK: How would you describe your blok, what do you see from your window or how is it built, what’s nearby? Just give us a sense of the place.
JOVANA RADUJKO: My block is pretty small, one of the smallest blocks in New Belgrade. And I like it because of that. Because other parts of New Belgrade like Blok 61, 62, 63, they’re like, kind of too big for me, and kind of intimidating because I live in my small blok. And actually, I like it, because we have like four main streets around the block, our buildings in a block are next to the street, and everything in between is actually greenery, parks, and stuff like that. So I kind of feel really safe here. I mean, there’s not a lot of noise in the center of the blok, you can always go to the park or under the tree or something like that, drink coffee, and I’m really fine with that. Because it gives me safety moment. And I’m living on the eighth floor, so that’s kind of cool because I can see like, everything in my blok. Okay not everything in New Belgrade, but I can still [INAUDIBLE] of New Belgrade from my balcony, so that’s kind of nice.
PETER KORCHNAK: Growing up, where you did, living where you are, how did you go from being a child to like, you know, studying architecture and design and art. Were there any specific triggers for you? Or what was your motivation or your inspiration for that?
JOVANA RADUJKA: I always liked to draw stuff. And I don’t know, I mean, I was going to a mathematical [sic] gymnasium. So it just happened. I mean, architecture was like, something in between of everything.
And my bachelor’s degree is from architecture. And then I decided to go to master in interior design because that was like, more artistic. I mean architecture studies gave me the theoretical stuff. But the thing is, I always wanted to, you know, like, give homage to my childhood in some way and to New Belgrade and to me growing up here, so…
I’ve been working in a field for some time. I’m working on [sic] University and doing some interior design jobs. But at the moment, I’m doing design and my artwork.
PETER KORCHNAK: How did you get started in that? I mean, that’s how I found you, through your drawings on Instagram, right? Tell me the process to your first drawing, and then how you developed or evolved to this point.
JOVANA RADUJKO: It just happened, I have to say, because I was always drawing something, as I said. And on [sic] my university, when we did some projects and so on, I always started projects with freehand drawings. That’s the thing I do.
And after I finished my university, I just realized I never did a proper drawing of New Belgrade. Because all of our university projects were like, wherever, but not here. So I don’t know, I was just sitting on my balcony and watching the blok in New Belgrade and so on and I just decided to start to draw my view, because I really liked my view from the balcony. And I just took [my] notebook and started to draw. It happened like that. I didn’t have any, like, thoughts about it, I just want to draw that. And then I was like, Okay, this picture is really cool. So I put it on my Facebook account, on my profile, just like that, and people were actually amazed by it. And they were like, Ah, this is this that and that blok on how we recognize stuff, la la la, would you draw some more, and so on. And I was like, why not? Like just start to put drawings in my notebook, day by day, trying to capture everything I can see from my balcony.
PETER KORCHNAK Because this is an audio medium, can you describe your method, what these drawings, what they look like? What’s your process in creating them?
JOVANA RADUJKO: The most important thing to me is to pick a scene. I mean, I prefer drawing buildings as I can see them. And my first drawings were from my balcony. So I was just sitting watching the building, making like some lines with the pencil, just to make it look proper. And then I just used black ink and that’s it. My main goal [was] to capture the exact moment I’m looking at. So if are windows open, closed with shades or not. So I don’t know, just watching at the building and trying to capture [the] exact moment.
And after that, because I just do all of the buildings I can see from my balcony. Then I started to take pictures, wherever I go somewhere, if I see something that catches my eye or something like that, I just take a picture. And then I watch it on my computer or something and redrawing it in the notebook. So quite simple. I cannot say anything else about the technique, just trying to capture the moment.
PETER KORCHNAK: One thing that is intriguing and just kind of mind blowing is the amount of detail, you know, these are for the most part, you know, very straight lines that you’re drawing, right, but you’re drawing them by hand and they come out, you know, straight so you’re not you don’t use a ruler, I understand. You don’t render and print out of Photoshop, you just draw everything by hand?
JOVANA RADUJKO: Yeah, I mean, I don’t know why, I just wanted to do that. And it was like a challenge for me, I guess. Like, Jovana, can you draw this by hand. Then I was, okay I’ll try. I didn’t use [a] ruler because we’re using rulers, I think it would look more like I did it on [the] computer. And that’s not that’s not the thing I wanted to do. I wanted to do them hand drawn and so people can perceive them as hand drawn.
PETER KORCHNAK: Radujko adds a colorful background to each drawing with felt tip markers, the color being based on the moment, the feeling in the moment, the mood she’s experiencing.
Radujko did the first Brutalizam i renesansa drawing in the summer of 2018 and has completed some 200 drawings since then.
PETER KORCHNAK: What is your goal or do you have any kind of artistic objectives with this? Or is it just kind of like, you’re just doing it because it’s fun.
JOVANA RADUJKO: I mean, it started like that, because it was really fun. But I don’t know, I think, it’s safe to say I’m trying to preserve the memory of New Belgrade and brutalist buildings and modernism buildings, because I think it’s important to understand that we have really specific architecture and stuff here. So that’s the other part of it. It was fun, and it was like something personal for me because of the [sic] New Belgrade. But on the other hand, I think we should raise awareness about what we have here.
PETER KORCHNAK: What’s so special about it? Why does it need to be preserved, I guess?
JOVANA RADUJKO: I don’t know, I kind of have a feeling we’re using these buildings in a specific way. I mean, you have like Brutalist and modernistic building all over the world, Europe, or whatever. But for me, I think we kind of inhabit those buildings in [a] specific way, you know, because for me, brutalist buildings are like big concrete blocks, like tabula rasa squares where people can go inside and live their little comfy lives inside. Every square is different, because of [the] people that live inside. So I think it’s interesting, and I think people in Serbia, I don’t know, we like to make our living space really unique. And you can see that, because between all of that concrete, every balcony is different. Everybody has like, I don’t know, flowers, plants, and other colors and stuff like that. And, I don’t know, I like seeing that, the simple life in concrete, you know.
PETER KORCHNAK: So what kind of feedback are you hearing on your drawings?
JOVANA RADUJKO: From my circle, and I’m from New Belgrade, for example, people look more like, Aah, this is my building, this is my blok, and so on. So they recognize themselves in my pictures. So that’s like the first line of people, they follow me, people who live here, and they enjoy seeing their buildings and their blocks, in drawing, and in, some other mediums and photography. People from New Belgrade have that local patriotic moment as well.
PETER KORCHNAK: That’s great, yeah, I can imagine.
JOVANA RADUJKO: And from abroad people, I think they like the aesthetics of ex-Yugoslav brutalism and modernism. So I think it’s interesting for them as well.
PETER KORCHNAK: This project, these drawings, it now has a commercial aspect to it, you know, you’re, I believe, you’re doing posters and some T-shirts. Is that right?
JOVANA RADUJKO: All of that started, like randomly, of course, like everything else. I just put my drawings on Instagram, because my fans were like, you [need] Instagram for your drawings, and so on, so on. So I did that. And at some point, people just started to ask me, “Can we find these pictures somewhere?” “Can we get them?” and so on. So I did that, because I like the feeling of making people happy. Because people were like, Oh, my God, I was born there, or my girlfriend lives there, or whatever. So they want to have my pictures in their apartments, or their T-shirts, and so on. So that happened randomly. But it’s kind of cool, you know, because you can make people happy by giving them the drawing of their blok.
PETER KORCHNAK: For prints and other merch featuring Radujko’s drawings, direct message her on Instagram at @brutalizam_i_renesansa. Posters of her work are also available at Vinil.rs for about 20 dollars a pop.
Since we spoke last year, Radujko also exhibited her drawings at the Krokodilov Centar in Belgrade.
And she has expanded her reach beyond New Belgrade and beyond Belgrade itself into other cities around Serbia; she has also been drawing some of the major Yugoslav-era monuments.
[SOUNDBITE – “Nije Moja Stvar” by Autopark]
New Belgrade Database [Tentative Title]
PETER KORCHNAK: You’ve heard my next guest on the show a couple of times already. Donald Niebyl is a friend of the Remembering Yugoslavia podcast and, more importantly, the man behind Spomenik Database, which did more for the popularization of Yugoslav-era World War Two monuments than anyone or anything else. He has another project under construction, and I joined him on a research field trip in New Belgrade, specifically in Blok 22, to learn more.
PETER KORCHNAK: This is actually good up here.
DONALD NIEBYL: I can sit here.
PETER KORCHNAK: So, your new endeavor.
DONALD NIEBYL: I’m in the process and towards the ambition of putting together a guide for New Belgrade. So one can learn about each and every single one of the blocks here starting at one and going all the way to 72 and beyond. To learn about, you know, essentially every single kind of corner and aspect and facet of this kind of very labyrinthine city that that one can learn because right now there’s not really a conduit for people who are visiting here to learn about, you know, what is this? What is this history? What am I seeing? Where are the blocks, how do I know navigate? And what does it all mean?
PETER KORCHNAK: So it will be basically a New Belgrade version of Spomenik Database?
DONALD NIEBYL: In a way. Yeah, in the sense that kind of starting from the it’s it’s very early beginnings and explaining, you know, how did it come to be created? What was the impetus? What was the impetus behind it? And what were the what was the vision that people had what was? What were the creators hoping to achieve through this really ambitious endeavor to build a city on the swampland that was the confluence of the Sava and the Danube.
PETER KORCHNAK: So New Belgrade Database?
DONALD NIEBYL: Not exactly I’m not sure if I want to make a database website, maybe an app for people to be here and navigate through, but certainly a book for people to have in their hands to be here to, like, stand, like sit right here, where we’re sitting in this beautiful courtyard, in Blok 22 and learn about, you know, who was it that created this this building? What is the system? And why is it crafted in this very unusual way that it is, because, you know, this isn’t the sort of concrete high rises and social housing that one might expect to see in maybe the UK or the US. This is something completely different and really kind of pioneering and something that that really would be an immense tourist attraction for people from around the world to come here and just kind of walk through these spaces and really kind of understand, you know, what was New Belgrade under the socialist Yugoslav system, and what did they want to achieve with it?
PETER KORCHNAK: Niebyl plans to launch the New Belgrade guide, name TBD, later this year.
PETER KORCHNAK: Some people might find problematic your statement that you want to make New Belgrade a tourist attraction. It’s really, you know, a place where people live…
DONALD NIEBYL: It was kind of inspired by so many people that I met, that had come to New Belgrade specifically or come to Belgrade specifically to see the blocks of New Belgrade and I just was continually amazed by that, they would come here specifically to see this , something that they, despite all their curiosity they kind of just had to find their own way and didn’t necessarily know always what they were looking at when they were seeing it. And I thought it would just be so such a great idea and such a fun sort of service to have for people, a book guide to be here, whether it be this Blok here, in 22, or anywhere in New Belgrade and just kind of go around and, and learn about the history and kind of just go through the spaces and learn about the the ideology that went behind, that was behind the idea of creating, you know, accessible mass social housing. And especially in these days, with housing being such an issue in so many places in the West, particularly in the U.S. right now and in Europe. I think it would be of service to a lot of people to come, you know, here as a tourist to New Belgrade and learn about the social housing system, what were people here in Yugoslavia doing? What were they thinking behind these ideas of, of providing, you know, hundreds of thousands of people a place to live and making it somewhere that could be elevating that could lift their spirits and be— have, you know, a humanizing access to all of the things they needed within their blocks, and, you know, eliminate so many of the pre World War Two issues that existed as far as housing went.
PETER KORCHNAK: New Belgrade is hot right now, quote, unquote. Why do you think that is?
DONALD NIEBYL: I think a lot of that has to do with, you know, its space that it has. I mean, if you live in the Old City, Dorćol or whatnot, Vračar, it’s tight in there, you know, you don’t necessarily have a lot of open space, it’s very, can be very claustrophobic, in many ways. But here, I mean, you have so many open spaces, you have parks, you have greenways, you have trees that are, you know, almost forests in places where the parks are, and I think, well, yeah, a lot of people kind of look sideways at New Belgrade, that live maybe in the Old City, and kind of maybe look down on it, but I know plenty of people who grew up here in New Belgrade and just said, it was the most amazing experience, you know, to be a child here to play in the playgrounds with the families and the children, which were back then everywhere. And it was just such an overflowing sense of optimism, back then, in this area, even though it took time for it to get off the ground, for it to kind of come into itself.
PETER KORCHNAK: So let’s talk about Blok 22 as an example of what you might cover in your project when it comes to each individual blok, because as you mentioned earlier, they’re each different, differently built, different architecture. Some of them may be same ideas in terms of livability, separating living spaces from leisure spaces from shopping spaces, so that’s all but it’s all kind of making a unit. What do we know—what do you know—about block 22 specifically?
DONALD NIEBYL: This is within what is often referred to as the central zone, which is right in front of the SIV, or the Palace of Serbia, which was intended originally as to be like the main governmental building.
And this was the kind of the premier central location, right off of that of nine blocks. And we’re here on I guess, the east side 22, and these were a set of blocks that were meant to be kind of— a lot of these were commissioned by the Yugoslav military to be like military housing for officers and personnel and things like that. And so they had lots of very strict ideas about, you know, how many square meters of living space and how many even things as specific as like they didn’t want shops on the bottoms of the apartment units in many cases because they didn’t want to disturb the peace that the officers would experience when they’re home from whatever duties they’re on to rest. And so you’ll see like a lot of these, you’ll see the apartments right on the ground floor, and you’ll be in other blocks where you won’t see that, you’ll have storefronts on the on the bottom floor. So that’s kind of like a telltale sign of who these blocks may have been designed for and how they’re all laid out.
In this particular one, it was finished between you know, in various stages between 1972 and 1976, built at the same exact time, as Blok 23 right next door, and designed both by the architects Alexander Stepanović and Božidar Janković and Branislav Karadžić.
One thing that you’ll see as you kind of go around the different blocks is they’ll have this layout of making sure that you have adequate— so you have like, let’s say, this blok right here, they want to make sure, Okay, so we have this, this low tower, maybe we have 50, 60 apartments in there. And we want to make sure that within proximity of this there is places for people to come out and have you know, look out their window, have a view. They made sure, even in the planning of laying it out, we had make sure they get proper sun, make sure they have windows pointing the right amount of directions, make sure they have proximity to this courtyard, like here that we’re sitting in, as well as proximity to shopping, which we see right over there in the distance and schools, which is there one right around the corner. And this was all part of this idea of making sure that people did not have to break their backs in order to accomplish the most daily tasks of life, to make sure that if they wanted shopping, if they wanted work, if they wanted to take their children, it wasn’t going to be something that, you know, they were going to get hit by a car like right now we’re within the central area, there’s no through traffic here, all the through traffic is pushed to the periphery of the blok. And there’s just parking on the edges. And here in the center this is purely pedestrian purely for relaxing and, and I have to say just being right here, this is quite a little relaxing spot even though you know, yes, we’re surrounded by pure concrete. But you know, it’s not that it doesn’t feel oppressive. It doesn’t feel like this idea that many might have of being you know, punished by large amounts of unadorned, unpainted raw concrete it’s it can be pleasing. If you are surrounded with greenery, if you surround it with attractive spaces, it’s something that everyone can enjoy.
And as far as like the layout of this block, you know, these blocks here Blok 22, this was off of the, they were supposed to be the central kind of corridor from between the SIV and the train and the main Belgrade train station.
So these were very kind of exclusive, not necessarily exclusive in the terms of like, big expensive apartments, but living in this zone here would certainly have been an honor for anyone who happened to get an apartment here, for being so close, for being in the central zone, for being so close to the SIV, and for being right off of this central corridor.
And if you look at these apartments here, you know, you can see that these little architectural flourishes that were put in to the, to the tops and the corners on these roof lines here, you know, that they didn’t have to do that, they put in these sorts of little flourishes of creativity, of touches of, you know, texture in the facades, where, you know, you see these window boxes, you know, didn’t have to do that, that is that, you know, at that adds expense, when you create these sorts of layering, these sorts of facets in the, in the concrete, in these panels systems, because really, you know, it’s cheaper in these sorts of prefabricated panel systems make everything the same shape, just stick it all together, make it a box, throw it up, no problem. But you know, you can just you can tell in the way it was all assembled, they wanted to create some really dynamic facades with these that really transcended this idea that concrete had to be ugly, it had to be uniform, and it had, you know, this kind of very Soviet idea of what concrete housing was.
PETER KORCHNAK: Should we take a walk?
DONALD NIEBYL: Let’s take a walk.
PETER KORCHNAK: And then head to 23, which, you know, seems more famous than than this 22 is good, too.
PETER KORCHNAK: It’s absolutely true. I mean, I grew up in, in a development like this, but it was nothing like this, you know, in Czechoslovakia, the architecture wasn’t as, as innovative wasn’t as I don’t know, the ideas weren’t there in the same way. I mean, spaces were livable, and we played it played as children and all this stuff. But this is this feels, even to me, who again, grew up in a concrete jungle this feels much, much, much, much different. Even to me, it seems intriguing. So I want to know about New Belgrade and so really appreciate you’re doing what you’re doing.
PETER KORCHNAK: Over a foot bridge spanning the A3 freeway, formerly known as the Brotherhood and Unity Highway, we crossed from Blok 22 to Blok 23. Massive slabs run parallel to the highway and on the other side of the blok, beyond a stretch of greenery and a red-brick school, apartment towers dot the horizon.
DONALD NIEBYL: And I just love the tangibility. You know, I guess you could call it the brutal honesty that these buildings contain. And they’re, and, you know, the fact that they’re raw concrete, the fact that they’re not trying to fool you. They’re very honest buildings.
PETER KORCHNAK: The brutal honesty of brutalism?
DONALD NIEBYL: Yeah, the brutal honesty of brutalism. That is, I think, something that, that you almost have to appreciate on a physical level, because it’s, for some people, yeah, it’s on an aesthetic level, it’s hard. I’ll be the first to admit that, it can be a bit intimidating and almost a bit imposing, if not dehumanizing, on some level, if you’re not familiar with these, like what is this?
And maybe yes, it does take a little bit of kind of historical understanding to process, what were they thinking when they built this? Because I think a lot of people might see these and think, like, one would have to be absolutely crazy to build in such a way. But at the end of the day, I think there’s I think there’s great energy here that isn’t always appreciated or respected by people who aren’t, who haven’t been here before, [and] just see pictures. Because yeah, looking at a picture of these in MoMA will only give you a small modicum of understanding of what it’s like to actually be within them, and to, you know, see the sun shining through them and to cast these massive shadows and but to be still maintain this feeling of safeness, of security, of relaxation while you’re standing amongst it all.
[BACKGROUND MUSIC – “Distant Thunder” by Radio Nostalgia from Mars]
PETER KORCHNAK: Remembering Yugoslavia is in itself obviously inspired by Yugoslavia, by definition and default. The longer I do it, the more people I find who draw inspiration for their creative work from the disappeared country, the material culture, art, commercial products, and yes, even politics.
Have you been inspired by Yugoslavia to make creations of your own? Has the podcast itself inspired you in any way? Or do you know someone who has? Let me know and I’d be happy to share here on the show with other listeners. Visit RememberingYugoslavia.com/Contact, scroll down to the section “Send Us an Audio Message,” and record your story there. The limit is 90 seconds but you can do it in installments. I can’t wait to hear and feature your or your friend’s project.
[BACKGROUND MUSIC – “Rainmaker” by Petar Alargić]
PETER KORCHNAK: Next on Remembering Yugoslavia:
DARKO NIKOLOVSKI: Somehow I have taken as a task to fight against nationalism and against the rising fascism, not with guns but with knowledge, with spreading the knowledge about what happened and where all this hate leads to…
PETER KORCHNAK: Inspired by Yugoslavia will continue with a third installment. We’ll make another game, in 3D this time, a film or a TV show, and some drawings, too.
Tune in wherever you listen to podcasts and subscribe to make sure you don’t miss out.
[OUTRO MUSIC – “Jugoslavijo / Od Vardara pa do Triglava” by Horn Orchestra]
PETER KORCHNAK: That’s all for this episode of Remembering Yugoslavia, thank you for listening and for your support. Find additional information and the transcript of this episode at RememberingYugoslavia.com/Podcast.
To donate, go to RememberingYugoslavia.com/Donate.
I am Peter Korchňak.