Sanja Horvatinčić, PhD, a researcher at the Institute of Art History in Zagreb, applies a bottom-up, heritage-from-below methodology to analyze Yugoslav WWII monuments and modernist architecture. Uninformed bloggers, the former president of Croatia, and a weird dream also make an appearance.
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Episode Transcript (and More)
PETER KORCHNAK: This is Remembering Yugoslavia, the show that explores how the people of that disappeared country remember and imagine their former homeland. I’m your host, Peter Korchnak.
Today’s episode of Remembering Yugoslavia will feature my first look at Yugoslav socialist monuments and memorials, which have been drawing quite a lot of attention in the West over the past decade or so. From coffee table books to countless Instagram posts to feature articles in major media outlets and travel blogs, the futuristic World War II monuments and memorials, known in the singular as spomenik, along with Brutalist and modernist architecture across the former Yugoslav republics, fascinate tourists, journalists, and scholars alike.
Here to launch my investigation of these vestiges of Yugoslavia is my guest, Sanja Horvatinčić, a postdoctoral researcher at the Institute of Art History in Zagreb, Croatia. Despite being born in 1986, just five years before the country’s breakup, Yugoslavia has shaped Sanja’s personal and professional life, in a fine example of how an inner journey, a micro history, if you will, tracks the outer journey, a macro history.
Sanja studies modernist memorial sculpture and architecture, the production of history through cultural practices in socialist Yugoslavia, and the contemporary potential of Yugoslav memorial structures and concepts. In her 2017 dissertation she developed a typology of memorials from the socialism era in Croatia; she is the co-editor of a book on the digital history of art and architecture and of an upcoming volume on the memorial production in socialist Yugoslavia; and she was an expert adviser for the 2018 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, “Toward a Concrete Utopia: Architecture in Yugoslavia, 1948–1980.”
What’s interesting about Sanja is not just the object of her study, the Yugoslav socialist monuments, but also how she studies them, her methodology. Throughout our conversation at her office last winter I became fascinated with how the kinds of questions you ask about your object of study influence the methods of that investigation, which in turn impact the narrative you build around the findings.
SANJA HORVATINČIĆ: I wanted to see where these things are and how they function in landscape, how they function in the communities where they are.
PETER KORCHNAK: In other words, questions that are rarely asked in the popular discourse of these monuments. She’s also critical of the—
SANJA HORVATINČIĆ: —fetishization on the global level that has nothing to do with actually understanding of [the] social purpose or political purpose of those monuments.
PETER KORCHNAK: And finally, we’ll talk about functional socialist architecture and post-war modernism in the former Yugoslavia.
SANJA HORVATINČIĆ: It’s nothing else than, you know, somehow being able to create architecture or art that is directed forward and that is inspired by this moment or by the future moment and not by the past.
PETER KORCHNAK: Uninformed bloggers, the former president of Croatia, and a weird dream also make an appearance.
Sanja Horvatinčić: The Why of Studying Yugoslav Socialist Monuments
PETER KORCHNAK: Dr. Sanja Horvatinčić, what were the sources of your motivation to study the Yugoslav socialist monuments?
SANJA HORVATINČIĆ: I studied art history and English language and literature at the Faculty of Philosophy and I was always attracted by topics that are crossing the disciplinary limits of art history in different ways. And then I was directed in a way towards a topic that’s under researched or almost completely, at that time, unknown. It was the first traces of the online virtual popularity of these structures. Very soon after I started researching it [became] sort of an obsession and it opened many questions regarding of how to even approach this kind of topic, using the traditional methods, or the methods that are usually used in my discipline.
All of a sudden you had this very sudden interest in Eastern Europe. I mean, it began, already of course after the so called fall of the Wall, but then it had different phases. And in this 2000s and the turning to 2010s it began to look into some sort of peculiar remnants of the old East. So it became, it seems to me, more like an old colonial gaze into the East. I don’t want to say this all began with [the] blogosphere, but it definitely was a very strong motive.
I was kind of even upset, I must say, with this kind of attitude, with this kind of perspective. It’s interesting to look at how it transformed into this viral online culture, media culture, from blogs and uninformed blog articles, people discussing in forums and [on] social media, to basically, to the highest level of institutional art history, history of architecture. So MoMa, for example, the exhibition in MoMa was definitely the result, in one part of that, of sensing, you know, this kind of interest that was possible to detect even in the U.S.
PETER KORCHNAK: According to the MoMA website, the exhibition Sanja references, “Toward a Concrete Utopia,” “introduces the exceptional work of socialist Yugoslavia’s leading architects to an international audience” to explore “large-scale urbanization, technology in everyday life, consumerism, monuments and memorialization, and the global reach of Yugoslav architecture.” The exhibition included more than 400 drawings, models, photographs, and film reels from an array of municipal archives, family-held collections, and museums across the region. I’ll dedicate a future episode of Remembering Yugoslavia to this important exhibition.
SANJA HORVATINČIĆ: And, of course, it was not only that, but it was also the result of the research that was done by number of scholars, many of them who emigrated and lived in the U.S. from former Yugoslavia who continued to do research on their former land or former homeland and who also insisted for various reasons, but very often also political or ideological reasons to affirm or to somehow present the cultural production and artistic production of that specific national formation of the second half of the 20th century that was Yugoslavia.
Memories of Yugoslavia
PETER KORCHNAK: To what extent has your early personal life, growing up amidst this architecture, maybe taking trips with parents or schools, influenced your study?
SANJA HORVATINČIĆ: None of [the] people from my family were nationalists, but I always knew that I was from Croatia, which is part of Yugoslavia. So, but I do remember my first political question to my mother was, like: “Mom, which country do we live in?” Because we were watching TV and the war was about to start so, they were obviously talking about Croatia, Yugoslavia, and these were the keywords and I was confused, obviously, and she said: “Yugoslavia.” So, I don’t know exactly when it was happening, but it might be that Yugoslavia already fell apart, but somehow it was the easiest answer, or maybe she wanted us to live in Yugoslavia still, I don’t know.
But I do remember that from my childhood the strongest memory is actually the war, although I was personally and my family were not affected directly by war, but it was everywhere in the media and it was some kind of a catastrophe, some kind of negative social, political atmosphere that kind of continued all the way through my teenage years and so on.
So I was too young to be misled by this promise of neoliberal ideas that maybe, like, generation of my parents was. I think they were, kind of, like, really believing, that, you know, once we just break with socialism we enter capitalism and then we have all the beautiful stuff, and so much money… And I do remember also this kind of, you know, very funny things, like people starting to smuggle some kind of “luxury” goods from the West in big amounts, you know, like, even some people from my family would buy this plastic glasses from U.S. or Germany, I don’t know, and they sell them, it was the beginning of the 90s, but an interesting kind of idea that people could become entrepreneurs and businessmen in a way. So this is my memory of— actually of the fall of Yugoslavia, of this kind of, like, absurd atmosphere.
While my memories of Yugoslavia and of, I would not even say Yugoslavia, but of socialist, of Yugoslav socialism is mainly, you know, the whole infrastructure of my life, not only physical, like the building that was built by my grandfather in the 50s, who was a plumber, and who could, you know, he was able to come in ’45 to Zagreb with no education to get educated, to get, like, a proper job and to have, like, a family life with my grandmother was— she didn’t work and they had two daughters, both of whom finished faculty and my mother also finished PhD, so this kind of welfare, the idea of social standards and going up the social ladder, like quite radically is something that defined my life obviously, as well.
Another thing is also that like, emancipation, I can talk a little bit about that, women’s emancipation, because my mother was a single parent and she was able to work and raise me and to live normally and not to be discriminated and to actually enjoy more of like a social support than she would today.
So all of these things are kind of like things that defined me and that were actually things that Yugoslavia was made of. And then architecture and arts is something that just went along this, along the way, you know, like I was never really fascinated by architecture that I lived with, or not as much as people who come to MoMa are, you know, like with the concrete skyscrapers, or concrete buildings, because it was— it’s everywhere, but I think this is also some kind of strange exotization, because it’s also you have the same type of buildings in Paris and in some parts of the USA.
I was also always surrounded with some certain level of, you know, design and arts, you know, the culture of exhibitions, of free programs that are available and this is actually something that continued, I would say, even today to some extent, but this is also the legacy of that system and that you’re kind of close to the artistic production and it’ not something exceptional, it’s not something that you are, like, wow, that you consider some kind of [a] very high cultural standard.
PETER KORCHNAK: In hindsight it seems almost inevitable that Yogurtgate would come up in a conversation with a Croat.
SANJA HORVATINČIĆ: It’s not possible or it’s very difficult to historicize, to put something in the canon that’s still actually alive, because Yugoslavia is very much as a concept, both as socialist idea— ideas are very much alive and this is why Yugoslavia is also the biggest enemy of the current political order, you know.
We had the president of Croatia who keeps saying in public speeches, in international public speeches about how horrible it was in the 80s and how horrible it was before the democratic changes and how she couldn’t, like— this is a literal quote— she couldn’t choose between different types of yogurt.
So, you know, the motivation to tell this kind of things in 2019 in an international context is, obviously, that you are kind of worried that this would happen again, or that you are kind of afraid that people would think that in Yugoslavia they actually lived better, so you have to remind them that there were only one type of yogurt. But, you know, also maybe remind them that they had social security, you know, health care, things like that…
But this kind of struggle with the phantom or the specter of Yugoslavia is quite fascinating, really. It tells a lot.
Sanja Horvatinčić: Say No to the Western Gaze
PETER KORCHNAK: The legacy Sanja’s talking about has to do with why and how these monuments were built. After the 1948 split with Stalin’s Soviet Union, Yugoslavia embarked on its own path of building a unique form of socialism. That freedom from the diktat of both Western and Eastern colonial powers freed Yugoslavia’s popular culture and architecture to, well, do its own thing in between the two blocs. With artists and architects afforded a degree of freedom that was unprecedented for socialist countries, monumental art steered away from classic forms like obelisks or statues toward modernist, super-creative, contemporary, future-oriented forms that we now admire as something out of science fiction.
And it is that Western gaze that bothers Sanja.
SANJA HORVATINČIĆ: So the value of this thing that is now being added from the West is something that’s not really a part of the how it was valued during the socialist period, because in that period it was part of the normal, everyday life, and it was not supposed to be so fetishized, it was supposed to be functional, or maybe even changed.
But somehow— this is what I have, also my impression especially regarding monuments— that at this moment they are kind of stuck in between or in this like schizophrenic situation in between, you know, like this complete political and social, but mostly political denial, erasure on the local level and then some sort of fetishization on the global level that has nothing to do with actually understanding of social purpose or political purpose of those monuments, so they are somewhere in between.
Sanja Horvatinčić: The Counter-Hegemony of a Bottom-Up Methodology
PETER KORCHNAK: How did your approach to studying the Yugoslav socialist monuments change over time? What are the advantages of your methodology versus the traditional approaches?
SANJA HORVATINČIĆ: From the beginning I was thinking of doing, you know, [a] formal analysis or maybe some kind of, like, cultural approach to these huge sculptures, like monumental sculpture that’s so kind of specific for [the] Yugoslav context, because it appears kind of early on already on the paper in ideas already in the 50s but then it’s produced massively during the 60s in this, like, 30 meter high abstract forms that fascinate still everyone who sees them.
But then I decided to do a lot of field work because I am kind of skeptical about theory, so I wanted to see where these things are and how they function in landscape, how they function in the communities where they are and then I kind of changed— this was like the crucial moment of change, because then I also became an anthropologist and archeologist and a sociologist, because I was forced to, kind of, make sense of what these things and these structures mean, except for their formal characteristics, and all of this was happening in the middle of the continuous, you know, struggle over history, or struggle over memory that defined the fall up of Yugoslavia, especially in Croatia, and in the context in which these monuments displaces the memory, although many of them dedicated actually to the victims, to the civilian victims they became no places or places that are supposed to be forgotten and new traditions, new memory, narratives were supposed to be followed and imagined in a way.
So, I was also kind of doing a counter-hegemonic thing, you know, so, coming to the villages, and coming to the places— because many of these monuments are somewhere in the rural areas— you kind of need to also explain, ask people and explain why you do this, and while you explain to them why you do this, you kind of answer for yourself, you are kind of making sense of it. And then you realize that it’s actually— the most important thing that you’re doing is actually social and political because you’re affirming something that means a lot to those communities and that is, on the official level, supposed to be forgotten.
So, in that way I also wanted to find a way to research as many monuments as possible, and I did not want to limit myself on some, you know, exceptional examples that would honor only the big, grand narratives, like the big battles or the big ideas, but also, like, very local memory. So I decided, so I made some kind of a plan that fit very well into my discipline to make, like, a survey, to make a catalogue, to make like, you know, a big amount of these monuments and see what they were actually and how, you know, you have this whole wide variety from the very local, small type of, like amateur monuments to this very big exceptional examples. And I wanted to relate this diversity of production with the way that the society remember[s] the war and how, you know, who was actually doing memory work, who was involved, who was supposed to define the esthetics of this memory as well, and in which way people responded to those novel, innovative concept of monuments.
In a very, like, old school, you know, Vienna school kind of formalist approach to arts as it’s still the case on Faculty of Philosophy here and they expect to do, you know, like, masterworks, and then basically how you deal with masterpieces in the field of memorial art is that you dissociate the object, art object with the meaning especially if it’s abstract, it’s perfect, you know, because then you can just actually talk about this sculpture as something that’s explaining in the motivation of artist, that can be compared to other examples in European context, but it doesn’t really contextualize the production of that very object in terms of also capacity to invest public money into that kind of things and to invest workforce actually, to build those monuments, but then also in relation to the reception of how, you know, rural societies, rural communities actually responded to this kind of quite invasive, in many cases, modernist and quite arrogant modernist approach.
I just want to see them as they were and not only as they were towards the highest level politicians or highest level artists, but also how they were for the majority of the people and what they presented.
By looking at this diversity, by looking at the whole array of practices throughout three, four decades in the territory of Yugoslavia, although I was more focused on Croatia, you could see how memorial forms really depended on what— on different ways of memory practices that were socially conditioned or economically conditioned, so I was looking at both, let’s say background of the production of monuments and looking at their formal characteristics and trying to connect these two things.
For me, personally was very important is actually to focus on… to go very deep into certain chosen examples, so, to kind of make methodological— to develop [a] new methodological approach to these sights and to understand these sights not only as places where you have a monument that was built in ’65 for example, but as a space that has numerous layers and that can, somehow comprise[s] the experience and it’s also very much dependent on how people who live or who care or not care about those sights and those memories, how they deal with these monuments.
Sanja Horvatinčić: Discovering Traces and Memories at Drežnica
PETER KORCHNAK: The most recent, and still ongoing, project where Sanja applies this bottom-up approach investigates the heritage of the Yugoslav Partisan struggle on one specific monument. Sanja leads an international interdisciplinary research team in fieldwork around Drežnica, a village in the mountains near the Adriatic coast, where they identify, document, and analyze the archeological site, historical artifacts, objects, landscapes, and the memories of the locals in order to form a memorial landscape.
SANJA HORVATINČIĆ: It’s a monument dedicated to a hospital, a partisan hospital that functioned for two years, from ’42 to ’44, in the middle of the mountain and it’s a very fascinating story. It’s also— it’s obviously a monument a monument dedicated to the specific historical event and it’s obviously dedicated to the event that was supposed to be remembered after the Communist Party of Yugoslavia won the war and the antifascists, but it is also— and this is how the monument is designed— it is also universal story, because the monument is not replicating this wooden huts, those were like small wooden huts, like a small, you know, you can imagine like a small hamlet in the middle of the woods with all the facilities that you need for a hospital. He did not want to replicate them, but he—he was an architect— he wanted to make like reminiscence, some kind of lasting structure that would indicate where this thing was and what was the purpose of this community.
And it’s a fascinating place because you’re in the middle of nowhere, and signs and the letters fell out or were stolen, so you don’t even have the information anymore, but you are very well aware that you are somewhere where there was a shelter, and that you can take shelter there again.
And then, when you do fieldwork there for a while then you realize that this is the so-called migrant route today and that people actually are still looking for shelter on those very same places. So this monument now becomes something else also.
PETER KORCHNAK: After the break, socialist apartment buildings and chairs as an architectural fetish.
The Future Moments of Yugoslav Modernist Architecture
PETER KORCHNAK: Aside from the World War II monuments, Yugoslavia’s legacy can be seen in functional architecture, apartment blocks, educational institutions, government buildings, which, too, fascinate the social media types to no end. And unlike the monuments, many of which stand neglected or were damaged or destroyed—some 3,000 in Croatia alone by prevailing estimates—these buildings continue to shape the built environment in the former Yugoslav republics, omnipresent and indestructible in some way.
SANJA HORVATINČIĆ: I think that legacy, the most important legacy of the socialist Yugoslavia in terms of what it meant to be in that kind of multinational state was very good recipe for coexistence in this area, although it might sound contradictory, because you in the West, everybody knows that it fell apart in this bloody war, but before the nationalist tendencies that brought to the war, it really was, like, the best period in the whole history of this area where you had some kind of political recipe to keep people peaceful and then to keep them cooperate despite ethnic differences.
And how was this achieved? It was achieved by giving people [a] good standard of living, or giving them [a] better standard of living and to secure normal life for the majority of the people. And I think that this kind of structures that were made for mass housing, that were made for—you know, a lot of people, of course came to the cities, the industrialization, all these processes that happened during the 50s, 40s already, but 50s, especially Zagreb grew so much in that very short period of time and then you had this mass of people living together and being able to move to better social conditions.
This is actually what this can remind us of, what this is, like, constantly reminding us of– it was actually possible, and this also produced certain positive social effects. And then, as soon as you have [an] economic crisis, as soon as you have [a] global economic crisis and then of course also Yugoslav and Eastern European, then this kind of, you know, old animosities were very easily flamed up and very easily you could, kind of, again destroy this potent community.
So, I’m talking a lot about society, not so much about architecture, because I think that architecture is basically, you know, [a] reflection of what society is at [a] certain moment.
PETER KORCHNAK: Sanja’s office, where we spoke, is located at the building formerly known as the Workers’ University, a prime example of modernist architecture, with straight lines, airy hallways, lots of glass and steel…
Photos of the Workers’ University in #Zagreb just after opening in 1961. Created by #architect team Ninoslav Kučan and Radovan Nikšić, it was one of the most ambitious and monumental projects in the city at the time. Design inspiration here from Le Corbusier is unmistakable. pic.twitter.com/L9TwQ7Z6VH
— Spomenik Database (@SpomenikDatabse) November 7, 2018
SANJA HORVATINČIĆ: Yes, it’s a very interesting building. The idea was to have a special facility where workers, low-skilled workers could come and should come and get education, get cultural programs and get somehow in touch for the first time many of them, with current, contemporary, you know, culture and a new standard.
So, this is how the architecture is also following the idea of the program that was supposed to take place inside so it’s very basic, simple, functional, but very good design. Also interesting for this building is that it was made as an inclusive, you know, it’s a whole package, you have architecture, who from the start also works with the product designer, who designs all of these furniture, the chairs— and this kind of, you know, design objects that are usually fetishized in the West as something very luxurious and here you have maybe not exactly this building but there are some chairs, because you know the chair is always the architectural fetish, this very expensive types of chair and every architect needs to make his own, the big architect needs his own chair, so we have this chairs everywhere, some of them were in the garbage, but they were like really very good design for that period.
PETER KORCHNAK: The Workers’ University building was conceived as part of a row where other educational buildings still stand, the Faculty of Engineering, the Faculty of Philosophy—
SANJA HORVATINČIĆ: —and then in the end of it, close to [the] Sava river you have the Central Committee of Communist Party of Croatia building, and that building is super modern, international style modernist and this is interesting to observe of how the political elite actually wanted to present itself.
While in the 90s, for example, when you have the change of the system what you have is leaving that, you know, abandoning that building, although it’s more functional and everything is better and going back to the, like, 19th century old houses, reinventing the tradition of some horsemen and, you know. So you are going back in the period when national ideas were invented. And I think this is very visible through architecture and on those simple examples you can— then you can talk about schools and all sorts of public infrastructure that was envisioned at the time as something that was supposed to offer more wider horizons, I would say, so it’s nothing else than, you know, somehow being able to create architecture or art that is directed forward and that is inspired by this moment or by the future moment and not by the past and I think that now we again live in this kind of surplus of the past and we are also looking again, like we are doing now, we are actually looking at the modernism that’s actually 50 or 60 years ago as something that’s kind of inspiring.
PETER KORCHNAK: As I travel through ex-Yugoslavia, monuments and memorials become markers of my journey. The big, spectacular, futuristic ones you see all over the digital space that commemorate big battles in which thousands perished; the unassuming ones adorned with a five-pointed red star in village centers, at crossroads, at edges of forests, where one or two or a handful of Partisans gave their lives for freedom; the ones with wreaths and bouquets withering in the elements since the most recent commemoration ceremony; the ones that crumble into the ground with concrete tears.
Wherever it is and whatever state it’s in, I now look at each monument with a different lens, asking different questions. What does the monument commemorate, what memory does it keep alive? Does anyone remember those events or the monument’s construction and the new reality it ushered into the local life? How does the monument fit into its surroundings? How do the locals interact with it? And who remembers the monument itself?
I walk to my rented apartment in Zagreb, in Banja Luka, in Belgrade, in Sarajevo, in Pula, in Anywhere, Yugoslavia, really, and a dream I had recently follows me like a shadow. As I approach I inspect the blok apartment building and notice the residents turned it into a spomenik. I turn around and there’s an actual monument, which, as I swing towards it, turns out to have been converted into a living quarters, with people residing inside it and underneath it and on top. I keep turning around in a loop between the structures, the apartment building-cum-memorial, the memorial-cum-apartment building, and soon can no longer distinguish where the blok ends and the spomenik begins and a blok begins and a spomenik ends…
PETER KORCHNAK: Find everything referenced in this episode of Remembering Yugoslavia, including links, photos, and videos in the show notes at RememberingYugoslavia.com/Podcast.
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I am Peter Korchňak.