From July 2018 to January 2019, the Museum of Modern Art in New York City hosted the exhibition Toward a Concrete Utopia: Architecture in Yugoslavia, 1948–1980. The exhibition introduced socialist Yugoslavia’s architects and architecture to international audiences. It generated a ton of positive press and its impact continues to reverberate. What was Toward a Concrete Utopia and why was it such a big deal? How and why did the exhibition come about? What did it accomplish?
With Vladimir Kulić, Justin McGuirk, Bojana Videkanić, and Sanja Horvatinčić. Featuring music by Detective Spook and Sunset Cruise.
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Episode Transcript (and More)
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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 guide Peter Korchnak.
[BACKGROUND MUSIC – “Interplanetaren Megadrajv” by Detective Spook]
Three years ago, on July 15th, 2018, the exhibition Toward a Concrete Utopia: Architecture in Yugoslavia, 1948–1980 opened at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.
VLADIMIR KULIĆ: You know, in some ways, I still think it’s almost unlikely that it happened, right?
PETER KORCHNAK: “Situated between the capitalist West and the socialist East,” the exhibition’s description read, “Yugoslavia’s architects responded to contradictory demands and influences, developing a postwar architecture both in line with and distinct from the design approaches seen elsewhere in Europe and beyond. The architecture that emerged—from International Style skyscrapers to Brutalist “social condensers”—is a manifestation of the radical diversity, hybridity, and idealism that characterized the Yugoslav state itself.
Toward a Concrete Utopia: Architecture in Yugoslavia, 1948–1980 introduces the exceptional work of socialist Yugoslavia’s leading architects to an international audience for the first time, highlighting a significant yet thus-far understudied body of modernist architecture, whose forward-thinking contributions still resonate today.”
BOJANA VIDEKANIĆ: Now, if we look at the work that our artists, curators, architects were doing, this was very serious work.
PETER KORCHNAK: “Toward a Concrete Utopia explores themes of large-scale urbanization, technology in everyday life, consumerism, monuments and memorialization, and the global reach of Yugoslav architecture,” the text continued. “The exhibition includes more than 400 drawings, models, photographs, and film reels from an array of municipal archives, family-held collections, and museums across the region, and features work by important architects including Bogdan Bogdanović, Juraj Neidhardt, Svetlana Kana Radević, Edvard Ravnikar, Vjenceslav Richter, and Milica Šterić. From the sculptural interior of the White Mosque in rural Bosnia, to the post-earthquake reconstruction of the city of Skopje based on Kenzo Tange’s Metabolist design, to the new town of New Belgrade, with its expressive large-scale housing blocks and civic buildings, the exhibition examines the unique range of forms and modes of production in Yugoslav architecture and its distinct yet multifaceted character.”
JUSTIN McGUIRK: It felt like a really refreshing experience, because what we were looking at was a relatively unknown section of European modernism.
PETER KORCHNAK: The exhibition generated a ton of positive press, and its impact continues to reverberate.
What was Toward a Concrete Utopia and why was it such a big deal? How and why did the exhibition come about? What did it accomplish?
In today’s episode of Remembering Yugoslavia, we’ll venture toward a concrete utopia.
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The Wonders of Yugoslav Architecture
PETER KORCHNAK: The exhibition was put on by two curators, a region outsider and insider. Martino Stierli, for whom Toward a Concrete Utopia was the first exhibition as chief curator of architecture and design at MoMA, was the team lead.
Born in 1968 in Sombor, Vojvodina, Vladimir Kulić was the co-curator or a guest curator. You could say his story parallels that of Yugoslav architecture’s fortunes.
VLADIMIR KULIĆ: I started studying architecture in the late 1980s and thought that I would be a practicing architect at the time. But by the time I finished my education at the university, the entire world around me collapsed. And that produced very interesting effects on the built environment. And first of all, there were not very many jobs, not much was built, on the contrary, a lot of was being destroyed. But also what happened at the time was that the cities, the entire physical and urban environment, also started changing their meanings, changing their owners, changing the control of space, and in a way that pushed me towards architecture history.
So I entered finally in 2001, the PhD Program at the University of Texas at Austin. I did my dissertation on the architecture of socialist Yugoslavia as a way of self discovery, to try to figure out really what that country in which I had grown up and which was destroyed in the meantime, what it was, to try to evaluate it. I understood there were a lot of politically really interesting questions that the architecture of the period raised. So it was also about trying to understand how these questions fit within the wider world, within my own history, personal history.
PETER KORCHNAK: You can certainly sense that drive—to understand, to see the bigger picture—in Kulić’s writing.
VLADIMIR KULIĆ: Then on the way, my conviction, in a way, became stronger and stronger that architecture that was produced in Yugoslavia at the time actually was quite exceptional in quality, that it was not only kind of a political curiosity, but that it was, in many ways comparable to what we were taught was the best architecture of the post war period. So that was kind of the second motivation that took me a lot longer to get the courage to pronounce openly, but ultimately, in a way I got there.
PETER KORCHNAK: So what was exceptional about Yugoslav architecture?
VLADIMIR KULIĆ: I don’t think that Yugoslavia produced any single type of architecture that could sort of stand for the entire period and the entire country as the pinnacle achievement. I think what’s most interesting about it is the flourishing of many diverse types of architecture, many diverse, individual voices, but perhaps even more importantly, many diverse collective cultures of design that emerged out of that period and that I still think deserve and require a lot of interpretation and historization.
What I think is really interesting in Yugoslavia is that it was a lot more informal and produced kind of a nice balance, a really, really interesting balance between individual achievement and collective effort to produce something something new.
There were entire cultures of design that produced really, really interesting results. One of them is commemoration, right, the design of memorials that flourished, especially in the 60s and the 70s. Another one is the incredible range of experimentation with hotel typologies on the Adriatic coast, but also elsewhere.
Another one is housing design, the Belgrade School of Architecture where for about 20 years, architects invested unprecedented amounts of thinking in simply effort and time into devising apartment plans, right, to produce functional, very efficient, relatively small apartments that could be flexible and spatially very interesting and look much larger than their relatively limited size that would make you think is possible.
JUSTIN McGUIRK: What Yugoslavia represented in political terms was a kind of third way: you know, neither Soviet style communism, nor Western liberal capitalism, but a kind of market socialism. And the architecture, in a way, was also somewhere between those two poles, certainly, especially when it came to something like housing.
PETER KORCHNAK: That’s Justin McGuirk, a London-based writer and the chief curator at the Design Museum. I found his article in The New Yorker to be one of the more insightful and context-rich reviews of the exhibition.
JUSTIN McGUIRK: When one thinks about social housing from the 60s and 70s in the quote unquote, West, let’s say, Europe or America, it’s so heavily associated with class with paternalistic efforts to lift the poor into a kind of middle class condition and so on. And they so often came unstuck in a way through lack of maintenance and lack of investment and ghettoization.
And then you’ve got the Soviet model, which was much more about mass production and uniformity. So much less architecturally ambitious, didn’t fall into quite the same kind of— because it was a much more common condition, it was not ghettoized in quite the same way, as in the West.
So you’ve got those two poles, right. And then in the middle, you’ve got Yugoslavia and modernist housing, which was architecturally ambitious and didn’t quite fall into the same levels of ghettoization as they did in, say, Latin America or America or Europe. Because it wasn’t strictly social housing; it was just housing.
PETER KORCHNAK: One other thing to note is that Yugoslavia’s architecture (and art) were in large part driven by official ideology and policy. Meaning, architecture and art were an expression or even in service of the state. It is that close connection to the market socialist state that gave Yugoslav architecture its special flavor.
VLADIMIR KULIĆ: It’s not one single story, but many, many different ones, right? But I think that the sort of the achievement of Yugoslavia in that sense, in terms of this architecture creativity that was unleashed, was to find, in a way, the balance between the social project, right, the entire country was a very powerful and very, sort of clearly oriented social project, right, and the freedom for architects and artists and others to, to explore and to give shape to that project.
Often when we think about architecture and politics, right, we assume this top down influence, right: Stalin says you should design this. And yes, I mean, in many instances, that influence cannot be denied, right? It’s obvious, but ultimately, politicians never design, ultimately there has to be a designer and architect, a professional who has to give actual shape to those ideas. And I think that Yugoslavia achieved this kind of really rich design ecosystem, right, where numerous different cultures of design had the conditions to flourish, right, and to consistently explore certain themes and to produce new stuff. And, you know, it took a while to kind of make the claim that that there is something really interesting there. Because I do think that there’s a lot we can learn from it that might be useful for us today.
JUSTIN McGUIRK: One can give the architectural style the credit that it is due but I think it’s really important to understand that architecture is the product of a particular politics or particular political culture at a particular time. And perhaps I’m making too much of this but I just feel that somehow the two things are deeply connected.
PETER KORCHNAK: In one of his articles, Kulić points out that in Yugoslavia, it wasn’t just that the government shaped architecture but there was a relationship in the opposite direction as well, whereby architecture also shaped Yugoslav socialism. Which reminded me of that old Yugoslav slogan, “We build the railway, the railway builds us.”
VLADIMIR KULIĆ: There was a certain technocratic trust in the professions under the system that allowed them to experiment and give shape to society. And i think the uniqueness of Yugoslavia was that this sort of technocratic trust in architects allowed them really to experiment widely. And to produce something new and valuable and very, very diverse, rather than a single single product that we could identify with the period.
PETER KORCHNAK: That in-between-ness, neither in the West nor in the East, neither in the capitalist, US-led bloc nor in the socialist, Soviet-Union-led bloc, led Yugoslavia to pursue a third way, not just in terms of its domestic arrangements but also internationally. Specifically, Yugoslavia was one of the leaders of the Non-Aligned Movement.
Sarajevo-born Bojana Videkanić is a performance artist, art historian, and assistant professor of fine arts at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada. She is also the author of Nonaligned Modernism: Socialist Postcolonial Aesthetics in Yugoslavia, 1945–1985, published in 2020 by McGill-Queen’s University Press. It is in this book that she makes the case that Yugoslavia’s modernist art and architecture stem from the country’s non-aligned stance.
BOJANA VIDEKANIĆ: It was really a product of years of thinking about how does Yugoslav art and art history stand within the kind of 20th century, not just Western modernism, but also global [modernism]. So really, the idea of the book is to intervene, if you will, into the history of how Yugoslavia art has been seen by both Yugoslav art historians in the 20th century, but also those outside. And because it’s a marginal, you know, footnote on the larger global art history’s field, I felt that it was important that we make a claim, or stake a claim if you will, for the importance of Yugoslav modernism and how and why it happened.
It coincides with Yugoslav venturing into [the] Non-Aligned Movement and [the] founding of non-alignment. And so I was trying to excavate this history that has been, you know, put aside for many years since the 1990s because it was seen as shameful or not important. And so reading art and Yugoslav art history through that lens of non-alignment was the key issue.
Also decoupling or removing, Yugoslav art history as [the] only in relationship to Western art and trying to put Yugoslavia and Yugoslav art into a different canon, right, to kind of alternative modernities canon or global modernities is in line with Latin America, in line [with] what was happening in Africa…
Throughout its existence, Yugoslav socialism was very much invested in culture, it was an important part of everyday life, not just for artists, but for everyday people, and there was a lot of investment in it. The infrastructure of art, the investment of the state into art institutions—because the state wanted art to be part of the global world art, wanting to be Yugoslav culture being part of the non-aligned—that investment also benefited those who didn’t necessarily, you know, characterize themselves as part of those, you know, socialist artistic project or non-aligned project.
This kind of art, it was very, very hybrid, it was very varied. Yugoslav non-aligned modernism was political in a sense that it existed in socialism. Many of its artists were political, very openly so. But at the same time, there were artists who were not necessarily political, who were more, you know, into kind of formal questions.
PETER KORCHNAK: The connection between art and architecture was a very close one. The designers of many spectacular Yugoslav World War II monuments were sculptors, for example. Interior designers worked closely with architects to furnish new buildings with appropriate, original products.
Now after 1991—
BOJANA VIDEKANIĆ: A lot of this art was either destroyed—a lot of the monuments—and a lot of it was sort of relegated to some museum basements and hasn’t been looked at until maybe up to maybe 10 years ago when these things started to be reinvigorated.
So I think that legacy, while it was very, very problematic in the 1990s and early 2000s, there’s a change, there’s a shift, and I think that those are important moves. And, you know, my own book is part of this shift that’s kind of calling out to the negation and the closing one’s eyes to what this history was. And the fact that you know, the world actually appreciates the work that these artists were doing. There’s a quality to it that people in the world have recognized.
VLADIMIR KULIĆ: Sometimes in the late 2000s there was a wave of interest to reevaluate the architecture of the entire former socialist world. It was not just about Yugoslavia, there were other projects that looked at the Soviet Union, former Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, etcetera.
There was this wide interest that that covered a lot of ground in terms of questions that were asked, but what became most widely publicized were typically these photographic projects of buildings across Eastern Europe, kind of these fascinating iconic structures that suddenly captured the imagination of photographers, of digital media, of social networks, etcetera, and started being circulated but often with extremely problematic interpretations. Because typically, the problematic interpretations came from the outside, informed by all of the biases and preconceptions, right, that kind of resulted from the Cold War, the continuing legacy and ideology of the Cold War.
The underlying assumption behind these representations is that this is some kind of architecture that is completely disconnected from everyday world, everyday life, they were very often sort of associated with aliens, with sci fi movies, etcetera. And the argument was that in its late phase, socialism produced these crazy buildings that are totally fascinating, but that serve no purpose and have no meaning anymore.
And, of course, the people who were the loudest in terms of publicizing these images, and in many ways, claiming them to themselves, was the small group of photographers who came from typically Western Europe with relatively ample budgets and channels that allow them to publicize their work widely, and in some ways they claimed the interpretation, they framed the interpretation of this building for the wider public.
Maintaining their meaning is very relevant for us today, still. The fact that antifascist monuments are being proclaimed empty forms is deeply problematic.
PETER KORCHNAK: If you’re a regular listener of Remembering Yugoslavia, you know that this topic has come up on this podcast in every discussion of Yugoslav monuments. Kulić labeled the phenomenon New Orientalism, building off of Edward Said’s famous thesis on how the West constructs its image of the East based on difference.
BOJANA VIDEKANIĆ: So now more and more, we see, exhibitions, bringing up of this history, and of course, Vladimir Kulić’s exhibition at the MoMA definitely opened the floodgates and was extremely important and was a kind of a watershed exhibition that made a claim that this is important, that these monuments that have been systematically destroyed, you know, some of them, you know, dynamited, there’s an important legacy to what they did, how they did it.
PETER KORCHNAK: I’m giving away a copy of Videkanić’s book Nonaligned Modernism: Socialist Postcolonial Aesthetics in Yugoslavia on Remembering Yugoslavia’s Instagram and Facebook page. Follow the instructions on either platform to enter for a chance to win.
[MUSIC INTERLUDE – “Rendezvous” by Sunset Cruise (Part 1)]
PETER KORCHNAK: It is in this historical context that Toward a Concrete Utopia took place. I’m curious about its origin story.
VLADIMIR KULIĆ: You know, in some ways, I still think it’s almost unlikely that it happened. In some ways, I’m still pinching myself that it happened because MoMA has been the shaper of the, in many ways, the mainstream discourse in architecture history for pretty much a century, almost a century now.
JUSTIN McGUIRK: The exhibition arrived at the peak of the obsession on the internet with brutalism. And the love, the current kind of love of brutalism really is a piece of revisionist history, because it wasn’t he was much maligned in the popular imagination for decades, and probably still is among a certain generation. But certainly the younger generation rediscovered it and has fetishized it. And also, to some degree longs for, longs for the politics associated with that architecture or at least is nostalgic for what they don’t know.
There was also another factor, another internet phenomenon, which was the spomenici or the kind of spomeniks, the Yugoslav memorials, which are these, in some cases, kind of highly sculptural or outlandish, almost kind of alien figures on the landscape. And the combination of the two things was driving the internet wild.
VLADIMIR KULIĆ: The motivations for the exhibition, I think, were more complex than the simply the, this kind of media fascination with monuments and other socialist buildings. That absolutely did play a role my my co-curator who initiated the exhibition, Martino Stierli, says that. But there are other important factors.
I think that one of the strains of influence, if you want, that played the role, was the fact that among architects, an awareness of the architectural value of the former Yugoslavia has been growing in Europe for quite a while, for certainly more than 10 years, or maybe even 15. I myself was a part of that sort of movement.
PETER KORCHNAK: In the early 2000s, Kulić and others around ex-Yugoslavia began writing about Yugoslav architecture in journals and magazines. That research culminated in 2012 in a major exhibition called Unfinished Modernisations: Between Utopia and Pragmatism in Maribor, Slovenia. In addition to the exhibition, which also traveled to Ljubljana, Zadar, and Belgrade, the project entailed conferences and publications. Unfinished Modernisations was, according to Kulić, a precursor to the MoMA exhibition.
The project spilled over the region’s boundaries, particularly to Switzerland which is not only host to a large ex-Yugoslav diaspora but also the home country of Martino Stierli, the MoMA curator.
VLADIMIR KULIĆ: Politically, in the past decade, and especially since the Great Recession of 2008-2009, there has been a sea change in terms of how the legacy of socialism is seen in political terms, right. And, you know, one of the most fascinating developments for me to observe was how socialism, any mention of socialism, stopped being the dirty word in the United States. When I came here 20 years ago, actually, this summer, it was a very uncomfortable term to be mentioned in polite society. And somehow, in the past 10 years that atmosphere [has] quite changed.
In architecture in particular, there’s this renewed awareness, and it’s become more and more widely sort of accepted, that architecture needs to embrace again its social responsibility and social purpose. And architectural history in some ways is looking for new precedents for that kind of engagement. So, I think that the case of Yugoslavia also offered a very interesting and very powerful example of that kind of merging of social project, social responsibility and architectural creativity.
PETER KORCHNAK: With all that, let’s take a tour of the exhibition Toward a Concrete Utopia.
[BACKGROUND MUSIC – “Night & Day” by Dee Yan-Key]
Videkanić attended the exhibition opening at Kulić’s invitation.
BOJANA VIDEKANIĆ: The first thing that you saw at the exhibition was that famous kiosk, the newspaper stand, that’s now at Times Square, you can find it there.
But anyways, I mean, this is the most ubiquitous part of my childhood. Like literally, my friends and I used to hang out around those and when it was closed, you know, when it’s closing hours were done we would sit on it, play games. So I, as I was going up the stairs at the MoMA, I started crying.
VLADIMIR KULIĆ: The exhibition was stuffed with visually fascinating objects, with original drawings, with new models, with video installations, etcetera, etcetera.
PETER KORCHNAK: Over 400 objects were situated across some 1,000 square meters or nearly 11,000 square feet of exhibition space.
VLADIMIR KULIĆ: There was that possibility or danger that it would again fetishize the image. So we deliberately structured the exhibition in [a] very political way, if you want.
At the entrance was a big three-channel video installation by the filmmaker Mila Turaljić, which in like the three minute format, tried to capture the sense of transformation and enthusiasm of the post war reconstruction of the country and in the subsequent development, in many ways, deliberately sort of using the archival footage of propaganda films right, but also other kinds of other kinds of material simply to set the stage for the political project in which in which architecture was produced. And that was an introduction into the first large section where we talked about modernization of the country along several paths.
The first one was large scale urbanization. The period between 1945 and approximately 1980 was the most important period of urbanization in the entire country when this predominantly rural agricultural society became urbanized. And we looked at at the design of cities. We just had the few giant gigantic plans exhibited on the walls to announce this topic.
And then we went further in the direction of modernization, we looked at technological modernization looked at the buildings that required up special ingenuity in terms of building very large spans like the stadium in Split, in Poljud, or the Belgrade Fair, or in terms of height, like TV towers and skyscrapers, etcetera.
Then we moved on to the social infrastructure or social modernization, we looked at the institutions of the new society. So we paid attention to libraries, the centerpiece in this respect, was the Priština library, that really an incredibly fascinating structure that is really very much a symbol of the city and perhaps perhaps of Kosovo itself. We looked at hospitals, kindergartens, universities, universities, museums—another centerpiece was the Museum of Contemporary Art in Belgrade.
The second large section was dedicated to Yugoslavia’s global engagement. We could call it non-alignment, right, and its effects on architecture as well as the ways in which architecture shaped non-alignment so we looked at the reconstruction of Skopje after the 1963 earthquake, which was conducted under the auspices of the United Nations. We looked at Vjenceslav Richter’s exhibition pavilions abroad, most famously at the Brussels Fair in 1958.
We looked at the infrastructure of tourism facilities along the coast, which is where the Yugoslavs met for tourists and where foreign tourists from the East and West could also meet—one of the unique places where that was possible.
And then finally, we looked at the kind of just a small peek into the productions of Energoprojekt, one of the largest construction companies that worked across the non-aligned world. Energoprojekt was perhaps one of those best examples where we can explicitly say how architecture in way shaped policy because architects themselves were incredibly active in acquiring commissions right and making contacts with new clients across across the non-aligned world.
The third, large thematic section was dedicated to everyday life. So we looked at large housing estates, we looked at the architecture of commerce, right, from kiosks, the famous red kiosk, right, to department stores. And we looked at products, industrial design, where we exhibited a range of household objects, furniture, appliances, etcetera.
And then the final section was dedicated to identities, to this kind of intensely diverse composite ethnic and cultural makeup of Yugoslavia, where we looked at several individual figures who were very much formative for the local schools of architecture in Slovenia or in Bosnia. We looked at various sorts of expressions of regional identity. But then we also looked at monuments as sort of the opposite trend, right? If these individual identities were about particularism, we claim that this infrastructure of commemoration that was kind of this network of objects across the entire territory of Yugoslavia was in many ways what held this diversity together. So the last section was dedicated to monuments with a special room dedicated to Bogdan Bogdanovich, but also with some of the most important, most iconic of these monuments displayed in the last room, very often in their current neglected state, right or badly devastated state, which ultimately gave kind of that melancholy tone, right, and then kind of took us back to today, right into all of the continuing controversies that are related to the memory of Yugoslavia.
BOJANA VIDEKANIĆ: And at the end, I couldn’t see Vladimir anywhere. I couldn’t find him at the very end when they kicked us all out of the building, I found him and we just hugged and started crying. I didn’t even say anything, we just started crying like fools.
PETER KORCHNAK: You can find photos and videos from the exhibition in the episode blog post, at RememberingYugoslavia.com/Podcast.
We’ll get to the exhibition’s reviews in a little bit. Now I’m curious about people’s immediate reactions, on the spot impressions.
VLADIMIR KULIĆ: I went through the show on the number of occasions, right. Obviously, I don’t have any kind of representative sample of the visitors. But you would, you would be surprised how many people from the region were there. I think that probably everyone from the region in some way was intrigued, right. So they were not kind of the sample of regular tourists who visit MoMA, but they went there, specifically.
BOJANA VIDEKANIĆ: It was a very emotional exhibition, because I never thought I was gonna see our culture in that space, right? Because we were always sort of thought to believe that we are lesser than, that there was something that there was something lesser about the artwork that we were creating. But now if we look at the work that our artists, curators, architects were doing this was very serious work. This is very highly professional, very committed work, and very, very serious.
VLADIMIR KULIĆ: Whenever I went there, I could overhear someone in one of the ex-Yugoslavia languages commenting and finding out stuff, right, that they recognize and never thought of as relevant or interesting.
PETER KORCHNAK: One of these visitors was the Zagreb-based art historian Sanja Horvatinčić, whom you may remember from a number of episodes dedicated to Yugoslav-era monuments.
SANJA HORVATINČIĆ: It was funny, my Mom was there, it was the opening, and she used the chance to visit her friends from high school who live in the U.S., they live there for 30 years or so, from the 80s. And they came together to the exhibition, and I was their guide. It was very funny to watch, you know, especially these people who left 30 years ago and who still kind of like— these images at the show were what they really remember as contemporary times, you know, because they left 30 years ago. But they were completely like “Wow, is this really— I don’t remember this.”
This kind of representation of lived experience that’s in clash with your lived experience. For example, they were not aware of that interesting library in Priština, it was like the big model of the very peculiar design by a Croatian architect, they were like “Wow, did you ever see that?” “No”, so it was like for them, it was also revealing. And also a little skepticism about like what they want to do with this, because they also showed, they also had this residential buildings, like the normal Novi Zagreb kind of buildings or something in New Belgrade and they were like, “But why are they showing this, this is ugly. They could have taken a nicer picture because you have graffiti here.”
So this kind of, you know, inability to historicize your own— because it is still very much alive. For someone who grew up here and still lives here and who is immersed in all of the changes and all of the issues that surround this kind of architectural artistic phenomena, it’s impossible to historicize them.
VLADIMIR KULIĆ: To me, that’s perhaps one of the greatest successes of the exhibition. I have been trying to argue for a long time that this architecture that we’re talking about, despite all of the neglect and all of the destruction, continues to be the infrastructure of everyday life, right, and the fact that people are so used to these buildings that they don’t even see them anymore, but they they use them simply on a daily basis is perhaps the best testament to their continuing usefulness.
So to me, actually, you know, beyond the spectacular media reception, beyond all of this picture of spectacularization through photography and video, etcetera. I think that it’s this continuing use cannot be completely subsumed to this wild capitalism that governs the entire region still at this moment is perhaps their, their greatest success.
Reviews of Toward a Concrete Utopia
PETER KORCHNAK: The exhibition elicited overwhelmingly positive, if not rave reviews, from an array of architecture and design publications including Arch Daily, The Architect’s Newspaper, Architectural Record, Architectural Review, Artnet, Canadian Architect, Dezeen, and Places Journal to the likes of The New York Times, which called the exhibition “outstanding,” Vulture and Financial Times, both of which called it “a revelation,” and The New Yorker, whose piece was authored by the London Design Museum’s McGuirk.
JUSTIN McGUIRK: It’s a topic I have a longstanding personal interest in. And I confess, partly because my partner is from Sarajevo. So it’s the place I— it’s a kind of second home in a way. And when this exhibition happened, I set out to write a piece about it, partly out of my personal interest and partly out of jealousy. Because one of the first exhibitions I proposed when I got to the Design Museum as the chief curator in 2015 was an exhibition about Yugoslavian modernism. But in fact, it probably wouldn’t have worked for us in London the way it worked for MoMA, which is much better set up to do a long standing research project like that. made much more sense. So you know, the best I could do is write about it. And I had a lot of fun doing that.
PETER KORCHNAK: “Who wouldn’t have fun writing for the New Yorker, right?” says the writer in me.
One of the things McGuirk set out to do in the piece titled, “The Unrepeatable Architectural Moment of Yugoslavia’s ‘Concrete Utopia’,” was to hedge against “a risk that the architecture’s true significance is not fully absorbed.”
JUSTIN McGUIRK: Most of the reviews that I read were really focused on the architecture as style. And I felt it was really important to recontextualize that architecture as politics as the reflection of a form of politics.
PETER KORCHNAK: As for the exhibition itself—
JUSTIN McGUIRK: It’s quite hard to do architecture exhibitions. It’s a difficult topic to bring to life in a gallery. It’s, in fact, one of the great cliches of architecture exhibitions, they’re very hard to do, because the material you have to work with tends to be models, which can be more or less compelling, drawings, which can be downright difficult to read if you’re not trained architect, and photography or film.
It can feel frustrating. It’s a medium that’s very difficult to bring to life without those one to one spatial elements. So any historical architecture exhibition suffers a little bit from that.
But still, it felt like a really refreshing experience, because what we were looking at was a relatively unknown section of European modernism from, from the mid to late 20th century. And it arrived on the scene like a kind of blast of fresh air, I would say. And, and that’s why there were so many reviews, I think that, you know, there was a sense in the architectural community, especially in America of, “What was this? What was this place? Where did all this architecture come from?”
One of the things that exhibitions do—and books—is that they really situate moments in history. And I suppose it really crystallizes the fact that what we’re talking about is now the distant past, not even the recent past., I mean, effectively, once you enshrine it in kind of exhibition format, it’s almost like it becomes the distant past. And it does highlight how far we’ve come. Or how far we’ve fallen, perhaps is another way to put it.
Critiques of Toward a Concrete Utopia
PETER KORCHNAK: Reviews from the region shared a common theme: there’s this big important museum in America spotlighting the accomplishments of Yugoslav architecture and here we are neglecting or even destroying them.
Horvatinčić was one of the experts from the ex-Yugoslav region invited to be on the exhibition’s advisory board. For some three years prior, the team workshopped the selections for the exhibition and sourced the archival materials.
SANJA HORVATINČIĆ: It was supposed to be—and it turned out to be—a survey exhibition, an exhibition that is introducing, is historicizing one specific historical period and specific political, social-political context of former Yugoslavia through architecture.
So, I’m of course, aware of the fact that it’s not possible to have this whole complex story in one exhibition, especially not in MoMA. I’m very proud of that kind of representation of Yugoslavia there.
But when you tell story about Yugoslavia through architecture only, then you can get [a] bit misled, because you show usually and you choose the examples that are representative and that are outstanding in [a] certain way, not only from esthetic point of view but from engineering point of view maybe or from urban planning point of view. But there is no really place to show the problematic aspects or the aspects that are contradictory. Because the whole system that had this kind of utopian projection and the reality, and the reality was in many ways contradictory and this contradiction is actually also something that’s specific for Yugoslavia and I would say for all socialist countries. So it’s not black and white.
Unless you want to talk about the differences in social standard between people who were, you know, [in] political functions and how inside of Yugoslavia things were developing very differently in economic terms: there were the north and south of Yugoslavia, always with huge economic differences and how these differences also contributed to the political unrest and how all of this marvelous Non-Aligned was also problematic in certain aspects.
And in that way I think that some aspects here remained not clear enough. Because, you have grand narrative kind of exhibition that leads you through the history of this marvelous state with marvelous artists and with incredible amount of visionary political and social decisions, and then you end in the room with these monuments—because this is like the very last thing that you supposed to probably leave impact on the visitors—and then you have these big images of ruinporn kind of thing with these monuments neglected and many of them destroyed in a way. And then, you know, I think it’s very confusing for the visitors, like, what really happened.
PETER KORCHNAK: Falling short of providing full context to the exhibits, or complete information, was one of the criticisms of Toward a Concrete Utopia. For example, in Art Margins, Iva Glisic found it unusual to display Catholic cathedrals and a mosque “without any reflection on the presence of religious architecture in a socialist country.”
Another criticism bemoaned the important buildings that were left out. Sava Center in Belgrade, the Ciglane development or the Skenderija sports complex in Sarajevo, the Kockica offices in Zagreb… One reason was the space constraints of course, another MoMA’s policy of using only original materials, and in the region many originals were lost in the war.
JUSTIN McGUIRK: With any exhibition, there are choices to be made about who you decide to include and who you don’t include. And there were always these questions of space, you know, you can’t include everything. I think it was an excellent survey of the high points of Yugoslavian modernist architecture. It covered the full breadth of the region, and, as I said, you know, a relatively unknown body of work entering the canon, and MoMA is the kind of museum that can correct the canon in that way.
PETER KORCHNAK: At the same time….
JUSTIN McGUIRK: I think exhibitions find it difficult to communicate those kinds of ideas, especially when you’re talking through objects. The politics was clearly a strong sub-current in the exhibition, if one knew where to look so that, you know, it was referenced in captions and things. I mean, it’s not necessarily going to be the main thing that a visitor took away.
But I also think that, you know, as we touched on before, the appreciation of the architectural styles, whether we’re talking about brutalism or Yugoslavian modernism, comes tinged with a kind of nostalgia for a lost politics (capitalism and individualism have run rampant, obviously). Again, I don’t know how much visitors took away of the politics of Yugoslavia, it wasn’t spelled out particularly in an exhibition. And one doesn’t go to an exhibition to read.
PETER KORCHNAK: Another context-related criticism was the choice of the period the exhibition covered: its timeline ends in 1980. And while, as you heard in Episode 36, “Dream of the [Yugoslav] 80s,” the decade after Tito’s death was when the Yugoslav utopia perished, the exhibition conveyed little to nothing about what happened to all the works on display since then. Why does New Belgrade continue to be a desirable place to live? Why did a brutalist Skopje become a gangster baroque one? And, perhaps most painfully, why have some of the monuments been damaged or neglected?
BOJANA VIDEKANIĆ: The problem is that, on the one hand, the states that are part of that were part of Yugoslavia have consistently closed their eyes to this heritage. They don’t care about it, because it doesn’t represent what they want. So they’ve just left the entirety of this monumental heritage to rot. And then on the other hand, there’s the rise of kind of far right, you know, fascist ethos that further undermines this. And then there is the fetishization.
So you’ve got a kind of a triple whammy that continuously goes against this and absolutely denies and erases what these monuments were.
And I think that it would have been worse if you had only the MoMA curator curating. Vladimir’s presence made it into a better show, to mitigate this kind of continual fetishization.
PETER KORCHNAK: Indeed, as Ena Kukić writes in her review on the website of the Architects Association of Bosnia and Herzegovina, “the exhibition was tailored to the Western eye and its curators had to address the prevalent political stereotypes held by Western societies.” The most important aspect of the exhibition, Kukić continues, was that it “clearly outlines the social and political context of the brutalist aesthetic, which, although experiencing a revival on global art platforms in recent years, seems to have been reduced to material and form without an understanding of its essence.”
A final criticism related to the Western gaze that I’ll mention here: to many, the Swiss photographer Valentin Jeck’s original photos that MoMa commissioned for the exhibition reinforce the image of quote-unquote the East as a colorless grayscale wasteland. Alas Jeck took the photographs in wintertime.
[MUSIC INTERLUDE – “Rendezvous” by Sunset Cruise (Part 2)]
The Impact of Toward a Concrete Utopia
PETER KORCHNAK: It’s been two and a half years since Toward a Concrete Utopia closed its doors on January 13th, 2019. Here we are talking about it. Why? What made the exhibition so important? What was its impact?
VLADIMIR KULIĆ: I think that the long term impact is that, we can now say that Yugoslavia is in a way inscribed onto the map of relevant modern architecture, right, it is, it is part of what humanity values as important architecture of the 20th century, right, as some kind of special achievement.
It’s about the formation of knowledge, and that is something that operates on a much longer term basis. And I think it works both on kind of global level and very locally, right. I think that the exhibition in particular boosted the interest and the courage of local architects in the former Yugoslavia, historians, art historians, as well as the general public to kind of see these buildings with with different eyes and to perhaps help alter the ideologically dictated views of that past that are still very much prevalent across across the region, right, that kind of prevalent, top-down negative view of the past of socialist Yugoslavia.
PETER KORCHNAK: While the exhibition was still under way, the Belgrade-based Center for Cultural Decontamination held an international symposium about the exhibition and the topics it brought up, including “the relationship between Yugoslavia’s architecture and its society, artistic freedom and accomplishments, the culture of remembrance, and the fight to preserve the heritage of local communities and their way of life.”
Last month in the Calvert Journal, Jonathan Bousfield reported on contemporary architects in Croatia of hotels on the Adriatic taking pages from the 1960s Yugoslav modernist book.
JUSTIN McGUIRK: I think it can be quite difficult to judge the impact of exhibitions in the medium term. Often, they become clearer much later. It’s not always clear what exhibitions will be kind of fetishized in the future, by future historians. But certain exhibitions do pick up resonance with history.
In architectural history terms, I think it’s an important exhibition. I think it does recalibrate the canon to include a whole region that had been largely ignored.
In terms of its impact, I mean, there must be impact in terms of scholarship and education, general awareness. I think it’s probably led to more detailed studies of some of the figures who were included in the show. In fact, I think at the Venice Biennale of this year, there was a little—I didn’t attend—there was a little exhibition about one of the standout women architects of the period, who wa s Svetlana Kana Radović. So I think it probably encouraged the younger researchers and curators to explore that legacy.
PETER KORCHNAK: On the personal level, for Vladimir Kulić, the exhibition’s impact goes deep.
VLADIMIR KULIĆ: First of all, it does feel good, right? The fact that Kenneth Frampton, his legendary book Modern Architecture, we just had its fifth edition last year, now has a chapter on Yugoslavia, right, is something I would have never dared dream about, right. This is the book that I studied from when I was an undergrad student 30 years ago. And now it has a chapter, short chapter, but still a chapter on Yugoslavia that quotes me. That is, you know, something absolutely unbelievable.
It probably does also come with a certain comfort that, you know, that the association might allow me to have to fight less for things to open up the opportunities, etcetera. But it’s ultimately a thing of institutional power and position rather than that this kind of reputation, right. We have won actually awards for the catalog. The exhibition was widely reviewed etcetera but it’s really about personal fulfillment, I would say, more than anything else.
PETER KORCHNAK: Kulić was associate professor of architecture at Florida Atlantic University for 10 years before he joined Iowa State University in the same capacity the same month the MoMa exhibition closed. Indeed, the exhibition has influenced what and how he teaches.
VLADIMIR KULIĆ: I actually had not had the courage, if I may say so, to incorporate that into my teaching for a very long time. Because the expectations of institutions were such that you needed to teach what’s known as the operative knowledge, right, that that architects can use in their work in the future.
So I actually only started incorporating this material into my teaching relatively recently, pretty much after my arrival here in Iowa, with now the backing, with the reputation of the MoMA show that in some ways, really validated that material, that architecture.
The reception among students is varied. I think that because of the simply the publicity of the exhibition and all that came before it, right—there was kind of a media surge that allowed Yugoslavian, and East European architecture more broadly, to become at least known as visual icons for perhaps the past decade or so—they’re not entirely unfamiliar with it, but they are completely unfamiliar with the political and social and economic background. So I think that in a way, there’s a sense of discovery when we talk about it. Very often, they’re very engaged and sometimes heated discussions, but always very stimulating and interesting.
But now I’m also trying to incorporate that into the wider picture. I am currently teaching a course on the architectures of global socialism. So in a way, it’s also for me a way to again try to understand how my story fits within an even bigger story of about two centuries of architecture in socialism.
[BACKGROUND MUSIC – “Rubikovata sfera” by Detective Spook]
PETER KORCHNAK: I didn’t get a chance to see Toward a Concrete Utopia. I live on the opposite coast, New York’s a bit out of the way, and I was in the very early, off-and-on stages of the Remembering Yugoslavia project. What I do know is that in any exploration of Yugoslavia’s architecture, monuments, art, the exhibition comes up. Its full impact may be unknown for a while, if at all, but it has already made a mark in the appreciation of Yugoslavia’s material culture and the preservation of the country’s memory.
One of my favorite illustrators, Petr Sís, who was born on the opposite end of the same country as I, Czechoslovakia, and who now lives on the opposite coast of our adopted one, in New York of all places, creates his works with myriad tiny dots set against washes of color. That’s how I think of Toward a Concrete Utopia: a dot, placed prominently in a complex picture of Yugoslavia’s memory. You could think of this podcast as such a dot too, albeit much tinier, fainter one somewhere in the corner. It’s all dots all around.
[BACKGROUND MUSIC – “Rainmaker” by Petar Alargić]
PETER KORCHNAK: Next on Remembering Yugoslavia:
SVETLANA SLAPŠAK: I was arrested because there was a mistake. I was not the girl who spit on Nixon’s image in the American Cultural Center. It was not me.
PETER KORCHNAK: Yugoslav socialism wasn’t as harsh as the socialisms behind the Iron Curtain but there were people who suffered consequences for criticizing the regime. On the next episode of Remembering Yugoslavia, I will talk to one such dissident and intellectual, Svetlana Slapšak.
Tune in wherever you listen to podcasts and subscribe to make sure you don’t miss out.
[OUTRO MUSIC – “Od Vardara pa do Triglava” by Horn Orchestra]
PETER KORCHNAK: That’s all for this episode of Remembering Yugoslavia, thank you for listening. Find additional information, photos, videos, and the transcript of this episode at RememberingYugoslavia.com/Podcast.
Remembering Yugoslavia now has a Facebook page. Like Remembering Yugoslavia on Facebook for more Yugo-stuff more better and don’t forget to join the giveaway of Non-Aligned Modernisms.
Outro music courtesy of Robert Petrić. Additional music by Detective Spook and Sunset Cruise played with permission and eternal gratitude. Tracks by Dee Yan-Key and Petar Alargić licensed under Creative Commons. Special thanks to Martin Petkovski and McGill-Queen’s University Press.
I am Peter Korchňak.