Concrete Utopia

The republic of Yugoslavia lasted barely half a century. A new exhibition documents an extraordinary architectural legacy that has been neglected by mainstream historians.

Installation view, Toward a Concrete Utopia: Architecture in Yugoslavia, 1948–1980, Museum of Modern Art
Installation view, Toward a Concrete Utopia: Architecture in Yugoslavia, 1948–1980 [Photo: Martin Seck © 2018 The Museum of Modern Art]

Casa de los Cosmonautas cantilevers dramatically over the powdery white sands of Cuba’s fabled Varadero beach. Designed in 1974 by Antonio Quintana — Fidel Castro’s favorite architect — the daring concrete structure was built as a rest and relaxation retreat for Russian cosmonauts and military brass. When I first visited the site, in 2002, the building was an abandoned shell, an eerie relic. It has since then been meticulously restored as a boutique hotel, with appointments more lavish than the original and tricked out with Soviet space-age memorabilia. Each suite is named for a Soviet cosmonaut, and the principal salon is decorated with vintage photographs of Russian spacecraft and celebrities, including Laika, the dog who orbited the globe aboard Sputnik 2. The hotel, the management tells me, is kept full by wealthy Russians who come to Cuba to bask in the sun and indulge in nostalgia for an era when the Soviet Union was at the height of its power, the Eastern Bloc was leading the space race, and Soviet imperial influence extended all the way to the warm Caribbean.

Many a Cuban will also wax nostalgic for the decades that followed the triumphant revolution in 1959. Friends of mine who grew up in Cuba in the 1970s and ’80s remember fondly the time when the country’s educational system was superb, the health care system was the envy of the world, and the planned economy sustained a standard of living that got better every year. All evidence suggested that the Cuban socialist experiment was succeeding, and that international socialism was truly the wave of the future. But then the collapse of the U.S.S.R. in 1991, and the loss of Soviet patronage, plunged Castro’s Cuba into an excruciating poverty that crippled the state infrastructure and fomented political disillusion, and from which the country has not fully recovered. It’s no wonder that Cubans of a certain age might look back and compare those days favorably to the present.

A comparable nostalgia for a socialist past overlays the groundbreaking exhibition “Toward a Concrete Utopia: Architecture in Yugoslavia, 1948-1980,” now on view at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Far from indulging in rose-tinted retrospection, however, the curators — Martino Stierli 1 and Vladimir Kulić with Anna Katz — offer a rigorous and eye-opening survey of a body of architectural work produced in parallel with, and in service to, the very formation of the nation of Yugoslavia, a socialist federation that was forged from the crucible of World War II and disintegrated in bloody conflict a mere 50 years later. The historical period of the exhibition spans from Yugoslav dictator Josip Broz Tito’s postwar break with Joseph Stalin and the Soviet Union, to his death in 1980, an event that precipitated a series of political crises that ultimately led to the bitter breakup of the federation in the early 1990s.

Urban Planning Institute of Belgrade. Belgrade Master Plan. 1949–50. Belgrade, Serbia. 1951.
Urban Planning Institute of Belgrade, Belgrade Master Plan, 1949–50. Belgrade, Serbia. [Urban Planning Institute of Belgrade]

Tito cast the creation of postwar Yugoslavia as a liberation from fascism, class oppression, and underdevelopment. The new nation — a federation that joined Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Macedonia, and Serbia (plus the autonomous Serbian provinces of Kosovo and Vojvodina) — was founded on the ideals of “brotherhood and unity.” The nation-building enterprise was expressly designed to suppress ethnic and regional rivalries; and in evading absorption into the Soviet Eastern Bloc, Tito broke the Balkan region’s long history of domination by remote imperial powers. Indeed, Tito’s signal accomplishment was to position Yugoslavia as the avatar of the “Third Way”; geographically and ideologically, an independent zone between the capitalist West and communist East. (This position evolved into the Non-Aligned Movement in concert with Egypt, India, Indonesia, and like-minded states mostly in the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and post-colonial Africa — Cuba was the only member in the Western Hemisphere — formalized at a conference in Belgrade in 1961.)

Tito cast the creation of postwar Yugoslavia as a liberation from fascism, class oppression, and underdevelopment.

Staking this ground at the interstices of the Cold War divide gave Yugoslav artists and architects the freedom to choose from models and trends on either side. While embracing socialist ideals, Yugoslavia eschewed the social realism of Stalinist Russia and gravitated instead toward the abstraction of western European modernism; an inclination already evident in the region before World War II. Thus the construction of the new Yugoslavia, literally and metaphorically, became a vast modernist project; modernist thinking and design were deployed to guide the country’s rapid urbanization and industrialization as well as to unify the ethnically, religiously, and culturally diverse population. This is the story told by the exhibition and its excellent companion publication.

The exhibition traces the narrative across four chapters, or sections. “Modernization” documents the construction of the new national infrastructure that enabled Yugoslavia to recover and rebuild after the massive physical destruction of the war. The capital district of New Belgrade, exemplary in its progressive, functionalist planning, was the most ambitious urban construction project in postwar Europe, comparable to the better-known modernist inventions of Brasilia and Chandigarh. The section on “Global Networks” examines the confluence of Yugoslavia’s foreign policy and architecture. Assuming a leadership role in the confraternity of Non-Aligned States, Yugoslavia sought not only to export its architectural and engineering expertise to developing nations as a gesture of solidarity but also to secure lucrative construction contracts abroad. At home, the development of the Croatian Adriatic coast with sparkling modern resort facilities — some of amazingly inventive design — lured both wealthy international jet-setters and more modest regional tourists.

EdEdvard Ravnikar. Revolution Square (today Republic Square). 1960–74. Ljubljana, Slovenia.
Edvard Ravnikar, Revolution Square (today Republic Square), 1960–74. Ljubljana, Slovenia. [Photo: Valentin Jeck, commissioned by The Museum of Modern Art, 2016]

Vjenceslav Richter. Yugoslav Pavilion at Expo 58. 1958. Brussels, Belgium.
Vjenceslav Richter, Yugoslav Pavilion at Expo 58, 1958. Brussels, Belgium. [Archive of Yugoslavia]

The “Everyday Life” section focuses on the heroic campaign to construct modern housing for the expanding urban population. Avoiding Soviet-style standardization, Yugoslav architects experimented with innovative forms of mass housing that were highly varied, adapted to local tastes and traditions. In tandem with the large-scale residential infrastructure came the modernization of domestic life. Designers, most notably Niko Kralj in Ljubljana, introduced clean-lined, practical, mass-producible furniture and other domestic objects to cater to the new “consumer socialist” population. The last section, on “Identities,” analyzes the cultural balancing act of recognizing and respecting regional distinctions within overall national unity. The project of building socialist Yugoslavia entailed no prescriptive national style; rather, it was a pluralist endeavor. A Balkan version of Regional Modernism thrived. Edvard Ravnikar, a protégé of Le Corbusier, for example, built upon the traditions of Central European modernism in his native Slovenia while in Bosnia Juraj Neidhardt, also a product of Corb’s atelier, blended his modernism with local vernacular from the Ottoman period. This final section is decidedly the most poignant, as we know that the centrifugal forces of regional nationalism and ethnic rivalry would very shortly tear the region apart.

Avoiding Soviet-style standardization, Yugoslav architects experimented with innovative forms of mass housing that were adapted to local tastes and traditions.

Spread across several galleries and filled with hundreds of drawings, photographs, models, and video projections, “Toward a Concrete Utopia” is a monumental achievement, presenting a remarkable, and remarkably diverse, body of work that was largely unfamiliar to me and, I suspect, to most viewers. The exceptional architects whose work is featured, including the aforementioned Edvard Ravnikar and Juraj Neidhardt along with Bogdan Bogdanović, Svetlana Kana Radević, Vjenceslav Richter, Milica Šterić, and so many others, clearly deserve more recognition than current architectural histories accord.

The book is organized quite differently from the exhibition. Following a prefatory portfolio of commissioned photographs by Valentin Jeck, three lead essays, by Martino Stierli, Vladimir Kulić, and Maroje Mrduljaš, do a fine job of painting the big picture, after which the text is exploded into a multiplicity of short essays by eighteen authors. “Focal Points” expand upon particular themes or building types, while “Case Studies” zero in on specific projects. The exhibition was borderline overwhelming, as these grand surveys can be, so I appreciated, afterwards, the chance to return via the book to some memorable projects, including Vjenceslav Richter’s Yugoslav Pavilion, at the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair; Revolution Square, in Ljubljana, by Edvard Ravnikar; the Goce Delčev Student Dormitory, in Skopje, Macedonia, by Georgi Konstantinovski; and the ethereal Šerefudin White Mosque, in Visoko, Bosnia and Herzegovina, by Zlatko Ugljen.

Zlatko Ugljen. Šerefudin White Mosque. 1969–79. Visoko, Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Zlatko Ugljen, Šerefudin White Mosque, 1969–79. Visoko, Bosnia and Herzegovina. [Photo: Valentin Jeck, commissioned by The Museum of Modern Art, 2016]

The essay by Maroje Mrduljaš, on the evolution of hotel types, is particularly illuminating, as is Theodossis Issaias and Anna Katz’s essay on the significant contributions of female architects in Yugoslavia. Sanja Horvatinčić writes about the country’s “memorial sculpture and architecture,” an artistic undertaking — assigned much wall space in the exhibition — of exceptional importance and central to issues of national and regional identity. The diverse people of Yugoslavia were united after World War II by common resistance to fascism, a fact memorialized throughout the former federation by structures of remarkable power. That many of these monuments have been abandoned to deteriorate or actively vandalized by post-dissolution nationalists is a sad commentary on the current political state of the Balkans. Which leads to the devastating essay by Andrew Herscher, on architecture and destruction, which focuses on the impact of the political violence of the 1990s on the built heritage of the socialist state and the targeted destruction of specific monuments. The inclusive Socialist project of Yugoslavia did not “fail,” he emphasizes; it was deliberately destroyed.

Concrete came to symbolize national unification even as it enabled the transcendence of vernacular traditions.

During the three decades covered by the exhibition and book, one unifying element that transcended regional differences was the building material of choice. It is unsurprising that in those years Yugoslav architects and their state agency clients would so often decide to construct in concrete. Inexpensive, broadly available, not requiring highly skilled workers, and not dependent upon the rehabilitation of bombed-out steel mills, concrete quickly became the preferred medium of European postwar reconstruction. Modernists in Yugoslavia’s constituent states had earlier been deeply influenced by Le Corbusier and, as we learn from Stierli’s essay, Yugoslav schools and publications were consistently engaged in the architectural discourse emanating from Western Europe and North America, in which expressive concrete construction was ennobled. Nonetheless, while operating in sync with progressive international trends, the promotion of concrete construction by state actors in Yugoslavia carried particular significance; the building material came to symbolize national unification and modernization even as it enabled the transcendence (or ignoring) of regional vernacular building traditions.

Andrija Mutnjaković. National and University Library of Kosovo. 1971–82. Prishtina, Kosovo.
Andrija Mutnjaković, National and University Library of Kosovo. 1971–82. Prishtina, Kosovo. [Photo: Valentin Jeck, commissioned by The Museum of Modern Art, 2016]

Berislav Šerbetić and Vojin Bakić. Monument to the Uprising of the People of Kordun and Banija. 1979–81. Petrova Gora, Croatia
Berislav Šerbetić and Vojin Bakić, Monument to the Uprising of the People of Kordun and Banija, 1979–81. Petrova Gora, Croatia. [Photo: Valentin Jeck, commissioned by The Museum of Modern Art, 2016]

Jordan and Iskra Grabul. Monument to the Ilinden Uprising. 1970–73. Kruševo, Macedonia.
Jordan and Iskra Grabul, Monument to the Ilinden Uprising, 1970–73. Kruševo, Macedonia. [Photo: Valentin Jeck, commissioned by The Museum of Modern Art, 2016]

These days mid-century concrete architecture — Brutalism — has become the darling of architecture aficionados worldwide and the object of both popular and scholarly fascination. Admiration of the muscular constructions of the postwar years was until recently considered a perverse minority taste, whereas now surveys, exhibitions, and publications are proliferating. Justin McGuirk, writing in The New Yorker about the MoMA exhibition, puts it well: “We are in the midst of a full-blown Brutalist revival. … Nostalgia for the raw concrete surfaces of the nineteen-sixties and seventies has seeped into the aquifer and is gushing out in Instagram feeds, coffee-table books, and music videos.” The ultimate establishment seal of approval came with Phaidon’s recent Atlas of Brutalist Architecture; “The world’s finest examples of Brutalist architecture brought together in one big book,” according to the publisher. I find the Phaidon project problematic, however, starting with the editors’ (no individual authors are named) incoherent conception of Brutalism itself. This tome could be more accurately described as an international survey of extra-large architecture (“monumental” might be the preferred clinical term). The editors (like the authors, never named) argue that “there is now a more inclusive definition of Brutalism at work in the 21st century.” Perhaps, but to claim that the movement started in the 1920s and continues today — and somehow encompasses both Frank Lloyd Wright’s 1939 “Wingspan” and Edward Durrell Stone’s filigreed Manhattan townhouse of 1956 — stretches the definition past the breaking point. (But how else to fill 560 pages with 878 entries?)

In Yugoslavia, the architecture of the early federal years recalls a period of great optimism, long since stifled, which might well trigger nostalgia today.

It is illuminating, with decades of hindsight, to consider how the Brutalist movement was driven by disparate motives and carries different meanings around the world. (The Phaidon editors do a good job of this in their introduction to the Atlas.) Clearly, in Yugoslavia, the architectural production of the early federal years recalls a period of great optimism, long since stifled, which might well trigger nostalgia today. 2 In Great Britain, Brutalist concrete was the architectural idiom of the postwar welfare society, while in France concrete has long been associated with the political left and its social housing and educational projects. (Oscar Niemeyer knew this when he designed the French Communist Party headquarters in exposed concrete.) Conversely, in much of the United States, comparable concrete constructions are widely — and negatively — associated with neighborhood-destroying urban renewal programs. In Latin America, monumental concrete often signified the aspirational modernization projects of developing countries, whether promoted by the enlightened democratic administration of Juscelino Kubitschek in Brazil (during which Brasilia was created) or by the military dictatorship that followed after 1964 (under which Paolo Mendes da Rocha and Lina Bo Bardi produced their masterworks.) In Cuba, a revolutionary communist regime erected bold concrete structures designed in deliberate contrast to the refined tropical modernism of the corrupt, capitalist 1950s. The concrete hotels, office towers, and civic buildings of Lagos, Accra, Nairobi, and other postcolonial African cities can be interpreted as monuments to liberation. So might the production of Indian architects and their international collaborators who built upon Le Corbusier’s legacy to create new monuments to their young democracy. In the end, Brutalism is an architectural movement with no manifesto or fixed ideology; it is malleable, like concrete itself.

On the other side of the Iron Curtain, artistic production was constrained by the strictures of state-mandated social realism.

In this light the Soviet Union is in its own special category. Yugoslavia’s exit from the Soviet Bloc enabled the country’s architects to pursue cosmopolitan interests and open-minded experimentation, as the MoMA exhibition amply illustrates. On the other side of the Iron Curtain, artistic production was constrained by the strictures of state-mandated social realism, which for postwar architects generally meant Stalinist classicism. The de-Stalinization program of Nikita Khrushchev in the 1950s replaced grandiose classicism with standardized, utilitarian building systems. It was only after Leonid Brezhnev assumed power in 1964 that architects in Russia and other Soviet states came gradually to exercise new artistic liberty, and by the 1970s many were doing so with gusto. As if releasing pent-up creative energies, Soviet architects produced some of the most formally inventive and structurally audacious buildings in the Brutalist catalogue. The Ministry of Highway Construction, of 1974, an interlocking stack of concrete box beams looming over a river embankment north of the Georgian capital  of Tblisi, is astonishing, while the 1987 Soviet (now Russian) Embassy in Havana, by Aleksandr Rochegov, its overwrought crown packed with surveillance equipment aimed across the Straits of Florida, borders on the grotesque.

Dušan Grabrijan and Juraj Neidhardt. Cover of Architecture of Bosnia and the Way to Modernity, 1957.
Dušan Grabrijan and Juraj Neidhardt, cover of Architecture of Bosnia and the Way to Modernity, 1957. [Private archive of Juraj Neidhardt]

Exhibition poster for the retrospective of architect Janko Konstantinov, 1984.
Exhibition poster for the retrospective of architect Janko Konstantinov, 1984. [Personal archive of Jovan Ivanovski]

Zoran Bojović for Energoprojekt, International Trade Fair, 1973–77, Lagos, Nigeria.
Zoran Bojović for Energoprojekt, International Trade Fair, 1973–77, Lagos, Nigeria. [Personal archive of Zoran Bojović]

Sharing, to some degree, in the nostalgia for the Soviet Union that keeps Casa de los Cosmonautas at Varadero filled with Russians, scholarly and popular interest in the often bizarre architectural creations from the last decades of the U.S.S.R. has lately been on the rise. Frédéric Chaubin’s 2011 monograph Cosmic Communist Constructions Photographed — or C.C.C.P. … get it? — presents this work as an architectural freak show. More recent examinations have been more respectful. In 2013, the Vienna Centre for Architecture mounted a show and published the book Soviet Modernism 1955–1991: Unknown History, a serious effort to catalogue, and to situate in local political and cultural contexts, modernist buildings in the former Soviet republics. Next year Soviet Modernism, Brutalism, Post-Modernism: Buildings and Projects in Ukraine, 1960–1990 is scheduled to be published. (The project is already represented by a short film from Minimal Movie.)

The work shown in the exhibition should disprove the myth, promulgated by Western cultural elites, that artistic creativity and public management are in any way incompatible.

But rather than simply parsing the definition of Brutalism, or cataloging the movement’s triumphs and excesses, it is more meaningful to consider the legacy of socialist architecture or, more precisely, the architecture produced under socialist regimes, which we can now view from a historical perspective. This is exactly what “Toward a Concrete Utopia” compels us to do. It is also an interest of Rem Koolhaas, who recently gave a talk at MoMA in connection with the exhibition. Koolhaas argued that the architecture and urbanism of the socialist world had until recently been erased from history (or one might say willfully ignored, at least in the United States, with its anti-socialist bias). He insists that his own research into socialist architectural production — especially the International Trade Fair complex in Lagos, completed in 1977 to designs by Zoran Bojović of the Belgrade-based firm Energoprojekt — is “emphatically not nostalgic”; and yet that evening the discussion kept circling back to wistful admiration of a period when architects with a shared mission could contribute to social betterment by constructing ambitious state-sponsored projects. The work shown in the exhibition should disprove the myth, promulgated by cultural elites in the West, that artistic creativity and public management are in any way incompatible. Since the 1980s, of course, the global triumph of turbo-charged capitalism has impoverished the public sector and put control of architectural production and city-building in the hands of all-powerful transnational corporations, creating an architecture of cacophonous spectacle and a culture which, as Koolhaas put it, “confuses celebrity with significance.” With suspect self-effacement, Rem presented images of assorted contemporary starchitects and their wacky buildings, thus implicating himself in this unhappy situation.

Bodys Isek Kingelez (Congolese, 1948-2015). Ville de Sète 3009. 2000. Paper, paperboard, plastic, and other materials.
Bodys Isek Kingelez (Congolese, 1948-2015), Ville de Sète 3009, 2000. Paper, paperboard, plastic, and other materials. Collection Musée International des Arts Modestes. [© Pierre Schwartz ADAGP; courtesy Musée International des Arts Modestes]

And on the subject of wacky buildings: it may be pure coincidence, but I’d like to think that sly curatorial collusion accounts for the exhibition that is being simultaneously presented at MoMA along with “Toward a Concrete Utopia.” Consisting of the delirious constructions of the Congolese artist Bodys Isek Kingelez, “City Dreams” makes a delightful complement to the Yugoslav work. From the early 1980s until his death in 2015, Kingelez crafted everyday materials and found objects into dazzling sculptures — he preferred the term “extreme maquettes” — of buildings and entire cityscapes. Reacting to the chaotic, unplanned development of African cities — especially Kinshasa, where he lived and worked — Kingelez presents a dream vision of better urban living based on social justice and visual delight. His tectonic imagery draws upon the architecture of the hopeful post-independence period of the 1960s as well as the exuberant design exported to Africa from the Socialist world. (One of his pieces is titled “Mongolique Sovietique.”) Kingelez’s artistic project is suffused with a giddy utopianism that, for all its fantasy, shares a great deal with the more purposeful, efficiently managed — concrete —utopianism of the Yugoslav visionaries.

The immeasurably significant contribution of “Toward a Concrete Utopia” is to expand the history of postwar modern architecture beyond the canon of Western Europe and North America — an orthodoxy established by MoMA itself, more than any other institution. In this sense, the exhibition embeds a certain expiatory motive, rather the same as one sensed with the museum’s 2015 exhibition “Latin America in Construction: Architecture 1955–1980,” which wrote another unfairly neglected part of the world into the mainstream of architectural history. This is a project that must continue.

  1. As an occasional advisor to MoMA exhibitions, I have come to know Martino Stierli and to count him as a friend.
  2. For a look at similar cultural dynamics in post-Soviet Poland, see Akash Kapur, “Can Poland’s Faded Brutalist Architecture Be Redeemed?,” New York Times, October 10, 2018.
Belmont Freeman, “Concrete Utopia,” Places Journal, November 2018. Accessed 03 Oct 2023.

If you would like to comment on this article, or anything else on Places Journal, visit our Facebook page or send us a message on Twitter.