Visitors of the Serbian capital are greeted by the sinister looking Genex tower, a masterpiece of brutalist architecture that dominates New Belgrade, a neighborhood built across centuries old Belgrade (for a brief review of Serbia’s history told by buildings, see here). New because, obviously, at the time of the construction (starting 1948), that’s what it was; but also new in the sense that it was to be a planned city, the implementation of Tito’s own socialism. The buildings, mainly apartment blocks (surprise!), were to be a culmination of the best carefully designed blueprints, destined to represent the high living standards of socialist Yugoslavia.
The construction had to be fast, the space (in the blocks, and in between) had to be maximized. International competitions were held to find the best possible designs. The result? On one side of the Sava river lies a historically rich mix of old, beautifully crafted buildings and churches, topped by the Kalemegdan fortress, animated by a famous night life. On the other side, a field of high grey blocks: Novi Beograd.
At the risk of repeating myself, I LOVE New Belgrade. Love the look (can’t get enough of grey), love the contrast with « old » Belgrade, love the hidden gem of Zemun, a historical dot in the midst of socialist rows, love the fact that it is grey from afar, and full of colors up close.
Cursed with the same problems than other socialist cities (lack of housing, growing urban population, quantity of blocks over quality), the situation in New Belgrade was even more frustrating because it was supposed to be a new city, starting from zero, that encompassed only socialist values and designed by and for workers of the socialist state. In such, it should not have been burdened with housing problems inherited from before. But the planned city did not behave according to plans (Brigitte Le Normand carefully analyses the issue in her book which I can’t recommend enough, Designing Tito’s Capital: Urban Planning, Modernism, and Socialism in Belgrade).
New Belgrade is a giant socialist architecture legacy and a mesmerizing pool of striking examples of brutalism. The Genex Tower catches the eye first. Belgrade’s landmark is the pride or disgust of citizens, but leaves no one without an opinion. For some it is associated with harder times better left forgotten, for others it symbolizes a nostalgia of Yugoslavia’s golden era. The point is, it is not just a strangely shaped building, it is intrinsically linked with the history of the city. Along with more ordinary apartment blocks (distinguished by being assigned numbers mapping the area throughout the years, and revealing slightly different styles, for example « Blok 63« ), these buildings are the target of passionate photographers and travelers who have found in New Belgrade the perfect brutalist model. It is so peculiar and representative that it was given its own space in the exposition Toward a Concrete Utopia: Architecture in Yugoslavia, 1948–1980 in New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 2018 (for a detailed description, see here).
More and more people from around the world are discovering Yugoslavian brutalist architecture, thanks to social medias that promote it. Instagram pages and hashtags are dedicated to featuring images of buildings that are a delight to the eyes. The patterns and colors make striking pictures. But this newfound fame is not necessarily a good thing, according to some, who fear that the look is overtaking the meaning behind brutalist buildings and their role in society. In other worlds, that only the aesthetic is showcased, and the historical legacy is not accounted for, and thus possibly destroyed by popular culture.
I stand with the people that think that a social media’s notoriety is beneficial. It brings to attention the architectural style to users who would not otherwise have access to it. As a result, brutalist tourism is being developed, where people seeking to enjoy Yugoslavian architectural sights can wander on their own or join touring groups. As the fate of apartment blocks seems endangered (more on this in coming blogs!), an international awareness and appreciation can only serve their preservation. The look first seduces viewers, which is necessary to hold the interest about the heritage it carries. That is how I got hooked in the first place!