Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 13, 2019
Martino Stierli and Vladimir Kulić, eds. Toward a Concrete Utopia: Architecture in Yugoslavia 1948–1980 Exh. cat. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2018. 228 pp.; 150 color ills.; 85 b/w ills. Cloth $65.00 (9781633450516)
Museum of Modern Art, New York, July 15, 2018–January 13, 2019
Miodrag Živković and Đorđe Zloković, Monument to the Battle of the Sutjeska, 1965–71, Tjentište, Bosnia and Herzegovina (photograph by Valentin Jeck, commissioned by The Museum of Modern Art, 2016)

Toward a Concrete Utopia: Architecture in Yugoslavia 1948–1980 was an archive of radical potential. The highly anticipated architecture exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) included over four hundred drawings, plans, photographs, models, and film reels related to the construction, ideological and physical, of the second Yugoslavia (Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia). Unlike in MoMA’s previous architecture exhibition Latin America in Construction: Architecture 1955–1980 (2015), which used MoMA’s own collection to supply the majority of objects on display, the materials showcased in Toward a Concrete Utopia were the result of extraordinary coordination by the curators and researchers to assemble the components of the exhibition from locales poles apart in terms of geography, institutional benefaction, and collection formality. In order to challenge modernist historiography’s conventional positioning of socialist Yugoslavia’s architectural production as peripheral, incidental, or belated, the curators—Martino Stierli and Vladimir Kulić, with Anna Kats and a veritable team of researchers—had to start from scratch. This marshaling of dispersed materials together for the first time worked not only to dislodge Yugoslav architecture from its ostensible marginality, but also to “rechart” the topography of modernity from within the very institution that had come to define it. By pointing toward the interstices inherent in modernist historiography, the stakes of Toward a Concrete Utopia went beyond proper reexamination of a neglected history, revealing how the remarkable spatial, formal, and ideological characteristics of Yugoslav architecture bespoke the innate potentiality of architecture as a tool imperatively capable of revolutionizing everyday life.

In the context of an architectural exhibition the title, Toward a Concrete Utopia, nods toward the prevalence of concrete architecture in socialist Yugoslavia—a cheap, malleable, and expressive material, and an effective medium for literal and ideological nation building. At the same time, the phrase “concrete utopia” comes directly from Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch and his distinctions between abstract and concrete utopias. According to Bloch, “concrete utopia” is a real anticipation of a better future, and the dialectical and material manifestations of this anticipation in the present (The Principle of Hope, Volume One, 1954). As the exhibition showed, the theory and praxis behind the formulation of such a thing as socialist Yugoslavia necessitated the construction of new institutions, universities, infrastructure, housing communities, and so forth. The road to actual utopia, in the Yugoslav context, had to be concrete.

Divided into four parts—“Modernization,” “Global Networks,” “Everyday Life,” and “Identities”—the exhibition did not follow a directly geographical or temporal trajectory, nor was better-known architecture highlighted over lesser-known examples. “Modernization” elaborated architecture’s role in Yugoslavia’s rapid urbanization and industrialization after World War II. While explanatory texts provided sociohistorical contexts, the gallery turned the artifacts of architectural construction into tantalizing visual objects (for example, the display of materials for the urban planning project of New Belgrade, 1949–67). The principles behind the New Belgrade project placed Yugoslavia in the global context of modernist urban planning, and the accompanying text linked the plan’s relegated zoning to other contemporaneous projects, such as Chandigarh and Brasília. This section featured material and technological innovations, showcasing Yugoslav production of experimental architectural forms and typologies—stadiums, fairgrounds, towers, and gas stations, as well as Boris Magaš’s exceptional City Stadium Poljud in Split, Croatia (1976–79).

The variety of objects on display—architectural drawings, master plans, original and reproduced models, high-definition photographs by Valentin Jeck commissioned for the exhibition, and so on—assured multiple entry points for the legibility of architectural production, while supporting wall texts linked aesthetics to social function, historicizing Yugoslav construction projects within the context of the “social standard,” for example. Education, healthcare, and cultural programming were free to all after the revolution, and housing became a constitutional right; therefore, the drive to construct buildings to accommodate these guarantees obtained ideological imperative. The exhibition’s feature of leisure architecture and educational buildings displayed this impetus well. One of the central structures of this section—a showstopper—was Andrija Mutnjaković’s National and University Library of Kosovo in Pristina (1971–82). A detailed model of the library’s dome-and-cubic fractals, a study sketch, floor plans, and a monumental photograph together took one’s breath away, managing to characterize through exhibition the spatial imagination behind its conception and construction.

Tourism architecture bridged the first section to the second, “Global Networks.” A choice example here was Svetlana Kana Radević’s Podgorica Hotel in Podgorica, Montenegro (1964–67). The hotel combines the inventiveness of Yugoslav architectural aesthetics with the brief of new societal relations (two weeks of holiday vacation was another aspect of the social standard). The exhibition described Yugoslavia’s tourist infrastructure as a “social condenser,” creating spaces of leisure for Yugoslav citizens as well as international tourists. As the catalog elaborates, these sites brought together variegated cultures and, at least in theory, classes.

A success of the exhibition could be found in its attention to the multidirectionality of global networks entangled with Yugoslav architectural production, both entering and exiting. Particularly well featured in this section was Yugoslavia’s important role in the Non-Alignment Movement (NAM), a nonaggression initiative to remain independent in terms of Cold War allegiance. The NAM established new networks of intellectual exchange, including the commission of Yugoslav architects and planning firms across the globe. The work of Energoprojekt and its architectural director, Milica Šterić, stood out in this section, best represented by the impressive display of documentation related to the master plans for Kano, Nigeria (1971–73). Likewise, a gallery dedicated to the reconstruction of Skopje after the devastating 1963 earthquake showed the international aid and collaboration that shored up the immense rebuilding project, a response very much fueled by Yugoslavia’s strategic geopolitical position.

In a cheery yellow gallery, a repertoire of inventive design objects reflected efforts to improve and modernize everyday life within a socialist market economy alongside the topic of housing. The exhibition’s third section, “Everyday Life,” turned to Yugoslav domestic architecture and design. The housing shortages that arose after World War II had posed one of the greatest challenges to the construction of Yugoslav socialism. In “Everyday Life,” visitors encountered how the task of producing mass housing quickly and affordably had led to creative and flexible architectural solutions, resulting in communities such as the well-praised Split 3, in Split, Croatia (1968–77).

The exhibition’s final section, “Identities,” explored how regional architectural paradigms had inflected into Yugoslavia’s socialist modernization project. An intimate gallery in this section featured the important work of architect Juraj Neidhardt, who, with Dušan Grabrijan, had published Architecture of Bosnia and the Way to Modernity in 1957—a monumental tome arguing for Bosnian architecture to be understood as beating modernism to its theoretic and aesthetic punch (whitewashed walls, open volumes, adaptable spatial compositions, etc.). Neidhardt’s visionary designs on display, plans for workers’ housing, collages for ski lodges, thumbnail-size drawings of mountainside communities, a massive skyline silhouette of the city of Mostar (in present-day Bosnia and Herzegovina), and more conveyed the prolific nature of his vernacular modernist exploration, not as a nostalgic look to the past but as a wellspring for Yugoslavia’s future.

Socialist Yugoslavia’s ambitions brought about new architectural typologies with the aim of creating shared experiences across the republics; the system of World War II memorial monuments is perhaps the pinnacle architectural expression of these aspirations. The construction of thousands of memorial sites across Yugoslavia became a way to commemorate the multiethnic Partisan victory over the occupying fascist powers and local factions during World War II. The memorials provided opportunities for artists and architects to create large-scale interventions into the landscape—total works of art—while their locations, often in the deeply forested or hinterland regions of Yugoslavia, connected peoples and places across the country through memorialization practices. The exhibition showcased some of the most impressive iterations of Yugoslav memorials, including the Monument to the Battle of Sutjeska by Đorđe Zloković and Miodrag Živković (1965–71) in Tjentište, Bosnia and Herzegovina, which provided a poignant and yet defiant marker for the show’s conclusion: the nineteen-meter-tall monument with its gestural, hand-poured concrete halves stood as a visual and haptic exclamation of the concurrent loss and revolution of World War II.

The memorial finale of the exhibition did the most conceptual work to remind visitors of the nebulous fate of Yugoslav architecture after the nation’s dissolution. Jeck’s photographs captured the monuments in different physical states since the Yugoslav wars, during which hundreds of World War II memorials were destroyed or significantly damaged, drawing attention both to the avant-garde aesthetics of the monuments and their precarity. Yet the photographs were also an unresolved contradiction throughout the show: they put forth an image of Yugoslav architecture uniformly in gray tones and under overcast atmospheric conditions. Explained in the catalog as photographs intended to capture the temporality of Yugoslav architecture, spotlighting their recent neglect, the gloomy presentation perhaps inadvertently reinscribed their threatened condition as the defining characteristic. Ultimately, if the stakes of the exhibition were invested in challenging the neutralizing and incomplete effects of past historicizations and aestheticizations of Yugoslav architecture, Jeck’s photographs remain a conundrum.

To ponder for a moment more on the exhibition’s title is a useful coda, considering the directionality present therein: the “toward” is an indication of the process of constructing concrete utopias. In Bloch’s formulation, concrete utopia is reliant upon a “not-yet” ontology; it is the “intention towards” utopia that separates the possible from the impossible. The exhibition presented a history of Yugoslav architecture that was not interested in limits, but instead in possibility—possibility that was embedded in the surfaces of board-formed concrete, innovation of architectural typologies, reconceptualization of living standards, and dissent from architectural hegemonies. Towards a Concrete Utopia asked for a new legacy of modernist architecture: a lasting practice of reimagining architecture’s social responsibility for the betterment of the everyday, of what architecture could be and perhaps ought to be. It is this potential of architecture, of its ability to give concrete shape to radical ideas, that Towards a Concrete Utopia delivered.

Jessy Bell
PhD Candidate, Department of Art History, Northwestern University