Belgrade: Thinking Outside the Blocks

A city once dismissed by Le Corbusier as ‘ridiculous,’ the Serbian capital continues to reinvent its built landscape

Mihajlo Mitrović Genex Center (1970): a “western gate” to Belgrade | Photo: S. Ralić

Entering the Serbian capital from the west by car, the Genex Center towers rise out of the horizon and announce your arrival into the suburb of Novi Beograd, across the Sava River from the old city. The dominating twin blocks of apartments conjoined at the top were Serbian architect Mihajlo Mitrović’s vision of a new western gate for the city in the 1970s. Futuristic in its conception, the 35-story structure seems to be equipped with tubular rocket blasters, and an observation deck.

This is one of many “moments” portrayed in the photographic exhibition “Belgrad: Momente der Architektur” on the ground floor of the Ringturm at Schottenring in Vienna’s 1st District. The single-room exhibit presents a survey of highlights from the past century of architectural ideas in Belgrade, with the aid of maps showing the growth of the street grid, banners outlining the development of architecture, and a video featuring interviews with some of the key players.

Most visitors today may have the same impression as that of Charles-Édouard Jeanneret – later (and better) known as Le Corbusier – when he passed through the city a century ago: “It is a ridiculous capital, worse even: a dishonest city, dirty and disorganized.”

The great modern architect may not have been moved by Belgrade in 1911, but he nonetheless inspired a movement begun in 1928 and lasting through the ’30s formed around the “Architects of the Modern Movement in Belgrade,” namely Branislav Kojić, Milan Zloković, Jan Dubový, and Dušan Babić. As Ljiljana Blagojević points out in her study Modernism in Serbia: The elusive margins of Belgrade Architecture, 1919-1941, the group didn’t adhere to a mantra of principles, but remained a forum of new ideas and forms.

For adherent Dragiša Brašovan, such forms included the airplane, which acts as a leitmotif in his Air Force Command (1935-39). Symbolizing the crossroads of form and function, the structure features wing-like appendages on its roof and entryway, while two eagles with wings spread are trying to lift the entryway off the ground. The long and slender windows of his equally monumental National Printing Institution of Yugoslavia (1937-40), now the BIGZ building, resemble lines of type and ink stains.

The end of World War II heralded a new era of not only political upheaval but architectural as well. Unlike many of the Soviet-aligned states, Tito’s Yugoslavia carved out its own path, and sought out its own identity, triggered by the Third Congress of the Writer’s Alliance of Yugoslavia in Ljubljana in 1952. This meeting of creative minds spawned a distancing from the East Block and the end of socialist realism and dogmatism, but it also the spawned the swath of brutalist blocks in Novi Beograd.

One embodiment of the new style was Nikola Dobrović’s Generalštab, or Federal Ministry of Defense. Dobrović, incidentally known as “the Serbian Le Corbusier”, built the structure between 1953 and 1965 to embody a new post-war identity. After intense shelling in the 1990s, the relic remains in partial ruins waiting for a new plan.

This new style failed to impress the ever-stolid Le Corbusier, who upon seeing photographs of such structures remarked: “My God, how ugly it is.”

Yet, this vein led to the dominating Genex towers raised under Mitrović’s direction. His residential complex built in 1975 at Braće Jugovića 10 may not possess the grandeur of the Twin Towers that once stood in Lower Manhattan, but his windows in half-moon and trapezoidal shapes acted as subtle but revolutionary element. As the architect remarks in the exhibition’s film:

“The socialist and socialist realist architecture at that time required residences to have standardized openings according to the Yugoslavian norms.” For the residence, he decided to integrate offset windows, to break quite deliberately with these restrictions.

Following the turmoil of the 1990s, Belgrade entered a third era, characterized by modern industry and an economic upswing, resulting in the usage of glass and steel as opposed to stone and concrete. Miodrag Mirković’s Infinity Building (2010) is perhaps the best representation of this, with a wavy glass facade announcing more daring plans to come.

Whether Le Corbusier would have approved of such designs is a question you’ll just have to leave to your imagination.

For more on Belgrade, see “Belgrade: The Modern City” in TVR June 2011.

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