The former Yugoslavia’s got some strange buildings. This isn’t glib. The goofiness of Yugoslav architecture is a counterpoint to Stalinism. These buildings were not only an assertion of a particular aesthetic style, but also a political position to match. In Russia, as in the Soviet satellite states, the aesthetic code of Stalinsky ampir (“Stalinist Empire”) was strictly enforced, bringing with it an eclectic mix of Greco-Roman, modernist, and Russian folk elements. That the Russian translation evokes imperialism is probably owing to the Greco-Roman ornamentation found in this style - the monolithic columns, the arched balconies, the ornate cornices, the vast amounts of concrete. These features combined to recreate the hallmarks of antiquity, thereby imbuing Stalin’s eternal communism with the feeling of continuity and inevitability.
Yugoslavia’s unserious architectural style flies in the face of Stalin, with whom Josip Tito, the leader of Yugoslavia, had cut all political ties in 1948. The two dictators had no diplomatic relations from that point forward, due to their competing and incompatible visions of Albania’s role within the Eastern Bloc, as well as, more generally, how a worker’s state should operate, a fissure reflected in their respective architectural footprints.
I like to think that the Yugoslav aesthetic was an act of protest. I like to think that little Yugoslavia was thumbing its nose to the Soviet Union the whole time. Tito staked ground as an intermediary between the Soviet East and capitalist West, giving Yugoslav artists and architects free rein to embrace whichever ideals they pleased. The creative class of Yugoslavia overwhelmingly chose Western modernism over Eastern classicism. Today, their architectural works stand in decay, as if smiling with chipped teeth.
Whereas the other socialist model was constrained to state-mandated social realism, Yugoslavs took pride in developing their own futurist style based on the liberal use of concrete without ornamentation or extravagance, now known as Brutalism, that was firmly modern in orientation. This style gave rise to a concrete utopia defined in opposition to the suppression of the Stalinist era. Although I once considered their style tasteless, I now find it refreshingly playful, unserious, and happy. It’s a sign that socialism can look fresh and original when the system isn’t systemically oppressing those responsible for its creation.
When I ask people who grew up in socialist Yugoslavia about their time in socialist Yugoslavia, their responses are always nostalgic, invoking feelings of peace and “brotherhood” among Slavs. Always brotherhood, or something closer, to describe their bond. For a region of Europe as ethnically inflamed as it is, socialism, including its aesthetics, helped provide a mold for its citizens. The state’s unique architectural style was as much a part of its nation-building as its ideological pluralism and lack of internal borders. The concrete towers came to symbolize a common aesthetic vision for all Yugoslavs—including Serbs, Croats, Bosniaks, Kosovars, Montenegrins, and Macedonians—whose dissolution coincided with ethnic cleansing and unimaginable violence. About this, everyone, even those younger than me, had war stories that were delivered as if peeling open a wound.
Like most places I travel, the Yugoslav project, with its rows of wacky public housing complexes, appears to me more like a museum than a pulsating city. These suburban blocks (blokovi) were drawn up to manage the housing crisis, and became societies unto themselves, where bankers and businessmen shared a wall with the lower echelons of society, all of them living together in low orbit of the city centre. Exploring Belgrade’s blokovi felt less like loitering someone’s neighborhood than searching through historical relics whose time on earth is expiring, a fact that gave every tour the feeling of urgency and privilege. These are disappearing places, and I stared into them as if they were memorials. But to those who inhabit them, I was just a guy taking up space in the elevator on their way to work. For me, these were not homes but systems of belief frozen in concrete. For their inhabitants, I never got the impression that they meant much of anything beyond being a place to live.
In the West, architectural idiosyncrasies are seen as luxuries in the service of the few. Think of city condos that arc bow-like, or townhomes with vegetated rooftops. These features are private, exclusive, and do not play a role in establishing a common, accessible vision of what society should look like, nor how it should be lived in. Whereas Tito’s socialism viewed architecture as a means for expressing shared ideals and improving communal life for the benefit of everyone.
Although purely anecdotal, it’s true that I never met anyone with bad things to say about Tito’s Yugoslavia. He dreamed of, and realized, a peaceful union of South Slavic workers without adopting statist totalitarianism nor a neoliberal agenda. The state had a comparatively small role to play in Yugoslav life. Large and mid-sized companies practiced enterprise self-management led by workers’ councils—rather than party apparatchiks, CEOs, or executives—composed entirely of employees with equal voting power. They had a 36-hour workweek, the highest GDP of any Eastern Bloc country, and an era of peace in which citizens led seemingly authorial, existentially open lives. Their society allowed for innovation, cultural exchange, freedom of expression, and unparalleled exposure to both sides of the Cold War and the intellectual clash of currents that ran between them. This duality is visible in the urban decay that, for now, still stands.