Inside the concrete remains of Yugoslavia's brutalist past

Inside the concrete remains of Yugoslavia's brutalist past

Updated 17th July 2018
Credit: Valentin Jeck
Written by Jonathan Glancey, CNN
Jonathan Glancey is a British architecture critic and author.
On January 1, 1967, Yugoslavia embraced the world. It was from this date that foreign visitors could enter the non-aligned socialist state without a visa. As tour companies, notably those in Britain, geared up to pack tens of thousands of whey-faced holidaymakers off to sun-kissed Adriatic beaches, hotels raced up at the speed of a Jat Airways (Jugoslovenski Aerotransport) Caravelle jet.
What proved to be remarkable was the sheer scale and architectural ambition of the country's new hotel complexes, which were often little short of towns in their own right.
Among the most spectacular was the Haludovo Palace Hotel on the Adriatic island of Krk, a plaything for its first investor Bob Guccione, the Brooklyn-born publisher of Penthouse magazine.
The heydays of the Haludovo Palace Hotel on the island of Krk. Credit: CCN-images
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Opened in 1972, with drinks served by barely dressed Penthouse "Pets," the hotel was expansive, hedonistic and, even for the time, blatantly sexist. Its spacious, energetic architecture -- the work of Boris Magaš -- resembled a real-life James Bond set. And, this, in a socialist country.
The Haludovo went bankrupt a year after it opened. In hands less flamboyant than Guccione's, it re-opened under nominal state control only to be badly hit by the savage Yugoslav Wars that broke out in 1991. The hotel served as a refugee camp before being sold in 1995, during the sweeping privatization of Croatia, and closing six years later.
Since then, this set-piece hotel has lain empty, its bravura architecture slowly falling into the kind of ruin that urban geographers and photographers find so very compelling.

Decaying monuments

Across what was once Yugoslavia, other monuments that expressed the seemingly contradictory values of Tito's short-lived socialist confederation have met a similar fate. Ambitious congress halls and memorials to the communist partisans who drove the Axis powers from Yugoslavia in 1943-44 have been ravaged by war and made irrelevant by Yugoslavia's collapse.
Monument to the Uprising of the People of Kordun and Banija in Petrova Gora, present-day Croatia. Credit: Valentin Jeck
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High in the densely forested and mountain-fringed Sutjeska National Park on the present-day border between Bosnia and Herzegovina and Montenegro, stands a pair of strikingly abstract winged concrete sculptures.
Shaped by the artist Miodrag Živković, and constructed on an architectural scale in the early 1970s, it marks the heart of a monument to the Battle of Sutjeska. It was here that Tito turned the tide against Nazi Germany.
Each year, hundreds of thousands of Yugoslavians would come to pay homage to the 7,000 partisans killed in this soul-stirring setting. But today, the once white concrete sculptures are often lonely. Grubby, too.
Monument to the Battle of the Sutjeska in Tjentište, present-day Bosnia and Herzegovina. Credit: Valentin Jeck
Graffiti has been erased by those with long memories, although not wholly successfully. A landslide earlier this year damaged the landscaped setting, while a memorial hall below Živković's wings remains scarred and vandalized.
Designed by the architect Ranko Radović, and opened in 1975, the Memorial House -- composed of an interlocking sequence of pyramid-like structures abstracted from the shepherds' huts still found in this mountainous region -- is a building like no other. Inside, though, the building's vaulted, sunlit spaces are empty, its contents smashed and looted by the Bosnian Serb Army between 1992 and 1995. Frescoes depicting events of the Partisans' war of liberation have been defaced with the most dimwitted graffiti.
National and University Library of Kosovo in Prishtina, Kosovo. Credit: Valentin Jeck
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Where Tito once offered freedom, today you must be careful where you walk. Off the tracks there lie landmines left over from the wars of the 1990s. And each summer the peace of the Valley of Heroes (and the lives of its wolves, deer and eagles) is challenged by a local rock festival. Among the acts at this year's festival are Atheist Rap, Orthodox Celts and Električni Orgazam.

Concrete heritage

Yugoslavia's extraordinarily creative flourish in the world of daring new concrete architecture -- whether for national memorials, civic centers, museums, broadcasting stations, Le Corbusier-style public housing complexes or vast hotels -- was short lived. From this month, it is celebrated in an exhibition, "Toward a Concrete Utopia: Architecture in Yugoslavia, 1948-80," at New York's Museum of Modern Art (MoMA).
Monument to the Ilinden Uprising in Kruševo, present-day Macedonia. Credit: Valentin Jeck
This seems an appropriate venue. Tito's Yugoslavia, although authoritarian at its core, was an attempt to find a "third way" between the glum strictures of Soviet socialism and the glamorous sense of freedom proffered by post-war America. And MoMA has previously curated two exhibitions in the former Yugoslav capital, Belgrade, showcasing the latest US architecture: "Modern Art in the United States" in 1956 and "Built in the USA" in 1958.
At the 1958 Brussels World's Fair (or Expo 58), the Yugoslav pavilion, set well away from those of the Soviet bloc, was a beautiful lightweight structure -- all glass walls, wide-open entrances and elegant stairs. Designed by Vjenceslav Richter it was a considered and brilliant riposte to the Soviet Union's heavy-handed school of Socialist Realism, an architectural hangover from Stalin's murderous "worker's paradise."
The Hotel Adriatic II in Opatija, Croatia, which remains in use today. Credit: Valentin Jeck
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New Yugoslav architecture, realized for the most part in low-cost and malleable concrete, was a bold way of expressing the country's difference -- and the difference between the cultures of its constituent republics -- with energy, imagination and panache. Will the splintered republics that still house this architectural tour de force come to appreciate its qualities? Will the Haludovo Palace Hotel reopen? Only time, and a new-found fascination with these concrete buildings, will tell.
"Toward a Concrete Utopia: Architecture in Yugoslavia, 1948-80" is on at New York's Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) until Jan 13, 2019.
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