Aleksandar Ignjatović

Two Modernisms in the Two
Yugoslavias: Architecture and
Ideology, 1929-1980







The fact that the architecture of modernism represents an important part of the cultural heritage of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia and, in particular, socialist Yugoslavia, seems to be a peculiar truism. It is also known that the emergence and rapid development of the architecture of modernism were linked to two groundbreaking years in the history of both states – 1929, when the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes changed its name, structure and ideological direction, after the imposition of the so-called 6 January Dictatorship and collapse of parliamentarism, and 1948, when the Cominform Resolution was adopted and the relations with the Soviet Union were temporarily broken off. During the fourth decade of the 20th century, just like during the sixth, seventh and eighth decade, something that is usually considered as “architectural modernism” or “modern architecture” became the dominant architectural idiom in Yugoslavia. In each synchronic cross-section it was both the part of the repertoire of the official state representation and the inviolable poetical credo of the generations of Yugoslav architects. However, the intrinsic link between the Yugoslav architecture of modernism and its raison d'être in its own historical context or, in other words, the relation between poetics and politics remained in the shadow of great historiographic narratives about the local variations of global modernism and the autonomy of architecture as part of the modern project.

If we understand the term “modernism” as an emancipatory shift towards the transformation of society and progressivist movement towards its imaginary contours on the “horizon of the expected”, then the role of the architecture of modernism in the history of the first and second Yugoslavia must inevitably be redirected. Architecture must be relocated from the sphere of autonomous theory and practice, that is, the part of culture that is usually understood as the sphere enclosed by specificity and peculiarity, and defined not only by poetical boundaries, but also by ideological and political ones. In fact, we understand architecture not as an autonomous and self-sufficient reality, but as the constituent part of an imaginative world of ideology within which different “architectural phenomena” (ranging from individual elements, buildings, through formal and stylistic characteristics, to the broader concept of architecture as an epistemological project and discipline) represent semantical structures which are crucial for the creation of an idea of collective belonging and identity.

At the same time, one must bear in mind that modernism is a specific ideological construct of historiography and criticism or, in other words, the projection of the basically different and seemingly universal value systems onto cultural artifacts and processes, whereby “culture” must be understood in the anthropological sense of the word or, for example, from the usual perspective if interpretive theories of culture, like the one advanced in the works by Clifford Geertz. Thus, we will also view the architecture of modernism as part of a symbolic universe in which it objectivized and formally shaped social reality, while at the same time shaping itself relative to it and vice versa. In this connection, one must always bear in mind the difference between the interconnected notions of “culture” and “society” based on Talcott Parsons and Edward Shils’s classical model, defining culture (and architecture as its integral part) as a semantic system or symbolic world, while society is determined by a network of social relations whose meaning is given just by cultural forms. Thus, architecture also cannot be understood outside the social context from which it originates as part of the modern project, but the ways in which its relationship, as an integral part of culture and society, is perceived and established, are different. On the one side, according to the most vital interpretive tradition of modern art — from Clement Greenberg, through Giulio Carlo Argan, to Filiberto Menna – the art of modernism is understood as a fundamental part of the progressivist paradigm of societal development, that is, a specific pedagogical instrument and methodological model for society; in addition, it forms part of the modern project as the process of building critical answers to the questions posed by social reality. On the other side, however, according to contemporary scientific interpretations – which view culture as an ideological system that shapes the values defining society and building collective identities – the architecture of modernism emerges as one of the ideological orders or symbolic practices. In any case, the link between modernist architecture and social context is crucial for understanding or interpreting its cultural specificities and social roles, the task that imposes itself upon every historian dealing with this historical phenomenon.

The mentioned contemplations form a conceptual framework within which the overview of the architecture of modernism in the first and second Yugoslavia will be made. This overview does not intend to be all-embracing and present a comprehensive picture, or point to all manifestations and achievements of this phenomenon. Focus will be laid on the consideration of the cultural specificities of the architecture of modernism in the Yugoslav context and the related ideological roles. This is also a modest contribution towards getting over the fear of historicism that prevails in the significant part of architectural historiography in Serbia, although it alone is derived from the culture of the modern project. Should architectural modernism be separated from what it designated in its context, that is, from its own semiotic sphere, we would face the challenge of the random or nonrandom creation of a peculiar forgery. Just as history is not an autonomous field of the interpretation of the past, but represents an effort toward its careful conceptualization, the history of architectural modernism in Yugoslavia cannot be reduced to the issues of the formal, stylistic or social aspects of architecture. Instead, it must explore its meanings from a broader perspective, involving the creation of the value system and identity model. Therefore, the common view that the architecture of modernism advocated a distinctive value system based on progressivism, evolutionism and other universal premises, and generated a number of poetic strategies, formal patterns and stylistic characteristics, constructing architecture as an autonomous cultural object, must be put in parentheses.

Understandably, our approach has its limitations and, like any other interpretation, is the result of a conscious compromise between subordination to the supratextual plane of theory and the historization of “modern architecture”, which is constantly hindered by the discourse of its autonomy. Such an approach to the architecture of modernism can help us enter the conceptual (and political) world in which those who found themselves within the Yugoslav borders in the period 1929-1980 lived. We will view architectural modernism as a symbolic framework for something that the political regimes in the first and second Yugoslavia pitted against social reality — or, in other words, as the ideological patterns deriving their power and effectiveness from real political life and not from the protected fields of architectural theory and history.


Toward the end of the third decade of the 20th century, the modernist breakthrough into Yugoslavia’s architectural culture was violent and tempestuous. As early as the mid-1929, “modern architecture” became omnipresent in public space. Indeed, in almost every interpretation of the phenomenon of modernism it was emphasized that the abrupt emergence of modern architecture in a conservative environment, like that of the Yugoslav capital, was made possible by a series of circumstances, whereby a decisive role was played by the royal dictatorship imposed by King Aleksandar I Karadjordjević. It was emphasized that the “6 January regime” contributed to the legalization of a break with the past, and that in the early 1930s new architecture, as an opposite to “old historical styles”, was widely accepted in the whole country. Indeed, modernism could respond symbolically to the political demands for national unification and depict the Yugoslav nation, culture and state without “tribal blindness” or “spiritual chaos” — everything that caused the sharp change of the political course in the early 1929 which, after the tragic events in the Yugoslav parliament in the previous year’s summer, occurred during the time interval between the imposition of the royal dictatorship and promulgation of the so-called octroyed constitution in early September 1931.

Understandably, the simultaneity of an abrupt ideological change and the emergence of architectural modernism was not the fruit of chance. The allegedly ahistorical character and universal language of “modern architecture” functioned as the cultural confirmation of the new course and had a significant role and great power, primarily because they represented a positive projection of the demands for national unification, ethnic unity, break with the past and erasure of “tribal”, political and cultural traditions. In contrast to other stylistic and formal configurations on the architectural scene — and, in particular, different “national” and regional idioms — modernism was not burdened by the existing national or ethnic conceptions, so that it became the most convenient means for the representation of an ideal environment for the new Yugoslav man and idealized image of the new Yugoslav culture.

When in the mid-1930s Belgrade’s architect Branko Maksimović clearly pointed out that “modern architecture completely rejects all those narrow national borders and thus contributes to some extent to rapprochement among peoples”, that was only one of the cultural values determined by Belgrade’s architects and political elites as being the basic characteristic of modern architecture. The new idiom was playing an increasingly greater role in the rhetoric of the then reactualized integral Yugoslavism and was also gaining ground in public space. Truly, Belgrade’s public instantly accepted the language of architectural modernism due to a number of other reasons. In a broader context, architectural modernism also represented a peculiar simulation of progress and, like historical-style architecture, civilizational foundation. Nevertheless, its key role lied in the fact that it helped cultivate Yugoslav national authenticity through the politically promoted thesis that modern architecture would erase cultural and ethnic boundaries, and that it was based on “authentic” vernacular architecture. In fact, “international” modernism experienced its “nationalization”, while modern architecture became part of the construction of primordial Yugoslav identity that could be interpreted and used in diverse political registers.

It only seems paradoxical that architectural modernism could be mobilized for the construction of different national and cultural identities in different contexts. In Yugoslavia during the 1930s the same shaping idiom could be interpreted in the key of Yugoslav, Serbian or Croatian national identity. At the same time, it could also connote leftist ideology – just like in the case of the Soviet Union, “Red Vienna”, public architecture of the socialist municipalities in Germany during the 1930s, or Jewish cultural identity — not only in the interpretive tradition of National Socialism, but also in the light of the then usual identification of modern architecture and Jewishness, in particular. In the context of this semiotic fluidity of modernism, it is especially ironic that Croatian nationalism, one of the centrifugal ideologies relative to Yugoslavism during the 1930s, fixed the architecture of modernism before the mirror which would reflect everything conceived by its protagonists, rallied primarily around the group called “Zemlja” (Earth). The practice of Croatian nationalists to interpret architectural modernism as the formula of an unadulterated demotic, Croatian national identity was congtruent with the actions towards the Yugoslavization of modern architecture, which were carried out in Belgrade.

At the same time, architectural modernism was the instrumental formula of the new Yugoslav regime, placing the state and its nation under the aegis of the Western civilization, anchored in the idea of progress. In the positivist-evolutionist concept of culture, modernism was identified as a more perfect cultural formation relative to the past, which corresponded to the ideological requirements of the dictatorship of King Aleksandar I Karadjordjević. In a similar way it also corresponded to the requirements of the secularization and cultural levelling of Turkish national identity at the time of the Kemal Ataturk regime, which was at its zenith. In general, one must bear in mind that, during the late 1920s and 1930s, linking modernist architecture to new political ideologies or social, economic and political reforms was a universal phenomenon – extending from the Soviet Union and Fascist regime in Italy, as well as the revolutionary and totalitarian regimes in Central Europe (Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Romania and Poland), to Kemalism in Turkey, or Zionism at the time Tel Aviv was built. In all mentioned cases, the discourse of architectural modernism legalized these new regimes as “progressive” and “reform-oriented”. Just from that perspective it is necessary to perceive the role of architectural modernism in the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, which is evidenced by the fact that the crucial architectural representations backed by the regime were based on the recognizable modernist vocabulary — ranging from official national pavilions at the world expositions (Barcelona, 1929; Milan, 1931; Paris, 1937) to, for example, the architectural competition for the construction of Terazije Terrace in Belgrade at which the seemingly quite “modernist” design of Nikola Dobrović won the first prize (1929).

In Yugoslavia’s specific political context at the end of the third and at the beginning of the fourth decade of the 20th century, modernist architecture advocated a broad spectrum of cultural values with a distinctly political dimension. Just thanks to this broad spectrum, architecture became one of the most important forms of representing Yugoslavism. The accompanying danger of the national, social or general political disintegration of Yugoslav society, echoes of the intensification of the global economic crisis and series of foreign political factors, contributed that modernism became an inexhaustible treasury for the presentation of the desirable attributes of the Yugoslav nation, and the system of its cultural values and cultural policy, so that it won over almost the entire public space in the Yugoslav capital within a short time. It is important to note that already in the early 1930s, thanks to architectural modernism, something being increasingly viewed as “international modernism” was adopted as being consistent with the idea of Yugoslav national culture, which was shaping the original national identity that transcended the ethnic boundaries of Serbdom, Croatdom and Slovenedom – for two crucial reasons. The first and less important reason was the international character of modern architecture and its conscious neglect of everything local or ahistorical. The second reason seemingly distorted the ahistorical dimension of modernism by pointing to deep structural relations between the “modern building method” and, understandably, ideologically acceptable vernacular architectural heritage. Namely, in the discourse of integral Yugoslavism vernacular architecture was already designated as the representation of the original primordial tradition that allegedly faithfully reflected the idea of the unadulterated Yugoslav spirit. During the fourth decade, pro-Yugoslav architects, intellectuals and political elites advanced the theses about the conceptual, structural and ethical correspondence between vernacular and contemporary architecture, thus interpreting architectural modernism as the contemporary reincarnation of the “Yugoslav” national tradition. At the time when the shift away from ethnic particularisms represented a tour de force of the overall cultural policy, the construction of “authentic” identity was a much more complex venture than the interpretation of modernism as simply building “in a contemporary way”. One of the crucial roles in this ambitious venture was assigned to the discourses of modernist architecture. The allegedly original, national and – according to the established ideological analogy – genuine Yugoslav architecture emerged, as it was held, in the “spirit of the national genius” much before the beginning of the separate tribal histories of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes. However, the new architecture of modernism was nothing else but the reinvention of the existing national tradition. It used new materials and forms, but its inner essence remained the same. What was common to modern and national architecture from the perspective of the culture of Yugoslav nationalism included their common ideals, primarily a direct relationship between man, nature and material culture. Thus, the architecture of modernism became a direct and authentic link with the primordial Yugoslav past. Thus, a direct relation was established between the authentic Yugoslav nation — which was believed to exist from time immemorial but, due to historical circumstances, was split into three tribes — and the contemporary national community of Yugoslavs. At the same time, by linking the principles and elements of modern architecture to local, profane architecture the idea was developed that, thanks to its authentic spirit, Yugoslav national culture already belonged to the contemporary Western civilization.


Just this shift towards the West was one of the important aspects in the cultural and political construction of Yugoslavia’s “specific road” to communism when, after the invention of the Yugoslav “socialist democracy” and self-management system in the early 1960s, the architecture of modernism reassumed a crucial role in the legitimization of the “new situation”. Like in the post-1929 period, when integral Yugoslavism needed a material, tangible form, the specificity of Yugoslav socialism was legitimized by new, modernist architecture. In both cases, the resolute shift away from historicism and the pastiche of historical and “national” styles, meant symbolic distancing from one ideological direction, one value system and one identity concept, and transition to quite a different ideological identity domain.

As is well known, the specificities of the second Yugoslavia were reflected in its position relative to the Cold War division of the world, authenticity and originality of Yugoslav socialism, and the policy of the proclaimed specific road as an autonomous heading toward a classless communist society. Contrary to what was usually understood as the rigid bureaucratic centralism and etatism of the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc countries, on the one side, and Western political liberalism, on the other side, the Yugoslav elites tried to find, establish and preserve the complex ideological construction of “Yugoslavia at the crossroads”. Paving Yugoslavia’s specific road to communism was marked by its role relative to the global political, social and economic order, the role that was instrumentalized by the policy of non-alignment and active peaceful co-existence on the international plane, and the principles of all-embracing decentralization, workers’ self-management and social ownership concept at home. The characteristics of Yugoslavia’s specificity pointed to the country’s mediatory role and something presented by its intellectual elites as an avant-garde in the development of the consciousness of humanity in its heading towards the new, liberated man and humanized society. By bridging the gap between the socialist system and democracy, Yugoslavia’s socialist democracy also had to bridge a triple gap between the ever-changing reality of everyday life, fixed image of the surmounted past and proclaimed vision of the future. Such a transitional situation, as the crucial feature of the ideology that legitimized Yugoslavia’s political system and process of its continuous transformation, was basically associated with the belief in the inevitable withering away of the state — the fundamental principle derived from the interpretation of original Marxism — that is, the transformation of the state into the post-state. During the period between 1952, when the principle of self-management was introduced, and the death of Josip Broz Tito, which symbolically marked a new phase in the history of socialist Yugoslavia, transformation, reforms and instability established themselves as the structure of long duration, which characterized all constituent elements of the federal state.

In this context, architecture played a fundamental role. Its place in building the ideology of Yugoslavia’s socialist democracy rested above all upon the projection of the personal freedom of each individual, as the basis for the emancipation of the entire society and its segments, as well as upon the idea about the autonomy of architecture. In the Yugoslav context, the architecture of modernism acquired a peculiar teleological position, so that it virtually and literally presented the picture of the promised future toward which the entire society was heading. As both a symbolic and actual construction of the ideological system, architecture advocated the idea of progress, freedom, transition and continuous evolution, thus legitimizing a broad modernization process. This implied the interpretation of the new system of management and “deetatization” as the transition of the state functions to free citizens and, according to Aleksandar Ranković, the strengthening of their confidence in the “value of their personal freedom and human rights, and the role of individual citizen in the management of social life”. At the pragmatic level of architectural culture, this policy was based on the Western model of identifying modernism in arts and architecture with liberalism, and shifting away from communism (as contrasted to the usual associations of modernism and leftism before the Second World War), which was developed during the Cold War period.

The peculiar teleological position of modernist architecture in socialist Yugoslavia can best be illustrated by numerous architectural and urban planning competitions and general urban plans, which not only outlined the desired “future situation”, but also played a strong educational role in Yugoslavia’s architectural and political culture. Although most of these plans were never realized, their place in public space significantly determined and confirmed the contents on which the ideology of a transitional phase was based. However, probably the most significant project of this transitional and teleological regime was the planning and building of New Belgrade —both the symbol of the new Yugoslavia and the model for its building. As an “ideological centre of brotherhood and unity” – as this major project was first called by the Yugoslav political elites — New Belgrade was systematically included in the discourse of transition as part of a complex ideological narrative implying the introduction of a number of differences — differences relative to the recent past that established a normative and value framework for the realization of the projected future. Since the first plans for building a new city and urban regulation, New Belgrade was considered instrumental in the process of constructing the imagined identity regardless of whether it was aimed to create the image of the capital of the new Yugoslavia, or the framework for the functioning of a contemporary democratic society.

That new identity was based on the established postulates of modernist architecture and urban planning. The adoption, reinterpretation and specific Yugoslavianization of these models took place in the context of legitimizing a transitional situation and generated numerous manifestation forms most of which being formally linked to the architectural paradigm of high modernism. The continuous exchange of ideas and plans for New Belgrade, analogous to the adoption of ever new Yugoslav constitutions, was aimed at presenting the proclaimed values and searching for new paths for the “architecture of the Yugoslav peoples”. The fact that the ideological concepts of Yugoslav society were constantly redefined and made increasingly intricate, can to some extent explain the phenomenon of the conceptual inconsistency and incompleteness of New Belgrade. On the other hand, its architectural and urban structures served as a representative example of the transformed environment and confirmation of the correctness of the movement and progress of the entire society.

However, not only numerous architectural and urban planning competitions of the 1960s and 1970s – it is advisable to view them from the perspective of the model of “utopian realism”, as defined by Anthony Giddens – but also a significant part of the representative architectural production of the time also functioned using the same ideological register. The humanistic ideals of the liberated man and free society, as the most significant value incorporated into the ideological system of postwar Yugoslavia, was confirmed in the discourses of architecture, primarily within the scope of the thesis about antidogmatism, not only as the most valuable source of architectural creation, but also as the fundamental social value exceeding the bounds of cultural practices. Or, more precisely, with the interpretation and ideological instrumentalization of the architecture of modernism in Yugoslavia after 1948 there began a long and all-pervading process of building and cultivating antidogmatism, which was reflected in shifting away from rigid functionalism, on the one side, and formalism, on the other side. Over time, the recognizable criteria that systemically linked architecture to a broader ideological framework became entrenched in architectural discourse. The most significant criterion was the establishment of a causal link between ethical and aesthetic values, on the one side, and the freedom of man, on the other side, as contrasted to something that was called an “intertia of clerical mentality” by Mihajlo Mitrović, one of the protagonists of Serbian and Yugoslav architecture. By cultivating a specific discourse of mediation between aesthetics and politics, which basically repeated the pattern in which Yugoslavia’s overall politics and culture functioned at that time, this prolific architect was just one of the many fighters for creativity freedom and non-orthodox modernist architecture having an exceptional ideological resonance in their own historical context.

Thus, in Yugoslavia’s public space modernist architecture was assigned to materialize the hardly attainable goal of freedom, autonomy and shifting away from canonical thinking and acting, lying at the core of the idea about Yugoslavia’s “socialist democracy”. Over time, despite all stylistic, morphological and structural differences relying on the global trend of redefining the “international language” of modern architecture, Yugoslav architecture of so-called high modernism in the 1960s and 1970s became the signifier of the desirable social values and constituent part of political discourse. It participated in a general revolt against depersonalization, impersonalness and standardization – at the same time when the leadership of Yugoslavia, “one of the most open countries” — as once emphasized by historian Branko Petranović — promoted the same messages in public discourse, thus reaffirming the highest values of a self-management socialist society. In that sense, antidogmatism became both the poetic quality of architecture and contents of a political ideology. On the other hand, subjectivism in architecture was crucial for the legitimization of the political course of socialist Yugoslavia and important factor in the cultivation of diversity (national, ethnic, cultural, regional), as the sacrosanct value of Yugoslav socialism. In socialist Yugoslavia, as noted by architect Ivan Štraus in 1991, at the time when the rigor mortis of the state of the “Yugoslav peoples and nationalities” already occurred, architecture began to be viewed in new ways, in accordance with increasing democratic freedoms, while at the same time clearly highlighting individual views.

This testifies that mere utilitarianism in architectural poetics was transcended by the construction of an aestheticized world as the projection of the origin of the movement of the entire society. In a subtle ideological shift from functional to nonutilitarian, architecture was a striking example of transitoriness, changeability and mobility, as the central social values. Despite the functional requirements on which it was based, its emergence as an aesthetic phenomenon understandably had both ethical and political dimensions. From that perspective, the architecture of modernism represented quite an autonomous value system in accordance with the basic ideas of modern art, but its relationship with the social context was by no means excluded. On the contrary, the idea of autonomous architecture with individualism at its root as the most important characteristic of something named “socialist aestheticism” first in the criticism of Yugoslav culture and then in historiography, was part of the process of spatializing the ideological premises of socialist self-management: free society, plurality of thought and action, and insistence on cultural diversity.


If the historical experience of Yugoslav modernism is viewed in its historical context, outside the tradition of great architectural narratives, and if it is critically evaluated relative to the idea about the autonomy of modern art, it testifies not only that architecture cannot be considered value-neutral, but that we must also understand it as a basically ideological practice. Namely, the historicization of the architecture of modernism in the first and second Yugoslavia can confirm not only the general theoretical premises of culture as an ideological system in which cultural forms and processes obtain politically instrumental meanings, but also much more than that. It seems that a new reading of all that was written and thought about the architecture of modernism by its contemporaries, including its own ideological horizon trends, as well as a careful interpretation of the form of its presence in public space, can help us open the new views on the whole Yugoslav past. In that landscape, the contours of the architecture of modernism in Yugoslavia will also be clearer and less obscured by double resistance, which still hinders its consideration — resistence from the discipline of architectural history, including its obsession with stylistic, formal and theoretical genealogies and typologies, and its unwillingness to offer a rational interpretation of the Yugoslav experience. A new image can help that Yugoslav architecture is understood not as a phenomenon separated from its historical context, or just a form of legitimation of political ideas and regimes, but as the constituent part of the world of ideas on which the diverse ideological foundations of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia and its socialist successor state were laid.

















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With the assistance of the Federal Ministry of
Foreign Affairs of the FR of Germany






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