Book Review
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Modernism In-Between: The Mediatory Architectures of Socialist Yugoslavia

By Emily Makas (Associate Professor of Architecture History) | This book review examines a recent publication of modern architecture in socialist Yugoslavia. It is reprinted from the March 2014 edition of the Journal of Architectural Education.


Modernism In-Between: The Mediatory Architectures of Socialist Yugoslavia, Vladimir Kulić, Maroje Mrduljaš, Wolfgang Thaler; Jovis Verlag, 2012; 272 pages; 304 col and b/w images; $40.00 hardcover.

 TABLE OF CONTENTS

  • Preface – Reassembling Yugoslav Architecture
  • Introduction
  • A History of Betweenness
  • Between Worlds
  • Between Identities
  • Between Continuity and Tabula Rasa
  • Between Individual and Collective
  • Between Past and Future

Modernism In-Between: The Mediatory Architectures of Socialist Yugoslavia provides a welcome critical introduction to a topic little addressed in English-language publications – the architecture of socialist Yugoslavia, a state that existed from the mid-1940s until the early 1990s.

The authors, Vladimir Kulić and Maroje Mrduljaš, also collaborated on the edited volume Unfinished Modernizations: Between Utopia and Pragmatism (2012), which was published by the Croatian Architects Association and is less easily obtained. That volume is an extensive collection of well-illustrated essays on socialist-era architecture and urbanism in the former Yugoslavia contributed by practitioners and academics from the region. Unfinished Modernizations, and the multi-year, multi-country, multi-institutional research collective of which it is a product, provides the platform for the conversation Kulić and Mrduljaš are introducing to a broader, international audience with Modernism In-Between. The two projects are deeply intertwined: the companion exhibition to Unfinished Modernizations which Mrduljaš and Kulić co-curated, features many of Wolfgang Thaler’s photographs that are published in Modernism In-Between. The exhibition has been well received at the ArchitekturzentrumWien in Vienna, Swiss Museum of Architecture in Basel, and major venues in most of the Yugoslav successor states.

Though there is little scholarly literature on the architecture of socialist Yugoslavia, Modernism In-Between does join a collection of recent monographs of art photography of mid twentieth-century architecture in Eastern Europe. Among the most familiar of these photography books are Roman Bezjak’s Socialist Modernism (Hatje Cantz, 2011), Frederic Chaubin’s Cosmic Communist Constructions Photographed (Taschen, 2011), and Herta Hurnaus’ Eastmodern (Springer, 2007). However – unlike the sensationalist, orientalism of Chaubin’s simultaneously ominous and pathetic images of Brutalist oddities, and unlike the bleak ordinariness of Bezjak’s eye-level, mid-distance shots of everyday familiar gray buildings against gray skies – Wolfgang Thaler’s photographs in Modernism In-Between are considerably more architectural. They include a combination of interiors and exteriors as well as of overviews of buildings within their contexts and of focused views of specific spaces. This variety and multiplicity allows for a more nuanced and critical understanding of architectural relationships and ideas, especially in combination with the images of drawings, models, period photographs, and unbuilt projects that accompany the book’s text. These contextualizing images are absent from the other recent photographic monographs of Eastern European socialist architecture.

These other books also lack Modernism In-Between’s balance between text and image, and indeed the correspondence established between them in which they reinforce one another towards the articulation of a specific argument about the architecture of socialist Yugoslavia. In the text, Vladimir Kulić and Maroje Mrduljaš carefully parse out a series of themes exploring how Yugoslav architecture mediated between various conflicting forces, none of which are reduced to simplistic dichotomies. Kulić and Mrduljaš have commented on the symbiotic relationship between their own critical understanding of the sites they analyze and Thaler’s photographs.[1] The collection of images Thaler took on numerous trips to the region over the course of three years, and particularly his variety of views, led the authors to reassess some of their assumptions. In Modernism In-Between, the photographic essays alternate with the textual essays, allowing readers to interrogate the authors’ suppositions for themselves.

Kulić and Mrduljaš begin by acknowledging the cliché-nature of their premise – that the architecture of Yugoslavia is defined by its in-betweenness. They go on to reveal how this was indeed manifested in a variety of overlapping but distinct ways that demonstrate the appropriateness of this lens for understanding both socialist-era Yugoslavia and its built environment. Both mediated / floated / existed between superpowers and blocs, between ideologies, between internal identities, and between temporal focuses. After the thematic introduction that establishes this overarching theme, each chapter explores a different mediation by enumerating different strategies employed by different designers and by close, detailed descriptions of architectural examples of each. The chapter “Between Worlds” addresses architecture conceived within Yugoslavia’s foreign policy: its non-alignment and good relations with the west, the Soviet bloc, and the rest of the world. The chapter “Between Identities” addresses Yugoslav decentralization and its six highly independent republics and their constituent nations, each with their own traditions, academies, and histories of architecture. In “Between Continuity and Tabula Rasa,” Kulić and Mrduljaš explore the urban scale and the mediation between sensitivities to inherited urban fabric and the quest for newness resultant from the happy marriage of modernist and socialist planning. The chapter “Between Individual and Collective” examines housing and everyday public spaces that were simultaneously state-sponsored and standardized as well as private and personalized. Finally, in “Between Past and Future,” the authors discuss the mediation between avant-garde tendencies and new technologies and the simultaneous historicist universalization and engagement of memory.

In most of these chapters – especially the one on mediation of the first, second, and third worlds – Kulić and Mrduljaš are completely convincing in their argument about in-betweenness in architecture and its complexity and evolution in Yugoslavia specifically. They show the country’s architecture begins formally as a mediator of ideological styles and later shifts to a place for the functional facilitation of exchange between worlds. Vjenceslav Richter’s design for the 1958 Brussels pavilion epitomizes the early formal merging: its structure suspended from a mast was derived from revolutionary constructivism, its open flowing plan symbolized Yugoslavia’s open borders, and its minimalist restraint suggested a lack of commercial interests. On the other hand, the rebuilding of Skoplje after the 1963 earthquake, the resort complexes on the Adriatic, and the facilities for the 1984 Sarajevo Olympics all revealed how politicians, designers, tourists, and athletes from both east and west and elsewhere came together to create and use spaces in Yugoslavia.

Vjenceslav Richter, Yugoslav Pavilion, Brussels, 1958.

Vjenceslav Richter, Yugoslav Pavilion, Brussels, 1958.

Other chapters reveal a context more characteristic of the postwar world in general, including the one on urban planning in which the varied negotiations between inherited traditions and new approaches are less clearly demonstrated as a mediation specific to Yugoslavia. Some of the urban projects the authors describe reveal only one of the competing tendencies of the era, rather than their reconciliation. The planning of the new town of Velenje, for example, illustrates the modernist tabula rasa approach and the General Headquarters building in Belgrade comes across simply as sensitive urban infill.

Kenzo Tange, Eastern City Proposal, Skopje, 1967

Kenzo Tange, Eastern City Proposal, Skopje, 1967

Yet Yugoslavia’s potential typicality for the era reveals another strength of the book: Modernism In-Between is a remarkable demonstration of the complexity and variation with postwar modernism in general. Not only does it reveal the multiple distillations and adaptations of ideas in Yugoslavia, but also how diverse were the sources and products of architectural modernism more broadly – as the pluralizing of the word architectures in the book’s subtitle suggests. Taking just Le Corbusier as an example, Kulić and Mrduljaš’s discussion ranges from how the master’s study of Balkan vernacular influenced Dušan Grabrijan and Juraj Neidhart’s theories of regionalism in Bosnia, to how his promenade architecturale and beton brut were hybridized with Jože Plečnik’s classicizing and monumentalizing tradition by Edvard Ravnikar, to how his Athens Charter urbanism influenced New Belgrade’s functional zones and high rise residential towers. The authors’ illustration of the era’s complexity will make Modernism In-Between of interest to educators and scholars of postwar modernism in general, not just those focused on Eastern Europe.

Kulić and Mrduljaš refrain from concluding the individual essays or the book itself with generalizations or broad synthetic statements. Answers to some of the most interesting questions they pose – about comparing modernisms within Yugoslavia as well as between Yugoslavia and other centers and peripheries – remain implied rather than definitively argued. The authors acknowledge their tentativeness by noting Yugoslavia’s socialist-era architecture is little explored and that they perceive their book as an introduction on which future research can build. Kulić and Mrduljaš assert that whether the Yugoslav socialist experience was typical or exceptional in its architectural modernism remains elusive. And while they do not offer a clear answer to this question, the text and images of Modernism In-Between provide necessary pieces of the puzzle, as do the contributions in their co-edited volume, Unfinished Modernizations. The rest of the puzzle will be filled out as scholarship on the architectures of socialist Eastern Europe and elsewhere is increasingly disseminated.


[1] Maroje Mrduljaš and Vladimir Kulić, “Scenes from an Unfinished Modernization,” exhibition opening remarks, Searching for YU, 24 October 2012, Architekturzentrum Wien.

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