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Brutalist Architecture in New Belgrade

Photographer: Andrej Cukic

 

On the left bank of Belgrade's Sava river lies Novi Beograd (New Belgrade), a complex of brutalist buildings that are both a celebration of functional no-nonsense architecture and a symbol of the new post-monarchic Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia that was founded in 1945 after World War II. The planned municipality, for which building works started in 1948, was devised at a time when the sprawling city of Belgrade was undergoing a deep socio-political shift, as a postwar socialist federation emerged, made up Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, Croatia, Serbia and Slovenia.

New Belgrade was designed to be the main administrative center for the new government, with buildings for the Communist Party headquarters and the Presidency of the government serving as the hub of a functional grid plan with streets meeting on right angles. At the time of building New Belgrade on the unpopulated marshy river banks, the chosen style of architecture was functional modernism that had its roots in the emblematic architectural movement known as the International Style or Bauhaus, which literally means "building house." The style, which quickly spread across Europe after World War I (1914-18), was characterized by a simple and utilitarian design language that enabled quick and relatively cheap but high-quality construction, paving the way for the Brutalist architecture that flourished from 1951-1975.

In line with this trend, a young communist Yugoslavia applied the philosophy of International Style and Le Corbusier's principal of the "sun city," which envisaged cities within cities through the creation of mammoth concrete structures that served as both dwellings and spaces for mixed and varied use, connected with internal and external corridors, all the while maximizing the sun's potential for light and warmth. Utilitarian designs were dictated by function over form with raw construction materials and functional elements left exposed. Reinforced concrete was the most commonly recognized building material, although other materials such as brick, glass, steel, and rough-hewn stone were also used. Architects in Yugoslavia invested a great deal of effort in adapting these existing expressions of modernism to the needs of a new Yugoslav society: affordable mass housing, new civic and social institutions, public spaces for interaction and participation, tourism facilities, and commemorative structures all became grounds for trying out new ideas and methods. A testament to the sheer functionality of these buildings is the fact that they continue to be in use, even though, as has happened across many Eastern European post-communist states, many of the functional and stern buildings that were built in New Belgrade in the 1950s, 60s and 70s have been left to decay.

However, Brutalism is now enjoying renewed interest as more and more people have begun to embrace its practical philosophy and, from an aesthetic perspective, its attractive geometric shapes rendering an almost graphic quality to many of these buildings. A good example of this is the Western City Gate building, perhaps one of the most iconic buildings in the municipality, also known as the Genex Tower. The 36-story 154-meter-high (over 500 feet ) skyscraper, designed in 1977 by Mihajlo Mitrovic, consists of two towers connected by a floating bridge with a rotating watchtower on the top that houses a restaurant. Many of the apartment blocks have irregular finishes with buildings giving the appearance of geometric blocks being placed together at different heights, adding interest and a break to the straight lines. Attractive details also break the repetitive surfaces and monochrome colors-schemes with the use of glass and rounded edges, such as flattering circular porthole-style windows, adding a sense of fun and playfulness to the otherwise severe looking buildings. As architecture from the 70s onwards shifted its priorities from a practice designed to serve communities in a functional way to instead become a luxury commodity, New Belgrade serves as a reminder that architecture can be a powerful tool for cultures and communities to thrive, transforming public spaces which in turn can become powerful symbolic socio-political statements.