Exhibit of the week
Toward a Concrete Utopia: Architecture in Yugoslavia, 1948–1980
Museum of Modern Art, New York City, through Jan. 13
In the West, we seldom think of Tito’s Yugoslavia as any kind of paradise, said Edwin Heathcote in the Financial Times. But the years between World War II and the dictator’s 1980 death were good ones for Yugoslav architects, who occupied “a world of almost unbounded imagination and experimentation.” Free of Soviet-style central planning, Yugoslavian builders blended Western modernism with local traditions and proved brilliantly inventive. Yes, you’ll see public housing projects that look like knockoffs of Le Corbusier or Marcel Breuer. But the groundbreaking work of postwar Yugoslavia only begins with the war memorials, known as Spomeniks, whose “wild and experimental” forms have become Instagram famous. The Museum of Modern Art’s current survey of Yugoslav architecture offers so much more to see that it’s “an absolute revelation.”
“Modernism was arguably a useful device for gelling Yugoslavia, a federation of six republics and two autonomous provinces,” said Justin McGuirk in NewYorker.com. Charged with rebuilding war-flattened cities and fulfilling the state’s guarantee of housing and education for all citizens, the nation’s architects competed for commissions and produced residential complexes “more socially idealistic than the West, more architecturally inventive than the East.” Even such sleek island resorts as the Haludovo Palace Hotel were designed to encourage the mingling of humble locals and wealthy international tourists. As can too rarely be said of an architecture exhibition, this display of sketches, blueprints, and models is “a pleasure to look at,” said Jason Farago in The New York Times. Toward a Concrete Utopia “can get a little rose-colored in places.” Yes, Tito practiced a softer form of one-party communism than his Warsaw Pact neighbors, but he, too, had a secret police force. “The books in that glorious Pristina library were censored; so was the work in Belgrade’s Museum of Contemporary Art, on display as a model here.” And not far from those glittering Adriatic Coast resorts sat an island prison for political dissenters.
“I went through the show toggling between elation and despair,” said Justin Davidson in New York magazine. It’s impossible to savor these designs—“some poetic, others surreally misjudged”—while ignoring their home’s grim post-1991 fate. Haludovo, that great island resort, became a refugee shelter and now lies in ruins. One of those photogenic Spomeniks stands outside Srebrenica, where in 1995 Serb nationalists slaughtered 8,000 Bosnian Muslim civilians. We’re asked to view postwar Yugoslav architecture as a model of socially enlightened thinking, but you could as easily see it as a cautionary tale. Architects had hoped to unite the peoples of Yugoslavia, but “as in so many fallen nations,” the monuments that generation built to its ideals today commemorate its folly. ■