The MoMA’s Tribute to Yugoslavia’s ‘Concrete Utopia’ Is a Revelation

National Library of Kosovo. Photo: Valentin Jeck/courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art

In the early 1990s, Yugoslavia was shorthand for destruction: blasted cities in the heart of Europe, pulverized minarets and toppled bell towers, a whole cosmopolitan society splintered by savagery. Today, the word has acquired the resonance of antiquity, like Dahomey and Mesopotamia. MoMA would like to flip the association, linking the name of a vanished nation to memories of optimism and impassioned building. A hugely ambitious and revelatory new show, Toward a Concrete Utopia: Architecture in Yugoslavia, 1948–1980, portrays an idiosyncratic, multiethnic, and open postwar society that propelled itself into the industrial age with brio. Curators Martino Stierli and Vladimir Kulic, with assistance from Anna Kats, focus less on the Toward part of the title and more on Utopia. Marshaling hundreds of drawings, models, plans, and photographs, extracted from rapidly vanishing archives, MoMA presents Yugoslavia as a paradise for the politically engaged architect.

In 1948, Yugoslavia’s leader, Josip Broz Tito, split with Stalin and yanked his country out from behind the Iron Curtain. The show covers the decades between that schism and Tito’s death, a period that yielded a cornucopia of architectural experiments, some poetic, others surreally misjudged. With the government, the military, and local councils as their enthusiastic clients, architects translated socialist aspirations into power plants, housing blocs, museums, and monuments. They learned from Le Corbusier, Paul Rudolph, and Marcel Breuer and pushed concrete to expressive extremes, forging their own brand of theatrical brutalism. Slender tubes, levitating slabs, Y-shaped columns, flamboyant cantilevers, undulating walls, rough surfaces — these avant-garde elements had bold Balkan counterparts. The almost-world-champion Croatian soccer team still plays in Boris Magaš’s Poljud Stadium in Split, a gracefully shallow concrete bowl nested in the earth and canopied by a great steel trellis on either side. Milan Mihelic celebrated the country’s new love of cars by supporting the roof of his Petrol gas station in Ljubljana, Slovenia, with an exuberant concrete tree. The Avala TV tower sprang skyward on graceful concrete legs. As the nation rebuilt its bombed and earthquake-flattened cities, it produced a mixture of modernist dead zones, with vast plazas framed by oppressive megastructures and more-humane new versions of old towns.

Yugoslavia barely figures in the Western Euro-American account of modern architecture, and one of the curators’ missions is to overturn a modern canon that MoMA helped codify. They have plenty to work with. An international conclave of architects converged on Skopje, Macedonia, after its near-total obliteration in a 1963 earthquake. Among the results was the Macedonian Opera and Ballet, designed in 1968 by Štefan Kacin, Jurij Princes, Bogdan Splinder, and Marjan Uršic. With its ice-white structure made of layered shards that seems to be tilting into the Vardar River, it could practically be a first draft of the opera house in Oslo that Snøhetta designed decades later. In a show crammed with self-consciously important projects, it’s refreshing to recall that Westerners went to Yugoslavia to have fun. Croatia’s limpid waters and low prices made it a popular destination for Brits, Germans, and Scandinavians on holiday. The curators play up the pop sensibilities of the ’60s, even setting up a restored fire-engine-red K67, a once-ubiquitous prefabricated kiosk that variously served as ski-lift booth, street-food stand, and cobbler’s shop.

I went through the show toggling between elation and despair. It’s impossible to savor this treasury of high-order designs and earnest architectural experiments without thinking about how the story ended. MoMA alludes to the tragedy of the 1990s but declines to wallow in it. Original drawings and models are interspersed with Valentin Jeck’s recent, haunting black-and-white photos of the same projects as scarred survivors. The Haludovo Palace Hotel opened in the early 1970s, on the island of Krk in Croatia, a gleaming hospitality hill town with a white postmodern castle, rooms arrayed across the steep slope, and an opulent jet-age lobby. The complex, like other megahotels that spilled down the jagged Dalmatian coast, signaled Yugoslavia’s openness — to tourists (and their currency), leisure, landscape, fantasy, and the free mixing of local and foreign vacationers. Bob Guccione, the Penthouse publisher, invested $45 million and promoted it as a hedonists’ Eden. Later, the Haludovo became a shelter for refugees, who sacked it. Today, it’s a ruin, its pool dry.

The show argues that building a socialist society left room for ethnic difference not by artifice or coercion but through decentralization. Tito was a paradoxical strongman. He ruled for nearly 30 years yet also imposed the principle of self-management on workers, teachers, and residents. At first, Bosnian, Slovenian, Serbian, Croatian, Kosovan, and Montenegrin architects converged on Belgrade to study with teachers who had done stints in the United States, Paris, and Vienna. Later, they established schools of their own. The result was architecture of wild diversity. In 1957, Dusan Grabijan and Juraj Neidhardt published Architecture of Bosnia and the Way to Modernity (with a foreword by Le Corbusier), in which they argued that the classic Balkan house — horizontal, spare, efficient, and clear — stood ready for the aesthetic of modernism. The National Library of Kosovo in Pristina, an assemblage of concrete cubes topped with hemispheric domes and wrapped in fine aluminum mesh, invokes Byzantine, Ottoman, and Islamic styles, distilled into a rigorously modernist composition. To Western eyes, this library, designed in 1971 by Andrija Mutnjakovic, resonates with better-known works that came years later: I. M. Pei’s Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, Jean Nouvel’s metal-screened Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris.

Civil war made the idea of Yugoslavian unity seem doomed in retrospect, a duct-tape-and-rubber-band fix for the centrifugal forces that were constantly pulling the country apart. Memorials were destroyed or left to rot. In 2016, Jeck, the photographer, visited the 1979 Monument to the Uprising of the People of Kordun and Banija, in Petrova Gora, Croatia, a sinuous amoeboid tower rising above two squiggly arms that looked vaguely apocalyptic even when it was new. Now, its skeleton partly visible through the flayed stainless-steel cladding, this mountaintop creature could be left over from a Blade Runner set.

At the heart of this gloom-dogged show is an urgent challenge to those of us who believe that architecture gets its meaning from participation in a social program. MoMA’s curators see Yugoslavia as an inspiring chapter in purposeful design that improved lives and fostered hope. You might also see it as a moralizing tale about the danger of high-minded intentions and architectural arrogance. There, as in so many fallen nations, the symbols of one ideology became the targets of another. What each generation builds with pride eventually commemorates its follies.

Toward a Concrete Utopia: Architecture in Yugoslavia, 1948–1980, Museum of Modern Art, through January 13, 2019.

*This article appears in the July 23, 2018, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

MoMA’s Revelatory Tribute to Yugoslavia’s ‘Concrete Utopia’