Sunday 22 September 2013

Serbian modernism - a forgotten heritage

Like many European countries, Serbia (then as part of Yugoslavia) was a centre of immense creativity and artistic endeavour during the 1920's and 1930's. Writers, artists and above all, architects gathered in Belgrade and other cities in the newly formed country and although much has been lost or damaged, a great deal of their legacy remains today. This post will cover a few of my favourite examples of Serbia's remaining modernist architecture.

During the 1920's, Belgrade underwent rapid development in response to significant population growth. A battle ensued between supporters of the more traditional national style and those who advocated a move to modernism. The modernist camp included many young newcomers to the city, several of whom joined the Group of Architects of the Modern Movement of Belgrade (GAMM) which was formed in November 1928. The founding members were Milan Zlokovic (president), Branislav Kojic, Jan Dubovy and Dusan Babic. Each occupied positions in academia or in the city authority whilst also working on their own projects. GAMM was a loose organisation and the four held their meetings in a range of cafes (good choice!) The group survived through its own financial contributions and the pooling of a percentage of any winnings from architectural competitions. Costs were kept down by co-operating with artists Sreten Stojanovic and Branko Popovic, mixing art and architecture in a number of exhibitions.

Over time, more young architects became attached to this movement, including Dragisa Brasovan who joined the group in 1930. Born in Vrsac, Serbia in 1887, Brasovan was already a successful architect when he joined, having worked previously in the historical style. A number of his buildings still survive in Belgrade and I was able to see two of them on my recent visit.

Apartment block, Brankova Street, Belgrade. Dragisa Brasovan, 1932.
His apartment block on busy Brankova Street, with retail properties on the ground floor and residential above is one of my favourite modernist Belgrade buildings. I especially like the central recess with its balconies (at least one of which has been filled in - grrr!), the clean lines and curves, reminiscent of some of Tel Aviv's Bauhaus apartment blocks and the triangular glass and metal art deco feature at the top of the recess. Francuska Street is home to another Brasovan designed apartment block. In slightly better condition than the Brankova Street beauty, the upper floors appear to have been re-clad in recent years in lighter colours, whilst the top floor looks suspiciously like an addition to the original building - but I am happy to hear otherwise if readers know better? I like the striped pillars on the balconies of this impressive corner block.

Apartment block, Francuska Street, Belgrade. Dragisa Brasovan, 1931.
One of the richest areas for modernist architecture in Belgrade is a small circus called Kosancicev Venac Street which faces the entrance to another treasure trove - Marsala Birjuzova Street. The circus features three modernist apartment buildings on separate islands, each with a cafe at ground floor level. My favourite of the three, and possibly my favourite building in Belgrade, is the Miladin Prljevic designed apartment block pictured below. A seven storey building at its tallest, it includes art deco style portholes on one aspect, five parallel columns on the main aspect and those pull down shutters that can still be seen on many buildings in Belgrade. Unfortunately it also features a number of ugly air conditioning units but even these cannot detract from the grandeur of Prljevic's work which was completed in 1938.  

Apartment block, Kosancicev Venac Street, Belgrade, Miladin Prljevic, 1938.
Just across the road in Marsala Birjuzova Street there are several buildings worthy of a visit. Two are of particular interest. At number 21, is the Lektres building, designed by GAMM founder member, Dusan Babic. Built in 1931, drawings for this apartment block were included in the First Yugoslav Salon of Contemporary Architecture in Belgrade in the same year. One contemporary critic noted that "a constant exploration and development can be felt" in the design. Today, the Lektres building is in dire need of a clean, but its asymmetrical facade, with decorative features on one side and its large decorative panels between the windows of the apartments still demand attention. 

Babic was born in Banja Luka in 1896 when the city was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He studied at the Technische Hochschule in Vienna before working in Sarajevo for the municipal construction bureau before coming to Belgrade in 1928 - just two years before helping to found the GAMM. At least one observer described him as being quiet, calm and composed in contrast to his co-founders who may have had more compulsive personalities! 

Another apartment block in Marsala Birjuzova Street, this one the work of architect Djuro Borosic and completed in 1932 is also attention grabbing. The series of balconies and decorative stripes on the facade give some clues to its original splendour, but like its near neighbour the Lektres building, it needs a good clean and the ground floor level graffiti removing. It also has a number of the dreaded air conditioning units on display on the front of the building and satellite dishes on the roof. Whilst walking through this area, I noted the similarities to Bucharest and the wonderful collection of modernist buildings in that great city.

Apartment building, Marsala Birjuzova Street. Dusan Babic, 1931.
Apartment building, Marsala Birjuzova Street, Belgrade. Djuro Borosic, 1932
The apartment block of Dr. Duric, designed by Branislav Kojic and located in Prizrenska Street, is regarded as one of the best examples of modernism in Belgrade. Located on a very tight and sloping site adjacent to the busy Terazije Square and with a view of the River Sava on one side.  The balconies and the portholes on the rear of the apartment block again give this building a Bauhaus feel and like several buildings from this period, has retail spaces on the ground floor with residential accommodation on the upper floors. A number of passers-by stopped to see what I was photographing when taking pictures of the block. One or two paused and showed interest, whilst others merely rolled their eyes or shrugged their shoulders wondering what the fuss was about - evidence of the lack of knowledge about the built heritage of this city.

Apartment block of Dr. Duric, Prizrenska Street, Belgrade. Branislav Kojic, 1933
The Albania Palace stands just a short walk from Kojic's apartment block. It was completed in 1940 under the direction of Miladin Prljevic and Dorde Lazarevic based on a 1938 project by Branko Bon and Milan Grakalic. At 53 metres tall, it was the first high rise building in Belgrade and remained the city's tallest building for some time. It takes its name from the kafana that previously occupied this space and is an important building for a number of reasons. The Red Army and Yugoslav partisan forces placed the red flag there on October 20th 1944 when the city was liberated from German occupation  whilst in the 1950's the facade was decorated with banners carrying slogans and portraits of former Yugoslav leader Marshall Tito. The Palace, with its slightly concave front marks the beginning of Terazije Square and also of Knez Mihailova Street - the city's main pedestrian thoroughfare and remains an important point of reference and orientation.

Albania Palace, Belgrade. Branko Bon, Milan Grakalic, Dorde Lazarevic and Miladin Prljevic, 1938-40.
The examples so far quoted are all in Belgrade, but Novi Sad, just one hour further north, and Serbia's second city also boasts some significant modernist buildings. The Tanurdzic Palace at 1-3 Modena Street was designed by architect Dorde Tabakovic. Commissioned by merchant Nikola Tanurdzic, it was built between 1933 and 1934 with an extension being added in 1939. This five storeyed building in the busy commercial centre of Novi Sad still looks extremely modern today with its visually pleasing lines, curves and colours standing out on the main thoroughfare. Part of the Palace is currently covered in scaffolding. Let's hope that nothing is going to be done to spoil this beautiful building through "improvement". 

Tabakovic was born in 1897 in Arad, Romania to a Serbian family. He studied in Budapest and Belgrade and designed a number of residential buildings across the Vojdovina province as well as a children's home, a library and several Serbian Orthodox churches. His father, Milan was also an architect who worked across what is today northern Serbia as well as Banat in Romania.

Tanurdzic Palace, Novi Sad. Dorde Tabakovic, 1933-34.
The Tanurdzic palace is a large building, but it is dwarfed by Novi Sad's other significant modernist building - the Palace of the Danube Regional Government, designed by our old friend Dragisa Brasovan. The largest and most expensive of his works, Brasovan was directly appointed to design this regional government building following an abortive design competition in 1930 which failed to produce a winner. The next few years saw financial crisis and political instability in the regional government and it was not until 1936 that Brasovan completed his designs and work began.

The most striking feature of this building is its monumental 180 metres long horizontal body, rounded at one end and complemented with a slender vertical tower. It was Brasovan's original intention to clad the facades in red brick but the client demanded instead a white stone from the Adriatic island of Brac. 120,000 square metres of the stone were required to complete this task. The plainness of this enormous white building is broken by the curve and the tower but also by some of the art deco influenced decorative features on the doors and the windows as well as the parallel piped forms on the tower. Construction was finally completed in 1939, almost a decade after the project was first mooted.

Palace of the Danube Regional Government, Novi Sad. Dragisa Brasovan, 1936-39.
Detail of doorway, Palace of the Danube Regional Government, Novi Sad.
There are many more examples of modernist architecture in Belgrade and possibly others elsewhere in Serbia and readers are invited to share their knowledge of them. I would like to note my thanks to Milan Prosen and Davor Salom in putting together some of the details for this post and also to direct interested users to an excellent website - Nothing Against Serbia, which is an excellent source of information about Serbian architecture generally. Ljiljana Blagojevic's book Modernism In Serbia is a probably the bible on this subject and was also extremely useful in identifying, dates, architects and other data.

If you enjoyed this post you might also like these:
Belgrade, secret star of the Balkans
Modernism, an elegant swimming pool and Red Vienna
Modernist Riga - architectural treasures from the 1930's 

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