Now and Then

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Yugoslav, Post-War

As with many post-war European countries Yugoslavia was in the position of needing to rejuvenate its economy, industrializing urban regions through factory and office construction and not least of all housing the workforce. Consequently, urban populations grew rapidly as did the demand for flats, houses and offices etc. Unfortunately, the underdeveloped building technology was not equal to the necessary requirements of housing the increasing numbers of workers and their families. The process of addressing the building shortage involved redeveloping construction technologies and harmonizing them and the building designs to the methods of the available industrial production systems.

The first structures were relatively satisfactory in terms of their size and levels of equipment and broadly were designed to house the working class. Buildings were generally massive constructions utilising inefficient reinforced masonry fabrication processes. This so called ‘classic’ building system was the primary mechanism of production, involving casting supporting pillars on site as either a skeletal frame or supporting walls in combination with brick layers.

This method of production could not keep pace with the level of demand and consequently alternative solutions were sought in the form of Scandinavian, French and Russian technological innovations. For most part this meant developing prefabricated construction processes. Although Yugoslavia was effectively ten years behind its contemporaries in establishing more efficient building procedures, its construction companies wasted no time including the new production techniques into practice.

A greatly increased level of construction projects during what could be described as the first phase of mass urbanization in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s in part contributed to the lucrative emergence of the construction industry as a powerful sector of the economy. The Yugoslav economic reforms of the 1960’s subsequently helped to reinforce the influence of the building firms on the built environment. In conjunction with the established large architectural offices the development of technical processes became more advanced, but at the expense of design innovation. Throughout this period, (casually known as ‘crane urbanism’) the effects of the technological developments were most pronounced on housing throughout all the regions of Yugoslavia. This period manifested itself in the production of housing blocks and estates that were typologically uniform and almost perceptibly identical environments. Though not exactly archetypal representations of the ideals of modernism, they were however solidly constructed and well organised with relatively large public spaces.

Socialist Yugoslavia has been described as one of the most complicated countries in the world, a nation of four religions, two alphabets and three languages.

Construction companies from this period to the mid 1980’s began to diversify in regard to building technology. Large panel systems became a useful method of fabrication, as this could be easily adapted from the existing ‘classic’ building method as large concrete panels could be cast on site to specific architectural requirements. This system was usually employed in multi-story buildings made up of concrete panels connecting horizontal and vertical planes resulting in the panels enclosing the required room dimensions within the building. Both the horizontal and vertical components act to resist gravitational load in a box like structure. When fastened appropriately, the horizontal slabs act as a diaphragm transferring lateral loads to the walls.

Accordingly, there are three fundamental arrangements of large panel buildings. In the longitudinal-wall system, walls resisting lateral loads and gravity are positioned in a longitudinal direction. On the other hand, the cross-wall system requires the main walls to resist gravity; lateral loads being positioned in the shorter direction of the building. In the two-way system walls are placed in both directions.

On the face of it the Yugoslav industrialization process was a comparatively straightforward implementation of technological processes in a diverse range of construction projects throughout Yugoslavia. Inevitably the actuality ‘on the ground’ was at variance with the aspirations of policy makers. The lack of a sufficiently trained workforce, limited funding, poor technical prefabrication systems and machinery all contributed to the unsuccessful meeting of deadlines and required standards of the centralized planned economy.

The up side of this situation was that much improvisation was required to complete construction projects. Architects, companies and workers needed to think on their feet and in many cases finish the job the ‘old efficient way’, for example laying bricks or building custom moulds to enable craftsmen to make the structure ‘more beautiful’. Consequently, Yugoslav modernism demonstrates many examples of custom made architecture and though not typical of the spirit of modernization it is quite representative of a communal approach to the modernist motif. In actuality the failure of the construction industry to industrialise itself led to the inception of what would prove to be the Yugoslav architectural brand, that being its non-uniformity.

This non-uniformity characterized the Yugoslav architectural cultural model. It was not a product of centralized planning, more of a legacy of its constituent regions. The first three architecture schools were established in Belgrade in 1897, Zagreb in 1919, Ljubijana 1920, followed by Sarajevo 1949, Skopje 1949 and Pristina at the beginning of the 1980’s. The Montenegro University’s Faculty of Architecture was not established until 2002. Joze Plecnik was a founder member of the Ljubijana school and is regarded to be the architect that gave the city its modern identity. Ljubijana’s urban development is still based on principles initiated by Plecnik.

Although there were distinctive architectural cultures within the regional schools, they were all united by the socialist modernization agenda, Throughout the post war period till the collapse of Yugoslavia the schools advocated a modernist ideology, but correspondingly drew on local cultures, traditions and vernacular forms. Each had varying international affiliations with leading architects and faculties such as Zagreb with the Netherlands, Skopje with the U.S.A. and Ljubijana with Scandinavia. The Slovene republic nevertheless maintained its idiosyncratic design legacy with the formation of subversive art groups such as Neue Slowenische Kunst (NSK). The NSK were generally associated with emotive and ironic juxtaposing images of Nazi and Yugoslav symbols of political ideology.

However, architects for most part worked within their own republics under the auspices of the professional organisations, which were organized in accordance with the requirements of the individual republics. Relationships between the regional bodies ebbed and flowed, but consistently united behind the modernization programme. Occasionally one republic would produce more unique prize winning designs for a given period such as the Ljubijana School in the 1960’s and 1970’s. There was also a degree of parochialism in most of the republics, but this for most part was transcended by shared projects, competitions and exhibitions at the federal level.

In the aftermath of the dissolution of Yugoslavia many of the achievements of the Yugoslav age of modernization have been ignored in a return to traditionalism, usually accompanied by political regression. Nevertheless, in recent years’ stakeholders and actors are once more initiating the cultural and economic connections that were suspended after the collapse of Yugoslavia. To a degree, there is a process of detoxification of the regions shared socialist past and new real estate actors are influencing the development of the built environment. Partly in response to the deregulation of planning procedures and comparatively benign political normalization, there has been significant foreign investment and a corresponding housing boom prior to the 2007-2008 financial crisis.

Against this backdrop it is argued that the lessons of previous uncompleted modernism seem superior to the current situation in terms of concepts and urban development, but also regarding the politics of public space which are becoming less and less about the public good. Accordingly, they reason that the occasional distinctive design indicates a continuity of an architectural culture and current research highlights the role of community participation in affecting the urban development.

Yugoslavia was the in-between state of the cold war period. Its initial connectedness with Russia gave rise to a domestic reaction against attempts to impose the ideology of Soviet realism. The Yugoslav relationship with modernism was a statement of cultural freedom and following the break from Russia distinguished Yugoslav architectural form from its socialist counterparts. Ultimately the Yugoslav model of modernism reflected its national independence and outward looking political values. Moreover, this lead to Yugoslavia punching above its weight as a global actor, a situation that lead to the nation hosting a series of international events. As such, Dubrovnik played host to the ‘10th Congress of CIAM’ in the August of 1956. Sadly, many of the innovations or alternative approaches associated with the socialist past are dismissed as utopian idealism and in most cases pure pragmatism is the default urban development paradigm.

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