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Modernism in Serbia: The Elusive Margins of Belgrade Architecture, 1919-1941

June 14, 2009

Modernism in Serbia: The Elusive Margins of Belgrade Architecture, 1919-1941

By Ljiljana Blagojevic

MIT Press (2003), 300 pp.

Reviewed by Chris Deliso

Architecture has long commanded public attention in the Balkans. Swedish diplomats lament the low-quality granite used not long ago to create public thoroughfares in Kosovo €“ itself an experiment in building €“ and organized debates are sparked by talk of an enormous Alexander the Great statue in Skopje.

Given the continuing controversy that characterizes much of the dialogue around architecture in the Balkans today, it is a bit refreshing to take a moment out and appreciate the achievements of an earlier time, the controversies surrounding which have long subsided.

As such, readers may turn to Modernism in Serbia: The Elusive Margins of Belgrade Architecture, 1919-1941, an attractively designed tome that’ss a mix between textbook and coffee-table set piece. From the minimalist font (Gotham) cloaking taut prose to the exacting sketches of once-experimental constructions, the book reflects the aesthetic of the early 20th-century structures pictured in the book, many of which have not survived or are in disrepair.

By any standard, this is a remarkable book. Written by Serbian architect and Belgrade University lecturer Ljiljana Blagojevic, Modernism in Serbia: The Elusive Margins of Belgrade Architecture, 1919-1941 is much more than a treatise on old buildings and their structural integrity. Indeed, it has just as much to do with defining the intellectual integrity of those who envisioned, designed and agitated for the building of livable urban artworks which, by virtue of their very existence, reflected specific currents in philosophical thought.

Whether or not one likes the architecture itself, in this era of cheap (though expensive) nationalist kitsch and the apparently unstoppable reflective blue glass that forms the outer shield of so many Balkan urban buildings today, one has to admire the Serbian modernists for at least trying to be guided by loftier thoughts.

To be sure, this is a book that is on the must-read list for students of architecture and Balkan urbanists, though for this reason it will appeal to anyone intrigued by the history of thought and social movements in the modern Balkans. And it makes for an attractive and useful conversation-starter if spread discreetly across one’ss coffee table when, say, trying to impress a first-time date.

The author tells the story of Belgrade Modernist architecture in five carefully composed chapters, beginning with the context of the outside (mainly, French) condescension of local architecture in the period of the Balkan Wars through to the dwindling of Modernism following the ascendancy of Tito and his Communist ethos.

Along the way, Blagojevic documents the works and tells the fascinating personal stories of the major architects, men such as Nikola Dobrovic, Dragisa Brasovan and Milan Zlokovic. She also follows the course of the intellectual movements (such as Zenitism) which captivated such figures and inspired them to rebel against their confines, thus telling an intimate story that has never been told, using images that have never been seen outside of Serbia (in some cases, not at all).

Along with the numerous illustrations, there are extensive tables with population and construction statistics, indicating the author’ss multi-dimensional approach to considering architecture in light of the broader socio-economic development of the Serbian capital. Her text is thus useful to a wider range of social scientists.

In conclusion, this book is a real pleasure to read, or just admire. It is wittier than might be expected, and especially fascinating when quoting the architects and foreigners alike; their observations and interpretations of life in the Balkans, as seen through a common focus on aesthetics, add to the greater historical record and attest to the final era in which humans would prize qualitative, rather than quantitative values highest of all. That said, though Modernism in Serbia: The Elusive Margins of Belgrade Architecture, 1919-1941 is not an inexpensive book, it is one to have and to hold.

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