The Cement Mixer as Muse

A Socialist state’s postwar buildings burst with ambition and invention. Monument to the Battle of the Sutjeska, Tjentiste, Bosnia and Herzegovina, photographed by Valentin Jeck for the exhibition “Toward a Concrete Utopia: Architecture in Yugoslavia, 1948-1980” at the Museum of Modern Art.

Some of us still get a little hazy about the seven nations in the lower right corner of Europe, east of Italy and north of Greece. So here’s a quick refresher: Slovenia is the birthplace of the hipster philosopher Slavoj Zizek and the American first lady; Croatia, a World Cup finalist with distinctive checkerboard jerseys, pulls holidaymakers to the Adriatic coast; European yachts are sailing further south, to little Montenegro, which just had a moment in the news; Belgrade, the capital of Serbia, is on a museum upswing; Sarajevo, at the heart of Bosnia, is a hub of cafe culture; Macedonia has finally settled its naming dispute and is knocking on the door of the European Union; and Kosovo is the ancestral home of Europe’s biggest pop star of the moment, Dua Lipa.

Before 1991, when old enmities savagely resurfaced, these seven countries were part of a single federal republic — Yugoslavia — with ethnicities, religions and language groups under a single overarching roof. “Toward a Concrete Utopia: Architecture in Yugoslavia, 1948-1980,” an outstanding new exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, brings us back to this vanished Socialist state, whose postwar architecture had all the ambition and invention found in the United States, Brazil, Japan and other centers of building at the time.

From Ljubljana in the northwest to Skopje in the south, Yugoslavia’s cities served as public expressions of political reinvention, while huge, abstract anti-Fascist monuments, markers of national unity but also artistic independence, dotted the countryside. This nimble, continuously surprising show is exactly how MoMA should be thinking as it prepares to occupy its expanded home — looking beyond its traditional geographic infatuations, diving into fields too little researched and putting its standard narrative of 20th-century art and design under constructive pressure.

“Toward a Concrete Utopia” is the first major MoMA outing for Martino Stierli, who became the museum’s chief curator of architecture and design in 2015, and who collaborated with the guest curator Vladimir Kulic on both the show and a fine catalog (printed in Slovenia!). Its more than 400 objects, along with specially commissioned films and photographs, cohere into an eloquent array of civic buildings and public monuments, even if in places the show lists a little too far into Yugonostalgia and Socialist chic. Too rarely among architecture shows, it’s also a pleasure to look at, with sketches, blueprints and historical documents, but also newly built models and drone flyover footage of Bosnian mosques and Croatian resorts.

Yugoslavia was forged from the rubble of World War I and became a one-party Socialist state after World War II. But here’s the critical point: It was not behind the Iron Curtain. In 1948, Josip Broz Tito broke with the Soviet leadership and steered Yugoslavia to a unique hybrid status that rejected both Stalinism and liberal democracy. Later, Yugoslavia took the lead in the Nonaligned Movement, whose first summit meeting was held in Belgrade in 1961. “Toward a Concrete Utopia” starts there: We see three briskly edited films celebrating the erection of New Belgrade, a Brasília-style extension of Yugoslavia’s federal capital with large-scale Brutalist projects like the Genex Tower, a pair of concrete high-rises linked by a sky bridge with a revolving restaurant.

The country’s balancing act between East and West, between freedom and authoritarianism, played out in architecture of daring individuality, even as it embodied collective ambitions that Yugoslavs called “the social standard.” In Revolution Square in Ljubljana (today renamed Republic Square), the Slovenian architect Edvard Ravnikar built a pair of audacious office towers whose concrete expanses recall Le Corbusier and Breuer, but whose decorative, oversized rivets hark back to Viennese predecessors. The National and University Library of Kosovo, built in Pristina by Andrija Mutnjakovic and still in use, is a mad agglutination of concrete cubes topped by 99 hemispherical domes, inspired by Islamic architecture as much as by Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic experiments.

As Mr. Stierli writes in the catalog, the country’s dynamic building culture, informed as much by Western architectural discourse as by Socialist economic principles, was “only possible under the unique geopolitical conditions Yugoslavia found itself in during the Cold War.” Yugoslav architects traveled to world’s fairs such as Expo 58 in Brussels, where the Croatian polymath Vjenceslav Richter stunned the crowds with a multistory glass pavilion whose lightness clearly contrasted with its Soviet-style neighbors. Yugoslavia’s neither-nor position also gave its architects an edge for international building projects. This show includes fascinating documents of large-scale Nigerian infrastructure works, some masterminded by Milica Steric, one of the few women in the first rank of postwar European architects.

Ambitions were greatest in New Belgrade and in Skopje, the Macedonian capital, which was leveled by a 1963 earthquake that killed more than 1,000 people. Local architects rebuilt the city with colleagues from both sides of the Iron Curtain, including Japanese architects like Kenzo Tange who were exploring the expressive capabilities of concrete building in a language they called Metabolism. Only a few of their boldest plans were realized, but those that were — such as Janko Konstantinov’s Telecommunications Center, with its porthole-punctured expanses of concrete — expressed a headlong confidence in the future with none of the statist oppressiveness that still clings to our Cold War-vintage stereotypes of “Eastern Europe.”

The exhibition presents this Skopje building not only with archival plans and drawings, but also with a contemporary model and two large, newly commissioned photographs. They were shot at night by the artist Valentin Jeck, with dramatic lighting accentuating the building’s stained surface and yellowed glass. Mr. Jeck has produced more than three dozen other photographs for the show and its catalog; some have an impressive gravity, such as his stately views of the Pristina library and the sparely elegant White Mosque in Visoko, Bosnia. A few too many, though, fall into Brutalist sentimentality, with graffiti-strewn concrete and ominous cloudy skies that edge into ruin porn.

Indeed, for all its brilliance “Toward a Concrete Utopia” can get a little rose-colored in places; utopias, after all, don’t really exist. Yugoslavia was the most liberal of Socialist republics, and an easier place to be an independent artist or architect than the Soviet Union, Romania, Albania or even East Germany. In the mid-1960s, Tito dumped the command economy and introduced a market Socialism that birthed affordable household designs, such as the Minirama television, whose rounded edges were clad in orange plastic. A winning montage of ’60s Yugoslav movies sutures scenes of parties and love affairs in the new towers that arose in cities and at the seaside.

But it wasn’t paradise. Tito commanded a fearsome secret police organization. Ethnic, religious, and linguistic tensions never fully disappeared. 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. At MoMA you will see a slide show of mod beach resorts on Croatia’s fashionable coast, by local architects and even by Edward Durell Stone, who designed MoMA’s first building. What you won’t see is the island that housed political prisoners offshore.

One of the main focuses of Yugonostalgia today is the hundreds of spomeniks, or memorial monuments, most built to commemorate the victory over Fascism and to honor the one million Yugoslavs killed in World War II. In contrast to the Socialist Realist gigantism elsewhere in the East (think of “The Motherland Calls,” the 280-foot swordswoman who towers over Volgograd, Russia), these concrete spomeniks aimed to unify multiethnic Yugoslavia through futuristic abstraction. One Bosnian monument dramatizes a siege using concrete blocks grouped around a hollow cylinder. Another, which Mr. Jeck has photographed under a blanket of snow, comprises two massive chevrons that edge together, then shear apart.

For better or worse the show cuts off at 1980: before the Winter Olympics of 1984, and before the breakup of the country that brought the world’s attention to Sarajevo for much grimmer reasons. Yet “Toward a Concrete Utopia” offers an oblique coda to this age of construction through an excerpt from “A Hole in the Head,” a 2016 documentary film by the Slovak director Robert Kirchhoff. We see three men standing in the snow beneath one of these Socialist relics in Croatia, a huge concrete flower on the site of a Fascist-run death camp where tens of thousands of Serbs, Jews and Roma lost their lives during World War II. The men walk toward the monument, talking of the horrors that arise when one group considers another to be less than human. But maybe they are not talking about World War II. Maybe they are talking about the massacres to come, of people that one character calls “not worthy to be counted.”

I spent a while looking at a map here, made in 1975, that pinpoints hundreds of these anti-Fascist monuments, scattered evenly across borders the cartographer had no idea would rise again. By a river in the east of Bosnia I found a marker of a spomenik in the shape of a broad cube, and the name of the nearby mountain town: Srebrenica, site of the worst massacre in Europe since World War II. The land beneath these concrete towers is blood-soaked, and perhaps it is no surprise that Croatia’s footballers did not draw much support from neighboring countries. But before the wars and the splintering, there was a grander future in view, molded in glass and concrete.

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