The Memorial to the Fallen of the Lješanska Nahija Region, designed by Svetlana Kana Radević, stands on a small hill in Barutana, Montenegro. Concrete tendrils rise into the air, stained by time and weather; they might signify a torch, or a flower, or hands stretched upward. On one side of the torch-flower are evenly spaced concrete stools. They look like the petrified stumps of trees—mute spectators. The central monument, which sits at the top of the hill, is approached via three smaller circular alcoves containing groves of concrete stems, like plants that have been cut with a sharp blade. In aerial photos and in Radević’s beautifully rendered plans for the complex, the network of rings looks like a diagram of a molecule.
The “fallen” being commemorated are the Yugoslavs killed in the First Balkan War (1912–1913)—Montenegro was the first of the Balkan League nations to declare war against the Ottomans—and in the two world wars. Yugoslavia had some of the highest national casualties per capita during World War II, which brought not only its occupation by Axis powers and resistance by Communist partisans and other factions, but also a conflict among Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes. The Communist partisan fighters were unique in their belief that ideology trumped ethnic or national identity. When the Communists emerged victorious at the end of the war, they faced the task of restoring the fragile harmony of the South Slavs—Serbs, Croats, Slovenes, Bosniaks, Macedonians, and Montenegrins—that had been established in 1918 by the formation of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia and then shattered by the war.
Architecture, monuments, and infrastructure served to stimulate interregional travel and establish a shared public memory. They were important parts of Yugoslavia’s effort to establish a federation that allowed for the peaceful coexistence of its citizens. The state encouraged domestic tourism and communal leisure as ways of building patriotism and bringing about “friendship of the peoples” (to borrow a Soviet term) through shared vacations. Every Yugoslav worker had the right to two weeks of paid holiday every year, while the government launched an educational campaign celebrating the virtues of holidays spent away from home.
One of the first major building projects undertaken after the war was the “Highway of Brotherhood and Unity,” which connected Belgrade and Zagreb, Serbs and Croats. Thousands of memorials around Yugoslavia commemorated wartime casualties: the deaths of fighters from different factions and of civilians alike were registered as sacrifices in the name of liberation and socialism.1 The Memorial to the Fallen was a late example of this genre, opening just after the death of Yugoslavia’s longtime president, Josip Broz Tito, in 1980—little more than a decade before war began again in the region.
“Skirting the Center: Svetlana Kana Radević on the Periphery of Postwar Architecture,” an exhibit at this year’s Venice Architecture Biennale, grew out of research conducted for MoMA’s 2018 show “Toward a Concrete Utopia: Architecture in Yugoslavia, 1948–1980.” Anna Kats, who co-curated “Skirting the Center” with Dijana Vučinić and was also an assistant curator of “Toward a Concrete Utopia,” explained in The Architectural Review how the drawings, photos, and documents included in “Skirting the Center” were discovered in the spare bedroom of Radević’s cousin, also an architect, in Petrovac-na-Moru, Montenegro.2 Like the MoMA exhibit, “Skirting the Center” seeks to show how original, groundbreaking, and progressive Yugoslav architecture really was. It also aims to restore the reputation of one of the world’s first major female architects.
Born in 1937, Radević was raised in Cetinje, the medieval Montenegrin capital, and in Podgorica. She studied architecture and art history at the University of Belgrade. “Skirting the Center” includes some of her student sketches, which show her gift for imaginative illustration as well as for architectural design. In 1964, only a year after graduating, Radević won a competition to design the Hotel Podgorica. Finished in 1967, it is a triumphant yet subtle merging of modernism and the vernacular, tenderly adapted to the peculiarities of its place. The low, sinuous building follows the curves of the steep bank of the Morača River. Stones from the river are embedded in the façade, using a stonemasonry method traditional in Montenegro. Out of this pebbled surface—half riverbed, half medieval fortress—rise the neat, strangely delicate rectangles of concrete balconies, some of which have square cut-outs that cast geometric shadows. They slope upward, another echo of the riverbank. Across the river are the remains of a settlement established by the Ottomans in the fifteenth century, connecting the structure to Montenegrin history.
The Hotel Podgorica’s rooms are small and modest, hardly the building’s main attraction. Instead, the focal point is its massive, cantilevered terraces, suspended over the river, which allow guests to survey the landscape. Tourism sites of this era, which were owned and operated by the government or by worker cooperatives, brought people from many backgrounds together, attracting not only tourists but also locals who visited the hotel restaurants, bars, terraces, and beaches, which were open to everyone. They could mingle with guests, who might have come from other areas of Yugoslavia or from abroad. (The exception was hotel casinos, which were closed to Yugoslav citizens.) Prices were controlled, and thus relatively affordable for average people. Despite privatization (and an unfortunate renovation that has left the interiors looking like a Holiday Inn), the hotel remains a popular place for locals to congregate; it has maintained its communal function.
In 1968 Radević won the Federal Borba Prize for the Hotel Podgorica. This was the highest architectural honor in Yugoslavia; she was its youngest laureate ever and the only woman to win the prize, for her very first building. As Kats wrote in The Architectural Review, the Borba Prize “turned architecture into a media spectacle.” Not yet thirty, Radević became a celebrity, the only famous female architect in a world of men. Kats observes that many of the photos from her archive show her accepting awards or making speeches before smiling, all-male groups.
Radević’s work was an outstanding contribution to the cosmopolitan modernist movement in Yugoslav architecture, which had been around for decades. In the early twentieth century Yugoslav architecture had been influenced by trends in Prague and Vienna, in particular by the Austrian Adolf Loos, who wrote a series of polemical essays in which he denounced useless ornamentation (his most famous essay is called “Ornament and Crime”) and argued that beauty should stem organically from function.
Soon Yugoslav architects established links with the Congrès internationaux d’architecture moderne (CIAM), founded in 1928 by Le Corbusier and others. Several Yugoslav architects worked at Le Corbusier’s Paris studio during the interwar period, bringing home what they learned. In the 1940s Le Corbusier’s Unité d’habitation model of mass housing—in which a single exposed concrete-frame building included not only hundreds of apartments but also a shopping street, a restaurant, a kindergarten, and sports facilities—exerted particular influence on Yugoslav designs for communal living. In the 1950s British Brutalists and Dutch Structuralists formed a CIAM splinter group, Team 10; this, too, influenced Yugoslav architecture, primarily via the Rotterdam studio of Team 10 leaders Johannes van den Broek and Jacob Bakema. In stark contrast to the USSR, Yugoslavia made creative independence for artists part of its ideology, though there was still censorship.
Yugoslav architecture drank from the stream of the international avant-garde, and the results were very different from the heavy neoclassicism or utilitarianism of much postwar Soviet architecture. The catalog for “Toward a Concrete Utopia” includes a passage from the New York Times correspondent Harrison Salisbury comparing Soviet and Yugoslav architecture in 1957:
To a visitor from eastern Europe a stroll in Belgrade is like walking out of a grim barracks of ferro-concrete into a light and imaginative world of pastel buildings, “flying saucers,” and Italianate patios.
This bright, enticing architecture was politically useful to Yugoslavia, which used such projects to promote its image as the world’s least repressive, most open-minded and open-bordered iteration of state socialism—“Coca-Cola socialism,” as it was sometimes called. In the 1950s MoMA sent a major traveling show—the first of several—called “Modern Art in the United States” to Yugoslavia, where it was a hit. (At the 1957 Zagreb Fair, the US displayed an American-style supermarket, whose self-service model soon caught on in Yugoslavia; the USSR chose to showcase its machinery.) In 1959 the Belgrade Museum of Contemporary Art was founded using an organizational model explicitly based on MoMA’s. If America could use art as soft power, so could Yugoslavia.
The Soviet Thaw, the period of relative liberalization that followed the death of Stalin, had diminished Yugoslavia’s strategic significance. In response, Tito joined the Indian prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru and the Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser in issuing the 1956 Brioni statement, which planted the seeds of the Non-Aligned Movement that was formally established five years later in Belgrade. As more and more countries declared independence from their former colonizers, the Non-Aligned Movement attempted to offer a third way in the cold war’s binary conflict, for countries in Africa and the Middle East as well as for India and Yugoslavia. In his visits to other Non-Aligned countries, Tito portrayed Yugoslavia as a model for how a long-colonized, rural, undeveloped country could achieve rapid modernization and economic growth. Architecture and construction became important sources of income and of precious foreign currency for Yugoslavia as it sent its citizens to erect buildings in Africa and the Middle East.3
Radević’s career reflected Yugoslavia’s internationalism in this era. When she designed the Memorial to the Fallen, she was living in Philadelphia, having received a Fulbright grant to study under Louis Kahn. She was the only woman in his Master’s Class at the University of Pennsylvania. After leaving Philadelphia in 1973, she went on to work in the Tokyo atelier of Kisho Kurokawa, one of the leading architects of the Japanese Metabolist movement, which drew on both biology and Marxist ideas to imagine megastructures that encompassed the full range of human activity and were capable of self-renewal, growing like trees. (The Metabolist Kiyonori Kikutake proposed a self-sufficient, self-multiplying floating city that would be immune to the threat of war, drifting through the ocean uncompromised by ties to any state.) Both Kahn and Kurokawa left a lasting mark on Radević’s work.
Japan and Yugoslavia had more in common than it might seem at first glance. Both faced the tasks of rebuilding cities that had been almost annihilated by war and of inventing flexible, multipurpose urban spaces that could accommodate breakneck population expansion, as people moved en masse into cities. The two countries also shared a vulnerability to natural disasters: the 1959 Isewan Typhoon caused severe damage to Honshu and left about 1.5 million people homeless, and in 1963 an earthquake leveled Skopje. Titograd (now restored to its previous name, Podgorica) was bombed more than eighty times during World War II; Radević’s Hotel Podgorica helped establish the rehabilitated city as a modern Yugoslav capital.
“Skirting the Center” includes a charming draft letter from Radević to Kurokawa that expresses, in broken English, her feelings about the internationalism and hopefulness of modernist architecture:
Architects commit global brotherhood. There is something in our demanding profession that is common and individual at same time. We share much the same concerns and joys of creative patient search of planning and during a process of materialization of an Idea; those we give ourself completly [sic]. To build is such believe in future—an ode to life.
At the start of World War II, the Yugoslav Communist Party had viewed women’s organizations as bourgeois and counterrevolutionary, denouncing feminism as a “right-wing opportunist force.”4 But the Antifascist Women’s Front soon proved beyond dispute Yugoslav women’s bravery, as well as their ability to fight alongside men and run political organizations. Yugoslavia’s 1946 constitution granted women full citizenship and protected their place in the workforce. Women’s rights were further guaranteed in the 1974 constitution, which banned discrimination on the basis of sex, introduced measures to protect the jobs of women on maternity leave, guaranteed the right to abortion, and included household work in assessments of the property of divorcing couples. In a 1979 article in the journal Woman, Tito proclaimed that, given the important part women played in the revolution, Communists should lead the fight for women’s equality.
But as in many countries, from the USSR to the United States, equality on paper did not mean equality in practice. After breaking with the Soviet Union in 1948, Yugoslavia had focused on its own form of socialism, which was based on the concept of worker self-management. (This vision, radically different from that of the Soviets, emphasized the eventual “withering away” of the state and its bureaucracies, which would be replaced by a direct, decentralized system of workers’ councils and regional representatives.) Gender was treated as secondary to class struggle and worker self-management, which were viewed as the best means of emancipating everyone at once. Women were to be workers first, self-managers second, and mothers last. Their presence increased in higher education, including in architecture, and in the workforce, but they remained concentrated in lower-status, lower-paid professions.
Some areas of professional practice were more accessible to women than others. Housing was a topic of intensive discussion in Yugoslavia in the 1960s. Decor became political, with public seminars and workshops on interior design as well as consultations that department stores offered to consumers. In a 1963 article, a student at a worker’s university was quoted as declaring, “I intend to continue to carry out reforms in my apartment.”5 How you lived was a manifestation of what you believed. Because domestic environments were considered a feminine domain, housing design was the rare area in which female architects and designers were able to take the lead. One example cited by Theodossis Issaias and Anna Kats in their essay in Toward a Concrete Utopia is that of Branka Tancig Novak, “who pioneered the design of prefabricated kitchens.”
Radević, Yugoslavia’s most prominent female architect, was able to go further than most women could, designing both interiors and exteriors of public buildings: hotels. For the Hotel Podgorica and the Hotel Zlatibor in Užice, in western Serbia, Radević designed every aspect: not only the building itself, but also the furniture and interior. She even supervised the manufacture of the lights. In the Hotel Zlatibor, Radević designed one public room to resemble a movie theater—but instead of facing a screen, the rows of chairs face a picture window. The chairs, one of her most distinctive designs, are composed of a set of soft rolls that sit lightly on sinuous metal tubes. They evince a strong sense of movement, as if those sitting on them were riding a conveyor belt to the future.
This impression of forward motion is even clearer in the exterior of the Hotel Zlatibor, which resembles a cross between a rocket, a skyscraper, and a cathedral. Work on the hotel began in 1975, the same year US astronauts and Soviet cosmonauts brought the space race to a formal close by docking their ships together in Earth’s orbit. Radević’s design looks like a playful Yugoslav answer to space travel, which was out of reach for a small and unaligned country. The rocket ship becomes a dwelling, a place to mingle with new friends, rather than a vehicle for leaving Earth. Architecture, too, could be a means of ascent. What look like flying buttresses on the sides of the hotel evoke the state socialist tendency to make public buildings into a new type of sacred site, secular monuments replacing religious ones. Hotel Zlatibor’s final surprise is in the gendered connotations of both rocket and skyscraper, as a female architect reclaims an overtly phallic iconography. (Today, the hotel still stands but is no longer a public site; there are plans to make it into an apartment complex. The lovingly designed interior has been altered beyond recognition.)
A central theme of “Skirting the Center” is Radević’s strategic use of her femininity. A whole room is dedicated to her almost obsessive attention to her appearance and self-presentation, drawing on the thousands of pictures of herself that she collected over the years. She cultivated her own image as if she were a movie star. Indeed, in photos from the 1960s she looks like she has stepped out of a Fellini film, with her smooth black hair curled up at the bottom, her cat-eye makeup, and her Roman nose. In one early set of photos, she wears a sleek black dress and high heels with pom-poms on the tips; in another, she’s in traditional Montenegrin garb: an ivory coat with gold embroidery over a lavender satin skirt. Even her ID card photos are gorgeous, the contours of her face caressed by shadow. In later years she sported a gigantic pair of tinted glasses. She’s not friendly, but she’s glamorous. This version of her is enshrined on a 2021 Montenegrin stamp. At every stage of life, she knew how to make herself an icon. In Montenegro she’s known by a single name: Kana.
In a 1980 program on TV Titograd, Radević appears on a beach, drawing a sketch of the Memorial to the Fallen in the sand. She wears a flowing white dress, a white purse, a black-and-white polka-dot jacket, and, most remarkably, white high heels—a daring choice for a beach shoot. Her outfit, like her demeanor, is an assertion of control. As she walks down the beach, her heels hardly sink in the sand; she tiptoes along gracefully on the balls of her feet. Her gait reminded me of an American feminist adage: “Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, only backwards and in high heels.” Unlike Rogers, Radević was in a profession that traditionally had no place for women. Even today, it’s big news when a woman wins a major architecture prize. The field is still coded as male: women are not expected to construct buildings, to establish their authority so definitely in the landscape, to take up so much space. Radević’s cultivation of an intensely glamorous image was an explicit rejection of the idea that architecture was at odds with femininity.
Sadly, and not surprisingly, enthusiasm for that image outstripped critical interest in Radević’s work while she was alive. The small body of writing on her oeuvre tended to focus on gender, not on architecture. After her death in 2000, no one was around to do her PR, and her image flattened. “Skirting the Center” is a concerted effort to recover Radević’s archive, work, and biography and place them in Yugoslav and global architectural history, recognizing her as a pioneering woman in architecture.
Several Biennale exhibitions this year examine the legacy of Communist-era architecture and urban planning. Hungary’s pavilion asks how Budapest’s Communist architectural landmarks could be reimagined for post-Communist life: for instance, a derelict factory becomes an indoor garden. Many of the designs are only thought experiments, since the buildings in question have already been demolished; the Budapest municipal government, which has no affection for architecture of the Communist period, has adopted policies that make preservation extremely difficult.
The Russian pavilion, a villa newly restored to a modernized version of its original tsarist-era magnificence, includes a video game that allows players to wander through a 1960s-era low-cost housing development—a crucial if inglorious chapter in Soviet architecture, from a period when utopian aspirations had been deflated and the only goal was to build cheap new housing as quickly as possible. The Serbian pavilion considers how to revive the town of Bor, founded in 1903 to support a copper mine that expanded until it threatened to devour the town. The destruction wrought by industry is another important feature of the history of twentieth-century urban planning, though it is hardly unique to the Communist world.
The legacy of utopian modernist architecture—whether French, German, Soviet, Japanese, or Yugoslav—is echoed in this year’s Biennale theme, “How Will We Live Together?” Many of the exhibitions interpreted this question as a reference to the challenges of climate change, but the resulting proposals for energy-efficient, multipurpose communal living arrangements have much in common with older avant-garde visions. The ruins and remnants of utopian schemes—their grand ambitions, their successes, and their failures—have more to teach us than we might expect.
See Vladimir Kulić, “Building Brotherhood and Unity: Architecture and Federalism in Socialist Yugoslavia,” in Toward a Concrete Utopia: Architecture in Yugoslavia, 1948–1980 (Museum of Modern Art, 2018). This catalog for the MoMA exhibition of the same name offers a wealth of information on Yugoslav modernist architecture. ↩
Anna Kats, “Svetlana Kana Radević (1937–2000),” The Architectural Review, March 13, 2020. ↩
Łukasz Stanek contributed a brief essay on Yugoslav architecture in Lagos and beyond to Toward a Concrete Utopia; his recent book Architecture in Global Socialism (Princeton University Press, 2020) discusses Eastern European global architectural collaboration in depth. ↩
See Adriana Zaharijević, “The Strange Case of Yugoslav Feminism: Feminism and Socialism in ‘The East,’” Montenegrin Journal for Social Sciences, Vol. 1, No. 2 (2017). ↩
See Maroje Mrduljaš, “Architecture for a Self-Managing Socialism,” in Toward a Concrete Utopia. ↩