Van Gogh was most creative during the autumn and spring, I remember reading somewhere, because a radical shift in the weather was exhilarating. This shouldn’t mean you should look forward to leaves changing color, however, or even exuberant flowers smearing their sassily obscene palette on your tumescent eyeballs. Stop playing with yourself, dude. Da Vinci noted, “He who looks forward to spring is looking forward to his own death.” You’re only allotted so many grains of sand, sunsets, departures and whiffs.
There’s a brisk wind this morning. Summer is almost done. On Zdravka Čelara, two women are taking their sons to school. Although the boys are old enough to hump their own backpacks, these negligible burdens are slung over their mothers’ shoulders. The trim kids are dressed in cheerful shirts, pants, socks and shoes, and their svelte moms are similarly colorful, a rebuttal to the gray and beige concrete of nearly all the buildings glowering and glooming over them.
You know you’re in Eastern Europe when you see all these monstrous, brutalist blocks that enclose most citizens still. In the US, similar buildings existed to warehouse welfare blacks, mostly, but nearly all have been torn down. After two miserable decades, the 33-building Pruitt–Igoe in St Louis was dynamited in the 70’s. Its architect, Minoru Yamasaki, is best known for the Twin Towers, also purposely pulled. What should be his epitaph, I wonder?
I blew? They blew me? They blew me because I blew?
On my first visit to NYC in 1979, I zoomed up to the observation deck of the World Trade Center. It was astonishing to look down on such a thicket of lesser skyscrapers. I felt like Superman. With daily access to such a view, the novelty would wear off, I’m sure, and be overridden by more practical matters, such as the time needed to ride elevators up and down. Still, a worker there could clock out each evening. How many of us would care to live on, say, the 88th floor of any building?
Towards Midtown, in the hazy distance, were some of the most iconic and enduring NYC buildings, though Alfred Barr, MoMA’s first director, felt nothing but contempt for them, “Romanesque, Mayan, Assyrian, Renaissance, Aztec, Gothic and especially Modernistic—everything from the stainless steel gargoyles of the Chrysler Building to the fantastic mooring mast atop the Empire State. No wonder that some of us who have been appalled by this chaos turn with the utmost interest and expectancy to the International Style.”
Only unadorned boxes are kosher, and the best ones are the square dicks, sodomizing God. Navel gazing center of the universe, New York had twin cocks.
There should never be an international style of anything, least of all in architecture, for buildings everywhere emerge from the local climate, first of all, then are refined and embellished down millennia through habits, traditions and individual quirks, as defined by the natives. Peasants or workers from any village are already distinct, much less internationally, so whenever you hear of a one-size-fit-all, international solution, there’s bound to be a strait jacket, if not gulag, just beyond the red horizon.
On two separate days, I walked several hours through New Belgrade. I passed few pedestrians. A planned development, New Belgrade is a Socialist showcase featuring monumental buildings, vast lawns and wide boulevards, everything made to impress, especially in photos. To live there is another matter.
New Belgrade has few shade giving trees, for these would obstruct its grand vistas, I reckon. Its six-laned avenues are made wider by ample trolley track medians, so just crossing it is a red pain in the Socialist ass.
In summer, you’re baked into a Nubian sheen halfway, and in winter, an artic gale is liable to hurl you up into the frozen void, so that you’re lost forever, just like Kafka’s bucket rider.
Acres of empty lawns surround the massive Palace of the Federation (now renamed Palace of Serbia). Although there are trees, no one relaxes under them, for the landscaping is so standoffish. Fountains gush from a huge rectangular pool, quite pointlessly, really, for no one’s looking.
Under an unforgiving sun, a sweating boy pedaled his tricycle over the scorching flagstones. On this afternoon, he and his grandma were the only ones at this charmless civic plaza. Soon enough, the heat and glare chased them away.
The only crowds I saw in New Belgrade were disembarked bus riders flocking to American styled shopping centers, Delta City and Ušće. You know you’ve erected a dystopia when soulless malls become cherished oases of pleasure, relaxation and sociability. If that sounds like vast swaths of America also, it’s because we’re only talking about degrees here. You’ve been international styled, buddy. Feeling ridiculous, bipeds blunder through dead spaces.
Crossing into Zemun, there’s the Hotel Yugoslavija, which looks, I swear, just like the Palace of the Federation. With the International Style, everything must be blocky, flat, unadorned, hard and angular. Vehemently masculine, it’s unleavened by any female beauty or softness. Socialism in concrete.
Meant to impress, Hotel Yugoslavija hosted Queen Elizabeth II, Nixon, Carter, Neil Armstrong and Tina Turner, etc., but now, only penny-pinching suckers check in, only to be thoroughly pissed into leaving bitchy reviews on TripAdvisor. It’s old, you say, but the Hotel Moskova is even more ancient, yet thanks to its Art Nouveau beauty and sensible location, the latter can still pack them in, at top prices.
With its steep roof, spires, turrets, garlands, statues, reliefs, various sized windows and well-tuned color scheme of viridian, beige, burnt umber and gold, the Hotel Moskova invites endless admiration.
The same architect, Jovan Ilkić, also designed the Parliament Building, a few blocks away. It is solemn, stately and appropriately imposing, because form does follow function, no kidding. Although this is a key dictum of the International Style, it’s worse at it than every other architectural tendency in history.
At the Hotel Yugoslavija, I asked if there was a bar onsite, but the only two options were the Intergalactic Diner, a shrine to America with American rhythm and blues and classic rock playing nonstop, and a nondescript tavern outback. Completely empty, it was like an airport pub without the takeoffs, landings or incipient escape to amuse you. Next door, there was a Caffe Loža, which I’ve already written about. This one also had a mural of George Washington resigning his commission. Gravelly Tom Petty blared. Here, too, one could flee an apotheosis of Socialism by ducking into a sham and cartoony America.
In a 2018 New Yorker article, Justin McGuirk has an entirely different take, “Strolling the avenues of New Belgrade, with its ranks of concrete tower blocks, it was not the architecture that drew my attention at first. It was my sense of comfort—the prevailing air of normality. In most of the mass-housing projects I have visited, whether in Europe, South America, New York, or Moscow, one is likely to be aware of one of two things: class or neglect (and often both). There were no class distinctions in New Belgrade because this was not social housing; it was just housing.”
Comfort, he says comfort! Clearly, we disagree.
McGuirk doesn’t just love Brutalism for its “heft and material honesty,” but for its association with “social democracy.” Not Communism, mind you. In the case of Yugoslavia, this “architecture expressed one of the great political experiments of the modern era.”
Sadly, America never quite embraced Brutalism. There is time. McGuirk laments, “Many of the heroic housing projects in the West became ghettoized, or were left to deteriorate—some classics have been demolished.”
Concrete apartments suspended in air sure beat kitschy bourgeoise dwellings. McGuirk, “I’ll always remember the mother of a friend from Sarajevo visiting her daughter in London and being relieved to find her living in a social-housing tower block, and not one of those poky Victorian houses—the exact inverse of London snobbery.”
Yugoslavia’s dictator for 35 years had at least 34 residences. Almost none of his villas, castles, palaces, seaside manors and mountainous hunting lodges were in the International Style. Tito was man of taste, elegance and class. He wasn’t crazy.
What was it like to live in one of these concrete blocks?
A Serbian friend, Petra, emails me from London, “I actually grew up in one of these, perhaps not as awfully depressive and worn out as the East Gate or any of the blocks in Novi Beograd. Our building was the only tower block in the vicinity for many years so we had the privilege of the most amazing views of the whole city and the surrounding areas .
“My mother is still perfectly happy to reside in our modest two bedroom flat, on the eleventh floor.
“Since dad passed away, a few years ago, my sister and I have tried persuading her to move somewhere smaller and lower to the ground, but she would not even consider the idea. She loves her castle.
“We moved in when I was nine and my sister was still a baby. My parents were renting privately for years before and we had to move quite a few times, so after years of waiting they were finally entitled to an apartment through their work syndicates, we moved into our own ‘modern new-built’ and I remember everyone being really happy and excited.
“It was an unbelievably diverse mix of residents, from manual factory workers to University lecturers, Serbs, Croats, Muslims, Gypsies…
“It was Winter time and all the kids immediately flung out to the warm, centrally heated corridors, every night, for weeks, to meet each other, play and hang out. Some of us are still close friends forty-five years later.
“Serbian people are usually brought up to be close and accepting of their neighbors, so we adapted to this concrete, high rise socialist style of living very easily.
“After more than thirty years of living in London, I would much rather live in a house with a nice green garden full of flowers, fruit trees and birds singing, but Serbs generally don’t mind living in apartments.
“Tower blocks were a perfect solution for Belgrade after the destruction and all the bombings during the Second World War, but also the huge migration of people from all parts of the Yugoslavia. Due to the agricultural reform in the 1950s and the benefit of free education that the Communist system offered, many young people moved out of the country side to the cities, so tower blocks were a very practical solution to accommodate everyone.”
From inside the 14 trolley, I can see the three towers of Eastern City Gate jutting on the horizon. There are no other high-rises. Walking towards it, I pass all sorts of housing. None is as imposing as the Eastern City Gate, and for this reason, undoubtedly, all seem more livable, especially the single houses that predate Socialism. To each his own, but I’d rather dwell in a quaint and quirky hovel than any heroic edifice, especially if it’s collective.
Since 2013, concrete chunks of up to 130 pounds have hurled themselves from the 23-story Eastern City Gate, but thankfully, these insensate suicides have killed no one on the ground. Though mindless, even concrete has gotten tired of being brutal.
In Living Machines—Bauhaus Architecture as Sexual Ideology, E. Michael Jones recounts a 1990 visit to the Projects on the South Side of Chicago, “The doorless, graffiti-covered stairwell exudes menace. The turns are all blind; the ‘chaste’ (a favorite word of the Bauhaus apologists) geometry of the modern building is covered with the palimpsest of underclass rage and despair.”
In From Bauhaus to Our House, Tom Wolfe describes the Pruitt-Igoe, “On each floor there were covered walkways, in keeping with Corbu’s idea of ‘streets in the air.’ Since there was no other place in the project in which to sin in public, whatever might ordinarily have taken place in bars, brothels, social clubs, pool halls, amusement arcades, general stores, corncribs, rutabaga patches, hayricks, barn stalls, now took place in the streets in the air. Corbu’s boulevards made Hogarth’s Gin Lane look like the oceanside street of dreams in Southampton, New York.”
Entering Eastern City Gate, I encounter graffiti and some vandalism, sure enough, but the hallways are clean, though gloomy. In front of a few doors, there are potted plants. Serbs are making the best of their situations, it’s clear.
My friend Novak comments, “Talking to people who live in these high-rises, I do hear complaints regarding construction and maintenance, but most have developed a sense of pride, of belonging to Block 45, Block 70 or The Pyramid, etc. Maybe ‘sour grapes,’ but when people hear where I live, many will say, ‘I could never live there,’ then they’ll rattle off some reasons (air and noise pollution, no parking… ), while conveniently forgetting their small room size, low ceiling height and quality of construction…”
Novak’s address must be one of the most desirable in all of Belgrade. Republic Square is visible from his front door. Most of the city’s best restaurants and bars are a quick stroll away. Drunk, Novak can fall down and practically land on his own bed.
Most importantly, Novak is cradled within the richest part of his hometown, historically, culturally and artistically. Having lived many places, including in New York and Paris, he’s chosen to come back here.
The 20th century gave us world wars, atomic bombs, gulags, political correctness, napalm, canned music, Barbara Streisand, laugh tracks, American cheese, Israel and the absolutely shittiest, most inhumane architecture ever, and for this, we can thank Walter Gropius, above all.
During World War I, a beautiful traditional building collapsed on Gropius the soldier, but the man survived to take his revenge on architecture, civilization and mankind. We’re just one brick away from deliverance, but alas, concrete happens.
Abutting New Belgrade is Zemun, a charming town with a relatively intact historical center. There are modest yet dignified Orthodox and Catholic churches, plus a monastery. Its pedestrian center is always festive. Although absorbed into the capital in 1934, Zemun retains its distinctiveness, and that’s why proud locals insist they’re from Zemun, and not Belgrade, and especially, God forbid, New Belgrade.
Walking from one to the other is like reentering the sensual, female and home. It’s high time we all go home.