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Urban Transformation in a Post-socialist Society - from unity to separation

The Highway of Brotherhood and Unity
Yugoslavia was established in 1918—at that time known as the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes. In 1946 (post-WWII), when the communist government was established, Yugoslavia changed its name to the Federal People's Republic of Yugoslavia. Only two years after that, in 1948, the conflict between Tito and Stalin resulted in the exclusion of Yugoslavia from the Communist Information Bureau. Given this situation, Yugoslavia developed a new agenda of positioning itself between "capitalist West and communist East." Consequently, cultural and architectural production needed to manifest new ideas.

As Ljiljana Blagojevic put forward in her book:
In the new society, the identity of architectural contemporaneity had to be re-invented, and, of course, it was to be done so to clearly reflect the specificity of the Yugoslav political and ideological project (i.e., self-management socialism), as compared to the rest of the socialist/communist world.1
It was a time of heroic urban and architectural developments, spread throughout the whole territory of Yugoslavia, developments that later on became part of the major architectural heritage of the whole region, such as: New Belgrade, which is now the biggest municipality of Belgrade with more than 300,000 residents; New Zagreb with more than 150,000 residents; Fužine in Ljubljana, which is the most densely populated part of the city; as well as Aerodrom in Skopje.
Besides the fact that these new cities needed to represent the political strength of a newly established country, they were not autonomous moments of action—instead they were part of the more significant socialist project.
They were all connected by the monumental Highway of Brotherhood and Unity which passes through the whole country. The highway—which was more than 1,100 km long, connected the four capitals of the different regions of Yugoslavia—was supposed to represent the unity and power of the new great socialist country.
From unity…
From 1950 onwards, the "Highway of Brotherhood and Unity"2 was built as an expression of the new socialist ideology, with the purpose of uniting the multi-ethnic population into one comprehensive state of Yugoslavia. It was not just a piece of infrastructure; rather, it was a monumental project that, along with the new "socialist cities", represented a new ideal—a country between East and West. The relationship between the highway and new socialist cities was carefully designed. It went through New Belgrade, which was designed as the new capital of Yugoslavia, New Zagreb, which held the biggest International Trade Fair in the country and the only trade fair at which the United States, the Soviet Union and Third World countries exhibited regularly throughout the Cold War, and also through the new socialist residential neighbourhoods of Ljubljana and Skopje.

Building of the highway itself (that took more than ten years) was a great political project since it was achieved through "voluntary mass labour." Its building was intended to strengthen national solidarity, generate international prestige and train unskilled workers. In the year 1962 construction of the last section of the highway between Osipaonica and Belgrade began with the employment of 46,699 young volunteers. This section, as well as the whole highway, were completed in 1963. Parallel to this, new socialist neighbourhoods were emerging: New Belgrade in 1948, New Zagreb in 1957, Aerodrom in Skopje in 1965, and Fužine in Ljubljana in 1977. New ideals were built by people from different social, ethnic and intellectual backgrounds that symbolically represented their brotherhood and unity. Moreover, these developments cannot be looked at as separate—as isolated islands—but rather as one great project charged by a strong political will and ideology that needed architectural manifestation.

…To separation
The highway of Brotherhood and Unity

Drawing shows the highway of Brotherhood and Unity in relation to all four capital cities, border crossing between ex-Yugoslavian countries, development of these cities and building types that shaped their transformation.

Author: Aleksandar Joksimović

Despite the strong symbolism and ideology behind the "Highway of Brotherhood and Unity" it very soon became an adverse artefact, the opposite of those ideas. During the war in Yugoslavia that started in 1991, after the Slovenian and Croatian declaration of independence, the highway was the most misused built artefact of what once used to be the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. It was first divided by roadblocks established by the military of the different countries. Afterwards, these spots became border crossings between the newly independent countries. Throughout the war, it was intensively used by the military in order to transfer goods, military equipment, and people. Later on, it became the most significant migration route of the whole region.

The emergence of borders also placed the new socialist cities in the forefront since they had the capacity to accommodate the large numbers of refugees that came mostly to Belgrade and Zagreb. In 2013, Serbia was officially the country in Europe with the largest number of refugees (more than 57,000 registered refugees) out of which more than 41,000 people came from Croatia and mostly settled in Belgrade and its surroundings.

Furthermore, after the war in Yugoslavia, the necessity for interconnection between the former republics stopped, and along with that, the highway lost its significance. Moreover, new agendas had to be set once again—now by each country individually. This marked a new phase of reinventing cultural and architectural identities, this time dictated by the condition of reversed unity. After the year 2000, when the conflict and tension between former Yugoslavian countries was reduced, and under pressure from European countries, "Corridor X"—which coincides with the route of the "Highway of Brotherhood and Unity"—again became a crucial piece of infrastructure in this region.

The post-socialist dream—different transformations of ex-Yugoslavian capitals
Post-socialist capital city

Post-Socialist Capital City is a fictional city. It is assemble of recomposed moments or parts of each of four ex-Yugoslavian Capitals. It represents a specific understanding of Post-socialist city, where city is defined by architectural singularities which are not autonomous architectural forms but rather interdependent entities that reshaped public life and urban conditions in all of these cities. It also reflects duality of Post-socialist city between identity-driven local initiatives and capital-driven large scale developments, where highway is still playing pivotal role. Authors: Aleksandar Joksimović and Jelena Nikolic

As well as the highway, socialist cities had significant roles in revealing the social and political tendencies of the countries. In the span of the last thirty years socialist cities in former Yugoslavian republics have been transforming radically—attracting new ideologies, identities and ways of life.
One can argue that this transformation of post-socialist cities in the ex-Yugoslavia came into being with the end of the ideology that built them, followed by the conflict, closed national policies and free-market conditions.
Defined and determined forms in the new condition—often characterized by the permanent lack of authority—became blank canvases for improvisation, experiment and individual opportunistic developments. Rapid and intense transformation that happened in this region revealed immense capacity of rigid socialist blocks to accommodate new or different ideologies. At the same time, these cities became laboratories for reinventing the national and cultural identities of these newly established countries. This search for newness and differentness largely reshaped public life in these cities and defined an ongoing desire for different transformations in order to manifest new ideas and conditions. Transformation, which varied from reawakening of the history and tradition in the case of Skopje through a series of tremendous public monuments and neoclassical architecture, to the large-scale capitalistic developments (obviously inspired by Western culture) in the case of New Belgrade.
From modernization to tradition—Skopje to Aerodrom
Photograph of Skopje.

Author: Erich Raith; Skopje Architecture Week 2012.
For the peoples of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, Skopje was not merely a town like others. Skopje was a symbol of the brotherhood and unity of the equal and free people of Yugoslavia.3

After the great earthquake of 1963 which devastated Skopje, the city had to be rebuilt and modernized. The chief planner of "New Skopje" was Kenzo Tange. This was a significant moment which overnight made Skopje a symbol of international fellowship because it brought together Yugoslavia and Japan and also the many other nations that were involved in this project, such as the army engineers from the USSR and Denmark (working side by side), prefabricated building experts from the United Kingdom and the US, and Brazilians. As a consequence, Skopje—which was a small town and capital of the Macedonian region—became well known worldwide. After building the New Railway Station in 1968, designed by Kenzo Tange, the city was extended towards the east in form the of the new socialist development "Aerodrom". Very soon Aerodrom became the most-populated neighbourhood of the city, reaching more than 70,000 people in the late 1990s. During times of conflict and the dissolution of Yugoslavia, the population of Skopje increased fourfold. Under the new regime dictated by market demands and coupled with the incredible growth, shared spaces were turned into living units which put pressure on apartments, and informal transformation has begun.

Seemingly, the post-dissolution period, along with the increasing multi-ethnic character of the city, triggered a new agenda of the Macedonian government, which was to re-establish national identity through "back to tradition" architecture.
Modernist values were being abandoned by the current leading parties who were instead proposing a bizarre mix of historicist forms as a national identity-making policy. In the year 2010, the government launched the "Skopje 2014" project which was manifested in a number of neoclassical buildings and large-scale monuments throughout the whole city. The future became mere mimicry of the past.
From capital to capitalistic—Belgrade to New Belgrade
Photograph of New Belgrade; "Genex tower" in relation with the commercials for the new capitalist projects, 2011.

Author: unknown.
New Belgrade will be our first socialist city. It will be the first center of people's government in our history. For all our peoples the first and unique administrative, cultural, and ideological center; Center of Brotherhood and Unity.4

General Ljubo Ilić, 1948.
In the year 1948—when Yugoslavia was excluded from the Communist Information Bureau—the building of the new capital city began. The Federal Executive Council was the first building to be built in New Belgrade which organized the development of the whole neighbourhood. It was a heroic development in the name of the great socialist ideal. Nevertheless, the new capital city was not merely a physical construct in tabula rasa condition; rather it represented a new moment in history where the relationship with the past was suspended, and a new "history" was established. Very soon after (with the dissolution of Yugoslavia), New Belgrade transformed rapidly, serving as a city testing ground for new small scale, individual economic models materializing in the form of kiosks or small retail units. Paradoxically, these informal developments were stimulated by the government in order to support an already degraded economy, which was a consequence of war, conflict and embargo. Later on, with the privatization of land and free-market conditions, the concept of individual investment escalated in the form of centralized large-scale private developments.
The initial idea of monumental blocks situated in large open spaces served as fertile ground for new capitalistic developments.
Empty areas inside the blocks (surrounded by residential buildings and with direct access to the infrastructure) were filled with many diverse programmes and architecture which once again turned the city around from a once-clear representative of a distinct ideology to a collage of seemingly random possibilities. In this case, the future appears completely incomprehensible.
From international to national—Zagreb to New Zagreb
Photograph of New Zagreb; St. Luke the Evangelist church in New Zagreb, finished in 2008.

Author: unknown
The Zagreb Fair was a focal point for Marshal Tito's efforts to establish a global role for Yugoslavia through the "Non-Aligned Movement" of "bloc free" states. The Movement itself had to a large extent been instigated by Yugoslavia, which had been elected to the United Nations Economic and Social Council in 1952.5

The importance of The Zagreb Fair was global since it was the only International Trade Fair at which the United States, the Soviet Union and Third World countries exhibited regularly throughout the Cold War. New Zagreb was developed as a consequence of moving the Zagreb International Trade Fair to the south, closer to the Highway of Brotherhood and Unity. The infrastructure provided for the Trade Fair stimulated the new city to emerge. Characterized by its orthogonal grid and mainly composed of residential buildings, the city was built from scratch. Soon after, during the 1990s conflict, New Zagreb did not stay immune to the influence of the war. The rigid urban landscape went through extensive informal transformation. The large influx of refugees put pressure on the living units and, with the lack of authority, individual, bottom-up developments occupied the empty spaces within the blocks. The next step of the transformation of the city is still happening. As a consequence of the privatization of land and free-market conditions, this neighbourhood is being largely commercialized, but more dominantly it became the production site for the reestablishment of national identity. The biggest and most modern museum in the country was built in New Zagreb in 2003. Moreover, after the break-up of Yugoslavia, the Croatian Catholic Church built a large number of churches by renowned Croatian architects, such as the churches of St. Ivan the apostle and evangelist, St. Luke the Evangelist, St. Kriza, and many others. This condition revealed the expanding influence of the Croatian Church after the split, but it also labelled the post-socialist city as an important construction site for contemporary desires.

From necessity to necessity—Ljubljana to Fužine
Photograph of Ljubljana; One of the public events that is held every year in Fužine, in Ljubljana; 2012.
Revive Fužine! Man is a neighbor to his fellow man.6

Slovenia was always a centre of economic power in the region. Since the establishment of Yugoslavia there has been a constant influx of migrant workers to Ljubljana, the capital of the Slovenian region. By the early 1950s, the need for new affordable housing was already obvious. The first plan to build a socialist residential neighbourhood emerged in the year 1958, while in 1977 the first phase of construction was finally opened, and was completed in 1981. Fužine was built on the empty wasteland between the highway and the old city. It was initially built for young families and migrant workers coming from different areas of Yugoslavia. Soon after—during the 1990s—rapid expiation caused an intense focus on providing accommodation for the large number of migrants and less focus on the development of social institutions. Limited possibilities for public space usage induced some informal developments (mostly in the form of kiosks or small retail units). Even so, Fužine went through a very controlled transformation with a characteristic problem-solution approach. Perhaps the closer to the West you are, the less dramatic transformation is? Nowadays, Fužine is a rich multicultural neighbourhood where the majority of residents are from ex-Yugoslavian countries. Hence, at the moment, from pure necessity, a large number of social institutions and events are being developed and organized, explicitly strengthening the sense of belonging and the sense of common purpose despite different national affiliation of the inhabitants.

New political agendas shaped the future developments of all these post-socialist cities, explicitly defining their role and character as space for producing national identities and diverse economic models.

Towards the "common"—common building types and emerging phenomena
This search for newness and differentness paradoxically happened by following the same patterns and principles that produced common building types that are either a manifestation of this transformation or are generating and guiding it. Therefore, despite the great desire for differentness, with a limited set of "tools" and under the waves of capital, all these cities are becoming increasingly similar. A kind of American suburb where each house is the same but still shamelessly trying to portray itself differently, always in relation to the main road. Similar to the "main road", in the case of ex-Yugoslavia, the highway, rather than a means to differentiate oneself, can be seen as a generator of the sameness now dictated by the financial capital.
After all, the highway is still the main determinant for the development of these areas, defining the conditions that were manifested in building types—such as: the church, the kiosk, small retail, the shopping mall, the housing block—or in the type of urbanization that is generated by "symbolic" forms.
"The Church" played a pivotal role in transformation of all four cities. After being "prohibited" during the socialist state the church appeared in the urban fabric of these cities and gained more importance than ever before. After the dissolution of Yugoslavia, the church played a major role in the establishment of national identities, since each of the nations had their own church—Serbian Orthodox, Croatian Catholic, or Macedonian Orthodox. Nevertheless, its implication on the urban and social fabric was more or less the same in all cities, which is an expected consequence, because they all work in a similar way. Not by chance, the Croatian Catholic Church became one of the country's leading entrepreneurs. As Boris Buden put forward in his text "God is back in town":

In fact Croatian Catholic Church owing to its properties, annual income and investments has become recently one of the leading entrepreneurs in the country. Already at the end of 2005 it was ranked among the five richest business groups in Croatia.7

Clearly, its social, but also its economic, importance (in the condition of post-socialist Yugoslavia) increased significantly. In all these cities churches are integrated into the neighbourhood blocks, producing certain communal and social values; nevertheless – like in the case of Skopje where a strong policy of "promoting" national identity is in place, they are often visually exposed to the major infrastructural lines. Therefore, the church became a typology utilized to make national identity explicit but also to reinforce the national affiliations of local residents.

"The Kiosk" was a building type that had a significant impact on the economic and social structure of the post-socialist cities in former Yugoslavia. In most of the cases the kiosk emerged informally and challenged the structure of the city, both in terms of scale and in terms of its organization. Since it is flexible and temporary, used for small scale retail, easy to assemble, disassemble or upgrade, it changed its appearance and purpose very quickly according to the changes in market demands. Almost by definition, kiosks are located on the outer edges of blocks and usually next to important transportation points—in the case of all of these cities they are next to major bus stops. During the 1990s, the increased importance of the kiosk (in the post-socialist city) suspended many formal trade facilities. This new condition of state-owned facilities replaced by small scale private or individual developments (usually based on improvised and opportunistic solutions) confronted the top-down organization and seemingly claimed back part of the authority to the people. Many social activities were displaced from the inner block "green open" area to the edge of the blocks, along the infrastructural lines. These new "points" of social activities diversified public and political life within the neighbourhood.

"The Small Retail" building type in most cases consisted of informal retail units that were paradoxically often supported by the city governments during the 1990s conflict because they were a means to support an already degraded economy. They played an important role in shaping social and economic relations in these cities, which is the reason why they are still part of the post-socialist urban landscape. In contemporary times small retail units are under constant threat of being replaced by large-scale shopping malls. Nonetheless, very often, such as in the case of New Belgrade's "Food Street," large concentrations of small retail units led to a centralization of programs and activities comparable even to the shopping malls. Since small retail units were important for both the government and residents of these neighbourhoods they became an essential part of the post-socialist city's landscape. They largely influenced public life because similar to the kiosk, they re-densified public activities (from the inner block to the outer edge along the infrastructural lines).

"The Shopping Mall" is a building type that emerged in these cities in the contemporary condition of a free-market economy. The privatization of land gave birth to private investments which very soon became monopolistic, large-scale developments. Although the shopping mall is becoming an obsolete typology in Western culture, it is gaining incredible importance in ex-Yugoslavian post-socialist cities. Shopping malls are strong attractors of people, not just from their immediate surroundings, but from the whole region. Consequently, all these cities are competing with each other as to whose shopping mall is the biggest, most advanced, most luxurious. Shopping malls are always located along major infrastructural lines, usually on important intersections. This new condition of commercialization largely changed relations within these cities by creating new social and economic centres and by influencing new developments.

"The housing block" was, and still is, the most common typology in all of these cities. During the Socialist era, housing was the primary focus since it precisely reflected the main political agenda. Housing estates were designed by the leading architects of that time with carefully crafted living units on the one hand and very monumental-looking buildings on the other. The large scale of these buildings and of the whole urban areas celebrated the socialist ideal. Nevertheless, housing was conceived as a rational group of dwellings where everyone was equal and, instead of individualism, committed to the greater socialist ideals. The initial socialist idea of having common spaces within the residential blocks - during the 90s conflict, served as a prosperous space for the accommodation of new inhabitants. This transformation of common facilities into living spaces for new citizens put pressure on already extremely rationally designed apartments (which induced their informal transformation) and had great implications on the public life of these areas. Nowadays, in terms of the political agenda, many things have changed although housing typology remains very similar. The scale of newly built buildings has been reduced because it is more feasible to invest in smaller buildings and the size of new apartments is fully market driven in order to better sell them. What is left for architects as the most challenging task is to design facade. In most cases, all new ideas and proposals (such as new common areas and shared facilities) are discarded because they do not bring profit. In the situation of a free market economy, possibilities are even more limited.

Back to the highway—cultural and architectural production
Contemporary conditions challenged socialist ideas where the unified infrastructural grid would enhance different, autonomous objects within the "independent" urban blocks. Rather, in the current situation, emerging building types confront the sovereignty of the grid by depending on and reshaping its internal conditions. This "re-emerging" condition is again putting the highway at the forefront of—as the main determinant for—the development of this area, now within the new regime of free-market economy. Coupled with the building types (produced by the new geopolitical situation), the highway plays a pivotal role in the transformation of the whole region by influencing new developments. Stožice in Ljubljana was built in 2010, after which large office areas and new housing estates were built in its surrounding. Likewise Delta city in New Belgrade or Zagreb Arena. Without exception, all four cities are being built in this way.

On the one hand, the substantial financial potential of the highway suggested the possible development of its immediate surrounding and a common interest behind it. On the other hand, emerging building types were mostly individual and opportunistic. Nevertheless, the implications on the urban fabric and public life went beyond initial expectations. Like in the case of the famous "Street Food" in New Belgrade, in block 9, which branded the whole area just by concentrating the same type of small retail unit. Regardless of their scale—from the kiosk to the shopping mall—they redefined relations within the city. Moreover, they re-formalized the socialist city from large scale to small scale, from collective to individual, from socialism to capitalism, from formal to informal. After all, the advocators of change seem to be the same. The dramatically different paths that each city is taking are not so different after all.

Would this condition need a specific reading of the city? This paper is an attempt to argue for a specific understanding of the post-socialist city, where a city is defined by the architectural singularities that are not autonomous architectural forms but rather interdependent entities that reshape public life and urban conditions. In other words, they are building types whose presence is completely dependent on conditions defined by other building types and infrastructure (in most cases by the highway) and, at the same time, they are constantly redefining the conditions on which they depend. The concentration of large-scale generic structures along the highway and more local, self-organized or bottom-up developments inside the post-socialist city, reflect the duality of the city between identity-driven local initiatives and capital-driven large-scale developments. It also emphasizes the local specificities of each city on the one hand, but also the generic logic of how they function on the other. As a consequence, the conflict between generic and local, desires and needs, large scale and small scale, collective and individual, defines the ongoing struggles of the Yugoslavian post-socialist city. The ex-Yugoslavian post socialist city as such is a perfect advocate of its society.

Aleksandar Joksimovic is an architect at OMA /AMO in Rotterdam. He received post-master's degree in Architecture and Urban Design at Berlage Institute in the Netherlands. He was co-author of the book "Reinventing Eastern Europe" and guest speaker at Het Nieuwe Instituut.

The article was originally published in CANactions Magazine Edition 01 MIKRORAYONS.
Download Edition 01 and pre-order the print copy.
1. Ljiljana Blagojević, New Belgrade: The capital of no city's – land, Berlin: Stadtbauwelt 163, 2004.
2. Highway of Brotherhood and Unity got its name after the motto of the League of Communists of Yugoslavia. Its construction started on the initiative of President Josip Broz Tito. It was the main Yugoslav road which was more than 1,100 km long and that connected four of the six republics and one province of the former Yugoslavia. It symbolized unity of Yugoslavian country.
3. Maroje Mrduljaš, Vladimir Kulić, Unfinished Modernisation: Between Utopia and Pragmatism, Zagreb: CAA, 2012, 211.
4. Maroje Mrduljaš, Vladimir Kulić, Unfinished Modernisation: Between Utopia and Pragmatism, Zagreb: CAA, 2012, 39.
5. Eve Blau, Ivan Rupnik, Project Zagreb, Transition as Condition, Strategy, Practice, Barcelona: Actar D, 2007, 214.
6. Title of the yearly organized social event in Fužine, Ljubljana.
7. Boris Buden, God is back in town. Operation: City 2008, The Neoliberal Frontline: Urban Struggles in Post-Socialist Societies, Conference Zagreb 2008, 11.

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