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Urban Architectures in Interwar Yugoslavia

Tanja D. Conley
Routledge, 2020

In the last few years, the architecture of Yugoslavia, the state that was created and dissolved two times during the twentieth century, has been attracting increasing attention, as attested by the recent exhibition Toward a Concrete Utopia: Architecture in Yugoslavia, 1948-1980 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York (2018). Yet most of that scholarship continues to focus on the post-1945 architecture of socialist Yugoslavia, a nonaligned country that held a special position in between the capitalist West and the communist East. However, there exists another, the so-called “First Yugoslavia”: a parliamentary monarchy that was founded as the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes in 1918 and renamed Kingdom of Yugoslavia in 1929, only to dissolve in 1941 after the invasion by Nazi Germany. Lately, the interest in First Yugoslavia is growing too, partly due to the fact that several of its important interwar architects, including Jože Plečnik, gained international prominence. Furthermore, an increasing interest in recent decades in the so-called traditionalism in twentieth-century architecture makes Yugoslav interwar architecture appealing to scholars worldwide. A complex country comprising diverse ethnic and religious groups, similar to Austria-Hungary before 1918, Yugoslavia is a productive case study to examine the influence of national ideologies on the built environment. And this is exactly what Tanja D. Conley’s book Urban Architectures in Interwar Yugoslavia sets out to do.

This book is the first overview of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia’s architectural history published in the English language. So far, the only overview of twentieth-century architecture was published in 1986 in the Croato-Serbian language: Arhitektura XX vijeka by Zoran Manević, Žarko Domljan, Nace Šumi, Ivan Štraus, Georgi Konstantinovski, and Božidar Milić (within the series Art on the Yugoslav Territory): yet it contains only a small number of very short texts. In recent years, there have been several books that contributed greatly to our understanding of interwar architecture in specific regions of Yugoslavia, all of which are referenced by Conley: Darja Radović Mahečić’s Modern Architecture in Croatia 1930’s (2007), Ljiljana Blagojević’s Modernism in Serbia (2003), Aleksandar Ignjatović’s Yugoslavism in Architecture (2007) and Damjan Prelovšek’s Josef Plečnik, 1872-1957: Architectura perennis (1992). Yet what distinguishes Conley’s book from these studies is her approach, which goes beyond existing national borders, bringing together many architects from different parts of Yugoslavia. She focuses not only on the influence of Yugoslav ideology on architecture, but also on ethnic and local traditions, yielding a more wholistic insight into the architecture of First Yugoslavia.

Conley begins with an extensive introduction containing a history of national movements and their influence on architecture in the regions that later formed interwar Yugoslavia. She traces the roots of national movements to medieval states and claims that the development of separate Croatian and Serbian ethnicities—the two closely related South Slavic ethnic groups whose political elites led the creation of Yugoslavia—happened mostly because of their differences in terms of religion (Serbs are mostly Orthodox, and Croats are mostly Catholic Christians) and their long life in two different empires: Ottoman (where most Serbs lived) and Habsburg (that included most of the provinces where Croats lived). The author then focuses on the history of architecture and urbanism of the two largest urban centers of Yugoslavia, Belgrade and Zagreb, during the nineteenth century. She pays special attention to the modernization of these two cities and their appropriation of mostly Western European models and the failed attempt to create a unified Yugoslav national expression in architecture, represented primarily through the works of Ivan Meštrović.

The core of the book focuses on the history of urbanism and architecture in Belgrade, Zagreb, and Ljubljana between the two World Wars. The three largest cities in First Yugoslavia, they became national capitals of three ethnic groups: Belgrade for Serbs, Zagreb for Croats, and Ljubljana for Slovenes. The development of Belgrade was guided by a desire to turn it into the capital and metropolis of a new state. In Zagreb, the emphasis was placed on its transformation into a cultural and economic center that embraced modernism early on. Finally, Ljubljana was transformed into a national capital of Slovenes through the unique classicism of Plečnik’s architecture. In all three cities, Conley observes the dominance of post-academism in the architecture of the 1920s and later the emergence of the so-called international style—in Belgrade through the works of Jan Dubový and Dragiša Brašovan, in Zagreb through the works of Marko Vidaković, Drago Ibler, and Josip Pičman, and in Ljubljana through the works of France Tomažič.

The book focuses on public buildings, such as government structures, schools, university buildings, hospitals, and exhibition pavilions, which speaks to the aspiration of new political elites to promote nation building and to modernize the country. In addition, Conley also covers residential and commercial buildings, primarily bourgeois villas and rental palaces of wealthy developers. The choice of style, the monumentality of buildings, and the discussions that took place related to their designs or construction, serve as the basis on which the author interprets architecture as a reflection of national and political ideologies, as well as dynastic, state, and local authorities’ policies and economic interests.

Many parallel developments in these cities are highlighted, especially through the activities of individual architects. Architects from Zagreb and Ljubljana designed numerous buildings in Belgrade and the architects from all three dominant ethnic groups often collaborated on exhibitions and publications. It is unfortunate that the book did not include other regional centers, especially all of the capital cities of the country’s nine banates (“banovinas”)—Novi Sad, Banja Luka, Split, Skopje, and others—which too provide important case studies where national and regional specificities were fused with modern architecture, sometimes even to a greater extent than in Zagreb, Belgrade, or Ljubljana. We also wish that the publisher had invested in better quality images, as most of these buildings are not familiar to Western readers, who would benefit greatly from better-quality reproductions. Regardless, Conley’s book will undoubtedly become an indispensable read for all those interested in the history of architecture in the first half of the twentieth century in all the countries that were part of Yugoslavia, as well as for readers interested in the interplay of modernity, nationality, and architecture.

Dragan Damjanović is a professor in the Department of Art History, Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, University of Zagreb, Croatia. A scholar of nineteenth- and twentieth-century art and architecture, he has published widely on the history of Croatian and Central European architecture, including the monographs Arhitekt Herman Bollé (2013) and Zagreb Architectural Atlas (2014), as well as scholarly articles in periodicals such as the Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians and Zeitschrift für Kunstgeschichte. Currently, he is leading a collaborative research project, Art and the State in Croatia from the Enlightenment to the Present, and is a member of boards advising on the reconstruction of historic buildings in Zagreb damaged during the 2020 earthquake.

How to Cite This: Damjanović, Dragan. Review of Urban Architectures in Interwar Yugoslavia, by Tanja D. Conley, JAE Online, January 15, 2021.