In the sunny first days of September 1961, a colourful ceremony repeatedly unfolded amidst the empty plains of New Belgrade, Yugoslavia’s new modernist capital in-the-making. A short distance from the almost finished building of the federal government, men and women of different nationalities and races, dressed in all kinds of attire – from standard Western-style suits to saris, keffiyehs, and kufis – joined the local youths in scout uniforms and folk costumes in planting an alley of plane trees. These people were the leaders of the recently decolonised countries of the so-called Third World who gathered in Belgrade for the historic first Conference of the Heads of State or Government of Non-Aligned Countries. As each of them planted a “tree of friendship” to commemorate the occasion, they collectively created the first section of Belgrade’s new Friendship and Peace Park (later known simply as the Friendship Park). Over the following thirty years, practically every foreign statesperson who visited Yugoslavia – including several Soviet leaders, three US presidents, and various crowned heads – would contribute one more tree to this site, expanding it to include more than 120 plants of different species at the time of Yugoslavia’s collapse in 1991.

Except for the main alley planted by the founders of the Non-Aligned Movement in 1961, the Friendship Park was organised into informal groves that defied the world’s hierarchies, projecting an image of internationalism based on the “active peaceful coexistence” of the powerless and the powerful, the poor and the rich, and the small and the large. With each tree marked by a commemorative plaque inscribed with the name and the country of origin of its illustrious gardener, the park became a symbolic site of the Yugoslav vision of the world, which defied the imperial projects of the superpowers and argued for solidarity and equitable collaboration between nations. On the symbolic map of the Cold War, the Friendship Park was Berlin Wall’s antipode of sorts: a place in which global divisions were erased and the fractured world patched up. On a more fundamental level, it also presented the Yugoslav citizens with a decidedly global perspective on their own place in the world, a perspective that for the first time in their history came to encompass the whole planet, rather than the relationship to the regional powers that surrounded them. The Friendship Park thus participated in shaping a particular global imaginary for Yugoslavia, in close association with non-alignment, which in itself was politically, economically, and culturally a project of global ambitions.

Non-alignment, however, was not the only global project that influenced the construction of New Belgrade. The city’s postwar origins date back to 1946, the time of intense Stalinisation when Yugoslavia became incorporated into the Soviet sphere of interest within the nascent Cold War. In contrast, soon after its expulsion from the Soviet bloc in 1948, the country changed course and reestablished its connections with the West, coming to the brink of joining NATO in 1955 before it reconciled again with the USSR and assumed an equidistant position in relation to both superpowers. Yugoslavia thus came to participate in a certain degree in all “three worlds” of the Cold War: the First World of the developed Western liberal democracies, the Second World of socialism, and the developing Third World struggling for decolonisation and modernisation. Yet, it did not really belong to any of them: it had close economic and cultural ties with the West, but it was certainly not a developed capitalist country; it was socialist, but it did not belong to the Soviet economic and defence networks; and it was one of the leaders of non-alignment, but it was European and relatively more developed than its Third World allies. The country thus staked out an international position that was all its own, decidedly global, yet in one way or another exceptional to each of the large global constellations of the era.

In this article I will parse through the urban archaeology of New Belgrade to uncover the inscriptions of these three global engagements. More or less visible, they are not clearly distinguished from each other, instead frequently overlapping to form a thick urban palimpsest that brings the references to the Cold War’s competing global projects into close proximity. I will focus on architecture, a field entangled in simultaneous political, economic, technological, cultural, and artistic concerns. Because of such multiple entanglements, architecture is well positioned to open up a broad perspective on the processes of transnational exchange, which in the case of socialist Yugoslavia, I argue, amounted to a specific form of globalisation. Following Manfred Steger’s succinct yet broad definition of globalisation as “the expansion and intensification of social relations and consciousness across world-time and world-space”, this paper will analyse how, on the one hand, architecture as a profession and a culture became involved in increasingly wide and intense relations with the world and, on the other hand, how its products – the buildings and spaces of the federal “capitol” in New Belgrade – participated in shaping the consciousness of the Yugoslav citizens with respect to their unique place on the planetary scale.1

Steger, one of the leading scholars of globalisation, locates the emergence of the global consciousness – the “global imaginary” – precisely in the upheavals of World War II, the first truly global conflict in history, and in the ensuing Cold War.2 By global imaginary he means a widely shared “background” assumption that the relevant frame of reference for social life is the whole world and not just the older central framework of the nation.3 The members of a society take that broad assumption for granted and enact it in their daily practice; it is only the specific interpretation and articulation of the imaginary that become the objects of competition and dispute. The emergence of the global imaginaries thus came together with the articulation of a new set of political ideologies with decidedly global focus and appeal.4 In this respect, non-alignment was not only an organisation, but also an ideology that rejected the assumption that the developing countries should side with and follow the ideological example of one or the other superpower; instead, they were to be free to devise their own roads to development and to collaborate in solidarity and on equal footing with all other countries.

But Cold War globalisation did not only unfold at the imaginary level; a considerable amount of recent scholarship has focused on the period also in terms of global transfer networks and projects. According to the Norwegian historian Odd Arne Westad, the Cold War was a global confrontation that was fought not only between the American and Soviet empires, but also in, over, and by the developing world, then in the process of decolonisation.5 He and other scholars have remarked that the Cold War’s “three worlds” were not simply objective phenomena of empirical reality, but ideological, geopolitical, and economic projects defined by their programmes and goals. Operating on a global scale, all three were colossal: Westad thus talks about the Cold War as one of the “Western elite projects on the grandest scale”; conversely, György Péteri claims that “the communist project in Eastern Europe has been the largest deliberately designed experiment in globalization in modern history”.6 Building on Péteri’s remarks, Elidor Mëhilli posits the Soviet bloc and the whole socialist world as a full-fledged globalisation in its own right.7 The developing world was not exactly passive either, nor was the scope of its globalisation less encompassing. As the Indian Marxist historian Vijay Prashad states, “The Third World was not a place. It was a project”, and goes on to trace the history of the institutional and ideological platforms for the political and economic liberation and modernisation of the former colonies.8 As one of the most important among such platforms, the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) had more than a hundred member-states at the moment when the Berlin Wall collapsed, thus substantiating the claim by the Croatian historian Tvrtko Jakovina that it functioned as a “third side of the Cold War”.9

This article will trace how New Belgrade navigated through these competing projects and their corresponding imaginaries. Its key spaces present a compressed cross-section through the Cold War with few parallels anywhere in the world. Taken together, they testify to the period’s pivotal role in the processes leading to the current state of globalisation, but also to the alternative pathways that it could have taken.

Looking up to Moscow

New Belgrade occupies a site that was charged with great geopolitical significance long before the founding of Yugoslavia. This former floodplain on the right bank of the Danube, just before its confluence with the river Sava, was for centuries a part of different borderlands. In Roman times, it stood at the northern edge of the Empire and after 395 A.D. it came to lie on the line that divided the Eastern and Western Roman Empires. The future site of New Belgrade was thus geopolitically separated early on from the historical core of Belgrade on the other side of the Sava and it would stay that way for much of its history. Most notably, after the retreat of the Turks from Central Europe in the late eighteenth century, the area became a no-man’s-land between the Ottoman and Habsburg Empires, and after the Serbian liberation wars in the nineteenth century, it came to separate Serbia from Austria-Hungary. It was only after 1918 and the founding of the first Yugoslavia (known at first as the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes) that old Belgrade on the right bank of the Sava and the empty marshlands across the river came to belong to the same modern state. Plans to colonise the area and thus to connect Belgrade with the former Austrian outpost of Zemun (Semlin) up the Danube were first made in the early 1920s, but little progress was achieved before World War II. The only exception was the construction of the Belgrade Fair on the left bank of the Sava in the late 1930s, but the ensuing war interrupted its operation as the Nazis transformed the site into an extermination camp. In symbolic and practical terms, the founding of New Belgrade is thus inextricably tied to the founding of the Yugoslav socialist state.

Yugoslavia that emerged from World War II was a Stalinist state ruled by a single party and its leader Josip Broz Tito. The new constitution was modelled after the Soviet constitution of 1936, the economy was highly centralised and run by the state, and in its foreign policy the country earned the status of the most faithful ally of the USSR. Yugoslavia established special economic relations with the Soviet Union as its main creditor and source of aid, although it would later be claimed that the terms of such collaboration were almost colonial in favour of the Soviet side.10 Conversely, the relations with the West, especially the United States, quickly deteriorated from war-time alliance to outright animosity.11

It was under such conditions that the first gestures towards the creation of a new Yugoslav capital at the confluence of the Danube and the Sava as an eminently administrative city were made at the end of 1946.12 The project’s symbolic charge greatly outweighed its practical necessity: at the time when old Belgrade was still largely in ruins and hundreds of thousands around the country homeless due to war destructions, in a dire situation with little construction materials and even less modern mechanisation, building the new administrative centre in the middle of a floodplain was the proclamation of a new epoch. New Belgrade was intended to be a symbol of Yugoslav unity, the administrative heart of the new state, and the model socialist city.13 But it was also supposed to mediate the country’s international position. Boasting an authentic socialist revolution, Yugoslavia occupied a special status in the emergent communist bloc. In the fall of 1947, Belgrade became the seat of the Cominform, the Information Bureau of European communist parties and the first international communist forum after the dissolution of the Third International. The Yugoslav propaganda at the time popularised the slogan “Belgrade-Moscow”, drawing a parallel between the two capitals as an expression of brotherhood between the Yugoslav and Soviet peoples.14 However, the Yugoslav leaders were not merely the followers of the Soviet example; encouraged by their success in the war, they saw themselves as a regional power. Just like Yugoslavia gravitated toward the Soviet Union, so it had its own satellite, the neighbouring Albania, to which it sent technical and material aid and whose new communist regime it sponsored, an arrangement that dated back to the war years. As Elidor Mëhilli cogently put it, “Yugoslavia became Albania’s window into the world”, but just like the Yugoslavs complained about the exploitative practices of the Soviets, their engagement in Albania encountered similar resistance.15 At the end of the war, there was an idea for a federation with Bulgaria, and later on there were serious discussions of a larger Balkan federation that would also include Albania.16 There is little doubt that the Yugoslav communist leaders believed that they would be the leading force in this larger federation; as a popular song at the time claimed,

Drug je Tito zaslužio
Balkan cio,
Balkan cio
I Evrope jedan dio.
Comrade Tito has deserved
All of the Balkans,
All of the Balkans
And a part of Europe.
Under such circumstances, it seems likely that, as Yugoslavia’s new symbolic centre, New Belgrade would have been the chief candidate for the capital of the Balkan Federation and a regional counterpart to Moscow.18

Translating these geopolitical ambitions into architecture was at the centre of the widely publicised federal competition for the design of the building of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Yugoslavia, organised in December 1946 alongside the competitions for the Presidency of the Federal Government and a luxury hotel. The Central Committee competition most forcefully raised the question of architectural representation, as well as of the appropriate international references. The brief asked for a building that would dominate “the volumetric urban composition of New Belgrade” with its height, that would be “an expression of creative power, a potent symbol of the Communist party”, and an architectural centrepiece for all of Belgrade, whose appearance should be “treated in a fully monumental manner,” paying attention to “harmonizing its architectural and sculptural treatments”.19 Reading between the lines of this description, one has to be reminded of the Palace of the Soviets in Moscow, the never-finished architectural icon of Stalinism, whose gargantuan size and elaborate sculptural decoration were supposed to dominate the city and symbolise the triumph of socialism. The Palace of the Soviets was also the first and most prominent example of architectural Socialist Realism, thus serving as a reliable model for the Soviet doctrine, which would soon begin its circulation around the socialist bloc. Had it been built according to the original 1946 brief, Belgrade’s Central Committee would have been the first headquarters of a ruling communist party built specifically for that purpose outside of the USSR. It is possible to imagine how, as a downscaled version of the Palace of the Soviets, it would have embodied Yugoslavia’s prominent place in the hierarchy of the emerging Second World.

The competition for the Central Committee building became the pivotal event for the imposition of Socialist Realism in Yugoslav architecture. The process did not go smoothly, even though the architectural profession was quickly Stalinised through the abolishment of private practice and the establishment of centralised state-owned design offices.20 The problem was not that the doctrine was Soviet; the most prominent architects who enjoyed the leading positions in new society thanks to their participation in the liberation war were by and large left-leaning and loyal to the new regime. The problem was that most of them had converted to the various inflections of international modernism well before the war and could not be easily convinced to go back to historical ornament and the traditional modes of composition, as Socialist Realism required. That was certainly true for the architects of the top-ranked entries in the first round of the Central Committee competition: Edvard Ravnikar, who had been active in the Liberation Front of Slovenia and then became the director of the Slovenian Design Institute, and Nikola Dobrović, who came to Belgrade wearing a Partizan uniform in the fall of 1944 and then became the founder of the Institute of Urbanism of Serbia.21 Their entries showed no resemblance with the Soviet Stalinist models. The third highly ranked team, which included Tito’s portraitist, Croatian sculptor Antun Augustinčić, made a more obvious effort at conforming to the requirements of Socialist Realism, but even that proposal was apparently too far from the expectations to be built.22

Unsatisfied, the jury awarded no first prize. Before the second round of the competition, Tito himself summoned the country’s top architects in order to make it clear what the new building should look like.23 In the absence of a precise theory, he summed up some of the obvious formal principles of Socialist Realism derived from the most prominent Soviet projects.24 He thus called for an architecture that would be “characteristic only to new Yugoslavia” while expressing the “role of the party” in it, thus almost directly translating the Soviet motto “socialist in content, national in form.” He reminded the architects of the “eternal beauty” of Greek columns, thus reinforcing Socialist Realism’s practical adherence to historical styles, and also of the need to engage sculpture, “the highest stage of visual art”, because “architectural forms, which can easily be abstract, must speak.” Finally, by envisioning “energetic forms” reminiscent of a “prow of a ship that clears its way through the waves,” Tito may have evoked another icon of Stalinism, the Pavilion of the USSR at the 1937 International Exhibition in Paris, whose dynamic forms indeed evoked the march into a brighter future.

Despite their best efforts, the participants in the competition still could not produce a satisfactory scheme and after the second round there was again no winner. Instead, the occasion provoked a rather unpleasant debate in the architectural press over the definition of Socialist Realist architecture.25 Although the argument centred on the appropriateness of historical ornament, both sides in the debate relied on the authority of Soviet examples to support their argument. The fact that Soviet architects themselves struggled throughout the 1930s to figure out what Socialist Realism was supposed to be resulted in a wide variety of possible models to draw upon in the debate.26 Nonetheless, regardless of the position in the debate, it became clear that the Soviet Union became the default source for architectural culture, even when the actual content was disputed. The relevant world of architecture further extended to other communist countries; anticipating the subsequent formulation of the Soviet bloc as a “deliberately designed experiment in globalization”, the Yugoslav architectural press at the time also paid attention to other East European countries, such as Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, or Hungary.27 If not ignored, the West was sharply criticised. The developing world was not yet even on the map.

The groundbreaking ceremony at the site of the future New Belgrade took place on April 11, 1948. In the absence of a suitable design for the Central Committee, the construction began with the buildings of the Presidency of the Federal Government and the luxury hotel.28 Both buildings were designed in different inflections of the modernist language; more utilitarian and less symbolically charged than the Central Committee, they did not compel the leadership to intervene in their design. With their positions and basic form fixed in the late 1940s, these two buildings also provided the embryos for the future urban plans of New Belgrade. From the late 1940s until the early 1980s, these plans would be consistently devised according to the modernist principles laid out by the Congrès Internationaux d’Architecture Moderne in a famous document known as the “Athens Charter”, which prescribed strict functional zoning and generous outdoor spaces, with free-standing high-rise buildings submerged in a sea of greenery. Despite the fact that it was founded at the height of the Stalinisation of Yugoslavia, New Belgrade was thus never supposed to resemble, for example, East Berlin’s Stalinallée.

Nevertheless, Sovietisation was still built into New Belgrade’s genetic code. Before any construction could begin, it was first necessary to dig almost ninety million cubic meters of sand and gravel out of the Danube to fill in and stabilise the marshland.29 With the dire shortages of modern construction technology, most of that enormous work had to be done by hand, relying largely on mass volunteer labour. Federal youth brigades were assembled from all parts of the country. The enthusiastic shock work competition cultivated in these brigades largely followed the Soviet models, in particular the Stakhanovite movement established in the 1930s. Rounding the symbolic scope of their efforts, the songs young labourers sang echoed almost literally Stalin’s proclamation that the Soviet capital should be the “model for all the capitals in the world”30:

Gradili smo pruge,
Al’ to nije dosta,
Gradićemo Beograd
Da bude k’o Moskva.
We have built railroads,
But that’s not enough,
We will build Belgrade
To make it look like Moscow.
New Belgrade thus came to embody both the transfer of ideology, culture, and social organisation from the Soviet Union to Yugoslavia and the attempt at reorienting the social imaginary toward Moscow as the centre to which the country gravitated. That was a marked expansion of the relevant world for the Yugoslavs in comparison with the previous periods in their history.32 But such reorientation did not last long. In June 1948, less than three months after the construction of New Belgrade began, the Cominform announced its resolution against the CPY, expelling Yugoslavia from the communist bloc. The reason, to put it shortly, was a struggle for power; despite their professed faithfulness to the Soviet Union, the Yugoslav communist leaders acted far too independently for Stalin’s tastes. Within months, Yugoslavia’s lifeline to its previous allies and trading partners was severed, causing a major political, ideological, and economic crisis; the construction of New Belgrade soon came to a standstill. For almost two years, Tito struggled to convince Stalin that he was not a traitor of communism, but to no avail. What followed was a second international reorientation that would expand the reach of Yugoslavia’s international links far beyond Moscow.

Going West

The Cominform’s resolution set in motion a chain of events that profoundly transformed the country. By 1950, the Stalinist system was on the way to be disassembled and replaced by the reformist project of socialist self-management. The Communist Party of Yugoslavia abolished Stalinist centralisation and reclaimed the Marxist ideal of “withering away of the state”. In direct reference to Karl Marx’s Communist League of 1847, in 1952 it changed its name to the League of Communists of Yugoslavia to signify the shift from a small conspiratorial clique to a mass organisation. The state gradually released its iron grip over cultural production, which led to a quick demise of Socialist Realism, especially in architecture. New allies were found in the West; the ideological enmity towards the capitalist world was now a far smaller problem than the immediate military threats coming from the East. The West, particularly the United States, was happy to exploit the first major crack in the communist world, lavishing Yugoslavia with economic and military aid. For both sides, however, that was a marriage of convenience, which would have its ups and downs during the following decades. Only a few years after its attempt to create a socialist Balkan Federation under Soviet tutelage, the country entered an alternative Balkan pact, a short-lived alliance with Greece and Turkey, both capitalist states and members of NATO.33 Moreover, the West was hoping to fully integrate the country into NATO, as well as into the Organisation for the European Economic Cooperation.34 Yugoslavia, however, jealously maintained its independence. After Stalin’s death, friendly relations were reestablished with the Soviets in the mid-1950s, but never to the point of rejoining the camp and the country positioned itself at an equal distance from both military blocs.

The cultural opening to the West never equalled a deliberate programmatic goal, nor was it ever unconditional in the way the cultural connections with the Soviet Union had been. Instead, it first began through a “natural” reestablishment and strengthening of the earlier connections with international modernism. As the Soviet bloc enforced Socialist Realism, aesthetic modernism in the 1950s indeed resided mostly in the West, but its further development came together with an epochal shift that moved the cultural centre of gravity from Western Europe to the United States. In the process, modernist architecture was stripped of much of its socially engaged ethos. Furthermore, new international centres began emerging on the peripheries of the First World, from Finland to Brazil and Japan, which thus expanded the relevant points of reference for Yugoslav culture to a truly global scale, much farther than ever before. The flourishing of Yugoslav modernist culture in the 1950s thus occurred in the context of the American enlistment of high modernism in its Cold War “struggle for the hearts and minds”, but also within the systemic limits of self-managing socialism, which did not allow a wholesale assimilation of the imported ideological content.35 In architecture, the situation was the exact opposite of that before 1948: if in the 1940s Yugoslav architects embraced the ideological message of socialism but sought to redefine the aesthetics of Socialist Realism, in the 1950s they embraced the aesthetics of high modernism, while reasserting the ethics of social engagement that the International Style – the American interpretation of high modernism – generally ignored.

As the economy began to recover in the mid-1950s, plans to continue the construction of New Belgrade were revived. The building of the Presidency of the Federal Government was finished only to the point of the concrete skeleton before the Cominform crisis shut down the works.36 Before the construction could resume, the original design had to be adapted to the needs of a much reduced federal administration, now called the Federal Executive Council (widely known by the acronym SIV – Savezno izvršno veće). Since the building’s original head designer, Croatian architect Vladimir Potočnjak, had died in the meantime, the local Belgrade architect Mihailo Janković took over to redesign and finish the structure according to new functional and symbolic needs. According to the original plans, the building was supposed to be relatively massive and somewhat classicising, which by that time was not just out of style, but it also vaguely hinted at Socialist Realism. Janković removed any classical overtones, forging the appearance of a light, elegant, transparent structure – all formal staples of high modernism (figure 1).

Figure 1 Federal Executive Council (Savezno izvršno veće, SIV), originally designed by Vladimir Potočnjak, Antun Ulrich, Zlatko Neumann, and Dragica Perak, 1947-48, redesigned by Mihailo Janković, 1954-62

(photo by author)

If the frame of reference for Yugoslav architecture shifted to the West, in the case of the Federal Executive Council building it leaped all the way to Brasilia, Brazil’s own new capital and one of the most widely publicised modernist projects of the 1950s. Janković’s early sketches for the redesign revealed clear references to Oscar Niemeyer’s work, but his apparently uncritical importation of forms developed for a different climate provoked criticism from the profession.37 But even after he toned down the more overt formal references, the sweeping horizontality and abstract geometrical volumes weightlessly floating above the ground of the final design still evoked essentially the same kind of modernist monumentality as the one Niemeyer developed for Brasilia.38

The political connotations of the aesthetic shift to high modernism quickly became apparent. As early as 1953, the New York Times’ art critic Aline Louchheim interpreted Yugoslav modernist art at the Biennial of Art in Sao Paulo as a tangible proof of “Tito’s break with Russia”, thus providing a template for many similar interpretations.39 No one put it more explicitly than the New York Times correspondent Harrison Salisbury in August 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.

Nowhere is Yugoslavia’s break with the drab monotony and tasteless gingerbread of “socialist realism” more dramatic than in the graceful office buildings, apartment houses and public structures that have replaced the rubble of World War II.

Thanks in part to the break with Moscow and in part to the taste of some skilled architects no Stalin Allées, Gorky Streets or Warsaw skyscrapers mar the Belgrade landscape…40

To Yugoslav leaders, such statements must have confirmed the success of their efforts at distancing the state from totalitarian Stalinism. In return, such interpretations helped buttress the status of modernism as a desirable aesthetic against the resurrection of any overt political intrusion upon architecture. At the same time, the architecture Salisbury found in Belgrade suggested that Yugoslavia was not a part of the Soviet bloc, thus also apparently confirming the success of Presidents Truman and Eisenhower’s strategy of “keeping Tito afloat” (that is, Yugoslavia out of the Soviet orbit) at the time of the Yugoslav-Soviet rapprochement during Nikita Khrushchev’s Thaw.41

American cultural propaganda was, for the most part, welcomed in Yugoslavia.42 American jazz musicians, such as Dizzy Gillespie, Ella Fitzgerald, and Louis Armstrong, were received with standing ovations. American films dominated the cinema programmes. Just a few days after Salisbury published his article on Belgrade, the United States caused a sensation at the Zagreb International Fair by showcasing a supermarket, thus inciting a shopping revolution in the country, which resulted in the opening of Yugoslavia’s first supermarket in downtown Belgrade the following year. In the field of high art, Contemporary Art in the USA, a major traveling exhibition organised by the Museum of Modern Art in New York, arrived in Belgrade in 1956 at a direct request of the Yugoslav side.43 Remembered for introducing Abstract Expressionist paintings to Europe, the exhibition also showcased the latest architecture, such as the iconic corporate skyscrapers like Skidmore, Owings & Merrill’s Lever House in New York, which was featured on the cover of the catalogue.

New Belgrade’s first true skyscraper was built only a short distance from the Federal Executive Council. It was also designed by Mihailo Janković, whose office won an invited federal competition in 1959 for the headquarters of a group of federal social and political bodies, including the Central Committee of the League of Communists of Yugoslavia.44 In sharp contrast with the ill-fated 1947 competition for the Central Committee of the CPY, the new brief specifically demanded that the building should be “contemporary” and that it “must not be considered a ‘monumental palace’” – echoing a residual fear of Socialist Realism.45 In the subsequent development of the project, Janković and his younger co-designer Dušan Milenković interpreted the required contemporariness in terms of explicitly transatlantic sources, located somewhere between New York, Toronto, and Brasilia. As a result, the final design featured a pristine prismatic skyscraper with a gridded aluminum-and-glass façade similar to any American corporate tower of the period. Next to it stood a “flying saucer”, a meeting hall similar to the pavilion of Viljo Revell’s contemporary Toronto City Hall or Oscar Niemeyer’s two “bowls” at the Plaza of the Three Powers in Brasilia combined into one (figure 2). But the meeting hall – the intended locus of the democratic process – was never built, unlike the tower designed to house party bureaucracy, thus testifying to the precariousness of the “withering away” of the state apparatus that normative ideology proclaimed.

Figure 2 Mihailo Janković and Dušan Milenković: The Building of Social and Political Organisations (Central Committee building), New Belgrade, 1959-64 (Aleksandar Janković Collection, Belgrade)

The tower’s cool gridded geometry in aluminium and greyish-green glass suggested a curtain-wall – which, at the time, Yugoslav architects tellingly called the “American façade” – but instead of featuring a technologically sophisticated prefabricated membrane over a steel skeleton, in reality it concealed conventional masonry walls over concrete structure. Its logic of interchangeable components, which in the US gave shape to the “organisational complex” of corporate capitalism, was here used in an entirely different context, for the headquarters of a communist party that strove towards radical democratisation, yet still maintained a pyramidal power structure with the unquestioned charismatic leader at the top.46 A clever technological solution domesticated the alien representational content through lights built into the windows that allowed the façades to spell ideological messages such as “Long Live Tito.” This gigantic low-resolution digital display thus seamlessly blended the logic of communist propaganda with the logic of commercial advertising, testifying to the malleability of cultural forms in the process of transfer from one context to another.

A few hundred meters to the east, another institutional building testified to the burgeoning international exchanges. The Museum of Contemporary Art was founded in 1958 by the modernist painter, art critic, theorist, and historian Miodrag B. Protić with the goal to compile a comprehensive collection of twentieth-century Yugoslav art.47 Its building, designed by two young architects from Belgrade, Ivan Antić and Ivanka Raspopović, and completed in 1965, was itself a celebrated piece of art, an inspired reinterpretation of the aesthetic staples of modernism: formal simplicity, transparency, and structural honesty (figure 3).

Figure 3 Ivan Antić and Ivanka Raspopović, architects: Museum of Contemporary Art, New Belgrade, 1959-65 (photo by author)

The architects originally proposed a series of angular crystalline volumes in exposed concrete and brick, favourite materials of the British movement New Brutalism, which had some following in Yugoslavia at the time, especially in Slovenia and in Belgrade.48 During its development, however, after Protić’s suggestion and funding initiative, the infill of the skeleton was updated to polished marble, which gave the building a much more prestigious appearance, in line with the high-profile state buildings surrounding it.49

The more profound traces of transnational exchange, however, were hidden behind the museum’s skin. An erudite writer and the key advocate of artistic autonomy after the split with the Soviets, Protić was one of the many prominent Yugoslav intellectuals targeted by the “soft power” of US cultural propaganda. Sponsored by the Ford Foundation, he spent several months in New York in 1962, precisely at the time when his museum in Belgrade was under construction, using his tenure to study the organisation and functioning of New York’s great museums, especially the Museum of Modern Art. The prestigious grant allowed him free access to collections, as well as a chance to meet the patriarchs of American modernism, including the former and current directors of the MoMA, Alfred H. Barr Jr. and René d’Harnoncourt, the director of the Guggenheim Thomas Messer, and the architect Philip Johnson. The latter was, allegedly, impressed when Protić showed him the plans for his new museum during a visit to Johnson’s studio at the top of the Seagram building.50

Upon his return to Yugoslavia, Protić applied many of the lessons he learned in New York to his new museum. Following MoMA’s lead, the Museum of Contemporary Art was the first in Yugoslavia to have permanent departments for documentation, public relations, education, and international exchange. Protić also transplanted the technologies of installation and storage and, most importantly, the philosophy of exhibiting a large and complex collection of modern art. In its concept, his permanent exhibition in Belgrade was for the modern art of Yugoslavia what MoMA’s permanent exhibition was for international modernism: an authoritative, canonical view. The museum also became an active locus of international exchange, conceptualising and organising 42 exhibitions of Yugoslav art to be sent abroad and hosting 114 foreign exhibitions. Guest exhibitions emphatically defied the Cold War boundaries, comprising a range of national retrospectives, including those from the United Kingdom, the United States, France, and Italy, side by side with those from India, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia. The most important international artists were represented as well, ranging from the Blue Rider group, Pablo Picasso, and Vladimir Mayakovsky’s revolutionary posters, to Yves Klein, Willem de Kooning, and Henri Cartier-Bresson.51 The museum thus exposed the Yugoslav audience to a broad and exhaustive overview of international modernism, allowing them to partake in the world’s elite cultural achievements and projecting the view of Yugoslavia as a cultured place on par with the most developed countries.

The late 1950s and early 1960s were the crucial time when Yugoslavia started assimilating the Western – especially American – postwar culture in its high, popular, and commercial variations, resulting in what the Serbian historian Radina Vučetić has called “Coca-Cola socialism.”52 Filtered as it was through the systemic membrane of self-managing socialism, that assimilation was neither wholesale nor unquestioned, but it nevertheless clearly suggested that the cultural centre of the worlds was located in the United States. Yugoslav architecture in particular became well informed on and reliant on Western influences, with which the Second World could never again compete, thus testifying to the continued success of the First World project, even at the height of the Yugoslav engagement with the Non-Aligned Movement.

Between the Three Worlds

From the late 1950s until the country’s collapse, Yugoslav foreign policy was more or less equidistant from the two superpowers. But Tito and his leading diplomats had a far more ambitious vision of Yugoslavia’s place in the world than merely maintaining independence: their belief that everyone else should also have the right to the same choice resulted in the creation of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). Placing itself at the fulcrum of the so-called First, Second, and Third Worlds, the country created its own global network of cultural and economic exchange, effectively serving as a conduit of modernisation between the developed and the developing worlds, as well as a cultural mediator between the rival ideologies. The age of the Yugoslav diplomatic offensive, which lasted until the mid-1980s, gave the country much greater international relevance than its size or economic power would suggest.53 This new prominence was symbolically asserted through a series of high-profile international events, culminating with the 1984 Winter Olympic Games in Sarajevo.

The Conference of the Heads of State or Government of Non-Aligned Countries, held in Belgrade September 1-4, 1961, was the first such event, which gathered the leaders of 25 developing countries and some 40 delegations of anti-colonial liberation movements. The event put Belgrade in the news across the world in a way not known since Yugoslavia’s sensational break with Stalin in 1948. The host city welcomed the attention well prepared, festively decorated with thousands of flags of the participating countries, flowers, and special lighting; several abstract sculptures symbolising non-alignment were strategically placed in the main squares and at prominent intersections.54 Citizens gathered in the streets to cheer the guests from faraway countries; for many that was the first – although certainly not the last – occasion to encounter people of races other than their own. For those outside of Belgrade, the media made sure to cover the event exhaustively, conveying not just the content of the conference, but also the atmosphere in the capital. The once distant and exotic world erupted into the collective imagination of ordinary Yugoslavs. For the growing numbers of those who followed the paths of the nascent economic exchange with the non-aligned countries, that world was also fast becoming a reality experienced firsthand.

At the time, New Belgrade consisted of little more than a few urban blocks in a vast empty plain. Even the Federal Executive Council building was not yet entirely finished, but the country’s leadership made a point of scheduling some events in it, presumably as a way to show off its success at modernisation. The tree-planting ceremonies at the Friendship Park next door further focused the attention on the new city. Initiated by the scout organisation of Serbia, the park was originally planned to be entirely devoted to celebrating non-alignment through miniature “open-air museums” of the participating countries surrounding the “Peace Alley” where the guests of the conference planted the plane trees (figures 4 and 5).55

Figure 4 Plaques commemorating the planting of the Trees of Friendship placed on the occasion of the Conference of the Heads of State or Government of Non-Aligned Countries. New Belgrade, 1961. Clockwise from top left, plaques with the names of: Josip Broz Tito of Yugoslavia, Jawaharlal Nehru of India, Jamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt, and Sirimavo Bandaranaike of Ceylon

(photo by author)

Figure 5 The main ally of the Friendship Park with plane trees planted on the occasion of the Conference of the Heads of State or Government of Non-Aligned Countries, New Belgrade, 1961. At the back, the obelisk commemorating the 1999 NATO bombing, erected in 2000

(photo by author)

It is not exactly clear why and when this idea was abandoned; by the time when a national competition for the design of the park was organised in 1965, there were already additional trees planted by guests from the countries outside of the NAM. As a result of the competition, today the park contains a series of radial paths converging in a paved plateau perpendicular to the Peace Alley, but the centre remained unoccupied for decades. Despite such formal outline, most of the trees in the park are arranged into informal groves, thus downplaying any hierarchy among them.56 The list of names on the commemorative plaques is impressive, not only because it reads like a “who’s who” of the Cold War era, but also because of their juxtapositions: Leonid Brezhnev, Alexei Kosygin, and Mikhail Gorbachev, but also Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and Jimmy Carter; Indira Gandhi and Sirimavo Bandaranaike, but also Queen Elizabeth II; Willy Brandt and Helmut Schmidt, but also Erich Honecker; Fidel Castro and Muammar al-Gaddafi; Carl Gustaf of Sweden and Hirohito of Japan; the list goes on.

A second diplomatic highpoint of Tito’s foreign policy was his success at bringing the Conference on Security and Co-operation (CSCE) in Europe to Belgrade in 1977-78. The conference was a precursor to the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which still maintains the peace architecture in the Northern Hemisphere. It first convened in Helsinki and Geneva 1973-75 as a vehicle for the détente, intended to reduce the political tensions in the divided continent and to foster economic and humanitarian collaboration. Such an agenda was precisely along the lines of Yugoslavia’s professed foreign policy; this, in turn, also made the country an appropriate place for the conference, which in its first years sought to meet in neutral states, like Finland and Switzerland. Lacking a modern congress centre to host an international gathering of such scale, the City of Belgrade took a foreign loan to fund the construction of a new high-end facility, which was designed and erected in one single year to welcome the first preliminary meetings of CSCE in June 1977.57 The site on the left bank of the Sava was previously the subject of a study by the Urban Planning Institute of Belgrade, which proposed an uncommissioned project for a “centre of friendship” of the non-aligned countries. It was an attempt to use the authority of foreign policy in order to thwart the occupation of a valuable central site by mass social housing, which at the time started dominating the urban fabric of New Belgrade.58 Although the project never took off, it correctly anticipated that the site would have far-reaching international connotation by hosting the CSCE.

Before the conference, the team of designers led by the architect Stojan Maksimović went on an international tour to study conference centres, a relatively new building type.59 The resultant facility, named the Sava Centre for its location adjacent to the river, summed up the world’s latest architectural trends, especially the recent Hi-Tech turn. With its exposed trusses and colourful ducts and pipes, the building followed closely in the footsteps of the Pompidou Centre in Paris, which opened only one month before the Sava Center. With its sloping glass walls, it also demonstrated a passing resemblance to Copenhagen’s recent Bella Centre (later the site of the 2009 UN Climate Change Conference), which caused Belgrade’s architectural grapevine to whisper of plagiarism.60 The Sava Centre, however, had a different organisation and a far richer tectonic expression than its alleged Danish predecessor, offering an original interpretation of international trends. Fully realised by domestic companies, the building presented an emphatic statement of Yugoslavia’s success at modernisation, as it showcased the country’s burgeoning construction industry.

Over the following two years, the complex was expanded to include a 4,000 seat performance hall and a luxury hotel operated by InterContinental, a subsidiary of Pan American World Airways and the world’s first hotel chain with explicitly global ambitions.61 Hyatt followed suit in the 1980s, building its own hotel less than three hundred meters further north, just across the street from the Central Committee building. This incorporation into the global economic networks dominated by the First World was further symbolically asserted when the Sava Centre hosted the 1979 annual meeting of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, the key vehicles of economic globalisation. In contrast, however, the following year the centre also hosted the 21st General Conference of UNESCO, famous for the adoption of the controversial “McBride Report”, written by an international panel of experts (including Gabriel Garcia Marquez and a Yugoslav representative) who chagrined the United States by voicing their concern about the unmediated First World monopoly over global communications.62 Between the many high-profile political and economic events – including the ninth Summit of the Non-Aligned Countries in 1989 – the Sava Centre was also a place where the citizens of Belgrade regularly encountered the world through the performances of a long line of international artists, from Miles Davis to the Moscow Philharmonic, or the movies shown at the annual international film festival FEST. Most artists, however, came from the First and very few from the Third World, thus further reinforcing the already established asymmetry of the ideological bloc between which Yugoslavia was suspended.

Constructing a modern congress centre at breakneck speed was also an excellent advertisement for Yugoslav architecture and construction industry. A telling episode clarifies the potency of New Belgrade’s architecture in facilitating exports in that field: in 1974, a delegation from Iraq, a fellow non-aligned country, visited Belgrade in order to explore the possibilities of boosting the almost non-existent economic relations with Yugoslavia. During the visit, the Iraqis expressed interest in acquiring the plans of the building of the Federal Executive Council; they were so impressed by it that they wanted to build its replica in Baghdad. The request was not heeded: not only was it unacceptable for security reasons, but copying a building regardless of its context also seemed professionally wrong. The Yugoslavs offered instead to put the Iraqis in touch with the building’s architect, Mihajlo Janković, but he died a short time later.63 Nevertheless, a variety of large-scale jobs for Yugoslav construction companies resulted from the visit, reaching the total amount of almost $1.5 billion in 1976. That amount included a massive military chemical plant worth $460 million, designed, built, and equipped by the Rad Group, which would later build its own never-completed office building directly opposite the Central Committee tower, next to the Hyatt Hotel.64

Iraq was just one of the many countries where the Yugoslav construction companies had large-scale operations; they were active across the developing world, from Liberia to Iraq to Indonesia, and from Algeria to Nigeria to Zimbabwe. Another important market was the Second World, from the GDR and Czechoslovakia to Siberia; there were even some operations in Western Europe. One of the largest beneficiaries of the contracts acquired through the NAM was Energoprojekt, a massive design and construction corporation active on four continents and in more than eighty countries.65 Like Rad and several other such companies, Energoprojekt also headquartered in New Belgrade, in a sprawling complex opened in 1982 only a short distance north-west of the Federal Executive Council, as if to symbolically stress the strategic interdependence between the state and the socialist corporations, whose success directly rested on the country’s foreign policy. The building was designed by Aleksandar Keković, who had learned the ropes as a young architect at Energoprojekt’s sites across Africa and the Middle East, including those in Libya, Nigeria, Uganda, and Jordan.66 With its top-lit interior streets planted with abundant greenery, the project was a highly technological postmodern world unto its own; but it also included an efficient system of natural ventilation derived from Keković’s experience in the tropics, thus merging the First- and Third-World influences for a late-socialist corporation. If Yugoslavia’s policy of non-alignment ever materialised in the built form, then one of such sites must have been the Energoprojekt building (figure 6).

Figure 6 Aleksandar Keković, architect: Energoprojekt Office Building, New Belgrade, 1982

(© Wolfgang Thaler)


The two-kilometre-long triangle between Energoprojekt’s headquarters in the West, the Museum of Contemporary Art in the East, and the Sava Centre to the South encloses some of the key sites through which socialist Yugoslavia became entangled in the three global projects of the Cold War. Politics, economy, and culture came together in mediating these three globalisations in practical and in symbolic terms. The land on which New Belgrade was built was reclaimed from the marshes in order to support a local Balkan Moscow; instead, it became populated with structures seen as representative of a break from Moscow. Then it became one of the founding sites of non-alignment, but also of Europe’s peace architecture and Cold War détente. It was also a key node in Yugoslavia’s network of political and economic exchange with the Third World, as well as one of the first socialist nodes in the global networks of American hospitality industry. These layers did not make New Belgrade into a “global city” on par with the major hubs of globalisation, but they certainly allowed it to be much more than a mere periphery and a passive recipient in the global exchanges of the postwar period. Moreover, they all contributed to the forging of socialist Yugoslavia’s shifting global imaginaries, instilling into its citizens a sense of their place in the world on a scale their ancestors never possessed.

New Belgrade’s subsequent fall from grace was thus all the more painful. As the three-world system came to an end with the collapse of the Berlin Wall, Yugoslavia itself ceased to exist in a violent turn of events that drew global attention, emphatically contradicting everything that it had stood for in the preceding decades. As the wall of international sanctions closed around Serbia in the 1990s, New Belgrade’s global symbolism turned into an empty shell with no real meaning. The once mighty socialist corporations lost their foreign markets and many came completely undone. Foreign dignitaries stopped planting the trees of friendship. And then, in 1999, NATO bombed the former Central Committee tower with its “American façade”, as foreign reporters comfortably observed from the Hyatt Hotel across the street. The following year, the Friendship Park finally got its missing monumental centrepiece, an obelisk commemorating the casualties of the intervention, erected by Slobodan Milošević’s regime as a cynical reminder that no friendship is forever (figure 5).

Serbia that emerged after the ouster of Milošević in 2000 was quickly relegated to world’s economic periphery, languishing with other former Yugoslav republics, most of them strapped for foreign investments and loans and politically so irrelevant that they cannot dream of being visited by a single US president, let alone three. For a while, New Belgrade fared somewhat better than the rest of Serbia, as it became a local hub where foreign banks and other corporations settled in to replace the eradicated domestic industry. The damaged Central Committee was privatised and repaired to become one of the most expensive rental office spaces in the city. Proudly perched at the top is the logo of a shady Austrian bank, nationalised by the Austrian state in 2009 after a series of corruption scandals involving the former Yugoslav countries.67 The irony that the former seat of a communist party became a symbol of the worst aspects of neoliberal economy went completely unacknowledged. The building was then expanded by a shopping mall so generic that its designers from a commercial British office could have lifted it from the suburbs of any city anywhere in the world. Across the street, the forgotten trees in the Friendship Park quietly keep growing, preserving the memory of a different kind of globalisation.