Updated: Apr 18
Now that Brutalism has been trending for a couple of years, Soviet-era Brutalism, and the work of Eastern European modernists are being re-discovered as well. When both the Museum of Modern Art and the Venice Architecture Biennale highlight the work of Yugoslavian Modernists, you know it has officially arrived. For those of us who didn’t make it to the 2021 Biennale, the New York Review of books has a great read about their exhibit on Yugoslavian modernist Svetlana Kana Radević. While I had never heard of Ms. Radević, she was so famous in the former Yugoslavia, that she was known simply by one name: Kana.
She even had her own postage stamp!
Despite its dry, academic title, the exhibit at the Venice Biennale was fascinating and full of beautiful images. Check it out here: Skirting the Center: Sventlana Kana Radević On the Periphery of Postwar Architecture
A Primer on Yugoslavian Communist Architecture
Post WWII, the former Yugoslavia embarked on a massive hospitality and infrastructure building campaign to promote regional tourism within the young communist country, in the hopes that (in addition to creating jobs), it would help unite the many different ethnic groups into a single, national identity. (1)
Spoiler Alert- that didn’t quite work out.
Nonetheless during the sixties and seventies there was a huge building boom in the former Yugoslavia as seen in the Museum of Modern Art's exhibit: Concrete Utopia: Architecture in Yugoslavia 1948-1980. Architecture has always been used by differing political regimes to communicate its aspirations. For Tito, the president of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia from 1953 until his death in 1980, Brutalist architecture inspired by STAR-chitects such as Kahn and Corbusier was the perfect advertisement for his new, forward thinking country. In addition, the building boom helped to create a thriving tourism industry and a healthy economy. The former Yugoslavia also wanted to be seen as a progressive country, and highly-educated, modern women were seen as a symbol of this modernity. In fact the former Yugoslavia already had laws against gender discrimination and protections for maternity leave and abortion in 1974! (2) While these laws didn’t necessarily translate into equality in the workplace, residential architecture / housing were (and continue to be) one of the few places where female architects can be a lead architect or designer rather than simply draftsmen. (3)
KANA Fun Facts
Born November 21st in 1937 in the medieval capitol of Cetinje in what is now Montenegro, Kana studied architecture and art history at the University of Belgrade. In 1964 (only a year after graduating) she won an architectural competition to design the Hotel Podgorica, which jump- started her career. It was completed in1967. Yugoslavia's progressive ideas about women in the workplace (sort of) and the national building program combined to create the perfect atmosphere for Svetlana Kana Radević to thrive. After the publicity from the Hotel Podgorica she received many public commissions.
In 1968, she became an instant celebrity when she received the Federal Borba prize, (the former Yugoslavia’s version of our Pritzker prize) for the Hotel Podgorica, while still in her twenties. She was the youngest laureate and the only woman to have received the prize. In 1968 and 1969 she went on to design multiple apartment buildings and a bus terminal in Montenegro.
She went on to receive a Fulbright grant to study architecture with Louis Kahn at the University of Pennsylvania in 1972. It was while studying here that she received the commission to design the Memorial to the Fallen, commemorating the Yugoslav soldiers who died in the first Balkan war. After earning her Master’s degree in architecture from the University of Pennsylvania, she went on to study with the Japanese Metabolist * architect Kisho Kurakawa in Tokyo in 1973.
Legacy She remained in Montenegro from 1977-1988. During this period she designed the Hotel Zlatibor in what is now Serbia, (completed in 1981), the Kindergarden in Centinje, the Lexgraphic Institute in Titograd ( now Podgorika) from 1984-1989 and the Business Center in Podgorika in 1991. There is little information about Kana from1991 to her death at 63 in 2003. The Bosnian war broke out in 1992 and lasted until 1995, which obviously curtailed building in the region. After her death, her work and legacy disappeared. The consensus of curators is that this is due in part to the lack of an archive of her work, similar to the void left behind by noted architects such as Lilly Reich, or Robert Mallet-Stevens. Kana kept all of her documents and drawings herself until she died, when her cousin,(also an architect) took possession of them.
The fall of communism and the collapse of Yugoslavia in 1991, may have been much more harmful to Kana’s career than the war itself. Although the exhibit doesn’t cover this period, one might imagine that someone so successful under Tito’s communist regime, may have struggled to be accepted by a new democratic government.
Influences While the exhibit mentions the influence of Louis Kahn and Kisho Kurkawa on her work, I see a lot of Paul Rudolph in both her assertive forms and her use of textured concrete. Either way, her work falls squarely into the domain of Brutalism with its massive concrete forms that tend to dominate their surroundings. The curvilinear structure of many of her buildings is also reminiscent of the dramatic concrete buildings of late-career Le Corbusier. There was a large contingent of Eastern European architects from both the Czech Republic and the former Yugoslavia, who worked in the studio of Le Corbusier, and brought his Modernist, concrete aesthetic back to Eastern Europe, influencing future Yugoslavian architects such as Kana.
Socialist Modernism In MoMA's 2018 exhibit, "Yugoslavia: toward a concrete Utopia" they make the point that it was the unique form of communism that existed only in Yugoslavia that allowed architects the freedom to express a regional aesthetic (within modernism) despite a focus on national unity. Yugoslavian Modernism deserves its own rightful place in architectural history, not only for its striking form-driven buildings but also because it was one of the few places where the Modernist, Utopian architectural experiment was actually successful. Unlike so many European and American attempts at Utopian building schemes which resulted in isolating vulnerable populations in demoralizing concrete warehouses, Yugoslavian Brutalist resorts and apartment buildings were designed for all citizens, not just the wealthy or the poor. In 1966 most Yugoslavians had access to disposable income for travel, dining out and entertainment and this resulted in a booming economy for everyone. For a while...
Interiors of the Hotel Zlatibor from Donald Niebyl's unique website:www.spomenikdatabase.com
It was not long after Tito's death in 1980 that this fragile unity fractured, ending the national building program. In 1992 civil war exploded, (which is never great for architecture). Many of these buildings were lost but some still remain, albeit abandoned. As recognition for this unique era in architecture grows, hopefully some of the magnificent buildings can be saved and an archival foundation can be established for Svetlana Kana so that future scholars can correct her erasure from architectural history.
Don't forget to check out our cocktail inspired by Svetlana Kana Radević.
According to Wikepedia the Metabolism movement in architecture combined ideas about
mega-structures with biological processes along with a smattering of Marxism. What the what? (Hey I just write about the trends, I don't claim to understand 'em!) From what I am able to interpolate, this translated into something like designing massive housing projects (that's the Marxist part I think) in which the plans of the mega structure as well as those of the units themselves were inspired by the biology and growth of cells. Needless to say this was a mostly theoretical movement with one major exception- Kisho Kurakawa's Nakagin Capsul Tower in Tokyo.
1-3 Sophie Pinkham, Designs For Living: Review of Svetlana Kana Radević in New York Review of Books, September 23, 2021
Skirting the Center: Sventlana On the Periphery of Postwar Architecture.
Venice Architecture Biennale May 22–November 21, 2021 . Curated by Dijana Vučinić, Anna Kats
Concrete Utopia: Architecture in Yugoslavia 1948-1980
The Museum of Modern Art, December 6, 2018. Curated by Martino Stierli and Vladimir Kulić
Justin McGuirk, "The Unrepeatable Architectural Moment of Yugoslavia's Concrete Utopia" The New Yorker, August 7, 2018
Sophie Pinkham, Designs For Living: Review of Svetlana Kana Radević in New York Review of Books, September 23, 202
For more of Donald Niebyl's images of the remains of the Hotel Zlatibor click on the link below:
Kana Inspired Shopables