Essay: Architecture is Politics

Updated: Feb 20


Architecture Is Politics

The question of regional differences in architecture is…. similar to the question of language.

If the language is the most authentic characteristic of a nation, then architecture is the most

permanent one.…”

Popovski (1974), p 40

Architecture reveals the aspirations and power struggle of a Society. Throughout history,

societies have used Architecture as a means to communicate their political agenda. Architecture

shows in plain sight the power that is embodied in it and can reveal to us the way in which

that power was distributed during its creation. Political leaders throughout history have used

it as a means to express reality as they see it, and as a way to enforce their own world view

on a population. Architecture is the sole most permanent means of conveying power, so much so

that throughout the western world the influence of the Roman Empire is in plain sight to this

day. In today’s post post-modern world, it could be argued that Architecture can support the

image of a city without necessarily conveying an underlying political agenda, but in this essay

I will focus attention on the unique Architecture of post WWII Yugoslavia to highlight the fact

that Architecture and Politics do not have a symbiotic relationship with each other. Politics

indeed trumps Architecture - and Architecture is Politics.

I chose to explore the Architecture of Yugoslavia after seeing the photography of Valentin Jeck

and being awe struck by how alien the Architecture appears to be considering the historic

context of this region. In 2016 Jeck was commissioned by the Museum of Modern Art, New York to

photograph the buildings that were built in Yugoslavia between 1948 and 1980, the resulting

commission revealed buildings of incredible sculptural quality which had rarely been seen by

western eyes. Jecks photography portrays a desolate world of sculpted concrete, beautiful

brutalist towers that have fallen into disrepair, and incredible sculptural monuments lay

abandoned across the landscape. The photographs are like a vision from a dystopian future.

Kulić, V. Mrduljaš, M. Thaler, W (2012) says that “what is most captivating about the

Architecture of the region is the incredible variety of building types, and the widely varying

design approaches.” Many buildings have been damaged beyond repair, other merely dilapidated,

others still have been completely rebuilt after being destroyed during the bloody wars of the

1990s. Many of the buildings are still in use to this day and in my opinion are architecturally

superior to the modern-day vernacular. How did the Architects of the time develop such an

unusual style? In this essay I will explore socio-political landscape of post war WWII

Yugoslavia to contextualise the mindset of the Architects that emerged during this period. I

will then compare the Architectural styles that came from the Soviet Union and the divergent

style that came from the Yugoslavian Republic in order to showcase a radical example of how

Architecture is entirely shaped by Government Policy.


Architecture Is Politics

Architecture that expresses a top down distribution of power is the antithesis of Architecture

driven by a collective. It could be argued that Architecture that enforces a sole political

agenda is not Architecture at all, but merely Propaganda. A top down power distribution in a

society could be likened to a well-designed Prison. Prisons in general are not designed to

empower the individual but are designed so that power is unmistakably in the hands of the

prison warden. There is no better testament to the significance that Politics plays in the

Architecture of a Nation that than to compare the post WWII Architecture of the Soviet Union

and Yugoslavia. 1948 was a very important year in the history of Socialist Yugoslavia, and not

only in an architectural context. Three years after the end of WWII it was the turning point in

the history of the country who turned their back on the Soviet Union and embraced Western

influence. The relations between the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia post 1948 present us with a

social experiment - two Communist Nations who were once allies but now distanced from one

another – each with a varying interpretation of Marxist ideology and two entirely different

government policies towards Architecture and the arts. I believe that the relatively un-

explored & under-appreciated Architecture of Socialist Yugoslavia (from 1948 until the

disintegration of the country in the 1990’s) was entirely unique because the Architects of the

time were in an equally unique position in history. As we will see, not only was their country

which had been obliterated by war in need of rebuilding, but also in a conscious effort by the

Yugoslav Government to distance itself from their former Allies, had empowered its Architects

to find their own national identity and move away from its historic identity.

“Socialist Yugoslavia was one of the most complicated countries in the world, as two

American scholars once observed. It was popular to describe it (not entirely precisely) as one

country with two alphabets, three languages, four religions, five nationalities, six


republics, and seven neighbours.”

Kulić, V. Mrduljaš, M. Thaler, W. 2012. P23

Yugoslavia was the first country in the world to attempt a self-governing market socialism. The

precursors which fuelled the creation of this experimental state developed over centuries after

a long history of occupation and division by foreign powers. During the 2nd Century Yugoslavia

was overthrown by the Roman Empire, and by the 3rd century the country had again been split

between northern occupied Roman Catholics, and South-Eastern occupied Greek Orthodox. In the

middle ages, the country was again partitioned between the Hapsburg Empire who controlled the

north-west and the Muslim Ottoman Empire who controlled the South-east. As a result of

centuries of war and division, Yugoslavia developed a diverse ethnic composition and different

regions (which today constitute the Balkan Countries) developed their own individual cultural

identity. “Centuries of such dispersal of power created a tradition and of preference for

local self-reliance and mistrust of any kind of central government, especially an alien one”

Lanvan, C (1986), p6. Throughout the entire history of wars and division in the region,

Yugoslavia was not a centralised state. It was not until the end of WWI that Yugoslavia unified

the disparate regions under one umbrella as the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. Many young Architects at

the time had begun to experiment with modernism during the interwar period, but the unification

and peace and was relatively short lived, as once again the country was torn apart by the Nazis

during WWII.


Architecture Is Politics

After WWII, the Yugoslav republic was officially founded on November 29, 1945. The new leader

of the country was Josip Broz Tito, who had been previously been the leader of the Partisans, a

movement which was widely seen as the most effective movement against the Nazis in occupied

Europe. Tito was as figure which divided public opinion. Seen by many as a popular public

figure within Yugoslavia and abroad, but amongst others including many historians, as an

authoritarian Dictator. Regardless of public image, Tito would play an important role in the

future of the Yugoslavian State and the Architecture that emerged there.

After WWII, the Yugoslavian government were immediately faced with the difficult task of

rebuilding the country after the damage done by the Nazis. Between 2 and 4 million people were

homeless and major cities lay in ruins. In 1945, Yugoslavia allied with the Soviet Union. The

Soviet Union at the time was seen as “a fellow land of communism that Tito and the Communist

Party of Yugoslavia held in the highest regard.” Babic, M (2013), p52. The rebuilding process

began with a combination of voluntary work and support from foreign allies. In 1946, in an

effort the kickstart the economy after the war, the Yugoslavian Government wrote a new

constitution in which “the equality of all the main nationalities was recognized by the

creation of six constituent republics and two autonomous regions. The candidates to the

legislative bodies of the Republics and the federal Parliament were to the elected from the

People’s Front led by the Communist Party”. Lanvan, C (1986), p9. This created a

decentralised government structure, where decisions were made on a regional basis under a

federal umbrella. Large industries were put in tight control by the Government in accordance

with Soviet dictum, but land remained as a commodity of the people and control was kept by the

people who farmed it. The Soviets however, seeing themselves as the sole executioners of

Marxist policy, took exception to this. Stalin could not tolerate the Yugoslav policy towards

agriculture and heavily criticised the government for practicing a softened form of Marxism. On

June 28, 1948, and only 3 years allied under the Soviet Umbrella, Stalin expelled Yugoslavia

from the Soviet camp.


Architecture Is Politics

The break with Stalinism proved to be the key event in the development of an experimental form

of Socialism unique to Yugoslavia in which the country offered a “Third Way”, an intermediary

between the capitalist West and Communist East. Without financial or political support from the

Soviet Union, and with the country still in ruins, the USA were quick to step in. Seeing

Yugoslavia as a key political wedge between the west and the Communist East, Presidents Harry.

S Truman & Dwight D. Eisenhower saw it as a possible means to destabilise the USSRs grip on

eastern Europe during the cold war. Throughout the 1950’s Yugoslavia was generously supported

by the US as a way to further the US agenda to disperse American values to the far-flung

regions of Europe. Yugoslavian Architecture was to become a key factor in cold war politics.

The western social agenda of promoting uninhibited freedom of expression would be echoed in a

new-found interest by the American Cultural Institutions in Yugoslavian Architectural

production and modern art. At the same time, Yugoslavia sought to promote Western values and

freedom of expression in order to further distance themselves from the Soviet Union to which

they were once aligned. MOMA (2018)

From an Architectural standpoint, a long term alliance with the Soviet Union would have had a

major impact on the Architectural style that was allowed in Yugoslavia. Prior to WWII, in the

late 1920s, the Soviet Union had enforced a widespread revival of national architecture

throughout the USSR and despite the pleas of many young Architects, enforced a monotonous

architectural style that was born out of the personal preferences of high members of the party

called ‘Socialist Realism’. “The term Social Realism was created at the first congress for

all-soviet writers in 1934 and it proclaimed an unbreakable connection between all forms of art

and the revolution.” (Babic, M, Modenism and Politics in the Architecture of Yugoslavia, p56)

During the years that Yugoslavia were allied with the Soviet Union, “Socialist Realism was the

only approved, and for that matter - allowed, expression in the built environment, and

Yugoslavia had planned to obey that rule. The declaration of Socialist Realism as the only

architectural expression was not well received by the majority of Yugoslavian Architects and

given the fact that not even the Soviets had completely defined Socialist Realism in

Architecture, its implementation in the country enjoyed a rather dubious success.” (p53,

Modenism and Politics in the Architecture of Yugoslavia)


Architecture Is Politics

The Palace of the Soviets, above, portrays the aesthetic that Stalin and his contemporary’s

envisioned for Europe. The building was to be a major administrative headquarters for the

Soviets in Moscow. Construction started in 1937 but was interrupted by the invasion of Russia

by the Nazis in 1941. The steel frame that had been erected was disassembled and used as

material for bridges and other infrastructure during the war. (Iofan, 2018) The aesthetic of

this building sends a clear message - that this city is ruled by a top down power distribution,

and is under the control of Stalin, similar to the analogy of a prison tower earlier.

Whilst Yugoslavia managed to evade the implementation a widespread implementation of Socialist

Realism, other European countries were not so lucky. The Palace of Culture and Science in

Central Warsaw which was gifted to Poland by Stalin. On a recent trip to Warsaw I visited this

tower and found that it is detested by the Polish people. It dominates the cityscape and is a

permanent reminder to the city of Communist rule.

The Crowne Plaza Hotel, Czech Republic.“Built between 1952 and 1954 under the vigilant eye of

the Stalinist Minister of Defense – Alexej Cepicka” Gogeanu, M (2013)


Architecture Is Politics

“We are not starting from scratch – we are continuing with our work”

Mate Bajlon, 1946

(Berlin: Jovis Verlag GmbH, 2012, p217)

For 3 years between 1945 and 1948, Yugoslavian Architects reluctantly began to experiment with

Socialist Realism. But once the Yugoslavian Republic split from the Soviet Union and set the

course towards their own free market Socialism, Architects were once again empowered to express

their own modernity. The new republic firmly supported an anti-historical approach to

Architecture and embraced the International style. Whilst the Soviet Union sanctioned the drab

monotony of Socialist Realism throughout Eastern Europe, Yugoslavia looked westwards and found

ways to distinguish their own unique identity in which Architecture would be a strategic tool.

Education proved be to be an important factor in defining what would become Yugoslavian

Modernism. During the 1920s and 1930s many young Architects who would go on to become leading

figures in the post war period had studied or worked in Architecture offices abroad. Max

Fabiani & Ivan Vurnik both received their degrees from the Technical University in Vienna.

Bogdan Bogdanovic, one of the most prominent Yugoslavian Architects of the 20th Century received

his training at the Budapest and at the Technical University Prague before returning to

Yugoslavia in 1930. (MOMA, 2018)“Amongst the various workshops for learning abroad, Le

Corbusier’s Paris studio at Rue de Sevres arguably had the most impact.”MOMA (2018), p 13.

Many young Yugoslavian Architects received work experience under Le Corbusier and where they

received their induction to modernism including Ernest Weissmann, Juraj Neidhardt & Milorad

Pantovic. “Le Corbusier’s studio not only established a sense of continuity with the heroic

period of pre-war modern continuity, but his work also became a very direct source of reference

for architectural modernism in and for the fledgling socialist state in the post-war period.”

MOMA (2018), p 18. Throughout the 1950’s Yugoslavia continued to distinguish themselves from

the Soviet Union by adopting ever increasing progressive cultural politics as a nod to the west

and commissioned modernist buildings by Architects who admired the work of American Architects

such as Mies Van der Roche and Frank Lloyd Wright. Yugoslavia became a country with a special

place in American Culture. A readiness to adopt western values, combined with the American

political agenda of driving a wedge into the Eastern block set the stage for Yugoslavian

Architects to create their own version of modernism, entirely free from the shackles of their

past, and with western Architecture as a reference point. America invested heavily into

Yugoslavian culture institutions, and American Journalists frequently wrote articles on the

progressive architecture culture of Yugoslavia.1 The following pages showcase some examples of

modernist Architecture that was built in Yugoslavia between 1948 and 1980.

1 - It is also worth noting that in the late 1950s, the United States dropped ties with Yugoslavia almost

immediately after the USSR shifted its own cultural politics following the appointment of Nikita Khrushchev. Further

demonstrating the USA’s selfish motives for supporting Yugoslavian culture.

(MOMA, 2018)

(MOMA, 2018)

(MOMA, 2018)

(MOMA, 2018)


Architecture Is Politics

Whilst Architects have the power to create lasting environments for people to live, work &

play, ultimately, we are at the mercy of our governments who have the final say in all respects

of what can do. When the discipline is hi-jacked by government policy, the role of the

Architect can be drastically reduced. When we look at the divergent paths that Architecture

took during the post war period within Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union, we can see that

Architecture is something that is highly politicised, because it the sole most permanent means

of communication. Yugoslavia took the road to international modernism, and were heavily funded

in doing so by the United States who had their own agenda to ostracize the Soviet Union. In

Ireland in 2018, luckily for us, we don’t have an authoritarian dictator overseeing our every

move. But Ireland is a country where we can very clearly see our political past in our colonial

cities and many relics of British rule. Like the young modernists of Yugoslavia who were set

free to explore their own path, only within the past 100 years have Irish Architects really

been empowered to express our own National identity, and I am glad to be in a position to

contribute to the narrative. Architecture is Politics, and thus Architects must decide which

policies they wish to defend. (Andrés Jaque, 2017)



Le Normand, B (2014) Designing Tito’s Capital_ Urban Planning, Modernism, and Socialism in


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Teacher. Slovenia. Springer-Verlag/Vienna

Kulić, V. Mrduljaš, M. Thaler, W. (2012) Modernism In-Between_The Mediatory Architecture of -

Socialist Yugoslavia

Berlin. Jovis Verlag GmbH.

Department of Publications, MOMA (2018) Towards a concrete utopia. Architecture in Yugoslavia


New York. Artbook


Tufek-Memisevic, Tijana. (2014). Architecture of Consumption. Case Study Sarajevo. Konsumpcja i

Rozwój. 3. 73-86.

Babic, M (2013) Modernism and Politics in the Architecture of Socialist Yugoslavia, 1945-1965

USA. University of Washington

Lanvan, C (1986) The Yugoslav Experiment with self-governing market Socialism

University of Inner Mongolia. Mongolia

Bjažić Klarin, T. and Jelčić, A. (2018) Ernest Weissmann, Socially Engaged Architecture,


USA. University of California Press Journals


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ThoughtCo. (2018). History of Yugoslavia - Overview. [online]

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[Accessed 10 Dec. 2018].

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[online] Available at:

[Accessed 21 Dec. 2018].

Woods, L. (2007) Architecture as political act

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Gogeanu, M (2013) Power and Architecture

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Accessed: 28 November 2018

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