New East Digital Archive

Suspended city: a visit to New Belgrade, the town caught outside time

From a swampland to a Nazi concentration camp, the territory of New Belgrade has been many things. But how have its many turnovers and disruptions come to define the city today?

14 September 2016
Text and image Ogino:Knauss

Re>Centering Periphery by Berlin-based collective Ogino Knauss is a trans-disciplinary exploration of the built environment produced by 20th century modernist ideology. After roaming post-socialist peripheries in Havana, Moscow, Kiev and Berlin, the group’s attention was captured by New Belgrade, which is the object of a new film project on display as part of Calvert 22’s Power and Architecture season. Here they explain their fascination with the city.

The architectural historian Vladimir Kulic has characterised Yugoslavian modernism and modern architecture as suffering from a condition of “in-betweenness”. The idea that a region can be singled out as “in-between”, as he points out, is also a cliché. Every location lies between other territories, conditions, borders, and its specificity and identity derive from what surrounds it. Nevertheless, both the former Yugoslavia and its nominal administrative capital New Belgrade (Novi Beograd), now part of Serbia, are marked by extraordinary and exemplary in-betweenness — geographical, cultural and political — located as they were in between eastern and western identities, imperial forces, conflicting ideologies, ethnic conflicts and proliferating nationalisms.

The story of New Belgrade is that of a sudden “peripheralisation”: a place born to be central pushed to the margins

This historical condition had its apotheosis during the Cold War in modern Yugoslavia’s “third position”, with Tito leading the country at the forefront of the movement of Non-Aligned nations, and with New Belgrade intended as the imagined capital of a multicultural federal state. The dream of this New Belgrade, however, was destined to vanish suddenly together with the principles of socialism, brotherhood and unity. If we see in-betweenness as an implicit condition of places intended to be “centres”, then the story of New Belgrade is that of a sudden “peripheralisation”: a place born to be central pushed to the margins by historical turnovers and political disruptions. It’s these turnovers and disruptions that determine the suspended character of New Belgrade today.

Suspension. New Belgrade exudes a feeling of suspension, as if on hold for some undefined accomplishment. Suspended because, as an ambitious political project to implant the administrative and cultural capital of multiethnic Yugoslavia, it has never been fully realised. Suspended because as an urban and architectural project it only partially delivers its functions, and its integration as a fully operative directional centre never occurred. The administrative government palace is suspended in terms of its federal role. The reopening of the Museum of Modern Art after restoration has been indefinitely suspended. The Hotel Yugoslavia is in a state of permanent refurbishing, waiting for guests. Suspended also because this modern architecture looks like it is floating sparsely over the flat ground, while its design pattern is adulterated into a postmodern mesh of unstylish constructions.

For centuries the city was as no-man’s land, a cordon sanitaire with no function or settlement until the 20th century

If suspension is the result of diverging tensions, then plenty of these are clearly inscribed in the urban form of New Belgrade: the tension between flowing water and stable soil, between past and future, between nature and artifice, between public and private, between verticality and horizontality.

Surrounded by water, in a bend of the Sava River where it meets the Danube, the territory of New Belgrade is a former swampland. For centuries it served as no-man’s land between the borders of the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires. It acted as a cordon sanitaire, with no function or settlement until the twentieth century. Its colonisation only started with the construction of the new international fair trade of Stare Sajmste in the 1930s, which before long was turned into the infamous Semlin concentration camp. The settlement of a new city required a tabula rasa, something for which a suspended territory such as this was perfect. This project should not be taken simply as an expansion of the Serbian historical capital, but as the foundation of a new, multicultural administrative centre representing all the Yugoslavian components. It started symbolically by reclaiming the ground from the water through the work of youth brigades coming from all over the country. The project was designed according to modernist plans inspired by Le Corbusierian principles and socialist aspirations.

The tension between public and private is the main element that defines the quality of New Belgrade’s urban space, a tension symbolically captured by the opposition between horizontal circles and vertical rectangles. The figure of the circle, which is the symbol par excellence of social public interaction and variously imagined as ornament, furniture and social device, punctuates New Belgrade’s public space. Dispersed through public space that betrays, in its physical degradation, the decline of its social project, the concrete circles, amphitheatres, benches and roundabouts of the city, stand out today as monuments to the wishful aspirations of its architects for a horizontal and democratic design.

The counterpoint is the vertical rectangular pattern of the prefabricated panels of the housing units. They circumscribe the private sphere, determining the partitioned, segmented, pulverised logic of the dormitory city, conforming to the universal standards of modern suburbanism. They indicate the pragmatic logic of a modernism divested of any utopian élan, the transversal global response to the issue of housing that spans continents, political systems and cultural regimes. Still, the sensitive dialogue between public and private, the vertical and the horizontal, the circle and the rectangle, marks New Belgrade’s specificity: as a more human and livable settlement than the average modern urban periphery, it is a relative success.

Numbered from one to 72, the blokovi (blocks) are microcosms constituting local urban identity. Abstract in their naming and form, they have assumed over the course of the years their own characters, each one becoming a neighbourhood with distinct traits and a distinct sense of belongings among its inhabitants. The blokovi are designed according to varying concepts and typologies, producing from block to block different qualities of urban space, and ultimately resulting in a kind of catalogue of the virtues and vices of the modernist city. Where a harmonious relationship between open space and buildings is achieved, the blokovi generate large squares with greenery, public services, kindergartens and sport facilities, evidencing social interaction and appropriation. Here, the Manichaean antinomy between modern urbanisation and traditional urban visions á la Jane Jacobs dissolves.

Elsewhere, between the more peripheral and repetitive high-rise assemblages, the environment recalls the dystopian landscapes of segregated banlieues. Abandonment and vandalism scar the territory. Marked by the insignia of the fans of local football teams Partizan and Red Star, alongside other tribal declarations, the landscape reveals new levels of tension.

The landscape reveals new levels of tension; abandonment and vandalism scar the territory

Last – and most definitely least – are the “suspended people” par excellence: the Roma. Years ago they were resettled in a huge camp under the Gizela bridge, in the centre of New Belgrade. The urban regeneration machine has since displaced them towards more peripheral and less visible locations, but they still steadily patrol the area and contribute to keeping it clean with their industrious recycling activity.

The impressions made by New Belgrade on someone strolling though it are shifty and puzzling. One is challenged by the evident decay of common spaces and street furniture, by the dissolution of the public logic into new competing spatial ideologies, but also by the sudden appearance of vernacular signs, the interplay of everyday practices, the serendipity of children’s games. Moving through such an urban landscape, one senses a further, final “suspension”: the suspension of judgment.

Text and image: Ogino Knauss