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Milosevic as Architect

Srdjan Jovanovic Weiss

"The man without passion," as Slobodan Milosevic was called throughout the Balkan crisis by international journalists, did not choose to build. For better or worse, he lost the chance to solidify his era of power in architecture. There are no grand urban proposals to be found, no government buildings, no new cities, and no style that is identifiably "his" akin to the stripped-down neo-classical architecture of Stalin or Ceausescu. Of his peers, Milosevic is closest to his political soul mate and Iraqi ally, earning the nickname: "Serbian Saddam." Still, in spite of what many believed was quite a complimentary nickname, no palaces nor treasures like Saddam's are to be found. In fact, Serbian architects and engineers, who allegedly desired a dictator after the late Tito, were often exported to build in Iraq during the entire decade of the '80s and the '90s. The full-color catalogue of Belgrade-based Energoproject, the Socialist version of a Skidmore, Owings & Merrill corporate architecture firm, proudly presents projects like Al Khulafa Street Development in Baghdad from 1981-83 and the Presidential Palace Complex in Baghdad. With these designs that combined a late modernist corporate style with a twist towards orientalism, Energoproject architects paved the way for other infrastructure projects, allegedly including underground bunkers and hideouts not included in the catalogue.

With regard to architecture and the city, Milosevic could have done much better with his considerable power. Instead, when he gained control, he was known for blocking Tito's immense modernist axis spanning the width of New Belgrade. The axis that Tito planned to be a monumental empty space for the workers, Milosevic filled in with layers of military flats, shopping malls and shady corrupt construction ventures. After the NATO bombing in 1999, Milosevic's promotional drive to "reconstruct" the country (mimicking Tito's campaign after WWII) preferred spending state money on memorial plaques inscribed with his name, rather than on infrastructure. Still, of the few commissions Milosevic ordered, only two materialized that we can call complete. His first was a 1994 subway station for a capital immersed in war and that did not even have a subway system. The analogy is extended: the station without a subway system is named "Vuk Karadzic" for the founder of modern Serbian, a language without a nation. The station's design acts as a double 'necropolis' deep below the surface of the street, the only remains of the scrapped subway system and a foreshadowing of Milosevic's larger failures to come. His second building project, a monument said to commemorate the "victory of Serbia over NATO," was erected in 2000, one year after the NATO victory over Serbia. Not only did the oxymoronic "Victor" display severe spelling errors on the plaque that condemned the Western powers of crimes against Serbia, its white concrete lantern, containing an "eternal light" powered by electricity, was built at a third of its projected size in a stripped neo-Stalinist style. The monument was quickly as debased as Milosevic's own political rating: the eternal light was switched off with the popular uprising of October 5, 2000, and the lantern became a graffiti plastered fixture in the park that Tito first laid out during the optimistic age of political non-alignment with either the West or the East.

It is no wonder that intellectuals today in Belgrade see architect Milosevic in the same light as Fidel Castro of Cuba - preferring architectural self-castration in order to capitalize on political and policing power. Milosevic may have learned from Castro, however his ultimate failure can be read as the reverse of Castro's successful hold on power. Castro was in fact Tito's and not Milosevic's ally. The lesson that Milosevic missed was the dictator's classic: if you promise the future of the glorious past you will have to build it to last, if you promise the glorious future alone you do not have to do anything. Two: never emulate your father [Tito] unless there is a biological connection.

In spite of the continued weakening of his ideology, Milosevic was the most powerful politician in the Balkans. His disinterest in architecture opened a void for sources to flood in other than the top-down directives, enabling a sort of open-source, national-socialist anarchy, which he curiously knew how to navigate. His power was wielded not by public re-appearance, but by a steady flow of absence. The less Milosevic spoke, the more he maintained control over the public.

In fact, the less Milosevic built, the wider the gap opened for uncontrolled construction. The result is dearth in the public realm; aspirations of the city are nowhere to be found, but its space is thickening like an oversized village. In spite of the political and economic isolation during the last decade and a half as well as wars with Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and with the world over Kosovo, Belgrade has witnessed an explosion of construction. The estimates are that as many as 150,000 houses and buildings were built in Belgrade in the last decade and between 800,000 and 1,000,000 in all of Serbia. The quantity that evolved during this short time - 28 buildings built per day on average for 15 years - amounts to a brief, rapid history of a national architecture in the making. The intellectual elite, in opposition to Milosevic, hated this architecture and in vain called for its removal. The main reason for such disdain was not so much the link of illegal construction to war and criminal activity, but its trashy post-modern appearance, a march of symbolic and empty rhetorical shapes, which also gave birth to a dominant cultural form during the Milosevic era - Turbo Folk.

Turbo Folk, or Turbo in its short form, was the immense copyright-free collision of traditional and contemporary music forms, which also served as a basis for other cultural trends including fashion, make-up, and finally Turbo Architecture was its last and most concrete form. In spite of the gathering momentum of critical awareness, it was not until the somber days following the assassination of Zoran Djindjic, on March 12, 2003, two years after Milosevic's handover to The Hague Tribunal that the resolute attack on Turbo was unleashed and made real. On March 13, the hurt democratic powers of Serbia dispatched a destruction squad to remove a building that belonged to one of the men accused of the murder. The building that was to be leveled looked like a mix of new romantic architecture with high-tech elements. In other words it was a prime example of Turbo Architecture in Serbia, a fanciful, stone clad, bold four-story shopping center. All Serbian television channels aired live the pained efforts to destroy the building under duress. Although there were no apparent or recorded connections between Milosevic and these criminal killers ensconced in the production of Turbo Folk, these images of clearing away the remains of heavy-duty Turbo Architecture were seen as an optimistic cleaning of the traces of Milosevic's negligence and undoing of the city.

Milosevic's deceptive absence and lack of clear vision resulted in an alibi for an army of self-appointed saviors of lost values from the Serbian past. Middle-aged architects, the frustrated generation that came second after Tito's first and most privileged generation to build the Communist city of New Belgrade, saw their chance to act. As Milosevic introduced popular participation in policy making, which had been Tito's main taboo, architectural production derived from the taste of Newly Composed Folk Music or just Neo Folk arose in villages and suburbs as a substitute for authentic traditional values. Coincidentally, the first Neo-Folk building was constructed in the center of Belgrade in 1989, the year Milosevic won elections in Serbia.

When Milosevic won wide nationalist support in Serbia and started to engage in the wars in Croatia in 1991 and in Bosnia in 1992, the United Nations imposed sanctions on Serbia. The following period of time was marked by one of the highest rates of hyperinflation ever: in January 1994 prices rose approximately 62% per day. At the same time, as a result of the wars in Croatia and Bosnia, a steady number of Serbian refugees and war profiteers flooded into Serbia. Milosevic diverted them to Kosovo to increase the numbers of the Serbian minority there, but the plan failed. Instead, the outskirts of Belgrade were the preferred places for starting a new life. The extreme nationalist party led by the current prison-mate of Milosevic, the Serbian Le Pen -- Vojislav Seselj, started offering better deals: for a small fee and a large bribe they offered city land, including sidewalks and land for future highways and commercial kiosk construction. Today's kiosks became tomorrow's houses, blocking streets and highways.

Take the example of the mushroom house, a new type that proliferated throughout Belgrade. We can be thankful to Milosevic for this architectural gift even though he did not plan for it. Inside the thin walls of kiosks, masonry was put in place to support a second level, usually cantilevering as far as possible out over the kiosk's front that would later become a residence. This set the norm for more 'official' construction developments that fully embraced the mushroom strategy and gave birth to a wider and deeper hybrid of mix use. More prominent examples of Turbo Architecture followed for private residences, banks, gas stations and shopping centers.

In fact, Turbo has neither negative nor positive meaning; neither value judgments nor volition are ascribed to it. Turbo is inherently a neutral term. Turbo depends on the context; it is fed by the existing circumstances to push just beyond limitations. In Serbia under the oil embargo, in an economy under sanctions and going backwards, Turbo marked accelerated decline - a perverse speeding up towards the approaching crash.

Milosevic looked away as Turbo Architecture became a dominant force to make up for the loss of a national identity. As with Turbo Folk music, the mechanism of this populist folk engine felt right for the situation because of its power to substitute for the actual world. And the actual world is Milosevic's transfer from the strategy of defying war into the process of defying planning. This is best demonstrated weeks after the NATO bombing of Belgrade in late Spring 1999. Milosevic saw his opportunity to become a builder by reconstructing the country like Tito after the Second World War. He went about this in his particular way: by pushing someone else to do what needs to be done and shielding himself from criticism. In a somber, brown interior of a TV studio adapted to look like an office, one could see day after day on prime TV news a group of architects and planners presenting drawings and computer renderings related to reconstruction. This is the peak of Milosevic's transfer from political action into planning and sheer exploitation of two of the most effective tools in the Balkans: deception and demagoguery.

The most contested example of the Milosevic era is the building of TV Pink Studios, the very place where Turbo Folk was produced and disseminated on the air to the public. The controversial station started in the early '90s allegedly under the control of Milosevic's wife, Mirjana Markovic, broadcasting pirate editions of feature movies and pornography. The building's form is a direct interpretation of the complexities of both Turbo culture and the television medium in the changing politics of Serbia, indirectly Milosevic's unclaimed architectural baby. TV Pink arose from a collision of disparate elements, yet it was rendered monolithically, wrapped in aluminum and reflective glass foil. Turbo Architecture is at its peak here, employing many elements of Byzantine style alluding to a connection to this past, however rendered in steel, aluminum and glass materials that belong to a high-tech look. The dome is a semi-circular tower cut at the top to resemble the typical hat worn in Serbia during the First World War. Although it was built without official paperwork on the outskirts of Belgrade in the vicinity of Milosevic's house, this building became a dominant cultural force in the broad mainstream.

After Milosevic's arrest and transfer to the The Hague, the very same Turbo Architecture that had become so controversial was promoted as a new national style at The Venice Architecture Biennial in 2002. The Serbian selectors for the biennial projected national pride in withstanding the destruction of NATO - which was incredibly small compared to the destruction of Sarajevo or Vukovar - by promoting a catalogue of buildings erected during Milosevic as a proof of endurance. The book itself has a front and back cover made of aluminum, like a bullet proof vest even outfitted with the trace of a half-penetrating bullet. Further, its protective sleeves are cast in light concrete to appear like a concrete block - a sign of continuing desire for construction in spite of the "West who wanted to destroy Serbia." This armored catalogue reveals and embodies Milosevic's urban legacy that is devoid of passion. This brutal pathos is what we are left with - to do with what we will.



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+ Claudia Zanfi
+ Despoina Sevasti and Poka-Yio
+ Erden Kosova
+ Helmut Batista


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