24 08 06

Almost Architecture

Srđan Jovanović Weiss wrote a book on Serbian “Turbo Architecture”

Branka Ćurčić

The Book Review: Almost Architecture

By defining “Turbo Architecture” as “a post-socialist mainstream in nationalizing collective identity through architecture”, the author of the book “Almost Architecture” Srđan Jovanović Weiss is presenting his view on the complex relationships between politics, identity search, transition and war itself, all of that represented through specific historical and contemporary strategies in architecture. This book, in an interesting way, deals with depicting the major political shifts and turbulence periods in former Yugoslav and Serbian recent past through contexts of construction or deconstruction of symbolically charged buildings.

The author of the book starts with his explanation of “turbo folk” as ruling “culture” during the 1990's (read “war time”) identifying it with “annulment of the rules”, which embraced in itself organized crime, intelligence, major media, commercial architecture, and “turbo-folk” music (“local collision of electronic dance beats and neo-traditional melodies” – where the prefix “turbo” was extracted from). In further analysis, the author says that “Turbo Architecture rose from the dirt or the desire to be accepted as great style”, similar as Serbian politics during 1990's desired. “Turbo Architecture is global because it rejects modernism... (and it) wins its global character by consciously incorporating whatever is emerging as global at a given moment.” Easy pirating of public identity became the code. “It was a model at large, open for everyone's use – not only to forget about the isolation and misery in the nation, but to do so in the most victorious and truthfully fake fashion possible.” As it was put in the end, the idea was to make the best out of a loss. According to the book's author, in the extremely difficult conditions of economic sanctions in Serbia during the 1990's, Turbo Architecture marked the “accelerated decline – a perverse speeding toward the approaching political crash of the socialist state.”

The chapter “Milošević as Architect” basically deals with Milošević's “decision” not to build, not to solidify his area of power in architecture (as Tito or Ceausescu did), but rather to, through absence of his architecture, to open a wide gap for uncontrolled construction (similar as his steady public absence resulted with more control over the public). It appeared that the main “architects” of the Milošević time were Serbian refugees from Croatia and Bosnia during the war time, who preferred the outskirts of Belgrade for starting a new life, instead of Kosovo, where Milošević tried (and failed) to redirect them. According to the book's author, Turbo Architecture became a dominant force to make up for the loss of a national identity, to “substitute” authentic identity for a fictitious one – in this case inscribed in concrete and stone. His theses about the absence of “Milošević's architecture” is depicted through only two examples of commissioned constructions during Milošević's time: the underground station “Vuk Karadžić” (but it never had underground railway system, which was never built to follow it) and the monument of eternal light made to commemorate the “victory of Serbia over NATO”, both built in Belgrade. According to the author of the book, both “monuments” are in a way foreshadowing Milošević's larger failures to come. If we would say that totalitarian architecture is usually erecting at the declination of totalitarian power, then interesting thing happened after Milošević arrest and transfer to The Hague. The very same Turbo Architecture raised during his decade was promoted as a new national style at the Venice Architecture Biennial in 2002. “The Serbian panel for the biennial projected national pride in withstanding the destruction of NATO (which was incredibly minor compared to the destruction of Sarajevo or Vukovar) by promoting a catalogue of buildings erected during Milošević's ruling time as proof of endurance.”

The following chapter “NATO as Architectural Critic” gives a broader view on different historical contexts of construction and deconstruction. Turning away from the Eastern bloc after World War II toward liberal Western democracies, was also visible in terms of architecture - Yugoslavia experimented in modernism, appropriating Western avant-garde, in a metaphorical and intuitive way. Post WWII modernist Yugoslav architecture was an escape of tradition and a proof of a shift of Yugoslav politics to the pro-liberal image endorsed by the West. During the NATO bombing of FR Yugoslavia in 1999, precise targets were chosen to be destroyed – Federal Ministry of Internal Affairs, Army Headquarters and many others – all of them charged with the symbolical meaning and the context which they were built in at first place. Here is where the author's game is starting. What he is saying is that, as part of a “new struggle against fascism”, NATO selected to destroy the very buildings constructed in the postwar period to symbolize the struggle of a “stubborn nation against fascism.” He is further arguing that the architecture used by the state of Serbia was built before Serbian strategies have been recognized as nationalist. From this, the author is deducting that by bombing, NATO branded examples of Serbian postwar modernism as being fascist, which leads us to the point that in difference to the architecture of the Third Reich for example, which has been remembered by context of its construction, the memory of Yugoslav modernist architecture will be built upon conditions of its destruction, although the author claims that this could not be the only reason for that. In a way it is a pity that the author didn't develop these theses further, leaving it as partially based deduction which, in the opposite case, could reveal more acknowledgments about problematics of assigned meanings, identity search/swaps, representation, relationships and the dominant context of the recent Serbian past.

In the subcontext of the book there is the question about the power to assign meaning and to ensure further reading. In some cases, it is the power of the totalitarian nation-state and in the other, it is the matter of global, capital led power. In the shift and the Serbian state adjustment to capitalist conditions, what could we, for example, expect the bombed military headquarter to be in the future? Headquarter of some international bank? Adjustment to global financial market and the way how it's functioning, the adjustment of national courts to non-national criteria, as well as handling international funds in Serbia are led by interests either of nationalist or of neo-liberal political parties. All those “adjustments” are followed by strict control of neo-liberal Ministry of finances, with the clear aim of capital accumulation which, as kind of collateral damage, leaves behind thousands of people without their jobs, insufficient social programs, declining education system and non-functional cultural funding. Back to the book, in one part of it, it says that “what differentiates Serbian Turbo from architectural amassment of kitsch in California, Florida or Long Island is that the latter is quintessentially apolitical.” This statement could be unquestionable stand point in case we say that the face of capital is apolitical too. Following slow turning of Serbian country to global values, it's still to be seen what “architecture style” will be erected out of it and at the end, who/what will be its the most pationate critic. Maybe what is following could be the crtitic of new forms of fascism, which could not be disccused without relating it to the capitalism.

Srđan Jovanović Weiss is an architect living in New York City. He was a fellow at Akademie Schloss Solitude in 2004/2005. About the book: Published by Akademie Schloss Solitude, Jean-Baptiste Joly; Concept and design by Srdjan Jovanovic Weiss; Edition: kuda.nao, book 001; Introductory essay by Yehuda Safran; Language: English; ISBN 978-3-937158-11-2

Almost Architecture