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Novi Beograd: A Century in the Making

Across Eastern Europe in the middle of the 20th century architects and planners were imagining, planning and constructing their ideal of a socialist city. Novi Beograd (or New Belgrade), strategically designed as the capital of the Socialist Republic of Yugoslavia, is one such example.

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Approaching Novi Beograd. Photo: Hana Avramovic

Having followed its own path to socialism, independent of the Soviet regime, Yugoslavia is considered a special case. Its break with Stalin in 1948 meant Yugoslavia was never fully part of the communist bloc, nor was it totally aligned with the West, instead spearheading the non-aligned movement. Following its own path to socialism also meant thinking independently about how to build a socialist city.

Situated on a large floodplain between the historic Old Belgrade and the town of Zemun, the site of Novi Beograd had long been the subject of plans to build a new city when construction began in earnest in 1948. A 1923 master plan had envisaged a new district on this site, but inter-war planning only succeeded in creating a state fairground to showcase industrial progress on part of the vast, empty space. During World War II, when German forces occupied much of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, the fairground site was used as a Nazi concentration camp.

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Novi Beograd in the 1970s. Image: nicksarebi via Wikimedia Commons

The act of inhabiting this vast floodplain was therefore symbolic for multiple reasons. The Socialist Republic of Yugoslavia led by Tito triumphed over nature by making the floodplain habitable, signifying the superiority of the communist regime over the capitalist interwar Kingdom by achieving something the previous regime could not. Moreover it was a symbolic act, bridging the ‘no-man’s land’ between Old Belgrade and Zemun, once parts of the Ottoman Empire and Habsburg Empire respectively.

Most symbolically of all however, this was to be a new socialist city – an exact opposite to the capitalist city that went before. It can be said that within the context of communism, architecture and urban planning not only physically built the promised socialist city, but by framing everyday life they also shaped people – creating the “New Socialist Man and Woman”. Such ideas are clear in the ideas of the “byt” (life-style) reformers of soviet Russia in the 1920s and the late 1950s and early 1960s. But Novi Beograd was not intended to be a residential district, nor was it like its contemporaries which focused around industry.

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Tito: “We work and create for a happier future”. Image: nicksarebi via Wikimedia Commons

According to the academic Vladimir Kulic, Novi Beograd was not conceived to shape the “New Socialist Man” through communal housing nor the mode of production. Instead the new city was described in the official rhetoric of the immediate post-war years as a “model for New Yugoslavia … the first administrative, cultural, and ideological centre for all our peoples, centre of brotherhood and unity”. Symbolic of socialism rather than a creator of socialism, or the new socialist man, the urban form of Novi Beograd was however “an act of socialist cosmology, marking the foundation of a new society”. This imagination formed the base upon which Novi Beograd was planned and constructed.

After a brief affair with Socialist Realism, during which Tito personally outlined the aesthetic framework for the competition to build the (never realised) Central Committee of the Communist Party of Yugoslavia, Novi Beograd looked to the West for architectural inspiration. After Tito’s split from Stalin, socialist realism was no longer a useful propaganda tool. Relieved from the pressure to emulate the Soviet Union, modernism could be freely applied without being condemned as bourgeois formalism.

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An example of generous outdoor space. Image: nicksalebi via Flickr

The 1950 master plan has been compared to Le Corbusier’s “Radiant City”, a vision of the ideal city that was never realised, but used modernist principals with a clear political message. Kulic remarks that modernist principles prescribed “functional zoning and generous outdoor spaces, with free-standing high-rise buildings submerged in a sea of greenery”, which applied to socialist cities conveyed the idea of the communist public realm’s triumph over private (i.e. bourgeois) interests. By the end of the 1950s modernist planning had transformed the face of most of Yugoslavia’s major cities.

Despite the initial aim to build an administrative and cultural centre, housing shortages meant that Novi Beograd became increasingly important as a residential area. By the mid-1970s, Novi Beograd had 150,000 inhabitants living in large modernist blocks. However, as Le Normand describes in Designing Tito’s Capital, the authors of the 1950 plan did not prescribe apartment blocks as a utopian vision with the idea of creating socialist consciousness, and were perhaps still attached to the idea of a traditional family home with a garden. Apartment blocks were however used prolifically in Novi Beograd, more as an efficient answer to the housing shortage than as an ideologically driven choice.

Over time, many new plans for Novi Beograd were drawn up, including civic centres and a central axis, however Kulic notes that “the pressure of the unceasing housing shortage pushed collective residential construction ahead of all other programs, turning Novi Beograd into an odd mixture of a propaganda display and a mass dormitory”. Unlike in Soviet Russia, this housing was not intended to create socialist consciousness or the New Socialist Man and in general housing was considered as a practical matter of supply rather than with a specific reformational aim.

As time passed, housing became a point of contention in Novi Beograd, not for its attempts to build Socialism, but in fact as proof that Yugoslavia had failed as a socialist state. Despite purporting to be developing an egalitarian society and providing equal housing conditions, a classless society was never realised in Novi Beograd. Le Normand argues that, as in other socialist states, the clientelistic relationships prevented the egalitarian distribution of housing and rewarded the privileged few in powerful roles with apartments in socially owned apartment buildings, while workers competed for what remained. The privileged class entrenched and sustained a standard of living the working class could not attain, and Novi Beograd in turn became a predominantly middle class district.

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Housing block in Novi Beograd today. Photo: Hana Avramovic

It was not only the image of the egalitarian society that began to wear away. The symbolic position of Novi Beograd as the model for new Yugoslavia also faded. Having failed to fully realise the promised civic centre, so symbolic of the new Socialist Yugoslavia, and only succeeding in creating an inegalitarian residential district, the image of Novi Beograd as Yugoslavia’s first socialist city was tainted. In addition to complaints about the distribution of housing, there was also frustration at the lack of shops, services, and cultural spaces; as is common with many socialist new towns, Novi Beograd was never completed.

Despite the unified vision of the 1950 master plan as well as later alterations and attempts to shape Novi Beograd, the reality became increasingly messy. Illegal housing construction was rife across the city. Kulic argues that Novi Beograd is not the oppressively simplified modernist city par excellence it is often portrayed to be, but rather an unfinished, fragmented, complex urban collage. Now, in this post-socialist era, these contradictions become even more evident as Novi Beograd, the city symbolic of the new socialist order, has become the heart of neo-liberal Serbia. The dream of a new socialist city has evidently failed and it begins to return to the capitalist urban forms it was hoping to overcome.

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Photo: Hana Avramovic

Still unfinished, Novi Beograd continues to develop and serves as a physical record of the political and social changes that have shaped it. Yugoslavia chose its own path to socialism, turning its back on Stalinism, and the rhetoric, plans, and final constructed district of Novi Beograd reflected this. Yugoslav architects were not as enthusiastic as their Soviet counterparts to create a socialist consciousness through the built environment, however they did imagine Novi Beograd as symbolic of the new socialist order. This symbolism, however, never truly materialised as construction of the administrative centre proceeded haltingly and the dreamt-of new city was always just out of reach.

A tram journey through Novi Beograd. Photos: Hana Avramovic

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Further reading:

Kulic, V. (2013) National, supranational, international: Novi Beograd and the symbolic construction of a socialist capital

Le Normand, B. (2014) Designing Tito’s Capital: urban planning, modernism and socialism in Belgrade

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