Marc / Ana (X-Gateway) on Tue, 6 Apr 1999 08:21:29 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> letter from Belgrade

After following for a whole day reports in the media on events in
Yugoslavia happening at the moment, here is one more opinion seen from an
other point of view, this time architectural.
Today we received this letter from a friend in Belgrade.

Ana Dzokic and Marc Neelen
(by the way architects)

Belgrade, April 3rd 1999

Ah, what a glorious victory, what a major hit:
The NATO bombers destroyed last night two empty administration buildings in
downtown Belgrade. Besides threatening the near-by complex of hospitals,
notably the Institute of gynaecology in which several babies were being
born at the moment, they achieved virtually nothing. It took no more than
an idiot to know that after days of threats, no people and no equipment
would wait for the bombs inside these buildings. The Pentagon cynically
says that the aim of this attack was to frighten the Serbs, but
psychologically this destruction only increased the local population's
anger and resolution to resist, broadening the gap that will have to be
spanned once the war is over.

However, certain damage is achieved and it belongs to the field of culture,
something that speaks, to use a euphemism, extremely unfavourably of the
NATO's intentions. Both destroyed buildings were important pieces of
architecture. The older one, the Federal Ministry of Internal Affairs, was
erected immediately after WWII by Branko Petricic, previously Le
Corbusier's collaborator, and represented one of the rare examples of
architecture of the Socialist Realism in Yugoslavia. Now, someone may say,
why would anybody cry over a building of such a "notorious" style? The
reason lies primarily in its historical value: the very fact that it
existed as one of few such examples clearly testified about an early
rejection of Stalinism both in Yugoslav politics and culture. The other
destroyed building was also very important. It was built at the end of the
70s by Ivan Antic, one of Yugoslavia's best post-war architects, and it
finished a long strip of state administration buildings and embassies along
Kneza Milosa Street, making a soft transition to the surrounding landscape.
Thanks to its prominent position, the building acted as a gate to the
centre of the city and was an important landmark.

Cynics would say that neither of these two buildings belongs to the very
first-class architecture of Belgrade, but what follows, most probably as
soon as tonight, will straighten up this fault. Other major state
administration's buildings have also been threatened for the last few days.
Again, when attacked, they will probably be empty, but the cultural damage
will be much greater. Any of the Ministries along Nemanjina Street can be
ranked as a precious piece of architecture, and so can the Federal
Government in New Belgrade, one of the most beautiful complexes of the
International style in Yugoslavia. But the greatest value is, conveniently,
at the greatest risk. It is almost surprising that the Ministry of Defence,
a strategically completely harmless building, especially in this situation,
has not been already bombed. Designed in the 50s by internationally
renowned Nikola Dobrovic, the mythical figure of Serbian architecture and
the Honorary Member of the Royal Institute of British Architects, the
building represents his last and his most important work and the only one
he built in Belgrade. The Ministry of Defence means to the Serbian
architecture what the Villa Savoy means to the French or, say, the
Guggenheim to the American. To destroy it, and this is bound to happen in
just a few hours, would mean an irreparable damage not only to the local,
but to the international cultural heritage, regardless of what those who
command its destruction say.

After damaging the ancient monasteries of Gracanica (UNESCO-protected) and
Rakovica, destroying a strategically unimportant bridge in Novi Sad and the
two buildings in downtown Belgrade, and after threatening other important
works of art, it seems that Bill Clinton, who reportedly personally signed
the order for the last night's attacks, and the NATO commanders have an
excellent gout in architecture. So, what could be the next moves? Take some
hints from a humble professional: if you like Ivan Antic's oeuvre, then the
Museum of Modern Art in New Belgrade is a must - you would destroy not only
a masterpiece of modern architecture, but also a major collection of modern
art. The Children's Clinic by Milan Zlokovic would also be good to attack:
you could destroy not only the building that marked a turning point in
Serbian Modernism, but also kill hundreds of ill kids. Why not consider the
National Library by Ivo Kurtovic? When Germans burnt down the old library
in 1941, only 500 000 books were lost - now the result would be much, much
better. Something more traditional? Take Princess Ljubica's Court - besides
being so lovely, it is practically built into the densely populated heart
of the city. There would be, oh, so many casualties and imagine how
frightening it would be for the Serbs!

Up to ten days ago, I was writing with my colleagues a guide to the
architecture of Belgrade. It seems that in a couple of days we will have to
shift our work to the guide to the ruins of Belgrade.

As I finish this letter, the sirens start to blow. Pray for us.

Vladimir Kulic, architect

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