A few days after I arrived in Belgrade, post-Yugoslavs received the sad news that one of their best known architects, Bogdan Bogdanovic, died in Vienna. Bogdan Bogdanovic was a committed Yugoslav and communist, and his work attempted to fuse modernist structures with symbolism drawn, not from his local religious or national culture, but from the natural world and ancient civilizations.
After 1945, socialist Yugoslavia was confronted with a rather difficult task: How to give meaning to a new state that was simultaneously the protectorate of religious and national difference, but also a project that transcended these differences? Bogdanovic’s work, largely focused on monuments commemorating the victims of fascism, sought to give this project an architectural language.
The first time I saw Bogdanovic’s work was in 2005, in Mostar, Bosnia. On the first night of my stay there I was told a story about the supposed rivalry between the local Catholics and Muslims. The story claimed that one particular mosque had a very tall minaret and one particular church a very tall steeple. Neither community wishing to be outdone by their neighbors, a competition had started whereby every year or two one side would attempt to raise their respective tower to be the tallest in the city, only to be challenged the following year by the other side extending their own tower. And so on. The winner, I was cynically told, would be the group whose tower collapsed last.
It was hard for this backdrop of religious rivalry not to colour my stay in Mostar. Then, on my last day, by sheer accident, I stumbled across Bogdanovic’s Partisan Monument, set into the side of one of the surrounding hills. The amazing, almost space-age monument was a huge ruin, with concrete walls and elevated paths that snaked up the hill and onto a concrete plateau. Cog-like towers loomed above a completely ruined fountain, around which were scattered tombstones bearing the names of local partisan fighters who died during WWII. The monument was completely neglected, with grass growing up over the tombs, broken bottles littering the paths, and various pro-fascist graffiti daubed onto the walls. As I was leaving, two old ladies were climbing up the path, pulling away some of the grass from the tombstones as they went. They told me that they were communists, and that since the local council had cut funds to public works, the town had allowed Bogdanovic’s monument to go to ruins.
Thinking back, Mostar is a microcosm of the broader post-Yugoslav space. Yugoslavia was not just a pragmatically brokered deal between several small eastern European countries. It was its own space, a project that had a meaning greater than the sum of its parts. Bogdanovic’s work was a clear attempt to give physical expression to this project. His monuments, trying to communicate a sense of sacrifice, martyrdom and salvation, strove to realize a language that was at once sacred and that transcended the various religions of the country.
The expansion (and elevation) of religious buildings and the ruin of Yugoslav ones, tells us a great deal about the revival of religion in the post-Yugoslav (and post-secular) era. But doesn’t it also suggest something about the Yugoslav project itself? Is the revival of religious belief the return of repressed passions? Or is it a transmutation of a belief that was once invested in the Yugoslav communist project?