Casa de los Cosmonautas cantilevers dramatically over the powdery white sands of Cuba’s fabled Varadero beach. Designed in 1974 by Antonio Quintana — Fidel Castro’s favorite architect — the daring concrete structure was built as a rest and relaxation retreat for Russian cosmonauts and military brass. When I first visited the site, in 2002, the building was an abandoned shell, an eerie relic. It has since then been meticulously restored as a boutique hotel, with appointments more lavish than the original and tricked out with Soviet space-age memorabilia. Each suite is named for a Soviet cosmonaut, and the principal salon is decorated with vintage photographs of Russian spacecraft and celebrities, including Laika, the dog who orbited the globe aboard Sputnik 2. The hotel, the management tells me, is kept full by wealthy Russians who come to Cuba to bask in the sun and indulge in nostalgia for an era when the Soviet Union was at the height of its power, the Eastern Bloc was leading the space race, and Soviet imperial influence extended all the way to the warm Caribbean.
Many a Cuban will also wax nostalgic for the decades that followed the triumphant revolution in 1959. Friends of mine who grew up in Cuba in the 1970s and ’80s remember fondly the time when the country’s educational system was superb, the health care system was the envy of the world, and the planned economy sustained a standard of living that got better every year. All evidence suggested that the Cuban socialist experiment was succeeding, and that international socialism was truly the wave of the future. But then the collapse of the U.S.S.R. in 1991, and the loss of Soviet patronage, plunged Castro’s Cuba into an excruciating poverty that crippled the state infrastructure and fomented political disillusion, and from which the country has not fully recovered. It’s no wonder that Cubans of a certain age might look back and compare those days favorably to the present.
A comparable nostalgia for a socialist past overlays the groundbreaking exhibition “Toward a Concrete Utopia: Architecture in Yugoslavia, 1948-1980,” now on view at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Far from indulging in rose-tinted retrospection, however, the curators — Martino Stierli 1 and Vladimir Kulić with Anna Katz — offer a rigorous and eye-opening survey of a body of architectural work produced in parallel with, and in service to, the very formation of the nation of Yugoslavia, a socialist federation that was forged from the crucible of World War II and disintegrated in bloody conflict a mere 50 years later. The historical period of the exhibition spans from Yugoslav dictator Josip Broz Tito’s postwar break with Joseph Stalin and the Soviet Union, to his death in 1980, an event that precipitated a series of political crises that ultimately led to the bitter breakup of the federation in the early 1990s.
Tito cast the creation of postwar Yugoslavia as a liberation from fascism, class oppression, and underdevelopment. The new nation — a federation that joined Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Macedonia, and Serbia (plus the autonomous Serbian provinces of Kosovo and Vojvodina) — was founded on the ideals of “brotherhood and unity.” The nation-building enterprise was expressly designed to suppress ethnic and regional rivalries; and in evading absorption into the Soviet Eastern Bloc, Tito broke the Balkan region’s long history of domination by remote imperial powers. Indeed, Tito’s signal accomplishment was to position Yugoslavia as the avatar of the “Third Way”; geographically and ideologically, an independent zone between the capitalist West and communist East. (This position evolved into the Non-Aligned Movement in concert with Egypt, India, Indonesia, and like-minded states mostly in the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and post-colonial Africa — Cuba was the only member in the Western Hemisphere — formalized at a conference in Belgrade in 1961.)
Staking this ground at the interstices of the Cold War divide gave Yugoslav artists and architects the freedom to choose from models and trends on either side. While embracing socialist ideals, Yugoslavia eschewed the social realism of Stalinist Russia and gravitated instead toward the abstraction of western European modernism; an inclination already evident in the region before World War II. Thus the construction of the new Yugoslavia, literally and metaphorically, became a vast modernist project; modernist thinking and design were deployed to guide the country’s rapid urbanization and industrialization as well as to unify the ethnically, religiously, and culturally diverse population. This is the story told by the exhibition and its excellent companion publication.
The exhibition traces the narrative across four chapters, or sections. “Modernization” documents the construction of the new national infrastructure that enabled Yugoslavia to recover and rebuild after the massive physical destruction of the war. The capital district of New Belgrade, exemplary in its progressive, functionalist planning, was the most ambitious urban construction project in postwar Europe, comparable to the better-known modernist inventions of Brasilia and Chandigarh. The section on “Global Networks” examines the confluence of Yugoslavia’s foreign policy and architecture. Assuming a leadership role in the confraternity of Non-Aligned States, Yugoslavia sought not only to export its architectural and engineering expertise to developing nations as a gesture of solidarity but also to secure lucrative construction contracts abroad. At home, the development of the Croatian Adriatic coast with sparkling modern resort facilities — some of amazingly inventive design — lured both wealthy international jet-setters and more modest regional tourists.
The “Everyday Life” section focuses on the heroic campaign to construct modern housing for the expanding urban population. Avoiding Soviet-style standardization, Yugoslav architects experimented with innovative forms of mass housing that were highly varied, adapted to local tastes and traditions. In tandem with the large-scale residential infrastructure came the modernization of domestic life. Designers, most notably Niko Kralj in Ljubljana, introduced clean-lined, practical, mass-producible furniture and other domestic objects to cater to the new “consumer socialist” population. The last section, on “Identities,” analyzes the cultural balancing act of recognizing and respecting regional distinctions within overall national unity. The project of building socialist Yugoslavia entailed no prescriptive national style; rather, it was a pluralist endeavor. A Balkan version of Regional Modernism thrived. Edvard Ravnikar, a protégé of Le Corbusier, for example, built upon the traditions of Central European modernism in his native Slovenia while in Bosnia Juraj Neidhardt, also a product of Corb’s atelier, blended his modernism with local vernacular from the Ottoman period. This final section is decidedly the most poignant, as we know that the centrifugal forces of regional nationalism and ethnic rivalry would very shortly tear the region apart.
Spread across several galleries and filled with hundreds of drawings, photographs, models, and video projections, “Toward a Concrete Utopia” is a monumental achievement, presenting a remarkable, and remarkably diverse, body of work that was largely unfamiliar to me and, I suspect, to most viewers. The exceptional architects whose work is featured, including the aforementioned Edvard Ravnikar and Juraj Neidhardt along with Bogdan Bogdanović, Svetlana Kana Radević, Vjenceslav Richter, Milica Šterić, and so many others, clearly deserve more recognition than current architectural histories accord.
The book is organized quite differently from the exhibition. Following a prefatory portfolio of commissioned photographs by Valentin Jeck, three lead essays, by Martino Stierli, Vladimir Kulić, and Maroje Mrduljaš, do a fine job of painting the big picture, after which the text is exploded into a multiplicity of short essays by eighteen authors. “Focal Points” expand upon particular themes or building types, while “Case Studies” zero in on specific projects. The exhibition was borderline overwhelming, as these grand surveys can be, so I appreciated, afterwards, the chance to return via the book to some memorable projects, including Vjenceslav Richter’s Yugoslav Pavilion, at the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair; Revolution Square, in Ljubljana, by Edvard Ravnikar; the Goce Delčev Student Dormitory, in Skopje, Macedonia, by Georgi Konstantinovski; and the ethereal Šerefudin White Mosque, in Visoko, Bosnia and Herzegovina, by Zlatko Ugljen.