clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile
Andrija Mutnjakovic. National and University Library of Kosovo. 1971-82. Prishtina, Kosovo, Exterior View.
Andrija Mutnjakovic. National and University Library of Kosovo. 1971-82. Prishtina, Kosovo, Exterior View.
Photo: Valentin Jeck, commissioned by The Museum of Modern Art, 2016

Filed under:

Concrete utopia

What does our love of brutalist buildings say about us?

First on Tumblr, then on Instagram: frame-filling, deep-shadowed, looming edifices, gray and often looking perpetually damp, pocked by windows, frilled with balconies, enlivened by murals or supergraphics or plants.

But popularity breeds restlessness. Paul Rudolph’s bush-hammered walls? Been there. The Barbican? Done that. Boston City Hall? A thousand op-eds. Flaine? Boutique ski resort. Marina City? Album cover.

The eye needs to travel. So social media gave us more: bigger buildings, more flamboyant and flowing forms, more spectacular settings. Like Yugoslavia: first through the photographs of Jan Kempenaers, widely published in 2013, then through Instagram accounts like @_di_ma and @socialistmodernism for a daily dose of concrete.

To an American audience the forms, names and locations were strange, adding to the abstraction and the othering headlines: “These 1970s brutalist buildings in Serbia look like Star Wars spaceships,” said Quartz, who filed them under the category “Futuristic Finds.”

It was as if a forest of concrete mushrooms had sprouted and grown to gargantuan size while we were otherwise occupied. New books on Brutalism, high on dramatic photography, low on context, rushed to incorporate the most charismatic examples, like the stalactic wings of Dorde and Miodrag Živković’s Monument to the Battle of the Sutjeska (1965-71) in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Or the space frame to end all space frames at the National and University Library of Kosovo (1971-82), in Priština, by Andrija Mutnjaković.

Miodrag Zivkovic. Monument to the Battle of the Sutjeska. 1965-71, Tjentiste, Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Photo: Valentin Jeck, commissioned by The Museum of Modern Art, 2016

My theory about why we love concrete architecture now is simple: It has body. Even as we consume design in pixels, we long for spaces where we can feel the weight of the world. Glass architecture, see-through cladding systems, and transparent sky bridges are all worse in person than they are in photographs—and the photographs are often worse than renderings. Concrete architecture gives you shadows, temperature changes, vistas, drama. It has also, in its fifty years on this earth, lived many lives. Going forward, we need to talk about them too.

If you’re looking for visual drama that feels tactile, you are not going to find it at the Museum of Modern Art’s curiously wan new exhibition, “Toward a Concrete Utopia: Architecture in Yugoslavia, 1948-1980,” which opens at MoMA on July 15, curated by Philip Johnson chief curator of architecture and design Martino Stierli, curatorial assistant Anna Kats, and Florida Atlantic associate professor Vladimir Kulić.

Films, models, red phones, drawings: All these elements are brought to bear and still the photographs dominate, wiping out authorship, region, even the 30-plus-year span of the exhibition. The weirdness feels repressed.

Among the few exceptions is Zlatko Ugljen’s Serefudin White Mosque (1980), which exhibits a northern European skill with toplight and an unusual asymmetrical interior that looks as if it has been excavated, like a cave.

Zlatko Uglijen. Serefudin White Mosque. 1969-79. Visoko, Bosnia and Herzegovina. Interior view.
Photo: Valentin Jeck, commissioned by The Museum of Modern Art, 2016

Stierli saw those books and ’grams and Pins, too. And he knew younger scholars had started to research the specific histories of these monuments alongside the dramatic images. Stierli was aware that Yugoslavian designers were not locked behind the Iron Curtain but traveled—to the ateliers of Le Corbusier and Louis Kahn and Kisho Kurokawa—and that their work traveled in turn, to the Middle East and Africa.

Stierli traveled himself, to the Croatian coast, where you find a magnificent terraced ruins like the Haludovo Hotel (1969-72). To New Belgrade, where modern capital-building ambitions rivaled those of Lucio Costa and Oscar Niemeyer in Brasilia.

“There is a strong need to discuss the legacy of late modern architecture,” Stierli says, “It is under heavy threat globally, in Yugoslavia, also in the United States with buildings by Paul Rudolph being torn down. I really feel it is important for us to raise awareness of the great artistic and architectural achievements.”

I question whether this was the concrete architecture show to do. MoMA has covered Le Corbusier ad infinitum, and its 2015 Latin American architecture exhibition delved deeply into the use of modernism (including concrete) to construct new neighborhoods, cities, and universities across Central and South America.

But the museum hasn’t recently exhibited American brutalism, or the Metabolist megastructures of Japan, both of which have more news value and more worldwide influence. There’s little institutional logic for this choice. A similar uneasy relationship to the popular hung over last year’s anniversary exhibition on Frank Lloyd Wright, where the curators chipped away at the Great Man narrative while vintage television footage, inevitably, drew you to him. MoMA should be pointing, not following.

When I originally tweeted about “Concrete Utopia,” I picked one of the few available press photographs that had some color: the interior of the Sava Center, Belgrade (1976-78), by Stojan Maksimović, with a high-1970s striped wall mural in carpet, plush and jewel-toned.

I’ve always argued that the dominance of black-and-white photography of postwar buildings edits out precisely what made them livable: Rudolph’s orange carpets and architectural salvage, Kevin Roche and Warren Platner’s mirrors and plants, Milton Glaser’s stripes or Sheila Hicks’s embroideries. I couldn’t get enough of the salons in the Federal Executive Council Building (1962), shown in the catalog, with lavender rugs, pink chairs, and more modernist tapestried walls photographed by Vesna Pavlović in the early 2000s. The color palette seemed downright cheeky.

In a happy coincidence, three floors down from “Toward a Concrete Utopia” lies the utterly fabulous exhibit “Bodys Isek Kingelez: City Dreams.” Kingelez was a Congolese sculptor, whose medium was the architectural model. Architects from the north and west built concrete cities next to Art Deco structures in places like Kinshasa. But these 1970s buildings seemed to Kingelez just a starting point, too international, too dull for his idea of the nation.

In Kingelez’s hands, working between 1980 and 2007, cardboard models of tiered stadiums, towering skyscrapers, hotels like fans, stairs, jukeboxes acquire gold and stars, balconies in contrasting colors, signs worthy of Vegas. Every shed is decorated to within an inch of its life, mostly with found materials like bottle caps, cigarette packages, translucent plastic, and glue. His work is instantaneous commentary on the concrete utopia. Needs life. Needs color.

Bodys Isek Kingelez (Congolese, 1948-2015). Ville de Sète 3009. 2000. Paper, paperboard, plastic, and other various materials, 31 1/2 × 9′ 10 1⁄8″ × 6′ 10 11⁄16″ (80 × 300 × 210 cm).
Collection Musée International des Arts Modestes (MIAM), Sète, France. © Pierre Schwartz ADAGP; courtesy Musée International des Arts Modestes (MIAM), Sète, France
Bodys Isek Kingelez (Congolese, 1948-2015). Stars Palme Bouygues (detail). 1989. Paper, paperboard, and other various materials, 39 3/8 × 15 3/4 × 15 3/4″ (100 × 40 × 40 cm).
van Lierde collection, Brussels. Vincent Everarts Photography Brussels
Bodys Isek Kingelez (Congolese, 1948-2015). U.N. 1995. Paper, paperboard, and other various materials, 35 13/16 × 29 1/8 × 20 7/8″ (91 × 74 × 53 cm), irreg.
CAAC – The Pigozzi Collection, Geneva. © Bodys Isek Kingelez / Photo: Maurice Aeschimann. Courtesy CAAC – The Pigozzi Collection

Among the coming attractions that caught my eye, previewed by Stierli on his Instagram, is one of Saša J. Mächtig’s Kiosk K67s, restored to its original candy-apple red. The kiosks were meant to be an endlessly flexible, endlessly expandable public architecture, matching enclosure to social patterns. Most stayed close to home, but they have been spotted in Kenya, Iraq and Japan, as well as Poland and the former Soviet Union—the same countries to which and from which Yugoslavia imported and exported concrete architecture.

At least one made it to New York. Stierli tells me that MoMA has, in fact, bought the kiosk twice, first acquiring one in 1970 for Emilio Ambasz’s landmark show, “Italy: The New Domestic Landscape.” Back then, the kiosk did not fit inside the museum’s modernist doorways, and, after a brief sojourn on West 53rd Street, was loaned to SUNY Stonybrook. After that, it disappeared. This time, the kiosk could fit through the front door, but not into the galleries: it sits in the museum’s third floor lobby, in use as an architectural information booth. I longed to see it back on the street, selling Slavic candy, doing a real job.

British critic Owen Hatherley wrote, in 2016, of the misleading narrative that these concrete memorials were dropped in by fiat by Yugoslavia’s authoritarian leader Josip Broz Tito when, in fact, many were the product of local funding and local competitions. Brutalism was not the chosen architecture of the state but rather concrete was used to commemorate events from the Yugoslavian republics’ long histories of oppression—up to and including concentration camps.

Because the history of Yugoslavian architecture is being written (for an English-speaking audience) in the 21st century, that means female architects get included in the first go-round, even if “the few women architects who ultimately commanded public profiles did so in spite of, not through the dismantling of, both the region’s and the profession’s male-dominated cultures,” as the catalog notes. Despite the lip service paid to equality of the sexes in the new Yugoslavian constitution, women’s roles in the new socialist society did not change radically.

Montenegrin architect Svetlana Kana Radević worked for both Kahn and Kurokawa (of Nakagin Capsule Tower fame), and produced the mountain-modern Hotel Podgorica (1967), pebbled capsules attached to the edge of a hillside, creating an elevated viewing platform for the river above, and cave-like hotel rooms under the brow. The entrance looks like a mini-Ronchamp. Milica Šterić, a Serbian architect, isn’t well known for her design but, as a manager at Energoprojekt, oversaw a number of large-scale projects in Nigeria and Zambia.

One of the most fascinating international moments described in the exhibition and catalog is the United Nations-sponsored architectural competition for the reconstruction of Skopje, the Macedonian capital badly damaged by an earthquake in 1963. The winner of the 1965 competition was Kenzo Tange and, if built, his scheme would have been the first major commission for a Japanese architect outside Japan and a rare example of Japan’s contribution to the concrete canon—Metabolism—at an urban scale.

It wasn’t built, but UN and U.S. involvement produced a flourishing of new architecture in Skopje, importing European architects and sponsoring study abroad for Macedonian design students. Georgi Konstantinovski studied with Rudolph at Yale, and then worked for I.M. Pei in New York. His Goce Delčev student dormitories, complete with sky bridges and corrugated concrete walls, would be right at home on Roosevelt Island.

Milan Mihelič. S2 Office Tower. 1972–78. Ljubljana, Slovenia
Photo: Valentin Jeck, commissioned by The Museum of Modern Art, 2016.
Uglješa Bogunović, Slobodan Janjić, and Milan Krstić. Avala TV Tower. 1960–65 (destroyed in 1999 and rebuilt in 2010). Mount Avala, near Belgrade, Serbia. Exterior view.
Photo: Valentin Jeck, commissioned by The Museum of Modern Art, 2016.

“I considered [this show]t a sort of prehistory to globalization,” Stierli tells me. “Different regimes shared the notion that architecture could and should and can contribute to the construction of a better society. That’s also one of the prime reasons why I wanted to do this, that is a notion that is being increasingly lost in architecture. Architecture is seen as a luxury commodity.”

So while MoMA’s exhibition does contextualize this concrete architecture, attaching names, places, and specific stories to the gray hulks, whether the summertime audience will care is another story.

And as someone who has written far too many pieces arguing for why late modernism must be saved, putting it in a museum seems far too oblique a form of advocacy—curators should be among those waving signs, and offering vigorous quotes, about the real thing. Was the way to add context big-picture history, or could it have been closer to the Kingelez approach, specific, lived in, argumentative?

Read Ruka Johnson’s recent essay, “Stop Fetishizing My Block!” a personal plea from a longtime resident of Neave Brown’s Brutalist Alexandra & Ainsworth Road Estate (1978) in London.

Lots of people think my block’s magnificent—fashion mags, TV dramas, music artists, really anyone looking to add a bit of “gritty urban realism” to their shoot. I don’t blame them for loving the look of my block, but would they love to live here? Sadly, it took me years to feel proud of where I come from in the face of ridicule and oppression. And the very same people who made me ashamed to live here are the ones now exploiting it for clicks and views.

Johnson explains that, growing up, her classmates at the prestigious private school to which she had won a scholarship reacted with horror on their one visit to her home. But a few years ago, those people started moving in. Brown won the RIBA Gold Medal, years after his council housing had been dismissed as over-budget and over-complicated.

At “Toward a Concrete Utopia,” I had been excited to see the video piece, “Living Space / Loving Space” by Mila Turajlić, a series of clips from feature films and TV shows that used the 1970s housing blocks as their setting. Via subtitles, the clips allow actors to voice complaints about not having enough space, or not getting the apartment they wanted, or kids playing music too loud. Utopia gets scuffed. I thought the housewife, rather than the architect, the historian or the influencer, would get to have her say.

But the piece was installed on a Nam Jun Paik-esque bank of monitors, with no credits. It became a wash of more grayscale images rather than a subversive counter-narrative. It was far more soothing, and immersive, to sit in the dark gallery next door and watch a slideshow of 1970s resort photos, lavender tablecloths, cool blue waters, and all.

We need the story of everyday life (and lifecycle) in concrete architecture. When the spectacle takes a backseat, we are better for it.

Alexandra Lange writes the Critical Eye column for Curbed, covering design in many forms: new parks and Instagram playgrounds, teen urbanists and architectural icons, postmodernism and the post-retail era. Her latest book, The Design of Childhood: How the Material World Shapes Independent Kids, was published by Bloomsbury USA in June 2018.

Critical Eye

New York Needs to Rethink Time, Not Space, To Actually Reopen

Critical Eye | From Curbed NY

New York City’s two biggest design stories of 2019 are also design failures

New York City

Navigating the new MoMA

View all stories in Critical Eye