Milošević, Slobodan Srdjan Jovanović Weiss
“The man without passion,” as Slobodan Milošević was called throughout the Balkan crisis by international journalists, did not choose to build. For better or worse, he lost the chance to solidify his era of power in architecture. There are no grand urban proposals to be found, no government buildings, no new cities, and no style that is identifiably “his” akin to the stripped-down neoclassical architecture of Stalin or Ceausescu. Of his peers, Milošević was closest to his Iraqi ally and political soul-mate Hussein, earning the nickname: “Serbian Saddam.” nevertheless, in spite of what many believed was quite a complimentary nickname, no palaces nor treasures like Saddam’s are to be found. In fact, Serbian architects and engineers, who allegedly desired a dictator after the late Tito, were often exported to build in Iraq during the entire 1980s and the 1990s. The full-color catalog of Belgrade-based Energoprojekt, the socialist version of a Skidmore, Owings & Merrill corporate architectural firm proudly presented projects like the Al Khulafa Street Development Project in Baghdad from 1981–1983 and the Baghdad complex of presidential palaces. With these designs that combined a late Modernist corporate style with an inclination toward Orientalism, Energoprojekt architects paved the way for other infrastructure projects, allegedly including underground bunkers and hideouts not in the catalog. In spite of the continued weakening of his ideology, Milošević was the most powerful politician in the Balkans. His lack of interest in architecture opened up room for the flow of sources other than top-down directives—and he proved to be amazingly proficient at channeling this kind of open-source, national-socialist anarchy. He wielded power not through public appearances, but through consistent absences. The less Milošević spoke, the more he maintained control over the public. In fact, the less Milošević built, the wider the gap that opened up for uncontrolled construction. The result is a dearth of buildings in the public realm; we do not find any kind of municipal élan, although the municipal space thickens like an overgrown village. In spite of political and economic isolation lasting a decade and a half—as well as wars with Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, and with the world over Kosovo—Belgrade witnessed an explosion of construction. The estimates are that as many as 150,000 houses and buildings were put up in Belgrade in the last decade, and between 800,000 and 1,000,000 in the whole of Serbia. The quantity that accumulated during this short time—on average, 28 buildings a day for 15 years—amounts to a brief, rapid history of a national architecture in the making. The intellectual elite, in opposition to Milošević, hated this architecture and called in vain for its removal. The main reason for such disdain was not so much the fact that illegal construction was linked with war and criminal activity, but its trashy postmodern appearance, and the march of symbolic and empty rhetorical shapes, which also gave birth to a dominant cultural form during the Milošević era—“turbo folk.” Milošević’s deceptive absence and lack of clear vision became an alibi for an army of self-appointed saviors of lost values of the Serbian past. Middle-aged architects, the frustrated generation that played second fiddle to Tito’s first and most privileged generation in building the communist city of New Belgrade, seized their chance. As Milošević introduced popular participation in policy-making, which had been Tito’s main taboo, architectural production derived from the taste of newly composed “folk” music or just “Neo-Folk” which had arisen in villages and suburbs as a substitute for authentic traditional values. Coincidentally, the first Neo-Folk building was constructed in the center of Belgrade in 1989, the year Milošević won the Serbian elections. Milošević looked away as Turbo Architecture became a dominant force to make up for the loss of a national identity. As with turbo folk, the mechanism of this populist folk engine felt right for the situation because of its power to substitute for the actual world. And the actual world was Milošević’s transfer from the strategy of defying war into the process of defying planning. This was best demonstrated weeks after the NATO bombing of Belgrade in late spring 1999. Milošević saw his opportunity to become a builder by reconstructing the country like Tito after the Second World War. He went about this in his particular way: by pushing someone else to do what needed to be done and shielding himself from criticism. In the somber brown interior of a television studio adapted to look like an office, one could see day after day on prime television news a group of architects and planners presenting drawings and computer models related to reconstruction. This was the peak of Milošević’s transfer from political action into planning and sheer exploitation of two of the most effective tools in the Balkans: deception and demagoguery. After Milošević’s arrest and transfer to The Hague, the very same Turbo Architecture that had become so controversial was promoted as a new national style at the Venice Architecture Biennial in 2002. The Serbian selectors for the biennial projected national pride in withstanding the destruction for which NATO was responsible—insignificant when compared with the destruction of Sarajevo or Vukovar—by promoting a catalog of buildings erected under Milošević as a proof of endurance. The book itself has a front and back cover made of aluminum, like a bulletproof vest; it even comes with the trace of a semipenetrating bullet. Its protective sleeve is cast in light concrete to look like a concrete block—a sign of continuing desire for construction in spite of the “West which wanted to destroy Serbia.” This armored catalog reveals and embodies Milošević’s urban legacy, devoid of passion. This brutal pathos is what we are left with—to do with what we will.