NATO Srdjan Jovanović Weiss


Is it possible to recuperate a historically inflected interpretation of NATO’s destruction of Serbian government buildings during its 78-day “bombing for peace”? Any effort to do so would have to provide evidence that Serbia’s role in modern history is not as entirely nefarious as it might seem today. A large part of that history is strictly architectural. In contrast to other communist countries, like the Soviet Union, which under Stalin chose neoclassicism over constructivism to represent the state, Yugoslavia constructed its postwar image through an experimenting with modernism. Devoid of national symbols and representations of power, architecture in Yugoslavia went through a process of programmatic, albeit intuitive and at times metaphorical, appropriation of the Western avant-garde. This is evident in institutional buildings ranging from government offices to museums, hospitals, and schools. The construction of an architectural identity in Yugoslavia had to follow an ideological shift away from the centralist Eastern bloc toward the liberal democracies of the West. National architects learned how to suppress expressionism deriving from their prewar education and previous experiments in national styles. Cubist and expressionist buildings—which for many represented a genuine national sensibility—were modified to look functionalist and international. This process marked the postwar boom in construction all around Yugoslavia. Variations on the curtain wall, as seen in the Seagram building by Mies van der Rohe and Phillip Johnson in New York, on the repetitive mullions of the Pan Am building by Walter Gropius, on rows of horizontal windows, and on patternless stone, replaced prewar decorative academicism and its classical look. During war, the time for destruction is also the time for classification. In its role as bomber targeting a selection of urban artifacts, NATO faced a problem of identification: How to interpret architecture that looked neither Stalinist nor had the classical aspirations of the Third Reich? The empty administration buildings in downtown Belgrade in the vicinity of hospitals and schools, the empty Federal Ministry of Internal Affairs, and the empty Army Headquarters built by a recipient of the Gold Medal of the Royal Institute of British Architects, all bombed by NATO, were important examples of Serbian postwar modernism. As a result, the NATO air campaign unwittingly demonstrated excellent taste in placing 20th‑century architectural landmarks on its target list. As part “of a new struggle against fascism,” NATO selected to destroy the very buildings that had been constructed in the postwar period to symbolize the struggle of a “stubborn nation against fascism.” While modernism that came from the West was bombed, some conservative examples were “preserved.” Beli Dvor is one example, as is the White Palace, an eclectic Palladian-type villa built in the 1930s, where Milošević, like Tito before him, normally greeted guests but did not reside, was considered off-limits as a target because of a Rembrandt canvas located on its first floor. In history books, fascist architecture such as that of the Third Reich is always understood in the context of its creation. The architecture used by the present Serbian state was built before the world found Serbia to be nationalist; but in bombing Serbia, NATO also branded landmarks of Serbian postwar modernism as fascist. Once caught in the fire of the global media, this architecture, built under a pro-Western liberal influence, is now in danger of being branded fascist, of being remembered in relation to the context of its destruction. There is, however, a complication in laying sole responsibility for the bombing of these particular buildings on NATO. On the streets of Belgrade, particular buildings were anticipated to be likely targets. “Most people believe that the urban centers will be ‘cruised,’ and official propaganda does as much as possible to support this belief. Indeed, civilian casualties would be a tremendous boost for the Serbian government’s propaganda war against the rest of the world.” This sentiment could be read in an analysis published on the Internet in October 1998, half a year before NATO bombing began. The government’s position was possible in part because it had not expressed any ambition to create its own architectural rhetoric. Fully appropriating the previous communist buildings and infrastructure, in its ten-year rule the government had neither built nor commissioned a single piece of architecture, except for a recent neoclassical monument to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the end of NATO bombing. Therefore, the current regime had no difficulties sacrificing these buildings to NATO. Had NATO wished to destroy a building with more Western influences, it could not have found a better target than the Army Headquarters, also known as the Ministry of National Defense. The leveling of Vukovar, the siege of Sarajevo, and the random bombardment of Dubrovnik were believed to have been ordered from these Army Headquarters in Belgrade. In the press briefing by NATO the morning after the night attack, this remarkable postwar modernist building is referred to as the “heart of the war machine.” Given this characterization by NATO, will this building now be remembered in the context of its creation, or its destruction?


I / Cockpit of a Stealth bomber shot down in 1999 during NATO’s campaign in Yugoslavia, The Associated Press.