By Dave S. Clark
Despite being born many miles away from communism and being too young too know anything about politics when many of the communist countries fell, I’ll be the first to admit I have a peculiar fascination with the ideology and the states who were ruled by it.
Part of that fascination is due to the years I spent as a journalist in Canada, where I was able to write about what I wanted to and criticize freely those who I felt should be criticized. It is hard for me to grasp living in a society that not only wouldn’t allow that but would punish someone for that. I often wondered what else was truly different under communism and what daily life was actually like. These interests played a part in my travels to Cuba, China, Germany, Czech Republic, Hungary and all of the former Yugoslav states except Slovenia.
In the former Yugoslav states, even the untrained eye can still see the scars left from those times. One of the easiest ways to still see the impact communism had is by looking at the architecture. This fall, when I travelled to Belgrade, the capital of Serbia and formerly the capital of Yugoslavia, it was hard not to always be looking up and around at the variety of styles of architecture, including that of the communist variety.
Belgrade was such a captivating city because its complicated history was on display on every block. A Turkish style building, constructed during the time when Ottomans ruled, sat beside a building with an art nouveau influenced façade, which then sat beside an imposing brutalist concrete façade built during the Yugoslav era.
Perhaps one of my favourite things that we did during our stay in Belgrade was cross the Sava River and head to Zemun, an ancient settlement on the Danube River, which has now been swallowed by the city of Belgrade. But Zemun wasn’t even the interesting part. Rather than head back to the historic centre of Belgrade after strolling the cobblestone streets and admiring the views from Gardoš Tower (Millennium Tower), we hopped on a different bus, which headed into Novi Beograde (New Belgrade) and got off right in the middle of it. One of the reasons Belgrade was chosen as the capital of Yugoslavia was all of the wide open land across the Sava which could be used to expand the city, which is exactly what they did. That wide open land is now New Belgrade.
Entering New Belgrade, you are entering what looks to be a completely different city than the historic centre. Rather than narrow streets of an old European city, this side of the city is made up of a large grid, with massive apartment blocks sprawled across each block, which are numbered in an orderly fashion. I think many see the expanses of uninspiring concrete to be dull and depressing. Certainly with the low ceiling of grey clouds that covered the city when I was there, I felt that at times.
But at the same time I was truly intrigued with this wide expanse of grey. This part of the city was a total blank slate when communist leader Josip Broz Tito came to power in 1953. It was built to be a utopia of communist design. The downside to doing a self-guided walking and wandering tour of this area is that the buildings are all massive hulks and some of the apartments are incomprehensibly huge. That means the blocks are also very large. A walking tour of a massive concrete suburb is not the most effective way of seeing it.
The site that I gave the most attention to was what is known as the West Gate or Zapadna Kapija, a great example of the brutalist architecture popular in the district. I don’t think there is a better way to describe its two hulking towers than brutal. As the building that all visitors will see as they enter Belgrade from the west, it offers quite the cold welcome. Foggy keyhole windows dot up the sides of massive cement periscopes, which appear to hold up the two drab towers linked together at the top. The slightly taller tower is a residential building and a bridge leads over to the office tower with a revolving restaurant (which I’m told may no longer revolve or even be open) on top.
The other major landmark we saw before our legs gave out on us was the Palace of Serbia or Palata Srbije, the largest building in Serbia, although not much of a palace. I suppose if Versailles was a post-war project by an economically struggling socialist nation and was built as a government office building, it would have turned out similarly.
But it’s not tourist sights that will capture your attention in Novi Beograd. It’s just being there, imagining what the cold days of communism must have felt like in this sprawling city.
If you’re interested in Stalinist, socialist, Soviet, brutalist or modernist architecture, Novi Beograd is definitely worth the detour. However, it’s not really designed to do on foot, so consider some type of transportation. If you have an interest in communism like I do, don’t miss the “Communism Tour” run by Belgrade Walking Tours. Although the walk doesn’t include anything in New Belgrade, it was very informative and worth the 10€.