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Stunning Socialist-era Architecture : The


Brutalism of Zagreb, Croatia
croatia feb 12, 2013 view comments

Phillipa glides past a dead pigeon outside the communist architecture of the Zagreb
“Rockets”.

Exploring Communist-era or Socialist-era architecture isn’t on the


standard bucket list of most European tourists. The historic old-
worldliness of European cities is legendary, indeed, most tourists crave a
labyrinth of winding cobble-stoned streets, lined with richly decorated
centuries-old buildings – the typical scenes in the “old town” at the heart
of most European cities. However, there is a often a much more brutal,
and somewhat unknown side to these same locations.

On the outside of the old town, there’s a lesser travelled area of these
cities. Here, are the many “new” Communist-era or Socialist-era planned
districts and suburbs. Built around the historic downtown cores, the often
populous areas are especially common in post-communist post-Soviet ex-
USSR, and the formerly socialist Yugoslavian nations.

Zagreb, the capital city of Croatia, is no exception to this practice.


Commencing on the edges of Zagreb and bleeding into Novi Zagreb is a
hotbed of Socialist-era architecture. Only a few minutes from downtown
Zagreb the ornate, picturesque gives way to a collection of starkly brutal
and modernist architecture along a network of wide roads. It’s truly mid-
century socialist city-planning on a grand scale.

Leaving the center of Zagreb, and crossing the Sava River to Novi
Zagreb, is like entering another world. A beautiful, dream-like, concrete-
filled world. Paradoxically familiar, normally unexplored, from the past and
yet from the future, I have found that places like Novi Zagreb create a
strange nostalgia for a world I have never known.
Richter’s “Rakete” or “Rockets”. Communist-era apartment blocks in Zagreb. Architect –
Richter.
Zagrepčanka. Zagreb, 1976. Architects Slavko Jelinek and Berislav Vinković.
“Kockica” or “Cube”. Zagreb, Croatia. Architect – Ivo Vitić, 1961-1968.
“Super Andrija” – communist era mixed-use apartment block in Zagreb, Croatia. Architect
– Miroslav Cantinellija, 1973

Novi Zagreb, like many of the planned mid-20th century European cities,
was built in the battle scarred shadow of the Second World War. Using
a familiar architectural blue print, most buildings can be categorised as
perfect evil-genius lair, amazing location for super villain head quarters, or
what would broadly and flatteringly be referred to as 1970’s communist
chic. Some buildings impress by design, others, by sheer immensity and
brutality.

Concrete is the material of choice in Novi Zagreb. Although much of the


communist-era architecture is now decayed due to a lack
of maintenance, giving a purely dystopian feeling, keep in mind that when
first constructed these buildings and the streets that house them were
pure optimism-fueled utopia. The architecture and city planning of Novi
Zagreb incorporates futuristic mixed-use building designs, surrounded by
extensive park lands and efficient public transport networks.

Seemingly audacious planned cities like Novi Zagreb rejected what would
soon become known as un-environmental urban sprawl that most
Western cities were following. Think of Novi Zagreb as your typical
American suburbia, on steroids. The promised land in the style of the mid-
twentieth century style. Geometric, efficient, and admirably designed with
people in mind.

communist architecture redux – coming to a city near


you?
Around the world, a revival of brutal and mid-century architecture has
taken place – much inspired by the communist-era architecture and city
planning of mid-century Europe. From the new Scottish Parliament
building, to the planned cities of Korea, city planners and architects are
looking at these examples not only for design inspiration, but for solutions
to the issues many modern cities grapple with. Lack of viable public
transportation, low population density, and horrendously unsustainable
suburban sprawl being the number one targets. Although, a primary
motivator for the construction of these cities would have simply been to
rapidly provide housing for people – in the aftermath of the most
devastating war the world had ever seen.

There are many aspects of cities like Novi Zagreb that demand further
exploration and explanation, and I hope that people with more expertise
than myself would leave relevant links in the comments below.
Super Andrija. Raw, honest, enormous. Zagreb, Croatia.
Richter’s Rockets – a spectacular example of mixed-use brutalist architecture in Zagreb.
Vjesnik, 1972. Zageb modernist architecture from the Communist era
A wider lens would have come in handy.
Billa supermarket, Zagreb.
Underpass infrastructure. Zagreb, Croatia.

Ironically, adjectives for communist-era or Socialist-era architecture range


from gray and soul-less, to futuristic and expressive. Either way, this style
can usually be described as heavy – cubic meters are the name of the
game here. Masses of raw mid-century concrete and steel in geometrical
formations are one of the main attractions in the former Yugoslavian
nations, in my humble opinion.

communist architecture – will it go the same way as


communism?
Part of my reasoning to visit the Balkans this year, is due to the absolute
certainty I have that many of these stunning buildings will not survive
much longer. Despite some fantastic examples of renovation and re-
purposing, the future of most of these unique examples of architecture is
far from certain. Many, not all, were not built to last in the first place, and
maintenance is lacking – contributing to further decline. Although these
are often technologically advanced structures, without regular
maintenance they simply will not last.

Public opinion is certainly not on the side of the aesthetic “qualities” of


these structures, and none are old enough to typically
warrant heritage protection. For example, in nearby Bratislava, Slovakia –
the elegant modernist Hotel Kyjev is slated for demolition. I stayed at the
Hotel recently, and was sad to hear that Kyjev has now closed its doors,
with the new owners wishing to redevelop (destroy) the entire city block.
There are some exceptions, but in general, this era of architecture does
not attract enough supporters in the right places to be sure about the
future prospects.
Affectionatley and collectively known as “Commie blocks”. Zagreb, by the river Sava.
What you can’t hear, are the sounds of a Death Metal band jamming.
Brutal communist architecture, Croatia. The “Super Andrija” building.
The decay of the raw concrete is apparent. Communist architecture, Zagreb, Croatia.
The foreground structure is a parking garage, and a very run down outdoor communal area.
Richters Rockets, Zagreb.
Arriving in Belgrade, Serbia, I used an ancient telescope to plan my communist architecture
adventures.

click to see an interactive map showing the location of this article

Continuing my grand tour of the Balkans – this week I find myself in


Belgrade, Serbia. Replete with its own Socialist-era”new city” of Novi
Beograd, Belgrade just may be considered ground zero of planned former
Yugoslavian cities. I’ve already photographed some absolutely
spectacular examples of Socialist modernism architecture. Novi Zagreb
was just the entree, for fans of this style of end-of-the-world architecture,
the main course of Novi Beograd will blow your red socks off. Stay tuned
for the next installment.
There is so much more to show and discuss when it comes to
communist architecture and city planning. One aspect I can’t comment on
– what is it like to live in these buildings? I would love to read stories
from anyone who lives or works in buildings of this nature.

Communist architecture may not be your typical tourist attraction, but I


can assure you there is a growing legion of
communist/socialist/brutal/modernist architecture fans out there.

And I’m well and truly one of them.

Nate

PS, I’ve previously covered the amazing examples of “communist”


architecture found in Bratislava, and Zizkov Tower in Prague on Yomadic.
In anticipation of some of the comments I may receive about this article –
I would like to state that I understand not all of the architects would
identify as being “socialist”, “communist”, “Soviet”, or being from
“Yugoslavia”. I use these terms simply to identify an era in history, and
mostly to assist readers in finding this article. I do welcome any
comments anyone has, there is no censorship here.

* update: as correctly pointed out by an informed comment, to be clear –


many of these buildings are technically located in “Zagreb” not “Novi
Zagreb”. However, all of the buildings are well outside the “core” of old
Zagreb, and indeed, are within moments of where Novi Zagreb officially
commences. I have removed the word “Novi” from the article title.

* update, July 2018 : this week alone, more than 60,000 people have read
this article. Over the lifespan of this page, there are sure to be more than
one million views. One of the photos has now appeared in publication,
another has won me a prize. I truly love this architecture, and I’m glad to
know the popularity is finally increasing.

FINALLY – while I’m here – as at July 2018, I have been travelling


continously for six years, living each day from my backpack. Not one day
in six years have I ever unpacked my bag and stopped. I’ve developed a
true fondness for Eastern Europe and former Yugoslavia, and have
travelled through, and returned to, most countries in the region, regularly.
BTW, I would love to send you the next dispatch, posted from some-
where random around this planet (and you'll soon find out why YOMADIC
email followers are my favourite followers):
v