Scouting the Magic Mountain of Yugoslav Socialism

Friday, October 1, 2010
Petrova Gora (Photos by Ena Schulz and School of Missing Studies)

Petrova Gora (Photos by Ena Schulz and School of Missing Studies)

The School of Missing Studies and Slought Foundation have recently returned from a “photo safari” to Petrova Gora in Croatia, one of many languishing memorials from the socialist era of the former Yugoslavia. Conceived in 1981 by Vojin Bakić, a Croatian sculptor who won many state-funded commissions, working with the architect Branislav Šerbetić, the project was designed as a 12-story-tall social center, set on the site of a Partisan field hospital used during World War II. Finally completed in 1989 as a monument to Yugoslavia’s resistance fighters, the memorial was used as intended for only a brief period before the Balkan crisis erupted. The wars that ensued scattered refugees around the region, and practically erased the political cause this structure was meant to embody.

Today, Petrova Gora stands unused and empty—but not secured with lock and key. Thanks to the neglect of Croatia’s democratic government, which looks away from its socialist past, the memorial is more approachable and free than ever intended. Anyone can come here, enter the site, walk inside the monument, and wander upward through 12 interconnected levels all the way to the roof.

The feeling of melancholy inspired by Petrova Gora is overwhelming, but it is irresistible to call it beautiful. Furthermore, an astonishing aspect of this monument is that inside, it is the size of a small Guggenheim museum, positioned on a dramatic hilltop site. It also is significant that the building is the work of an abstract artist, and that the architect played a minor role.

The interior has suffered greatly from neglect.

Today’s contemporary artists have discovered this inhabitable monument, and are cementing careers by embracing Petrova Gora in their work. Take the video produced by David Maljkovic, which portrays the structure deep in the future as a neglected fiction. Other projects and expeditions to the site have produced similar imagery, evoking “nostalgia for the future.”

All of these projects raise awareness about this exceptional work, and about the exceptionality of Yugoslav socialism when compared to the idolatry of the Soviet bloc. However, these artists’ projects fail to ignite strategic thinking and analysis, especially within the context of contemporary practice, about ideologies deploying art in place of design. Moreover, little if no work has been done to relate this monument to American influence upon Yugoslav cultural policies during the Cold War, making Yugoslavia an ally to the West and offsetting the Soviet East. American abstract art, conceptual art, and corporate architecture all play provocative roles in this history.

But the sinuous forms remain extremely elegant.

So while artists exhaust the repertoire of visual interventions, the time is ripe for architects to step in. In contrast to socialism, which tended to freeze time and artistic competence, today in the emerging democracies in the Western Balkans the situation is much more open. Paradoxically, perhaps the best aspect of emerging democracy is that being behind may mean being next.

The ravaged structure commands an incredible hilltop site.

Yet time is also limited for further action. Visitors to Petrova Gora have already spotted men with geodesic equipment measuring the site of the memorial and the monument itself. This may mean that we are already late on the scene, and that there is perhaps little time to think of a strategy to put this monument back in the future, either for an authentic use (which few would fund without a neoliberal zeal for profit returns), or preserved as a beautiful ruin.

The time of earnestness may be over.

Lea Vene, Srdjan Weiss, and Aaron Levy reach the summit.

This text is part of a forthcoming book created by Srdjan Jovanovic Weiss in collaboration with Berlin-based photographer Armin Linke, which explores the fate of a number of Socialist memorials in the region. The photo safari to Petrova Gora, along with further discussions among the participants in Zagreb, was part of the Slought Foundation’s traveling exhibit at the Croatian Association of Visual Artists and the School of Missing Studies’ workshop “City as a School of Politics,” held in Zagreb with local participants and curated by Katherine Carl.


8 Responses to “Scouting the Magic Mountain of Yugoslav Socialism”

  1. Ken says:

    Fantastic, look forward to the book !

  2. Manuel says:

    Amazing photographs. The void space plus staircase is as good as it can get in architecture! Wonderful. But today’s ‘twelve story-tall social centers’ tend to be either shopping malls or prisons. Difficult to evade nostalgia. looking forward to the upcoming book.

  3. sz says:

    very nice, i appreciate the turn towards something redeeming about the
    u.s. and it’s relationship to yugoslavia, my friend, even if it was
    self-interested and overwhelmingly based on the zero-sum game of
    counterbalancing soviet influence, alongside the relationship that
    emerged from a shared battle against fascism. also nice echo in this
    form not only of the guggenheim and the older generation of formalist
    modernism but in contemporary work by SANAA and even hadid. and i
    appreciate the call to move beyond the aesthetics of nostalgia and
    ruin, so evident in the fixation with artists projects in the
    industrial midwest, to a pragmatic strategy for revival or
    preservation, even acknowledging that this requires money, possibly
    from the private sector, which is what I think you must mean by

  4. ew says:

    nice piece, can see how this adds up to to a very serious resource on balkan architecture.

  5. maroje says:

    This astonishing project is actually belated piece of Yugoslav/Croatian high-modernism which flourished during 1950’s and 1960’s and it represents the peak of Bakic’s long-lasting career. It’s interesting to note how its internal spatial organisation somehow bridges the high-modernism and contemporary investigations of non-hierarchical fluid spaces which makes me think about the history of architecture as non-evolutionary process.
    Nevertheless, at 1980’s in former Yugoslavia were turbulent time of gradual deconstruction of modernization processes and ideals. The socio-political project of socialist self-management entered in serious ideological crises, while the cultural landscape was marked by post-modern tendencies. So this monument was empty signifier at the very moment it was conceived, The heroic period of socialist project was over and modernism and formal investigations in art were questioned and abandoned, So the present day state of the monument was to some extend inscribed in the very act of its conceiving, its construction was unconscious nostalgia for an era which was already over.
    Also, for more comprehensive interpretation of this and many other projects we’ll have to wait for an extensive re-mapping of international modern/post-modern architecture and art which will take into the account scenes which were ignored.

  6. marija r. says:

    Petrova Gora is one of the most fascinating monuments in former Yugoslavia, it is no wonder it became subject of international photo safari. Srdjan has done amazing job mapping all socialist monuments in West Balkan landscape. Trough his constant work, he perceives socialist monuments as open and performative spatial forms, at current point when its initial context and meaning are lost. Post-socialist condition brought many different themes in re-reading ex-yu antifascist memorials as well as their socialist past – from complete denial and neglect to renovation from perspective of recent wars and rise of nationalisms in nineties. In context of present condition, I would mention contemporary practices of merging different and counter meanings within Yugoslav monuments – seen as abstract iconic forms, suitable for denotation processes. Trough restoration, there is always necessity,not only to redesign, but also to rename and re-designate monument – to fit in dominant socio-political apparatus. Research of memorial architecture opens question of rethinking formal aspects of its existence in recent future(s): is it possible for a monument, as a memorial structure to stand without ideological prosthesis and without the memory which initiate and generate its architecture.

  7. ena schulz says:

    The first time I visited Petrova Gora was under a cloud of disappointment, because the memory card on my camera was full. I remember thinking – I have to come back here as soon as possible to memorize and crop the incredulous site, a monument and a sculpture in one.

    Two days after that I accidentally met Srdjan Jovanovic Weiss and Aaron Levy with whom I was supposed to go on a ‘photo safari’ to Kumrovec. Shortly before our encounter they made up their minds to go to Petrova Gora instead.

    It appeared rather amusing that my wishful thinking from less than two entire days after my initial visit to Petrova Gora came into realization that soon.

    My astonishment with this “oeuvre” has to do with many things.

    I momentarily read into it (or out of it?) shapes, persistence, boldness and size that had something dangerously in common with Frank O. Gehry, Frank Lloyd Wright and Zaha Hadid.

    And I wondered as I wandered how curious it is that there was a socialism that squandered its material, space, time and talent on art. On art truly.

    I admired how casually this metallic temple on top of the hill inhales its green surrounding and simply belongs in the forest.

    In my cross-ex-Yugoslav journeys I have never anything similar to this piece of architecturized sculpture.

    Name of its author deserves to be carved into both virtual and paper sites.

    Thank you Srdjan.

  8. sneža says:

    The informed analysis without qualification is refreshing! Thanks, Srdjan! I do look forward to the book.

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