Life in the High-Rise: My Brutalist Holiday in Belgrade’s Genex Tower

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Crumpling into a chair beside the bed in a box-room decorated with black and rose-print wallpaper, I decided that I probably needed a holiday. For the past ten days I had led a tour group around the monuments of Yugoslavia: climbing mountains, ladders, and memorial staircases, crossing three borders and booking, in total, more than a hundred hotel beds. Now we had come full circle, finishing up back in Belgrade at Hotel Jugoslavija. I had grown sick of hotels though, and so I treated myself, instead, to a three-day holiday in Belgrade’s most iconic Brutalist high-rise: the Western City Gate, or Genex Tower.

 

Western City Gate or ‘Genex Tower,’ Belgrade, Serbia (Mihajlo Mitrović, 1979).
Western City Gate or ‘Genex Tower,’ Belgrade, Serbia (Mihajlo Mitrović, 1979).

Booking an apartment over the internet, I was told to telephone my host when I arrived at the door to the skyscraper; but she saw me first, and was waving down at me already as I heaved my backpack across the red tiles of the plaza.

I had first laid eyes on the Genex Tower several years before, from a taxi coming out of the airport. It had looked like some kind of star cruiser, perched up on end amongst the jostling blocks of Novi Beograd. I was mesmerised. Coming to stay in the building now though, it wasn’t just the visual aesthetics that attracted me. Rather I was interested to learn how it felt, the way it worked, the rhythm of its day-to-day proceedings. I wanted to try using the Genex Tower for the job it was built to do.

What follows is an account of my three days spent in the Genex Tower… and a meditation on the psychosocial dimensions of Brutalist architecture.




 

“Without knowing it, he had constructed a gigantic vertical zoo, its hundreds of cages stacked above each other.”  ― J.G. Ballard, High-Rise
“Without knowing it, he had constructed a gigantic vertical zoo, its hundreds of cages stacked above each other.” ― J.G. Ballard, High-Rise

Genex & The Western City Gate

Rising from Blok 33 of Novi Beograd, Serbia, the ‘Western City Gate’ – built from 1977-1980 – would become the ultimate icon of Yugoslav economic progress (and prowess).

Designed by architect Mihajlo Mitrović, Belgrade’s Western City Gate consists of two conjoined skyscrapers. The larger high-rise, at 30 storeys, is divided into residential properties. The smaller 26-storey tower was designed for commercial office use. Each tower features two cylindrical service shafts, positioned at either end of these reinforced concrete skeleton structures, and at the 26th floor the towers are connected by a two-storey bridge. A concrete rotunda, sat above the bridge and supported on one of the office building’s service shafts, was designed for a rotating restaurant; but the rotating mechanism wasn’t installed, so the restaurant never turned.

 

View from the bedroom: peering out around the cylindrical service shaft of the Genex Tower.
View from the bedroom: peering out around the cylindrical service shaft of the Genex Tower.

At a height of 115 metres (377 feet) – or 140 metres (459 feet) including the restaurant – Western City Gate was once the tallest residential high-rise in Serbia (a title it now shares with the remodelled Ušće Tower). The name of the building refers to its location, positioned on the main road between Belgrade Nikola Tesla Airport and the city centre. Officially, it was a symbolic gateway welcoming visitors to Belgrade; but it must have served equally well as propaganda, a poster for Yugoslav power and prosperity.

Inasmuch as the Western City Gate stood as a monument to Yugoslav economic growth, however, the building’s fate would be intrinsically linked to that of the organisation it was built to house: and even today, the building is more often referred to as the ‘Genex Tower’ (in Serbian, ‘Kula Geneks’) after Yugoslavia’s premier trading company.

 

“The run-down nature of the high-rise was a model of the world into which the future was carrying them, a landscape beyond technology where everything was either derelict or more ambiguously recombined in unexpected but more meaningful ways.” ― J.G. Ballard, High-Rise
“The run-down nature of the high-rise was a model of the world into which the future was carrying them, a landscape beyond technology where everything was either derelict or more ambiguously recombined in unexpected but more meaningful ways.” ― J.G. Ballard, High-Rise

Genex – the General Export Company – was founded in 1952, and grew fast in the post-war climate of socialist Yugoslavia. Its success was a measure of Tito’s international diplomacy: particularly after 1964, when Yugoslavia signed a formal agreement of cooperation with the Soviet Union’s Comecon (Council for Mutual Economic Assistance), giving them access to Soviet markets while allowing them to maintain their politically nonaligned status. Genex thrived due to this ability to deal freely with partners in both the East and the West.

In those years the Soviet Union operated a largely barter-based system of foreign trade with its fellow socialist nations. Each year they posted a list of goods offered up for trade – natural gases, oil, ferrous metals and mineral ores, plastics and fertilisers – and foreign companies would offer, in return, whatever their own countries were able to trade.

Genex supplied the USSR with Yugoslav-built machine tools, ships, shoes and other consumer goods; the Soviets sent them fuel and metals in return, and whatever Yugoslavia couldn’t use was sold, westwards, for a profit. By the end of 1989 the General Export Company was responsible for 12% of all Yugoslav foreign trade.

The disintegration of the USSR was a fatal blow, however: in the decade that followed, Genex struggled through a series of failed trade agreements with former Soviet states; economic sanctions; and court proceedings after five company directors were arrested on corruption charges. At the end of 1989, the Genex Group boasted a turnover in excess of four billion dollars… but eight years later, by April 1998, the company had its telephone lines and electricity cut off over unpaid bills and was facing bankruptcy settlements. It was an ignoble end for a business empire which, for 46 years, had become synonymous with Yugoslav commerce.

The company’s base of operations – the commercial tower of the Western City Gate, no longer, strictly, the ‘Genex Tower’ – began looking for new tenants. Meanwhile, life continued in the other half: a residential high-rise that was built as an icon of prosperity but now, as the 1990s rolled on, would find itself slipping gradually into decline.

 


The Genex Tower as an Icon of New Brutalism

Brutalist architecture has, in recent years, enjoyed something of a renaissance in interest; though often the movement is reduced to little more than its aesthetics, so that ‘Brutalism’ has become a modern buzzword for almost any stark-contoured concrete building.

 

A pigeon surveys the street level plaza, in the shadow of 30 floors of raw concrete. Genex Tower, Belgrade.
A pigeon surveys the street level plaza, in the shadow of 30 storeys of raw concrete. Genex Tower, Belgrade.

Brutalism, as it was originally defined, represented new ideas in both design and social philosophy. It emerged almost as a protest against the frivolous forms of much early 20th century and late imperial architecture, a socialist critique which valued function over form.

Brutalism was about pride in efficiency. Instead of hiding structures behind artificial facades of glass and plaster, the style celebrated the raw materials – the nuts and bolts – from which a structure was composed. Lift and service shafts, stairwells and corridors, would often extend outside the main body of a building, so that function itself became an explicit feature of the view.

The Japanese architect Kenzō Tange, a notable proponent of the Brutalist style, explains: “There is a powerful need for symbolism, and that means the architecture must have something that appeals to the human heart. Nevertheless, the basic forms, spaces, and appearances must be logical.” Significantly, Brutalism was a style of honesty, one that celebrated engineering prowess through a transparent (yet symbolically monumental) reveal of the building’s inner workings.

Celebrated architectural critic Reyner Banham proposed a three-point definition for this style in a 1955 essay titled The New Brutalism: “1. Memorability as an Image; 2. Clear exhibition of Structure; and 3. Valuation of Materials ‘as found.’”

By that definition the Western City Gate is one of the truest, most unapologetically Brutalist buildings I have ever encountered (and I’m not alone: the British architecture writer Herbert Wright calls the Genex Tower, “perhaps the most fantastic example of Brutalist high-rise anywhere in the world.”) Though not stated in Banham’s checklist, however, there was an inherently social aspect to Brutalism as well. The style advertises function, rather than wealth. It is more concerned with community than with capital… so it’s no wonder that Brutalism found a warm welcome in the late 20th century socialist states of Eastern Europe.

In my previous article about Novi Beograd I described how the district’s sheer concrete buildings provided a neutral atmosphere in which the colours of day-to-day life felt ever more real… and this effect, it seems, was no accident. According to Alison and Peter Smithson, pioneering architects of the Brutalist style, “the bare structure was ready for dressing by the art of inhabitation.”

 

Brutalist colonnades circle the building at ground floor level – here, decorated with colourful Modernist murals.
Brutalist colonnades circle the building at ground floor level – here, decorated with colourful Modernist murals.

Ernő Goldfinger meanwhile, designer of several iconic Brutalist buildings in London including the Balfron Tower (1967) and Trellick Tower (1972), once said: “The success of any scheme depends on the human factor – the relationship of people to each other and the frame to their daily life which the building provides.”

More recently Jacobs and Merriman talk about “dwelling with” as opposed to “dwelling in” such buildings.

To stand back and consider Belgrade’s Western City Gate from a distance, it is the epitome of Reyner Banham’s ‘New Brutalism’: a single, iconic shape as memorable as any monument; a structure defined by its function, from the exterior service shafts all the way up to its rooftop restaurant; 30 floors of bare concrete with no effort whatsoever to clad, bury or disguise the materials from which it was built. But such definitions say nothing of the lived experience. I wanted to know how the Genex Tower held up against more social-philosophical theories of Brutalism – as a space where architecture was not consumed by individuals but rather provided the framework for better social living (what the Smithsons might have referred to as a “more ethical way of inhabiting”) – but to evaluate the building in those terms was going to require a total immersion.

 

[A special thank you goes to Oli Mould, whose paper Brutalism Redux: Relational Monumentality and the Urban Politics of Brutalist Architecture has proved an illuminating roadmap through the history and philosophy of the Brutalist movement.]

 


“In a sense, these people were the vanguard of a well-to-do and well-educated proletariat of the future.”  ― J.G. Ballard, High-Rise
“In a sense, these people were the vanguard of a well-to-do and well-educated proletariat of the future.” ― J.G. Ballard, High-Rise

Anti-Beauty & Decay

“Just like how stone awakened awe in medieval times, concrete will undoubtedly come to inspire a modern wonder in the people of today.”
– Kenzo Tange, Architect

The apartment was equipped with every modern convenience I could have hoped for. Its rooms were square yet spacious, their boxiness softened by tasteful furnishings that seemed to effortlessly invoke the entire lifespan of the building: from the seventies-style colour choices of the kitchen through to the contemporary-contoured whirlpool bath.

 

My bedroom for the next three days, at the Genex Tower apartment.
My bedroom for the next three days, at the Genex Tower apartment.

“These people were the first to master a new kind of 20th century life.” ― J.G. Ballard, High-Rise
“These people were the first to master a new kind of 20th century life.” ― J.G. Ballard, High-Rise

I set my backpack down on the rug-covered parquet floor and flicked on the bedroom lights – the switch was fitted with a red LED light, and it moved with a heavy, satisfying Clunk.

While it would be rash to assume that all apartments inside the Genex Tower were as neatly kitted out as this guest-ready rental, some features were clearly universal to all residents; the chunky pipes, the hum of the lift mechanism inside the walls of the building. I opened the bathroom window and found I was peering out through a porthole, my view of Novi Beograd framed in heavy, raw concrete. From the kitchen meanwhile, a window opened into the dark ventilation shaft at the building’s core: a huge space that echoed with the distant sounds of life inside other floors of the Genex Tower.

I was going to be very comfortable here, I decided.

Later I took a walk to the shops, down leafy streets through the heart of Blok 33. It felt reassuring, to glance back every now and again to see that warm concrete tower on the horizon behind me. This, perhaps, was the essence of that ‘memorability’ the New Brutalists were speaking of: my home wasn’t located in one block out of many, but rather it had a uniquely monumental character.

In the same way that some monuments rise above their host cities almost as guardian angels (I’m picturing the Statue of Liberty in New York, Mother Motherland in Kiev, Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro), so too did the Western City Gate exude (what felt to me like) a benevolent presence over Novi Beograd. But this wasn’t some universal yet distant archetype watching over me – it was Home. There was something very comforting in that.

Brutalism is a style that rejects traditional concepts of beauty – it has even been described by some as an exercise in ‘anti-beauty’ – but reaching the ground floor plaza on my return to the tower, the scene of decay that greeted me was ugly, pure and simple.

These recent years of neglect have not been kind to the Western City Gate (or at least, not to the parts of it that the public can see). The warm red tiles of the plaza were cracked, poked through with weeds, while a hollow that looked like a former fountain pool was now empty, dry and choked with dirt. Sloppy graffiti completed the portrait of decline.

Taking the spiral staircase from the road up to the podium on the east side of the tower, a signpost greeted me with the advertisement for a pizzeria. The sign pointed towards a ground-floor shopfront with its doors wide open. It looked as though a bomb had gone off in there; piles of refuse – broken glass, chipboard, smashed furniture – lay scattered about the entrance. I poked my head inside and found the premises entirely wrecked, abandoned. The partition ceiling was gone, revealing the core of the building above… a 30-floor shaft of sheer concrete. It made me dizzy to look at it.

 

Broken tiles, litter and graffiti mar the plaza at ground level.
Broken tiles, litter and graffiti mar the plaza at ground level.

Someone had been sleeping in here, it seemed, judging by the blankets that lay twisted around an empty vodka bottle. Two minutes later I was back inside the warm, well-to-do hospitality of the tower and the contrast was staggering: a gaping social divide here plotted vertically, not horizontally across the city.

In the afternoon I went out again. A Serbian friend picked me up by car, pulling over beside the plaza to let me in. He grimaced at the tower. “Most people here don’t like this thing,” he said. “we call it the ugliest building in Belgrade.”

“It’s impressive though,” I offered, and he agreed:

“I guess it doesn’t want to be pretty. It’s just massive, powerful, and it doesn’t give a fuck what you think about it. I can respect that, even if I don’t like looking at it.”

 

At the heart of the Genex Tower, a ventilation shaft reaches all the way up to the sky.
At the heart of the Genex Tower, a ventilation shaft reaches all the way up to the sky.

Monumentalism & Conspiracy

“During the fabled First Time or Zep Tepi, when gods, or aliens, ruled on Earth, the waters of the abyss receded, the primordial darkness was banished, and the human biogenetic experiment emerged from the light. Zep Tepi is Genesis… the First Time or the Golden Age of Alchemy where the gods moved through the Void and created the grids of our reality.”
– Ellie Crystal, Psychic

Later that evening I tried to cook some of the ingredients I had bought at the shops. I couldn’t get the oven to work though, so I went to call on my neighbours. My hosts owned two side-by-side apartments on a lower floor of the building, their entrances facing one another across a private reception space. They happily showed me where the switch was for the gas, but it proved redundant when they suddenly offered to cook for me instead. Classic Serbian hospitality.

 

“The building was a monument to good taste, to the well-designed kitchen, to sophisticated utencils and fabrics, to elegant and never ostentatious furnishings.”  ― J.G. Ballard, High-Rise
“The building was a monument to good taste, to the well-designed kitchen, to sophisticated utencils and fabrics, to elegant and never ostentatious furnishings.”
― J.G. Ballard, High-Rise

Local news played in the background to my meal, and after that I left it on – watching the television with the sound down, listening to the start-stop hum of the nearby lift mechanism as I idly browsed through articles about the Genex Tower on my laptop. One of the posts I read made throwaway references to some alleged Masonic connection… and digging deeper, I found my way to a blog page speculating various occult theories about the Western City Gate.

The tower stands at Blok 33, Novi Beograd – corresponding, the website said, with the thirty-three degrees of regular Freemasonry. Seeing as how Tito was a Mason himself, the author explained, this could hardly be passed off as coincidence.

The companies Genex and Zepter (the latter, whose logo has adorned the commercial tower for around a decade) were implicated in the theory too. Their names allude to the ‘Genesis’ period of Egyptian mythology – or ‘Zep Tepi’ – an era which is symbolically personified by the Egyptian god Aker.

 

Above: The Western City Gate in Belgrade. Below right: Aker, the Ancient Egyptian deity of earth and death, and guardian of the Western Gate.

Aker is typically depicted as two lions seated back to back, with a sun symbol and the hieroglyph for ‘horizon’ placed between them. The sun on the horizon represents dawn and sunset, while the lions are named ‘Yesterday’ and ‘Tomorrow.’ Aker is a gateway god: and according to the Pyramid Texts of King Teti he guards the Western Gate, opening it at close of day for Ra to pass through on his descent to the underworld.

The theories made my head spin, but I loved the idea that this building – the Western City Gate – could inspire such a labour. The Brutalist architects had wanted their buildings to achieve memorability as images, to be monumental; and this remarkable work of paranoid speculation (which went on almost to personify the tower as a malevolent, sentient entity) demonstrated a profound success in that regard.

It was infectious, too. My mind started wandering elsewhere in Belgrade, to the Eastern City Gate. Two towers in the west and the three stepped pyramids that mirrored them in the east: gateways of the rising and setting sun.

The blog post had signed off: “When I look at the top … I could feel some beings living up there and watching us…” and so I crossed to the window to gaze out into the night. Novi Beograd glowed a soft orange all around, while the plaza below was bathed in shadow. I wondered if anyone down there in the darkness was looking back up at me.

 

A view from the Genex apartment's bathroom, framed in heavy concrete surround.
A view from the Genex apartment’s bathroom, framed in heavy concrete surround.

The 30th Floor

By my third day inside the Genex Tower I had slipped into a very comfortable routine. During the day I would go for long walks around Novi Beograd or down to the Sava River, photographing other examples of Belgrade’s Brutalist architecture, or else peeking inside the abandoned buildings that lay on the outskirts of the city. On many of those trips my castle in the sky remained visible, hovering just above the concrete horizon. In the evenings I settled in to write or read in the apartment, the sounds of pipes and lift motors behind the walls like an ever present heartbeat.

I was beginning to make friends with some of the other residents, too. There was an older gentleman from one of the higher floors, always floating around the building and immaculately dressed, despite seeming to have nowhere particular to go; and a young mother from a lower floor, with whom I shared a wordless, running joke about the impatience of the ground floor security system (which allowed residents only a handful of seconds to swipe their key-fobs, cross the lobby and get through the next door, before they re-locked). On the first day, she had held the door for me – next time, I was holding the doors for her as she manoeuvred a pram through them.

 

These heavy light switches inside the Genex Tower are extraordinarily satisfying to use.
These heavy light switches inside the Genex Tower are extraordinarily satisfying to use.

Generally, I felt a sense of community between the Genex residents I encountered. Strangers who might pass by without a second glance outside the building were here stopping to chat almost by default; and even me, a foreigner, by the effort of managing a simple Zdravo in greeting seemed to be included in this custom. The plaza outside may have lain in ruins, but just past those security doors the atmosphere was eminently welcoming.

Most of my Serbian friends expressed disinterest at my talk about the Western City Gate, whereas those inside it seemed to share a sense of mutual pride and care for the place. It reminded me of a joke I heard from Poland:

Why does the Palace of Culture and Science have the best views in Warsaw?
Because it’s the only place in Warsaw where you can’t see the Palace of Culture and Science.

 

“The staircase was deserted—the higher up the building the more reluctant were the residents to use the stairs, as if this in some way demeaned them.”  ― J.G. Ballard, High-Rise
“The staircase was deserted—the higher up the building the more reluctant were the residents to use the stairs, as if this in some way demeaned them.”
― J.G. Ballard, High-Rise

Similarly, for some Serbs the Genex Tower might have offered the best views in Novi Beograd… but in all this time I was still yet to climb any higher than my apartment.

On my last day I decided to go to the top.

The lift inside the residential tower of the Western City Gate was a mirror-lined coffin that shuddered as it sped maniacally up towards the 30th floor. The effect was completed by a speaker system blasting out the frantic guitar solo to Ram Jam’s Black Betty along the way, so that by the time I stepped out onto the top level – the number ’30’ stamped helpfully across the floor – I was equal parts anxious and excited.

 

Novi Beograd, Serbia, as seen through the 30th floor porthole of the Western City Gate.
Novi Beograd, Serbia, as seen through the 30th floor porthole of the Western City Gate.

Long before I travelled to Belgrade, I was looking at photos taken by people who’d snuck past security and got out onto the Genex rooftop. I always pictured I would try doing the same (I had even heard whispers of an unlocked access hatch), but by the time I arrived up there I suddenly had no appetite for illicit exploration.

The Genex Tower felt not like an obstacle to surmount, but rather I had enjoyed simply participating with it; using this structure for the function it was designed for. I found I had no will to subvert the order of things in the building. Rather I was content to relax, to watch films and read the notices pinned to the board downstairs; to greet the neighbours, go to the shops and sit to drink a coffee, then return.

Gazing out from the porthole window on the 30th floor, Novi Beograd looked like a Lego block city down below; dense white stacks rose in orderly patterns from the greenery of parks and gardens. Then the lift whirred back into action, called to a lower floor and the hard rock jukebox faded away down the shaft to be replaced by the natural ambience of the building. I stood alone beside the window as the stairwell echoed with the sound of Yugoslav technology, and I decided that for all its inconveniences the Genex Tower – Belgrade’s Western City Gate – was exactly the kind of place I would want to call ‘Home.’

 

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  1. Btw, I completely forgot – not by chance in Ballard’s “High Rise” the architect lives on top! The author made the modernist architects’ ideas of social hierarchy literally visible. The same can be said for intellectuals, writers, politicians that shared the same elitist/fascist ideas. If you want to know more about it, read John Carey’s “The Intellectuals and the Masses”, https://www.amazon.co.uk/Intellectuals-Masses-Prejudice-Intelligensia-1880-1939/dp/0897335074. Carey writes mainly about the “literary intelligentsia”, but the same can be said about artists, architects, politicians etc. (and Carey does not only talk about literary circles). Keep up the good work.

    • Thank you very much for this, I will certainly go away and read more on it – staring with Carey.

      I have taken on everything you’ve said, and I tend to agree with you. There is something uncomfortably authoritarian about prescribing lives to boxes, with an inhabitant’s pre-set daily routine drawn out for them in uncompromising concrete. Like the monuments I so often write about, perhaps the future for this kind of architecture is relative to its capacity to be separated from those philosophical origins.

      My experience of the Genex Tower today was very different from how it was intended. It’s a comfortable place to live, in a fantastic location – and as the city grows and changes, I think whatever lifestyles it originally prescribed become increasingly redundant. I have a Serbian friend, for example, who works online as a web developer. He’ll only do business with clients in the West, and as a result he earns an absolute fortune by local rates. Serbia is changing rapidly, and a new middle class is on the rise. Perhaps what we’ll see then is a gentrification effect spreading to buildings like this in time, as processes of globalisation grant people the power to override architectural programming.

      Gentrification has already arrived in Belgrade, of course – just take a walk through the bars over at Skadarlija to see it in action – but it hasn’t yet embraced all this communist-era concrete. I believe the political taboos surrounding the buildings and monuments of this period are still too strong to allow for that… but even just in the time I’ve been researching this subject, I’ve seen a younger generation arriving on the scene who simply don’t have those emotional biases when it comes to discussing these politics.

      One more generation, I predict, and the Genex Tower will go the way of London’s Battersea Power Station, or Moscow’s Chocolate Factory.

      • By the way, I don’t offer that gentrification comment as any kind of value statement (either positive or negative) but simply a prediction. The various pros and cons of Western-style gentrification in places like this (money in / original residents priced out) is a whole different conversation.

        • The point of view I’ve tried to add is certainly just another point of view. In my own mind I call it “reflecting upon architects’ lyrics”. They talk about the human factor, and it sounds so nice, but one shouldn’t forget that when it comes to human relations, they usually thought that “some men are more equal”, including themselves, and what does that mean for those who are “less equal”?

          I have friends who grew up in a “chruschtowka”, a prefabricated high-rise, and their own room was no larger than 7 squared meters, the walls so thin that they couldn’t listen to loud music in their youth as the neighbours would complain.
          Le Corbusier for example called his buildings “machine à habiter”. There has been written a lot since then about what he meant by “machine”. But I haven’t come across an article yet that stresses the second part, “habiter”, dwelling – his buildings were made for dwelling, nothing else! (Yes, dwelling in modernist blocks can be comfortable, and at least the nice views that they offer were intended).

          Yet already before web developers started doing more than just “dwelling” in these buildings, there were attempts to create individual businesses inside. Luckily people, no matter what their surroundings are like, are creative enough to adapt spaces to their own needs, subverting the pre-set order. I’ve seen on the ground floor of one of Corbusiers dwelling machines some faded advertising for bookshops and cafés in the upper floors. But the shops had failed – I guess due to a lack of passers-by. Or because the low ceilings in Corbusiers machines can make you feel uncomfortable, no matter how spectacular the view may be. In another modernist block (still inhabited) there used to be a fine music club, not in the basement but in one of the upper floors – it had to close because of the neighbours complaining.

          I haven’t seen the Genex Tower (I haven’t been to Serbia yet) so I don’t know what it is like. Are the spaces it offers suitable for any other use than just “dwelling”? I wish it could be reappropriated by ordinary people like the buildings in London or Moscow you mentioned, I just don’t know if modernist buildings allow for it (I’ve seen several attempts fail, modernist block are not the same as a former power station or factory 🙂

          To end my comments here, I enjoyed your article and your answers a lot, and I didn’t want to spoil the fun of living in it. I do wish your predictions were right and some of the modernist buildings had a future. But I doubt that they allow for a different use “by design”. Right now, I’m asking myself it that’s to be seen as an ultimate success of the architects, considering their intentions, or as an ultimate failure 🙂

  2. An excellently written article, nice pictures and a good overview of Modernist/Brutalist architecture theory. I do enjoy the aesthetics of this movement, yet there is something disturbing about it: as “functionalist” design – no matter if in the West (Le Corbusier et al.) or East -, this architecture also “designed” the supposed “function” of its human inhabitants, which is essentially fascist/totalitarian. Compared to older buildings, modernist apartment blocks reduce their inhabitants to being “employees/dependent workers”, with no spaces for them (like shops on the ground floor, garages, cellars etc.) to create something of their own (shops, art galleries, cafés, pubs, rock bands, startups etc). There exist essays about this fascist nature of Modernist architecture, and as the architects tried do design “relationships of people” (they thought it was something positive), they also tried to define their supposed needs and lives.
    Nowadays you can have your internet business in these blocks, so things have changed a bit, but this was not the intended purpose when the blocks were built. It is one thing to stay in such a place for 3 days, it is something else to grow up in it. Suburbs that consist of Modernist blocks are very often city quarters where the bored youth lingers around, spraying graffities, selling and taking drugs, setting cars or trashbins on fire – because basically there is not much else to do, “by design”. They are supposed to stay working class and are terribly aware of it.

    • Thank you for adding this, you make some really important points.

      I guess from the beginning, this was supposed to be an ever-so-slightly tongue-in-cheek approach. Because as you say, this is tourism – it’s three days not a lifetime, and my experience of this building (as a foreigner, today, with a Western income and an internet-ready laptop in my bag) is going to be almost incomparable to the lifestyle that was prescribed to its residents at time of creation.

      I had never considered this building style as ‘fascist’ before – functionalist, and prescriptive, certainly. I’m going to have to go away and read those articles you mention.

      Although, just to play devil’s advocate, I don’t think that it’s necessarily fair to blame this urban planning style for the “bored youth.” Because your description of “spraying graffities, selling and taking drugs, setting cars or trashbins on fire” also sounds very much like the small English town where I grew up, which didn’t have any blocks at all – but still had nothing to do, and was a place where working class people remained very much aware of their status. Perhaps it’s better to say then, that these architects promised a new, better way of living – and then completely failed to deliver it?

      • There’s much confusion over these terms. Many modernist architects had a “flirt” with fascist/socialist/totalitarian ideas (feeling part of “the avantgarde” in the 20ies and 30ies, among the “leaders” above the “stupid masses”), but after the fall of fascism, they had to reinvent themselves. So they depicted totalitarian modernist architecture as “anti-modern” (because it contained some neoclassical elements, especially under Stalin and Hitler), and suddenly modernist architecture – now lacking any neoclassical elements -was supposed to be in tune with democracy (in the West) and with socialism (in the East); which shows an ongoing disregard for the working class in any political system. By speaking about the “fascist/totalitarian” aspects of modernist architecture I mean the inherent mindset of social hierarchy and organisation and not so much the purely aesthetic choices.

        I do agree that you can find the “bored youth” also in small rural towns. But the point is: is there a lack of spaces for the youth because there is a lack of phantasy among the planners, architects, local councils and mayors to create these spaces; or is there – as is the case with modernist architects – a lack of spaces for the youth even though the architects tried to take into account and “plan” people’s needs? Modernist architects reduced the lower classes to workers (in factories, power plants, mines etc.) and consumers (of goods in supermarkets, of culture in cinemas and other “cultural” facilities), but they never depicted the average person as a possible producer of their own life, workspace and culture. So they didn’t create spaces for individuals, just for anonymous masses and collectives.

        I do believe that these architects “promised a new, better way of living” in their own understanding; and for many people in the working class, the modernist flats were a better living standard than the flats in Victorian London,Wilhelminian Berlin or pre-fascist Milan. Yet, these architects were blind to individual needs, as a direct result of their perception of the lower classes as “masses”, not individuals.

        This does not mean one has to tear down all modernist architecture now; it means one should provide spaces in the surroundings that blend in, without a preconceived function, which allow for “organic growth” and the expression of individual needs.

        I am not against tourism and don’t criticize a “naive” approach, I am a tour guide myself. I just want to raise awareness that there’s more to appreciating “blindly” this architecture for “purely aesthetic” reasons. I was lucky enough to accompany sometimes architects and urban planners, and even though they thought they had studied everything about functionalism at university, they had never reflected these aspects of their own work. It’s been their “blind spot”.
        I think tourism can be so much more than just “telling about the past”, I feel uncomfortable with that because – especially dark tourism – can make people feel helpless. But I hope it can be a tool to raise awareness and give some clues on how to make things better – and maybe someone takes an idea home and starts to change things locally.

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