If nothing else, this year’s Venice Architecture Biennale has thrown up a wealth of little-known modernist structures. uncube’s Building of the Week this week is the Dom Revolucije, an extraordinary “béton-brute spaceship” we discovered at Montenegro’s off-site contribution in the Palazzo Malipiero entitled: Treasures in Disguise, “an exhibition exploring the past, present, and possible futures of Yugoslav architecture”. Our reviewer is Sunčica Milošević, who has an unusally intimate connection to the building as she grew up across the street while it was being built, later dedicating her architecture thesis to the building, too.
More famous for the wild beauty of its dark, untouched mountains and deep hues of the surrounding Adriatic Sea, the small Balkan country of Montenegro is now beginning to attract unexpected attention for its numerous abandoned monuments dating from its socialist past. Part of Yugoslavia during the Cold War, over 20,000 memorials to the Second World War were constructed here in a style best described as socialist modernism or socialist aestheticism. These abstract and primarily sculptural relics now stand as nostalgic symbols of a once golden age of architectural ambition in arts and culture.
Perhaps the grandest and most eccentric example of this genre is a building called the Dom Revolucije (Home of Revolution) which dominates the small mountain-framed city of Nikšić. This enormous combined cultural centre and war memorial now stands empty and decaying. An expressionistic, béton brut spaceship of a structure, it was designed by Slovenian architect Marko Mušić during the 1970s, and was designed to evoke awe, joy and national pride amongst the workers of the new Yugoslavia.
Functionally, the structure was to offer Nikšić – then a growing industrial city – a complete cultural venue under one undulating umbrella of bright blue-paned glass. Symbolically, Dom Revolucije was designed to commemorate the city’s brave role played in the partisan battles of the Second World War and celebrate the final socialist victory over fascism and Nazism. The city thus combined the need for a large cultural venue with the recognition of its heroic past and dedicated the city centre as the site for this monumental symbol of patriotism and socialist utopian ideals.
A new and unique style of complex, using non-traditional forms, it was typical for most of the monuments and memorials constructed during this period. The East’s socialist realism and West’s international style is combined here, seemingly in an effort to remain neutral in the eyes of the world. Yet, domestically also, such aesthetics helped blur the lines between the diverse, previously warring ethnic groups, which had been encouraged to unite to form the singular socialist nation of Yugoslavia. Thus the Home of Revolution was a building that had to look back as well as forwards. It commemorated the sacrifices of war and celebrated the grand idea of a unified national identity.
This type of combined building, a monument filled with the activity of a cultural centre, was conceived practically and symbolically to demonstrate life’s continued triumph over death. Instead of invoking memories of horrific suffering and pain, it was intended that this this type of monument would invite and engage visitors into a social, dynamic environment – one which, given the political power of the time, would also help cement and strengthen the ideological values of the new Yugoslavia. Such venues were to be places of perennial socialising with activities ranging from high-arts and grand performances to the casual everyday.
It is not coincidence that besides the relatively small memorial component of only 250 square metres, the remaining 21,750 square metres of the venue included a 1,200 seat theatre, a summer amphitheatre, cinema, conference halls, radio and television centres, library, education facilities, art studios, galleries, youth centre, national cuisine restaurant, lounges, retail and more. At any given time, the building was designed to accommodate up to 7,000 users and visitors, equalling a quarter of the city’s population. This could be seen perhaps, less as a commemorative building, and more as a kind of flexible, all-encompassing medium, through which the conscious thoughts and actions of its inhabitants, adapting and developing through time, would combine towards the formation of a kind of utopian dream of unified nationhood.
Construction of the Dom Revolucije began in 1976 and continued for about ten years. The project’s initial programme area of 7,000 square metres kept increasing to the final total of 22,000 square metres. With continued enthusiastic promises of a “better tomorrow” the city invested today’s equivalent of some 25,000,000 Euros. The supporting structure alone consumed over 400 tons of steel – enough to build 3,000 residential flats or 50 14-storey high-rises.
But in the 1990s, Yugoslavia’s demise continued with a deep economic and political crisis that slowly led to the complete suspension of most federal projects, including the Dom Revolucije whose overambitious construction was completely halted in 1989 and left deserted, silent and unguarded. After decades of neglect it has been stripped of much of its blue glazing and covered in graffiti. Its remaining site has been taken over by a small economy of private shops and businesses, while the concrete skeleton, has become an magnet for the homeless, drunks, drug addicts and stray animals, and is shielded from view by a corroded fence and encroaching weeds. The structure sits, awaiting its fate, slowly sinking like an abandoned ship into deep, stagnant pools of standing water, a physical ruin that seems to reflect an image of a shattered Yugoslavia and the Yugoslav dream.
This almost mystical structure now often arouses the antithesis of pride and joy for many people in Nikšić. The residents have grown accustomed to its dilapidated state. They ignore and avoid the site, which stands like an obstacle, a great mountain of shame and disappointment. Many wish it demolished and gone.
Many others, however, still hope to see it completed as originally planned. Because, failure or not, they understand the project’s unique historical significance. The ultimate collapse of the Yugoslavian state was as much due to inter-ethnic warfare as it was a failed political ideology. Ironically, the building was a celebration of the great, utopian dream of uniting diverse people and cultures into a single nation, and as such, a celebration of life and of overcoming obstacles.
The Dom Revolucije may have been a failure, but what still remains is the continuing need for a tolerant multi-ethnic, culturally-diverse society. It is the responsibility of the current generation to continue the noble, sustaining values that helped conceive it, and continue the dream into the future. A future that should refuse to just stand and watch this ship go down, but be built, filled with this message from and memory of a united people.
– Sunčica Milošević graduated with a Master’s degree in Architecture from the University of Cincinnati and a Bachelor of Science in Architecture from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Her Master’s thesis is entitled Seeking Identity in Former Yugoslavia’s Socialist Architecture – Re-purposing of the Abandoned Yugoslav Monument, the Home of Revolution in Nikšić, Montenegro. She currently practices architecture at Solomon Cordwell Buenz in Chicago.
Dom Revolucije is part of the exhibition:
Treasures in Disguise
Palazzo Malipiero, San Marco 3079, Venice
Until October 31, 2014.