Brutalism with a Human Face

Socialist Architecture Hits the Zeitgeist at MoMA

Exhibit Installation View. (Ognjen Simic)

Since its opening in June, the MoMA exhibit of Yugoslavian architecture and design has garnered numerous superlatives and great media attention.  Not only has the show itself been universally hailed as outstanding, but it has been said to be pointing toward  ‘exactly how MoMA should be thinking’ as it prepares for its expansion, while at the same time, placing ‘extraordinary output of socialist Yugoslavia’ firmly in the architectural and modernist cannon. What is the appeal of this Concrete Utopia to our cultural moment, as prompted by this relatively specialized exhibition of architecture and design from a small socialist country that doesn’t even exist anymore?


WHAT: Toward a Concrete Utopia, Architecture in Yugoslavia: 1948-1980
WHERE: MoMA
WHEN: Open until January 13, 2019


It would seem that this show found itself – thanks to MoMa’s curators Martino Stierli, Anna Kats, and their academic collaborator, Vladimir Kulić – at the right time and place at the intersection of several hip cultural trends, such as loving reappraisal of Brutalist architecture and revival of Democratic Socialism, both perhaps aided by the general ubiquity of  Instagram and  preoccupations of the millennial generation in particular.

Not surprisingly though, given the speed of cultural trends in our time, it didn’t take long for the style magazines to announce, ‘Brutalism Is Back!’ or for backlash to emerge to this unholy, but made-in-heaven marriage of socialism and Instagram, quite fittingly labeling it postcard brutalism and aestheticization of politics. The curators also have not shied away from providing the political context to the exhibit with placards stating, for example, ‘public services, such as universal health care and education, were freely available to all citizens of Yugoslavia’, making it clear that the concrete utopia of the show’s title refers to much more than béton brut– the raw concrete, its dominant and most expressive material.

Spomenik Sutjeska

But what an aesthetics it is, as well as its connection with the political context, is by no means trivial.

Among the multiple examples in Concrete Utopia several stand out – Vjenceslav Richter’s never-built modular self-governing city, which anticipated what later became an official Yugoslavian ideology of self-management, is followed by Metabolist designs of Japanese architect Kenzo Tange, a fruit of unusual international collaboration occasioned by 1963 earthquake that leveled Macedonian capitol of Skopje, continuing with futuristic-looking television and telephone sets which appear as if they came off the set of American nostalgia-driven show Stranger Things that was set at least a decade later.

The exhibition culminates with a series of abstract concrete monuments to the (communist) resistance during WWII. These monuments are so unique that they become known in the English-speaking art world by their original name, Spomeniks– the name that associatively ties them with obelisks, their pre-modern prototypes.  One of these, the Bogdan Bogdanovic’s unforgettable Stone Flower, the Jasenovac concentration camp memorial, closes the exhibition on a somber note, reminding us that Yugoslavian concrete modernism at its best manages to transcend not only cutesy contemporary trends but also its own ideological context.

Ognjen Simic

Ognjen Simic is a research psychologist and a lover of arts and sciences from Croatia, based for the last two decades in Williamsburg, NY, where he reports on the cultural landscape.

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