Political Background

“We are too poor to be destroyed by economic crises and too rich for disasters.”

Every kind of architecture is based on a symbolism of memory. Informal architecture can be a type of social improvisation, a protest form and/or expression of a self-regulated society.
In Belgrade all of the above apply.

What is the connection between the turbulent and violent period of the Yugoslavian war in the 90s, and the emergence of informal architectural phenomena in Belgrade? Why bringing up protest and politics in relation to an architectural topic? To what extent does the informal building culture in Belgrade reflect the current and past socio- political situation and the struggle of individuals or groups?

The film project "City of Memories" tries to find a definition for the memories of the city that is based on the emotions and experiences that arise from personal and collective crises within in the city of Belgrade.

The current political situation in Belgrade shows a revival of a past that was thought to be over: Anti governmental demonstrations (Protiv) are taking place weekly since November 2018, bringing thousands of people on the streets, protesting against the current president Aleksandar Vučić. The organized masses show the same graphical language as the protest organisation OTPOR! in the 90s (clenched white fist), which was able to successfully overthrow dictator Slobodan Milošević in 2000. Since 30 years these formations are being fought with the same manipulative means:

During the 90s media in Serbia was mostly controlled by the gouvernment. The news in Serbia showed Milošević on election tour (image1). The number of supporters was not sufficient, therefore it was added: The government-loyal daily “Vecenje Novosti” (evening paper) reported that hundreds of thousands of people had valued Milošević. A closer look reveals the photomontage. The same faces side by side several times. Multiplied masses. In this way, Stalin had already successfully retouched the truth.

In April 2019 the newspaper “Informer” presents the ruling president Aleksander Vučić as the star of the nation, to whom thousands attribute. In truth, his "pro-government event" was staged by himself: Some of the masses were brought from Hungary to Belgrade by busses. People from the public service were threatened with dismissal if they did not appear on the Pro-Vučić-festival. 

In opposition to the weekly happening demos of Protiv the media was activly present at the pro-president campaign. Therefore, the only image that reaches the West is that of intimidated masses being forced to cheer a dictator.  

Belgrades historical past and its turbulent present reflect how the inhabitants constantly adapted over time, as a coping mechanism against regime changes, or attacks from outside.  These political and social upheavals have neither increased national pride nor made it disappear. Belgrade is a rare example of the fact that war refugees have returned to their city after the end of the war, thus allowing it to grow even further.

Due to the NATO bombing of Belgrade in 1999, many parts of the city got destroyed or damaged.  Many of them are still present today. They remain as a memorial and a cultural artefact associated with the Operation Allied Force by - a sort of Living Dead, always reminding everyone that an intervention of the city’s identity has taken place here.

The reasons for the intensive informal construction activity in Belgrade are manifold. Since the beginning of Yugoslaviaës economic difficulties in the 1970s, the prospect of work has attracted people to the cities. In the 1990s, the break-up of Jugoslavia, the wars between the new states, the international embargo and the NATO bombings intensified the economic crisis. The impoverishment is most noticeable in the countryside, and the rural exodus continues.

The ethnic charging of conflicts by nationalist propaganda led to massive expulsions in the wars from 1991 to 1996. Ethnic segregation accelerated Belgrades growth. Serbs sold their homes in Croatia and Bosnia and moved to Serbian cities; this was repeated in the Kosovo war in 1998/99.
In Serbia, the construction of houses and apartments is the only investment opportunity for savings. There is still no reliable banking system, and production, which is stagnating at a low level, offers hardly any investment opportunities. Those who get their hands on cash, be it by selling their own house, be it by supporting a family member abroad, on the black market, from bribes or by renting and selling apartments that have already been built, immediately reinvest them in new buildings. This investment policy is pursued by the nouveau riche profiteers of war and corruption, as well as the returnees who received a considerable bundle of notes for the sale of their houses in another part of former Yugoslavia. While the rich “Biznizmen” erect multi-family and commercial buildings, the less wealthy set up four walls and a roof for the time being, working on their own, and then, room by room, they expand as soon as some money has been raised again. The countless unrendered houses with concrete skeletons, brick infills, nailed parterre, converted first floor and empty upper floors bear witness to this - under the given circumstances absolutely rational - investment policy of the small people. Even the wooden sheds of the poorest newcomers, among them many Roma, are occupying more and more public land, often at the end of the gravel roads that wind their way through the illegal settlements. At the entrances to such neighbourhoods, day labourers wait for a homeowner to hire them for the next stage of construction.

«City of Memories is a plea for urban activism. It is a story of political upheavals which brought a new form of informal architecture to life. The memories of the city are embodied within those buildings, which emerged from stagnation and resilience.»

Legal, Illegal, Informal
It is possible today to build legally, but it means getting involved in a marathon of offices with an uncertain outcome. Anyone who is dependent on an official procedure and does not urgently need to get rid of cash is therefore now waiting to build: Private individuals and the formerly state-owned, now privatised planning offices are waiting for investors from home or abroad and have building land and building permits ready. Potential investors wait until new planning laws simplify the complicated conditions and the ownership situation is clarified. The transfer of land and real estate back to the owners from pre-communist times has not yet been tackled in Serbia. The land is still officially owned by the state. As far as large construction projects are concerned, such as the construction of a hotel complex over the old port on the Sawe, foreign investors are expected to provide unrealistically high returns.