Ordinary Modernism and Incomplete Industrialization: The Long Life of Mass Housing in Yugoslavia

Vjenceslav Richter developed the idea of Synthurbanism in the early sixties as a result of his in-depth analysis of the legacy of the historical avant-gardes and the synthesis of arts, through the principles of Modernism, along with the experience he acquired working on several pavilion and urban planning projects. As the neologism suggests, it was a visionary, but not utopian project, synthesizing urbanism to provide for the lives of ten thousand people in a single, poly-functional, urban structure consisting of multiple units in the form of a ziggurat. This gave rise to the idea of the Heliopolis, a four-dimensional, constantly revolving residential structure which would provide its inhabitants with an constantly changing view. Image: MoRE Museum
Heliopolis, Vjenceslav Richter, 1954-1964. Image: MoRE Museum

Just when a lockdown during the COVID-19 pandemic forced city dwellers back into their homes, if they had any, a major earthquake struck Zagreb. While the stucco of the historicist old buildings crumbled and red-and-yellow stickers warned of endangered statics, the socialist apartment buildings remained virtually unscathed. Lea Horvat takes this surprising disparity as an opportunity to trace the history of mass housing in Yugoslavia.


The three “rockets” by neo-avant-garde architect Vjenceslav Richter are featured on the title page of Miles Glendinning’s 688-page global history of mass housing, the most detailed to date. The residential towers rest on a plateau, seemingly ready for takeoff and fully committed to the space fever of the 1960s. This is no coincidence. Glendinning counts socialist Yugoslavia among the “great powers of mass housing architecture.” What did Yugoslavia do right?

The purpose of the following is not to establish the superiority of the Yugoslav model and to dissect it from other contexts. Instead, I would like to reflect on subtle differences and the spectrum of what is possible within the architecture of “ordinary modernism.” At the same time, I would like to offer a holistic perspective that attempts to understand mass housing in its complexity, while treating its past, present, and future inhabitants with care and appreciation. Dealing with the Yugoslavian case does not mean creating this depth at the expense of other contexts, but rather entering at a concrete place.

Decentralization and self-government

Built quickly and intended for many people seeking housing to compensate for war damage and to take account of rapid urbanization, mass housing construction spread rapidly in Europe after the Second World War. Yugoslavia was no exception. During the Second World War, around 75% of the housing stock in Yugoslavia was damaged. After provisional solutions in the early days, such as the redistribution of housing for the privileged classes, more sustainable solutions were sought. As early as 1947, the industrialization of construction was anchored in the first five-year plan. Analogous to the development of heavy industry, Yugoslavia’s economic priority at the beginning of socialism, the new architecture was to consist of prefabricated parts that could be quickly assembled on the construction site. The expectation was that seriality would speed up and reduce the cost of housing construction and counteract the shortage of skilled workers in architecture and construction. The industrialization of construction on a large scale was the logical consequence of the fascination with machine aesthetics and rationalization among modernist socialized architects. Nevertheless, in the late 1940s, a special feature was already emerging: the diversity of building culture in Yugoslavia.

In many contexts, the centralization of mass housing resulted in an astonishing seriality. In the GDR, the WBS 70 type accounted for more than 40% of mass housing. The Stavoprojekt architectural conglomerate from Czechoslovakia had more than 10,000 employees in the mid-1950s and developed prefabricated buildings in a highly industrialized process. Instead of a comparable institution tasked with designing a system that could be applied nationwide, attempts to industrialize the construction method took place in parallel at various construction sites in Yugoslavia – particularly in Ljubljana, Zagreb, Split and Belgrade. In addition to the research institutes, it was the construction companies that balanced between research, self-promotion and construction practice.

With the approach of building small or no series at all, the essential advantage of industrialization did not seem to come into play. In this respect, the term “mass housing” seems more appropriate than “prefabricated housing.” However, if we consider mixed technologies more openly than incomplete industrialization, it is possible to see housing construction in Yugoslavia beyond a rigid technical categorization. This brings into focus, for example, the fact that k(l)eine Serien and the polycentrically organized building industry resulted in architectural diversity. Even the IMS Žeželj, a widespread prefabrication system developed in Belgrade, was so changeable that such buildings were not immediately visually recognizable as a uniform category. All mass residential buildings in Yugoslavia resemble each other in much the same way as all old buildings from the Gründerzeit; they are associated with a specific period, but their façades and floor plans are often not identical.

The cornerstones of socialism in Yugoslavia – decentralization and self-administration – played a central role in this. The inconspicuous role of the party leadership in favoring an architectural form also fits in with the intended “withering away of the state.” Nikita Khrushchev was so unmistakably associated with modest, five-storey 1950s prefabricated buildings that they are still known as Khrushchevki. Erich Honecker ceremoniously handed over the one millionth apartment in Berlin-Mitte in 1978, accompanied by intensive media coverage. Josip Broz Tito, Yugoslavia’s president, on the other hand, hardly commented on his architectural taste and refrained from presenting himself as a benevolent housing donor.

Controlled diversity” in the “mosaic state”

Instead, the employer became the main party responsible for solving the housing issue for its employees, who since 1956 have paid 4% of their salary into a locally administered housing fund for this purpose. With diversity and housing now becoming affordable for more and more people, inequality also crept in. This was particularly visible in the comparison between sectors with a high level of construction (such as the People’s Army or construction companies) and sectors with a low level of construction (such as the textile industry). The north(west)-south(east) asymmetry was also repeatedly evident: the largest construction companies operating throughout Yugoslavia were based in Slovenia, Croatia or Serbia, as were the most important architectural journals. In addition to housing distributed by employers, there were other forms, such as informal housing, housing from solidarity funds and privately financed housing. Financial self-management was promoted especially since the economic liberalization in the mid-1960s, explicitly with the blessing of the main theorist of self-management in Yugoslavia, Edvard Kardelj.

However, housing construction was not a capitalist free market. Rather, it was a “controlled diversity” to which limits were set, often by the architects themselves. A good example of this is Split 3, a much-praised project on the Adriatic coast. The competition for the urbanistic solution (1968) was won by a team from Slovenia (Vladimir Mušič, Nives Starc, Marjan Bežan) with a concept for residential streets that made strong reference to the urban planning and architectural features of the old town. The development of individual buildings was entrusted to local architects through an internal competition.

In early socialism, the architectural historian Dušan Grabrijan reinterpreted the pejorative description of Yugoslavia as a “mosaic state” and instead emphasized the regional variance of building traditions. This also applies surprisingly well to socialist residential architecture. Residents also contributed to the image of diversity, especially after the process of individual housing acquisition in the 1990s, during which they were made responsible for individual renovation and conversion strategies.

Large housing estates without communal spaces?

Most of the images and ideas that emerge in connection with mass housing construction in the Global North are based on a deficit perspective. Whether it is the deliberately dreary photos used to illustrate news reports about crime in the affected settlements or the exaggerated transfer of the US ghetto image to prefabricated housing estates – it usually looks gray and hopeless. This perception, which is surprisingly persistent in the Global North, has its origins in the early 1960s, when the Western European welfare states said goodbye to prefabricated housing. This led to a discursive domino effect that also reached Yugoslavia. Left-wing thinkers in particular, who had been enthusiastic about the ideas of the French New Left, suddenly warned of alienation and the threat of vacancy in mass housing estates.

The book “The City on a Human Scale” (1987) by philosopher Rudi Supek contains caricatures from the French-speaking context, such as Edvard Munch’s “Scream” against a background of prefabricated housing, or housing construction as a merciless lawnmower that leaves behind a uniformly bare settlement in the midst of destroyed urban diversity. In this context, it is significant that this negative rhetoric met the still prevailing housing shortage; demand was unbroken, there was no trace of vacancy. In Yugoslavia, at the end of socialism, there was a gap between everyday life in the mass housing estates and the hypothetical projections for the future.

However, the historical discourse surrounding mass housing was much more complex. Different positions can be found within one group, for example among social scientists in late socialism. Alongside Rudi Supek, the sociologist Dušica Seferagić also wrote a general rejection of mass housing, which she saw as irreparably linked to alienation and community deficits, and instead advocated single-family homes. Her colleague Ognjen Čaldarović, on the other hand, called for patience and argued that certain aspects of the community would only gradually emerge. Instead of chalking up destroyed or inadequate communal spaces as the failure of large housing estates, he said it was all the more important to repair and consistently maintain this infrastructure. At the same time, he criticized the concept of community, which is based on a village, as nostalgic and out of date. The ethnologist Dunja Rihtman-Auguštin went one step further and was already convinced in 1980 that the first signs of a local identity and an emerging urban culture were already visible; you just had to notice them: “Before our eyes, unfinished building sites become bowling alleys, skating rinks and ice rinks, meadows and soccer pitches, balconies become a variety of storage rooms or rooms, or they become the scene of neighborly competition in planting and growing ornamental plants.”

These examples and the neo-Marxist interpretations of the social scientists from Zagreb already show that the scope for interpretation was significant in late socialism. In the Yugoslavian case, these debates were particularly fierce and can be found in a spectrum ranging from women’s magazines to philosophy. They all make up mass housing.

Everything can turn out differently

After all, it is worth remaining open to new interpretations and noticing when weaknesses can be transformed into strengths and current priorities as well as aesthetic and social values make things appear different. The sparse to non-existent seriality can be read as an incomplete industrialization. At the same time, it can be interpreted as an unexpected strength, as it enabled creative diversity. An uncompromising urbanity was the ultimate goal of modernist urban and architectural experts, who criticized the “ruralization” of the city and mocked vegetable gardens and animal husbandry in new settlements. Central heating, electricity and running water were among the most important promises of mass housing construction, even if not everything was always immediately available. However, they turned out to be fragile during the siege of Sarajevo, in the unreliable infrastructure caused by the war. The recourse to frowned upon traditional skills, be it vegetable growing, wood heating or manual washing methods, was life-saving and revealed the weaknesses of uncompromising, self-confident modernism as a one-way street.

In March 2020, Zagreb found itself in an exceptional situation. A severe earthquake struck in the middle of the pandemic-related lockdown. While stucco turned to rubble in the historicist old buildings and red and yellow stickers warned of the endangered statics, the socialist mass housing buildings remained virtually unscathed. This was not least due to the building regulations that were issued after the devastating earthquake in Skopje in 1963 and were intended to make the buildings more earthquake-proof. Even before the earthquake, the mass housing buildings in New Zagreb were able to hold their own on the local housing market; after the earthquake, the year of construction became a seal of safety.

The new makes the old appear in a new light, we are changing and mass housing is changing with us. Let’s not insist on a narrow repertoire of stereotypes that are long outdated.

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