Culture versus Kitsch: The Battle for Belgrade’s Streets
In the 1990s, when Miloševic’s seemingly absent dictatorship transformed Belgrade from a city of Mitteleuropean sensibilities into the capital of Turbo trash, tens of thousands of Serbians reclaimed the streets by walking.
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Well, fuck you, Nineties.

Your story is now over.

And I wish to God no one ever remembers

these punks and bastards;

When law finally grabs a broom;

or we let them destroy each other …

Which has its own advantages.


– “Devedesete” by Djordje Balaševi´c

These lyrics were written in the year 2000 by Balaševi´c, a famous Serbian singer and activist. The song “Devedesete” (“The Nineties” in Serbian) ushered in a new era and somewhat prophetically foreshadowed the demise of Serbia’s nationalist president, Slobodan Miloševi´c, during the revolution of October 5, 2000. His official resignation the next day put an end to what many in Belgrade considered to be a decade-long “black hole” in their lives. It was a time people would rather forget. When asked, their responses ranged from, “I blocked those damned and miserable 1990s from my mind,” to the more positive, “I always feel about ten years younger. My life stopped in spring 1991, and I started living again in 2000, when Miloševi´c went to The Hague.”

Ten years earlier, Yugoslavia had begun a process of disintegration that led to a series of wars on many fronts: Slovenia (1991), Croatia (1991–1995), Bosnia (1992–1995), and finally the debacle of Kosovo (1998–1999). Serbia was never, as then-president Miloševi´c insisted, “officially” at war, and none of the conflicts took place on its territory. However, the international community did not agree. They saw Serbia as the chief instigator of regional aggression and therefore subjected the country to a decade-long regime of international trade sanctions, which resulted in a scarcity of basic goods. People lost their jobs as the black market blossomed. The average salary shrunk to approximately $5 per month, and people were desperate and understandably terrified of this sudden drop in living standards and security.

Serbians responded to these disasters in a variety of ways: Some turned nationalist and participated in the wars. Some fled the country and sought fortune in any other, more peaceful parts of the world. Others sung opposition songs and took to the streets. The capital, Belgrade, always opposed Miloševi´c and the prevailing nationalism. However, the very loud voice of opposition was ignored not only by Miloševi´c but also by the international press.

The ancient city of Belgrade (translated literally as “white city”) is situated on the hilly confluence of the Sava and Danube rivers. Prior to World War II, it had never grown beyond these banks. After the end of the war, the previously greenfield land across the Sava became the focus of development. Known as the “New Belgrade,” this area of the city almost doubled in size. This brand new city boasted large boulevards and imposing government edifices. Post-war Yugoslavian architects followed the modernist principles set out by CIAM (Congrès Internationaux d’Architecture Moderne, established 1928), perhaps even too religiously. They were keen to distance themselves from the Soviet socialist realism, since Yugoslavia had broken away from Stalinist Russia in 1948. Due to Marshal Tito’s political maneuvers, Yugoslavia managed to stay politically neutral until its demise.

The one thing that never changed in Belgrade even under communism was that its center was considered desirable as a residential area and mark of social status, following the model of Paris, Vienna, and other continental European cities. Property prices remained astronomical after Miloševi´c took power in 1989, and no truly middle-class Belgradians would allow themselves to live outside the center. The most sought-after “true” part of Belgrade is often alluded to as “In the Circle of Two.” This is the area circumscribed by tramline number two. Miloševi´c never won local elections in this part of town. Most of Belgrade’s local government institutions, including those outside the “Circle of Two,” were never in Miloševi´c’s hands, despite his seat of power being there. He was an invisible man in the city.

The NATO bombing of Serbia, from March 24 to June 10, 1999, brought about the eventual demise of Miloševi´c and the lifting of international sanctions. The singer Balaševi´c is now mostly retired and a grandfather. During the 1990s, he held his infamous New Year concerts in New Belgrade in a 1970s modernist masterpiece, the Sava Centar, across the river from the old city. Designed by the architect Stojan Maksimovi´c, it was the largest audience hall in the former Yugoslavia. It was constructed just in time to host an International Monetary Fund conference together with the nearby Intercontinental Hotel (another example of architecture that signaled opening up to the West and global capitalism).

Eventually the Sava Centar would house the 2008 Eurovision song contest. In the 1990s, tickets for Balaševi´c’s concerts were always hard to come by, and performances invariably had a covert political message. Balaševi´c and his audience clearly opposed the rule of Miloševi´c, yet these performances were not covert or illegal. They were held in public, in a glamorous setting, where Belgrade’s ladies donned evening attire and mingled with the diverse groups of young and old that could only be brought together by Balaševi´c’s eclectic music and lyrics. However, after the concerts, as Balaševi´c himself often pointed out, the audience disappeared into darkness, only to gather again one year later.

The darkness, space, and time in Belgrade between these unofficial opposition gatherings reveal a unique response to Miloševi´c and his particular brand of dictatorial rule. He was not interested in public space, city squares, or even architecture in general because his ambitions were ultimately territorial. There were no Stalinesque statues in the city nor Saddam-like posters of Miloševi´c in the fields on horseback or looking pensively into the distance, surrounded by children. What Miloševi´c allowed and tacitly supported through the absence of policy was an invasion. An atmosphere of chaos and noise pervaded urban spaces; street sellers from the countryside and ethnically Serbian immigrants fleeing the wars in the surrounding republics were everywhere. Serbia itself was under international trade sanctions, and consequently the squares and streets overflowed with black economy goods.

At Belgrade University, the plateau in front of the Student Cultural Center was awash with shacks selling pirated software and music CDs. These were mostly staffed by students, which might help partially explain Serbia’s currently blossoming software industry. The Boulevard of the Revolution was more diverse and sold basic household products such as shampoo, socks, chocolates, and, without fail, cigarettes. Gasoline was sold usually two or three liters at a time on various street corners – emulating the spatial typology of gas stations, placed in areas easily accessible for cars. Yet, expensive vehicles were ubiquitous among the old East German Trabants, a clear sign of power in a city almost devoid of petrol.

In London in 2008, Serbian writer Vladimir Arsenijevi´c described the strategy behind the chaos of Miloševi´c’s 1990s Belgrade. Contrary to impressions from abroad, Arsenijevi´c claimed that Miloševi´c’s regime wasn’t, by definition, a dictatorship. There was freedom of the press as well as artistic expression, and because he didn’t censor anything and nothing was forbidden, there was not a clear target to fight against. There was just a lot of “deafening noise” that bred confusion and prevented the rebellion from developing a coherent response.

This same level of chaos stifled the development of architecture and urbanism in Belgrade. The houses belonging to nouveau riche war profiteers epitomized outlandish bad taste. Pride of place went to the home of the war criminal Arkan, which is a mixture of pseudo-classical Grecian temple, missile silo, and ersatz Miami Beach hotel. On the outskirts of the city, the entire district of Padina rose illegally. Just like Balaševi´c’s concerts, everything was permitted, from illicit trading to unlicensed construction.

In his book Almost Architecture (2006), the architect, theorist, and academic Srdjan Jovanovi´c Weiss states that Miloševi´c’s “power was wielded not by public reappearance, but by a steady absence. The less Miloševi´c spoke in public, the more he maintained control over the public. In fact the less Miloševi´c built, the wider the gap opened for uncontrolled construction. The result is a dearth of urban planning in the public realm. Aspirations of the city are nowhere to be found, but its space is thickening like an oversized village.”

This was a terrible indictment of the Serbian capital which, despite being located in the Balkans, saw itself imbued with Austro-Hungarian Empire sophistication and Mitteleuropean sensibilities. With an eye fixed on Vienna, the capital was convinced that it had overtaken Prague or Budapest while hibernating behind the Iron Curtain.

I Think, Therefore I Walk

Belgrade is a city of streets and boulevards rather than squares. Inhabitants of the city always insist that Belgrade has no properly constituted squares. What they are referring to is the way in which most of the city’s squares are mainly used as public thoroughfares rather than as places of gathering. In fact, all are located at the junctions or intersections of large roads. Even the best conceived Trg Republike (Republic Square), which hosts the National Museum and the National Theatre, lies at one end of Belgrade’s main pedestrian street. Built on the road to Constantinople in 1866, after the destruction of the eighteenth-century Stambol Gate, it too was largely deserted throughout the 1990s.

During the demonstrations that began in 1991, which were known in popular parlance as “walks,” squares found a new role. At the outbreak of the Bosnian War on March 9, 1991, six thousand students participated in a protest march that started from the area of Belgrade known as “Student City” and ended in the city center. This “walking revolution” was largely ignored by the Western media, which concentrated on the more overt conflict taking place

“After Miloševi?? took power in 1989, everything was permitted, from illicit trading to unlicensed construction.”

and therefore misleadingly gave the impression that the citizens of Belgrade were uniformly behind Miloševi´c’s imperial fantasies. Nebojša Spremo, one Belgrade-based architect, recalled with sadness these first general strikes in the city, which lasted one month: “When the state takes the tanks out onto the streets with the intention of dispersing demonstrators, then every citizen is the enemy of the state—in their own home city, where their ancient roots are.”

Another participant in the protests remembered: “The 1990s started for me when the police beat me on the head with a baton … I remember the tear gas and running away from it. We broke through some metal bars and walked into someone’s flat. They were looking at us. We walked out. We were full of adrenaline. I feel like I spent those ten years walking the streets.”

These demonstrations initiated what seemed like a continuous calling for the resignation of Miloševi´c. The next bout of demonstrations took place from June to October 1992. Four years later, up to sixty thousand young people came out to the streets, defying threats and beatings. Eventually, Miloševi´c forced professors to sign a pledge of allegiance to the state. Marchers walked the streets of Belgrade under the slogan “I think, therefore I walk.”

“The view of the wars has been seen as a revenge of the countryside against the city and the urban spirit.”

As Spremo, a student of architecture at the time, explained: “For us, the word ‘walking’ has a different meaning. Like participants in some huge play, we were walking through the winter, banging against pots and throwing eggs. We were bringing down the government, which is now quickly forgotten.”

During these walks, methods of civil resistance included an abundance of humor, street theatre, pranks, and jokes. In his essay “Protest as an Urban Phenomenon” (1999), the sociologist Sreten Vujovi´c analyzed this as a particular form of civil unrest typical of an urban movement. It was a reclamation of “urban culture” from those groups who had flooded the city from the countryside, many of them ultra-Serbian nationalists and former rural dwellers.

Enter the Turbo Generation

However, nothing epitomizes the deliberate vulgarization of the city more than the birth of Turbo Culture, a trashy aesthetic that encompassed everything from loud music and shoddy construction to showy fashion and body image. The term comes from “Turbo-folk” music, and many writers such as Vujovi´c, Kronja, Spasic, and Jovanovi´c Weiss. The latter documented the rise of Turbo-folk in his book Almost Architecture as “the immense copyright-free collision of traditional and contemporary forms of music,” which swept through all forms of mainstream artistic expression. Its connection with a less refined, non-urban form of life is well documented. In music, Turbo-folk consisted of traditional Serbian music superimposed onto very loud, strong, and fast contemporary “Western” beats. This also expressed itself in fashion: for ladies, silicone-enlarged breasts and lips with predominantly pink clothes, and for men, silicone muscles and gold chains.

Turbo Culture also transformed architecture. Jovanovi´c Weiss analyzed the explosion of private-sector house construction during the 1990s,  coining the term “Turbo Architecture” in reference to the decade’s mostly illegal building, which showcased a crass design ethos. In many ways, it was kitsch: a postmodern superimposition of signifiers ranging from Romanesque columns and classic Greek porticos to a more vernacular red clay roof. It often included a classical element made out of glazing, designed to illustrate the supposed classical tastes of the owner but with a modern twist. In the more extreme cases, there could be gilded roofs or columns resting on lion paws. This was more common in the outskirts of Belgrade simply because vacant land for building was more available there. The city center was inundated with less aesthetically expressive architecture but with extensions unimaginable in other European cities. These were whole houses built on top of buildings, often cantilevering beyond the host building in order to maximize space.

The quintessential example of Turbo Architecture is located in Belgrade’s well-heeled suburb of Dedinje. Jovanovi´c Weiss explained, “The TV Pink building is maybe the most symbolic one, as Tito’s house is nearby, where Miloševi´c also lived – on the same square.” The Turbo generation is also sometimes known as the “Pink generation” due to the influence of this television station on popular culture.

Jovanovi´c Weiss continues, “It’s interesting because you can see the [development over the] years 1991, 1992, 1993 [on the square]. It started with kiosks which overnight grew into palatial twenty-four-hour burger shops. Arkan’s house isn’t far away, under Red Star’s stadium. TV Pink was built in 1994, and that’s where you introduce hi-tech into this Byzantium or mélange. Add to it the glitzy hi-tech materials, and you get a sublime effect that leaves you in the state of shock. Then in 1996, the political demise is evident, and that’s when the investors start building apartments, and the style gets normalized. Turbo had velocity and transformed architecture very rapidly, which can all be seen in that square.”

Unfortunately, the architecture wasn’t well conceived. Jovanovi´c Weiss goes on, “You cannot find one house that is detailed or a building with a clear aesthetic aim. The biggest influence Turbo exercised was the occupation and privatization of public space – the taking of land, extensions above, under, and sideways. In the whole process of land redistribution and occupation, Turbo Architecture was like a fake cherry on top of the cake.”

As Miloševi´c and the state completely withdrew from any investment in building, Turbo Architecture prevailed in the city, incrementally and parasitically. With a lack of regulation and an explosion in residential building, there also came an eruption in small-scale commerce and street trade. Cafés spilled onto the streets in a haphazard manner, often demarcated by a fake grass carpet or branded umbrellas. Shops sprouted out of the ground floor windows of residential buildings. Kiosk architecture grew as a predominant typology – makeshift and temporary structures, which occupied public squares and streets. The original kiosks expanded into quite elaborate structures. Street economy was transformed into a twenty-four-hour, convenient, free-for-all trade.

There was a general impression that these developments were inevitable since the 1990s were a decade of crisis and decay, when the government had no money to invest and the city was simply falling into disrepair. At the time, there was very little to suggest that this was a visible strategy by the authorities. However, in hindsight it seems to have been the essence of Miloševi´c’s preplanned intentions.

Olja Janic (whose name has been changed to protect her identity) directed the city’s Institute for the Protection of Built Heritage in the nineties and described the reality of those years: “At that moment, when the black economy was blossoming, they were stifling real shops, reducing the value of all legitimate trade. [The excuse was that] people were losing jobs under international sanctions. Serbia [we were told] was constrained … [economically]. But I am not convinced it was the sanctions. In Serbia, the criminal social strata were blossoming. They were in power. Professionally, I was constantly in conflict with my surroundings. What were we going to leave behind? A visualization of decline?” Janic believed that there was definitely something conscious in this aesthetic of chaos. The urban mayhem was the extension of Turbo Culture applied to public space.

It might have been chaotic, but it wasn’t accidental. Miloševi´c deliberately engineered a situation in which different sectors of society neutralized each other. They fought one another and thereby kept him and his regime in power, in the tried and tested way of “divide and rule.” According to Klaus Roth and Ulf Brunnbauer in Urban Life and Culture in Southeastern Europe: Anthropological and Historical Perspectives (2007), “Within Serbia itself, the Miloševi´c regime has often been accused of ‘peasantizing’ the society … From the perspective of urbanites, the ‘peasants’ referred to were usually recent newcomers. But sometimes they were somehow ‘internal’ peasants, peasants in spirit who lived in hiding, within the entrails of the city itself all the time, without ‘us’ noticing them.”

As Jovanovi´c Weiss recalls, “No one could be neutral at that moment. Turbo-folk music was the sign of the occupation of urban spaces by people coming from the outside.”

In a sense, attitudes toward Turbo Culture, whether its music or architecture, defined whose side you were on.

Culmination of the Walks

As the world recoiled in horror at the more obviously destructive “real wars” going on in Kosovo, Bosnia, and Croatia during the 1990s, another less dramatic kulturkampf was taking place in the Serbian capital. The case of Miloševi´c and (the lack of) urbanism in 1990s Belgrade shows an alternative form of totalitarianism.The changes appeared democratic and led by the free market. However, an ultra-nationalist Serbian regime had, in fact, deliberately stage-managed affairs and used toxic elements and vulgarization as a way to quash the opposition of Belgrade’s long established denizens.

The capital’s population fought back literally by walking the city streets. Then finally, during the October 5, 2000 revolution and fall of Miloševi´c, the square in front of the National Parliament became the site where a bulldozer lifted protestors in order to open windows through which they could enter the parliament. Eventually the bulldozer’s driver became a minister in the new government.

Through the act of the walking protests, the citizens of Belgrade engraved their own political message onto the city. Arguably, it was only a partially successful gesture. The struggle continues today against a nearly ruined built environment. The 1990s have inevitably left their mark on society and the city. Yet, there seem to be encouraging signs for a more optimistic future. For among the ruination of once-gracious boulevards, the wittier and more inventive of the post-2000 generation of city planners have, surprisingly, turned their attention to those horrifically soulless tower blocks and official buildings of Communist-era Brutalism. By repainting and reformulating them, these young visionaries have allowed Belgrade to take on a new face as it gingerly enters the twenty-first century.

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