Public space in Titograd and Podgorica

Text by Dijana Vucinic

By the time I am finally finishing this paper the world has changed and we are facing a major shift in the way we view, use or plan city spaces. La biennale has been postponed two times and I took more time than it could possibly be considered all right to write this. The pandemic is almost in the second year and as we are facing another hard lockdown we should take a step back and consider rethinking our public spaces and our fundamental relation to the city, taking a completely new angle. The other day I went to see a friend. Considering the circumstances it is even rude to meet someone in their home so I waited in front of her apartment building. She lives in a new building, not even a good one. But as I stood there I realized that the closest building on the south side must be 150 meters away: there is parking, walking area, slow traffic street – very wide with parking on both sides, green area and then the next building. She actually lives in the new apartment block settled on the outskirts of Blok 5 and the public space available is impressive.  

The right to housing and common space 

Blok 5 is a residential neighborhood built in the late 70s and early 80s in Podgorica. It is the biggest mass housing development in Montenegro up to date with 1800 residential units placed in 13 buildings. It was built at the peak of socialist modernization of Podgorica as a paradigm of modern self-managed Yugoslavian living. 

When we talk about Podgorica, we talk about Titograd, a Yugoslavian city that has been completely rebuilt after WWII – a new post-war city, successively named after Tito. It is built within an orthogonal grid, stretching among rivers with a perfect layout for a polycentric city it is today. When liberated by partisan in 1944 this town has been severely destroyed by bombings. During modernization the city has grown with infrastructure, urbanism and architecture paving the way for the new system of social equality and self-management. Self-management has been introduced in every aspect of modern living from families to large production and industry systems and when it comes to housing this also means that the public sector is the client and the developer at the same time. 

The project for Blok 5 was initiated in 1975 and developed by SIZ (Samoupravna Interesna Zajednica) Self-Governing Common-Interest Community that was in charge of Housing. Planning and Architecture has been assigned to (rather than commissioned by)  RZUP (Republic Institute for Urban Planning and Design). The result has been an urban design project designed by Vukota Tupa Vukotić for a unique housing project that will maintain public space among lush green areas at the core of housing project with the firm separation between traffic and pedestrian zones. The neighborhood had a health center on the outskirts, a park, small shops and businesses in the ground floors of buildings, a primary school and two kindergartens positioned in such a way so most children and their parents could walk to either of these buildings without major interactions with the traffic. The layout of the planned buildings made it possible to create generous communal spaces with playgrounds and gardens. Vukotić’s plan was not very innovative but based on already known and criticized models of modernist planning, but the community program with smaller scale made Blok 5 a vibrant and very contented community.

The architect of Blok 5 is Mileta Bojović. RZUP functioned as a collective of architects and urban planners where they could work on projects cooperatively or individually. They had internal competitions for most projects where chosen work would be carried out by the author architect within the collective and with resources of RZUP. Mileta Bojović has won the competition for Blok 5. The design has been very advanced at the time and the construction company has struggled with it. It has been criticized at the time but the construction had carried on with the final building being finished in 1983. 

As we were walking in the shadow of one of the buildings my friend explained how happy they are there. They are expecting a baby in a couple of months. There are two kindergartens nearby, both still there and part of the good public preschool system. We could hear the kids arguing over a game of football on the playground within the eyesight. Greenery is impressive and obviously taken care by inhabitants as well. Thirty years later Blok 5 still provides quality public space for young families not only within but also living in the neighboring areas. 

The idea of equality and social rights in Yugoslavia is still present in an urban stratum that has once been used as a tool of modernization. We still rely on the architecture and urbanism that has once, long time ago, and in a completely different political and social realm, brought a new life under the self-managed system that has soon started going downhill after the peak of modernization.  

Leisure and Free Time 

Long before Blok 5 as Titograd had just started emerging as the new city several major projects made the difference and have brought the new lifestyle to the residents. In communist Yugoslavia tourism, free time and leisure have been closely connected with political, social and cultural agenda. Under this agenda Yugoslavia has been drifting away (not so seamlessly) from the East (Stalinism and soc-realism) towards the West, towards consumerism. Free time and yearly vacation have been introduced as an instrument for achieving the transformative and ideological goals. Tourism has been used to introduce the feeling of good life to all citizens. One of the major activities has been the production of tourism facilities: hotels and resorts for the working class. Besides that, other facilities for leisure and sports have been introduced in the cities facilitating free time activities for all citizens. In the sixties Yugoslavia was one of the three countries with the shortest working week in Europe and the free time could actually be well planned with these new facilities in place. 

Kayak Club in Podgorica was designed by Vukota Tupa Vukotić in 1960. It is located in the city center, in the canyon that cuts through the city, slightly elevated above the bank of Morača river enabling a harmonizing relationship between plan and site. The plan is characterized by the terraces overlooking the beach bellow and the river. Kajak Klub Galeb represents a well-rounded paradigmatic reaction of a young architect to the complex environmental potential of the river, beach and steep riverbed – both in a topological and spatial sense and in the context of the then current system of social values. It belongs to the category of state-of-art monuments within Montenegrin architectural culture, although its present condition certainly does not speak in its favor.

Although labeled as the sports facility the Kayak club has been used as the meeting point, as the point of leisure, beach time and social interaction. The beach below has always been popular in very hot summer months in Titograd so the club has been a beach bar in the middle of the city. There is a most mesmerizing video in you-tube picturing all the beauty of an easy summer afternoon at the Kayak club Galeb and the beach below. 

Soon after the club was built, the infrastructure connecting the Capital City and the Adriatic coast was improved so the seaside became much more available. The life on the steep edges of Morača river has been fading and Kayak club has soon become nothing more than a storage facility for kayaks. It still is today. It has never been improved and it seems like completely abandoned. Residents of Podgorica rarely visit the beach and the beach bar is a distant nostalgic memory. We got used to it being flooded, abandoned and even completely invisible. 

Hotel Podgorica and Svetlana Kana Radević 

Just down the river from Kayak club there is another building providing the public space from the new modern city of the 60s until today. Hotel Podgorica was built in 1967 and designed by the famous Montenegrin architect Svetlana Kana Radević. The significance of this public space is in the bond of the public program and typology as much as in a unique relation of architecture and landscape. The building follows the right bank of the Morača River along which it stands. The plan of the building is embedded in the landscape with terraces extending over to the river with waterfront views stretching to the old town on the southern end and, at that time, new Titograd and glimpses of the future towards the north. The hotel has been built in order to accommodate growing needs of travelers coming to the city due to the latest programs introduced by the new modern city of Titograd. The competition was organized for a hotel design in 1964 and the winning proposal was by the architect Svetlana Kana Radević, only 27 at the time and just out of University. Kana had the answer that recognized not only the real potential of the place and a unique connection of the city and the canyon topography of Morača river but also the potential of the building to create social narrative. The program and the architectural language of the building have laid out the base for a social condenser still functional 70 years later. Hotel Podgorica has quickly become a major meeting point not only for the tourists but for the locals as well. 

The fascinating material poetics of the building are its major feature. Supporting three-story high walls are impregnated with river pebbles from the Morača. All the public spaces inside and each room has a terrace overlooking the river framed by these pebbles in combination with the concrete fences and other elements the hotel is celebrated for. Kana never missed an opportunity to create a vibrant and well defined public space within her buildings and Hotel Podgorica was the first among many. Hotel Podgorica met with acclaim even before the building opened to the public in 1967, gracing the cover of Arhitektura Urbanizam, a prominent professional periodical in socialist Yugoslavia. Two years later, Radević became the only woman and, at the age of 29, the youngest-ever laureate of the Federal Borba Prize for Architecture, the most prestigious architectural award in Yugoslavia of that time. The prize was established by the newspaper of the Socialist Alliance of Working People of Yugoslavia and awarded annually to the country’s best new building. It turned architecture into a media spectacle by spurring public debate on its civic significance
and elevating individual architects out of anonymity. Radević was its sole female member. 

Hotel Podgorica is still an active provider of social life in Podgorica that tends to be a European city today. The building has survived the reconstruction and many urban interventions that were not complementary to the values it imposed on public life once it was built. 

Yugoslavia was once this hybrid lingering between East and West, on the other side our small countries within Yugoslavian territory today uphold in front of nationalist and neo-liberal right with shy left holding to Yugoslavian socialist legacy that fades away. This socialist heritage still vivid in our public space, housing and infrastructure still holds together modern tissue of our cities, it further defines them although it has been overrun at the same time by chaotic transition.