RILINDJA and the Beginning of the Brutalist Architecture in Prishtina

Text by Kujtim Elezi

The early ’60s found Prishtina at a high level of architectural articulation. Coming out of the Second World War as a town mainly with oriental architecture (the one which carried a ‘European’ spirit was very few compared to the first), the modernism in architecture the new capital will be forced to recognize in a very tragic way. The motto known and practiced by state policy in other cities „destroy the old to create the new“ on the ground left as a result the elimination of almost all oriental creativity in the architecture of the capital, to replace it with new modern buildings. For more than two decades after World War II, modernity was greatly enhanced: new squares were created in line with state-run policies, straight and wide boulevards were opened, public buildings were built around the main roads, settlements were established. A new form of social life, and the international style in architecture was executed. In a word, a completely new architectural situation was created in the city-modernism could be clearly read in the face of the city.

On the other hand, the ’70s are considered to be years of an economic, cultural, educational, political and administrative-legal „boom“ for Kosova, for this reason the same achievement would necessarily be required to find a place in the architecture of the future. The image of the new society advanced in the last two decades. It had to be created and presented through architecture. Therefore, for new architectural projects, those in charge will commit to hire proven professionals, as will be the case with the request to design the building RILINDJA and the commitment of Georgi Konstantinovski to design it. Konstantinovski had already made a name for himself as an architect, he was known in public as “the form-giver” of modern architecture, he epitomized modernism and gave shape to postwar architecture, he basically transformed modernism. He had long ago completed the building for the Skopje City Archive (1966) and the student dormitory ‘Goce Delcev’ (1969), with which the building had brought a new spirit in the creation of architecture in the country. Konstantinovski received commission for RILINDJA (1972) as a result of his work at City Archive and the Student dormitory Goce Delcev. As he would explain years earlier, he showed interest in building RILINDJA because it was a tall building- a building type he found compelling.

Konstantinovski’s large-scale concrete „brutalist“ buildings, with their bush-hammered corrugated concrete surfaces, exemplified by the City Archive and the Student dormitory ‘Goce Delcev’ building, were celebrated by critics as a breakthrough for modernism. Moreover, at his new RILINDJA building he advocated a heroic approach to modernism that extolled individuality, aesthetics, and creativity. He cultivated the image of a maverick who would save architecture from the monotony of the International Style by reintroducing subjects such as: monumentality, decoration, and symbolism. He hoped to improve modernism by “humanizing” it, as many others had proposed. In this case, this meant taking into account the scale of the human body and psychological reactions to form and space. In doing so, he reacted against the objectivity of Bauhaus’s functionalist-based teaching and of the International Style, instead of adopting a subjective approach that reflected his own viewpoint and was intended to affect the user physically and emotionally. Many modernists believed in transforming the society through architecture, but they saw this as a collaborative rather than an individual effort. Konstantinovsi would choose his individual path to do so.

Monumentality, a subject with which modernism has long struggled, was explored too by Konstantinovski. Big, bold and dynamic RILINDJA ushered in the concrete monumentality that became known as brutalism. Many other later colleagues achieved a similar type of concrete expression in the 1970s, such as Edo Ravnikar in his “Technical Faculty Building” (1977) in Prishtina, Dragan Kovacević in his “Public Accounting Building” (1975), Miodrag Pecić at the “Albanian Institut” (1977), but few were as consistent as Konstantinovski in their approach to it. He believed that archetypal symbolic forms used at RILINDJA building, could, in addition to stimulating emotional reactions, reestablish historical connections to the past. 

Konstantinovski experimented with decoration as well, though virtually prohibited by modernism, it was of great interest to him as early as his career. Monumentality, symbolism, decoration were the primary themes that he pursued in nearly every one of his projects. His search for expression may be considered the postwar installment of architecture’s much longer engagement with problems of structure, expression, representation, and decoration. His search for expression is materially manifested in the elaborate and often labyrinthine movements through space that he choreographed in such structures as it is RILINDJA. Konstantinovski attempted to investigate all subjects that concerned him in almost all of his projects. Though it requires lengthy explanation, it is valuable to reconstruct Konstantinovski’s formalist viewpoint. He had a tendency, shared by many in his circle, to see buildings as “forms” related to other, often disparate forms from architecture and other disciplines. He claimed that his architecture manifested his individuality.

The brutalism at RILINDJA can be explained as an explicit honesty or exhibition of structure and materials giving buildings an “as found” aesthetic, an “immediately apprehensible visual entity”; a dominant geometry. RILINDJA is a large-scale building and yet has a formidable presence on the site, remarkable in presenting the power of design, the value of the design concept and the architect’s expertise. The clarity of its architectural statement is a manifestation of this agenda and labor. It wants a dignified architecture to instill new ideas about existing, not merely as belonging to a place, but a purposeful presence and a new way of living. The RILINDJA, presents an image of permanence and monumentality that has endured a severe lack of maintenance, new ad hoc structures and changes to the site and context. A larger-scale complex, the RILINDJA building has a rough “corduroy” texture that generates constantly shifting patterns of light and shadow. Konstantinovski speaks repeatedly about the quality of light on the walls, his building announces a dimension of the spatial layering in the contradiction of form and its effect on the internal spatial geometry. 

The RILINDJA Building as a visual entity is closer to Banham’s definition of memorability as an image that affects the emotions. Inspired by Kahn, Konstantinovski aims toward clarity of the plan. The interlocking geometry of the RILINDJA Building is prismatic and objective, resonating with Kahn’s critique of steel and glass, to define structure and space through mass and wall. Konstantinovski frames a discussion of his work through Kahn, noting his modernist principle of the exterior expression of the structure and functional planning, whereby the purpose of the building is demonstrated through its form. He achieved to challenge the hegemony of the glass curtain wall within the RILINDJA Building. He wove together the building’s structure and its electrical installations into a basket-like exterior framework supported at its base by columns with V-shaped form. These were named by Konstantinovski as “symbols of structure”, a façade that is easy to maintain. 

Unlike the horizontally oriented modernist ribbon windows or flat curtain walls, these windows were vertically disposed (like traditional windows) and deeply recessed within the structure’s framework. They formed a modular system derived from particular circumstances rather than from dimensions specified by a manufacturer, as was the case with many mass-produced curtain walls. The more closely the tower is studied, the more apparent its complex dialectic becomes- between function and form, construction and ornament, new technology and ancient forms. With the RILINDJA, Konstantinovski explored these dialects as well. He wove together mechanical and structural elements in a way that is most evident in the piers attached to the exterior. RILINDJA building’s novel structural framework created opportunities for spatial innovation. The office floors inside were desirable and flexible ‘open plans’ almost entirely free of the internal columns that obstructed most office space in tall buildings. 

Brutalism- loved and used by Konstantinovski became a “pan Yugoslavian phenomena”, its buildings illustrate the transition between two different definitions of Brutalism: “from an ethic of ‘honest’ structure, ordinary materials and as-found components, to an aesthetics of expressive structural and sculptural effects”. Brutalism at RILINDJA building was also mediated by the memorability embedded in the Yugoslav tradition of memorials, especially the poetic work of Edvard Ravnikar and others named above. Beton brut examples pronounced and highlighted that the visual edifice is integral to its conceptual position. The edifices demonstrate a protest-type stance against insignificance; a position in relation to a brave new world. Konstantinovksi wanted to show the unsupportive local authorities what he and a sophisticated architecture could have achieved, wanting his architecture to stand among the great.