Spaces of Sarajevo’s Public Life [and Death]

Text by Mejrema Zatric

In a much-quoted text written in 1973, the celebrated and controversial Yugoslav fiction author Ivo Andrićdescribed Sarajevo as “a city, in every sense of that word.” He took care to elaborate the dual (both tragic and reassuring) simplicity of this basic assertion by describing the historical power games that shaped its older quarters: “the exploits of foreign conquerors and domestic small and large tyrants and oligarchy, the movements of the masses, long and complicated accounts and reckonings between those who have and do not give and those who have nothing to their needs.” These issues, Andrić suggested, receded from the present, just as the darkness of the “joint night” covered and unified a variety of Sarajevo’s historic urbanisms positioned on the eastern side of its basin. Meanwhile, the remaining daylight on its western side illuminated the “factory smoke and roofs” of the new quarters where “the past would be conquered and history surpassed” following the “inexorable laws of social development.”

If the polarity between the night and the day, the past and the future, the old and the new city seems overtly schematic and optimistic, the historical circumstances of the early 1970s    relativise and align this observation more properly with Andrić’s complex and sombre ouevre. By the end of the 1960s, the Socialist Yugoslav regime’s search for those “inexorable laws” had begun to be burdened by the renewed ethno-nationalist sentiments, while the plentiful results of the modernisation efforts undertaken during the previous decades included considerable contradictions. The development of the generous socialist public infrastructure was accompanied by economic inequalities, environmental pollution and manyfold other sacrifices of the socialist social ideals to economic growth. 

The prospects of Sarajevo’s contemporary “publicness” are still considerably determined by this legacy. The massive recreational facilities built in the city’s oldest and most central municipalities in the 1970s and 1980s are yet unmatched by the feeble and meagre provisions of the liberal-democratic local authorities. Beyond the standard welfare program of the post-Second World War state-led development campaigns (housing, schools and hospitals) socialist Sarajevo featured exceptional architectural and urbanistic initiatives, such as the Sports and Cultural Center Skenderija (1969), the Ciglane Housing District (1979) and the vast sports infrastructure built for the purpose of the 1984 Winter Olympic Games (1980-84).

The beautifully unorthodox program of Skenderija particularly marked the cusp of investment and intervention in the city’s public life. It was conceived in the second half of the 1960s as a building that would answer to the multifaceted urban deficiencies of Sarajevo in the face of the rise of the modern socialist society. Its multifunctional Great Hall, two sports halls, Youth Cultural Center, Art gallery and shopping centre used to define an intense public hub (Figure 01). In the Ciglane, a massive and inventive terraced housing complex, a vast central square was conceived as an origination and a culmination of its communication lines and visual sequences. The Winter Olympics urban plan promoted the conception of the “green transfersal” that would turn the Koševo valley into the recreational axis made of parks and sport venues. 

The material and symbolic capital generated through these (and many other) projects has been considerably degraded during the last twenty years: concrete decayed; due to poor management, halls remained empty or featured inappropriate content; open spaces were reduced as a result of financially opportunistic construction. As in many of the Western Balkan cities, the unruly privatization chipped away the accumulated values, both in terms of physical structures and institutional set ups and credibilities. The citizens rebelled against these developments by taking advantage of the increasingly mediatized public sphere supported by the social networks. Ironically, the destruction of the physical public spaces resulted in reinvigorated public discussion about it in the virtual realm. 

The most recent controversy about the Hastahana park is emblematic of the extralegal “procedures” in which institutions and firms engage in order to realize real estate ventures  that jeopardize public interest on multiple fronts. The Hastahana is a small, but vital open space besieged by the increasingly dense construction in the central quarter of Sarajevo called Marijin Dvor. The regulation plan for the area, originally drafted in the 1950s, envisioned a modern center of the city as a well balanced composition of key national institutions, commerce and squares. Yet the foreign direct investment opportunities  (particularly by the companies originating in the Persian Gulf) inspired real estate schemes that annulled the initial conception, particularly its projected network of open public spaces.

In the case of the Hastahana, a comparatively humble (in terms of size and equipment) yet much beloved and frequented “park,” the Center Municipality resorted to the common administrative tool that the authorities intensely used during the last two decades to insert private interests into the rationale of urban development – the “modifications and amendments” of the existing plans. By means of these documents the municipal councils have “modified and amended” a range of regulation plans that have been produced in an earnest pursuit for the urban quality of life, in order to help interested real estate companies construct offices, shopping malls and hotels on the land previously designated as open public space. This is how, in 2019, the Municipality redefined the space of the park as three construction parcels and sold the large one on its western side to the Central Bank of B&H. Since then, a group of citizens orchestrated continuous (and ongoing) public resistance to the project, with an uncertain conclusion.  (Figure 02)

The role of architectural discipline in this and other instances of struggle for the city has, for long, been irrelevant. Architects have facilitated the annihilation of squares and parks by designing elite projects, drafting plans in the municipal planning offices and producing other documentation necessary to introduce the amendments to the existing plans. Their conspicuous absence from serious discussions about the political meaning of technical achievements and projections is, in fact, consistent with a technocratic attitude that permeated the local history of the discipline since the 1950s. The secretive, insulated mode of work has been a characteristic of the Institute for Development Planning of the Sarajevo Canton for at least seven decades. The collective agency of its anonymous experts defined the parameters of Sarajevo’s urbanism in ways that set it on the course of unlivability. The urban form, the circulation schemes, the arrangement of residential and industrial zones and the construction densities combined with bad governance to make this city one of the most pollutedin the world. (Figure 03) Particularly the recent intense investment into very large and high buildings results in blocked natural ventilation of Sarajevo’s deep, narrow and long basin, making it suffocate in smog during the winter months. Every single new high-rise in the city proper (including the Central Bank that will possibly destroy the Hastahana Park) further transforms its shrinking open spaces into the realm not of public life, but public death. 

In 1958 political theorist Hannah Arendt warned that the works of technics have to be directed by the politically-savvy debate in the public sphere. She regarded the technically-capable and unreflective man, the Animal Laborans, with suspicion. More recently, sociologist Richard Sennet vindicated the concept by proposing a renewed “cultural materialism” as bases for both technical and political labour. The “human animal” endowed with an intuitive technique, Sennet claimed, could help navigate politics. The emergency of Sarajevo’s “publicness,” including its public spaces, makes both of these emancipatory propositions acutely relevant. Sarajevo’s architects still have to figure the techno-social and techno-political potentials (and responsibilities) of their work and use this knowledge in the clash with incompetent and greedy political regimes. They still have to start seriously regarding the cultural and political meaning of their city’s materiality, including its Dinaric rocks, its socialist concrete and its smog.

Andrić’s hopeful gaze towards the residential towers and the factory chimneys of the modern city saw them as the sublation of the history marked by inter-ethnic strife. If his hope has been betrayed by a renewed conflict (related to the dissolution of Yugoslavia in the 1990s), then perhaps now more than ever a unifying political platform has been provided by a common biological threat of climate change. But this, of course, is not sufficient. Divided, parcelled, traded and poisoned, what public space of Sarajevo requires is a reassuring act of public provision that could compare with the monumental scope of Skenderija. 

In 1999, Zlatko Ugljen, the Bosnian veteran master architect conceived such a project for the historical site of Bijela Tabija (Figure 04). Located on the top of a hummock flanking the oriental historic core of Sarajevo, the complex would offer a cluster of recreational and cultural services within an easy reach from the central urban areas, yet removed from the polluted and congested city center. Ugljen worked with the geographic-historical determinants of Sarajevo and modern technology to produce an image of great strength that would provide a bases for reinvigorated public identification. What is needed, however, to realize this project is a city administration of social-economic vision on a par with Ugljen’s genius. It would be an administration that does not succumb to social development’s “inexorable laws” but defines its city’s own through expert and artistic engagement with its material-cultural conditions. 


Andrić, Ivo. Putopisi, impresije, zapisi. Zagreb: Školska knjiga, 2015.

Arendt, Hannah. The Human Condition. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1998.

Hastahana Park, Facebook, 

Sennet, Richard. The Craftsman. London: Penguin Books, 2008.

Zavod za planiranje razvoja Kantona Sarajevo, “Prezentacija Studije urbanih ventilacionih koridora i uticaja visokih zgrada u Kantonu Sarajevo,” Accessed March 7, 2021.

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