The building, completed in 1963, is today Belgrade’s most famous ruin: the Federal Ministry of Defense building on the corner of Miloševa and Nemanjina streets is the work of Nikola Dobrovic. Especially the twin giant frontbuildings were heavily damaged during NATO bombings on 7th May 1999 and are scary examples of precision bombing on Kneza Milosa Street.
Dobrovic is considered Serbia’s most important modern architect although he built only one building in Belgrade towards the end of his career.
The making and building of the Federal Ministry of Defense coincided with the construction of the post-war national identity in Yugoslavia shortly after the break from Stalin in 1948. During the spring of 1954 the Yugoslav Army invited nine Yugoslav architects to compete for a new building complex. One of them was Nikola Dobrovic, already known in leftist circles of the European intellectual avant-garde for his modernist work. He was a pioneer among Yugoslavian architects in resisting the influence of tradition.
Dobrovic, an "academic" with a "liberating voice," was there to serve as proof of the recent shift in Yugoslav politics towards a pro-liberal image endorsed by the West. After the break with the Eastern Bloc was unlikely to favor a Neo-classicist variations on national identity (like e.g. the competition entrance of Josip Plecnik, an established academic from Ljubljana) especially since Stalin had already appropriated the Neo-classicist image for the communist state.
Dobrovic won with a scheme stripped of any classical representations of power. The changes and the liberalization of a transitional state such as Yugoslavia were to be shaped into a volume, not expressed as a narrative. The street front across the site had already been filled with pre-war representational buildings in a variety of academic and Neo-classical styles.
Dobrovic's proposal connected the two divided areas of the site by proposing a long and narrow volume from one end of the site to the other with a full length of 250 meters, thus keeping a space open for the street coming up the hill from the main railway station to the city and forming a symbolic gate.
By setting this volume back from the line of the crossing street, Dobrovic created a 270-meter wide field open for experiments in elevation. The void in that elevation evoked a canyon and Dobrovic imagined the void as an integral part of his new image of national identity.
Selective Bombing or NATO as architectural critics
Had NATO wished to destroy a building with more Western influences, it could not have found a better target than the Ministry of National Defense. The leveling of Vukovar, the siege of Sarajevo, and the random bombardment of Dubrovnik were believed to have been ordered from this place also referred to as the "heart of the war machine."
For NATO it was difficult to classify this building, because its presence was more represented by the void between two part of the complex and it was extremly modern looking. NATO's late decision to bomb the building, more than a month after the air attacks had started, may have been the effect of this low level of symbolism: no exposed columns, no ornamental narration of history, as might have been present in Stalinist architecture.
Would a historical looking building with colums and classical shape have been enough to remind NATO's cultural advisers of the possibility that it belongs to Culture?
Will this building now be remembered in relation to its creation or to its destruction?
The reconstruction is not planned.
Here 3 reasons why the building probably will remain a ruin:
1) Lack of money
It’s nothing unusual, in the Balkans it’s always lack of money.
But back in 1999, right after bombing, the talk from Washington indicated that most financial aid to the region will land in Kosovo, the area reported by the UN to have the least damage. In these days, we understand why!
2) Souvenir of a void as National Identity
This famous ruin in the heart of Belgrade now asks that we think of two voids in relation to each other: one created by Nikola Dobrovic within his building of the Federal Ministry of Defense and the new one created by NATO's bombs falling on the building. The dilemma is about which void to identify with, which void to remember.
3) Symbol as too much Yuogslavian
In the Balkan Symbols, Rituals Ideologies still count! People have a cultural memory.
What grows, needs time to grow, what goes down, needs time to be forgotten, but everything that existed leaves traces.
And the building of the Federal Ministry of Defense seems to be too much Yugoslavian, too much a reminder of the past, a past that represent a dark chapter of the collective memory,that is still not forgotten. Like the most of Dobrovic’s modernist works, they leave a bad feeling in the mind of Serbians.
(An italian translation related to this post can be found on bAlKaN_scapes)
About Nikola Dobrovic see an extract of „Bauwelt - He built the modern Yugoslavia“ It’s in german, but there are some interesting pictures (to download in the sidebar after the blogroll).