Lexicon for the Provisional Future(s)

Churches Of Communism

August 16th, 2007

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In the Economist (issue 11-17 August 2007) one could read that the Privatisation Agency of the Republic of Serbia has put on public auction the entire department stores “Beograd” (Robne Kuce Beograd) real estate property for the reason of bankruptcy. A total of 32 facilities in Serbia and 5 in Montenegro with a total floor surface of 239 875 m2 were on sale at a starting price of 140 million Euros.

If you look closely, in almost every town in (ex) Yugoslavia, no matter how big or small it is, you can for sure find a constellation of 3 buildings: the house of culture, the department store and the hotel. They may vary on size and origin, but they are always there, usually on or in the vicinity of the main square. And the set of 3 was built always after WW2, as part of a state program for rebuilding the country.


Traditionally, in pre-WW2 Yugoslavia, church was the place in town, where one could display social status, while being taken care of ones’ spiritual wellbeing. When Yugoslavia after WW2 became a communist country, something had to play the role of the church in this brand new state. Therefore, a new communist trilogy came into use instead: the house of culture (or equivalent cultural institution), the hotel and the department store. All of them existed in pre-war Yugoslavia as typology as well, but in most basic form and were, especially the hotel and department store, built by individual or groups of investors. After WW2, they became part of the state programme of rebuilding country and building the new communist society where everyone was ‘equal’.

As in church – where everyone is supposingly equal to god, though, by the place where one sits his or her status in the society is shown – also now some were more equal than other. The department store was the place of show, because despite equality, some could afford more luxurious goods than others. The department store inherited the role of church.  And for all, Saturday was the day to shop, replacing Sunday as the mandated cessation from work.

The role of church had been to take care of spirit of its inhabitants, and with that purpose now the house of culture was created. It was the first out of the 3 buildings usually to be built, sometimes the existing building of pre-war cinema or versatile sport hall (sokolski dom) would be ‘re-appropriated’.

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Hotels were created the last, and were sort of palaces for citizens, so everybody could enjoy their luxury. In a similar way as how a lavish church would show the prosperity of a town, the hotels were the pride of each town, a way to show how prosperous the town and its area is. There was a social network to back up the existence of a hotel in any town, so no matter how small it was, it could provide for a support infrastructure for all sorts of cultural events, festivals, students excursions etc. Its service part (restaurant, swimming pool, discotheque…) was not just made for the guests also but for local people, as a sort of all-in-one package to give the much needed infrastructure to the towns. The local administration tended to make the hotels as grand as they could be, and if you wanted to have bigger restaurants you had to have more rooms, to stay in a proportion between number of the rooms and size of the restaurant. This is how Jagodina, a town of 80.000 people, ended up with a hotel featuring 350 beds.

Hotels were created the last, and were sort of palaces for citizens, so everybody could enjoy their luxury. In a similar way as how a lavish church would show the prosperity of a town, the hotels were the pride of each town, a way to show how prosperous the town and its area is. There was a social network to back up the existence of a hotel in any town, so no matter how small it was, it could provide for a support infrastructure for all sorts of cultural events, festivals, students excursions etc.  Its service part (restaurant, swimming pool, discotheque…) was not just made for the guests but also for local people, as a sort of all-in-one package to provide the much-needed infrastructure to the towns. The local administration tended to make the hotels as grand as they could , and if you wanted to have bigger restaurants you had to have more rooms, to stay in a proportion between number of the rooms and size of the restaurant.  This is how Jagodina, a town of 80.000 people, ended up with a hotel featuring 350 beds.

Nowadays, the trilogy replacing the role of church is abandoned. The network that created them and that was keeping them alive nowadays is gone. Department stores are now reused by smaller shops, but hotels are usually desolate and empty. One of the difficulties today is that towns think of them as individual buildings, a nightmare for each city administration that lays half empty in the most prominent places while showing a too obvious state of decay. What they fail to observe is that they are actually part of a larger scale network. Especially the department stores – the network of department stores “Beograd” (Robne Kuce Beograd) was the largest on the Balkans. It is a network of really solid infrastructure suspended and waiting for new future explorations to happen. The question is who will answer the public auction call and buy all of this property – in one go.

Also the hotels could await a new future – the Jagodina hotel is a great opportunity for lovers of 1970’s retro design, while for instance the hotel in Paracin attracts with a style reminiscent of the Sputnik style, with some elements of 1980’s design added (it opened in 1983).

Dubravka Sekulic – with Ana Dzokic, Marc Neelen and Piet Vollaard

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