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Ivan Rašković, Professor at the Faculty of Architecture in Belgrade, President of the Union of Architects of Serbia

Ad Hoc Decisions Aren’t in Society’s Interest

I have no dilemma over whether the Army General Staff HQ and the Belgrade Fair, as two architectural masterpieces and symbols of our urban and state identity, should remain protected and should be repurposed following serious consideration and professional consultation

There isn’t an “ideal” situation anywhere in the world where the principles of our profession are fully respected, but that doesn’t mean that architectural solutions adopted by cities can’t strike a better balance between differing interests. “The City is a ‘living thing’ and is subject to the results of the often-conflicting interests of various formal and informal groups, the logic of capital in a market economy, social relations and the most varied influencing factors of a material and immaterial nature,” says Ivan Rašković, a professor at the Faculty of Architecture in Belgrade, who also serves as president of the Union of Architects of Serbia.

If we’re dissatisfied with what we have, or if we want our city to be different in the future, the solutions leading to that are very simple, explains our interlocutor. There are existing regulations that need to be adhered to in planning, design, construction and exploitation phases, new ideas that need to be implemented, needs and desires, and a state that needs to implement those solutions and control their quality. However, that which sounds simple is sometimes very complicated. In this interview, we focused on the current misunderstandings between the architecture profession and city planners, as well as the solutions available to us.

How much weight does the opinion of the architecture profession hold when it comes to the development of architectural solutions in Belgrade?

— The answer to this question depends on the criteria set and the professional aspect from which you consider the question. If we look comprehensively at what is being built, we could note that the principles of the profession are not respected to a certain extent. On the other hand, we have a contest practice that’s developed traditionally since the beginning of the 20th century, and contests are among the most effective instruments to achieve high quality in architecture, because they represent a ‘competition of ideas’. I don’t know how well-known this is, but the solutions for St. Sava Temple, the Church of St. Mark in Belgrade, the Palace of Albania and, for example, the House of the National Assembly of the Republic of Serbia all resulted from public architectural contests held between the beginning and the middle of the last century. A total of 13 public, anonymous contests have been tendered since 2018, mostly for capital facilities, and they were tendered by the Government, ministries and other state institutions.

When you observe Belgrade from a bird’s eye view, you see that almost all streets in the wider city centre area are treelined. But that green “fund” has long faced a kind of construction “aggression”, which is why it is shrinking

The Ložionica creative/innovative multifunctional centre at the Mostar junction, the faculty of music and applied arts, and the expansion of ‘Student City’ are just a few of these competitions, and they are all capital investments directed exclusively by the state. As such, if we observe such topics, we see that the profession is respected in the best possible way. On the other hand, I’m sorry to say that such an approach was not taken in the case of the Belgrade Waterfront development. Interestingly, the City of Belgrade’s general plan envisaged a public architecture contest, which would have resulted in many benefits if it had been implemented.

What do you expect in this context when it comes to solutions for the Belgrade Fair complex and the Army General Staff HQ?

— I logically expect those two masterpieces of architecture and symbols of our urban and national identity to remain under protection; for the exterior of the Army HQ to be restored, while the interior could be redesigned for some new purpose. That building lies within the wider complex of military institutions that were located in that area during the first third of the 19th century, while on the opposite side of Miloša Veliki Street are the buildings of the Government of the Republic of Serbia and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. That’s why the future purpose of the Army HQ should remain administrative, for systemic and security reasons.

The Belgrade Fair could likewise be repurposed. The facilities are in good condition, their spatial structure corresponds to the amenities of a spectacle venue and are able to accommodate different contents. The idea of relocating the fairgrounds to the zone in Surčin isn’t illogical – the close proximity of the highway, Belgrade Airport and the access road network renders this location suitable for hosting various exhibitions that would expect tens of thousands of people to visit on a daily basis. The existing Belgrade Fair, although popular and with very good visitor numbers when dedicated events are held, no longer has the required capacity, such as parking for around forty thousand visitors, which is how many arrive on a daily basis during the most attractive trade fairs. However, this doesn’t mean that the Belgrade Fair complex shouldn’t be preserved in its entirety, because it represents a top work of architecture and urban planning at the world level, and it remains “usable”. New purposes should be defined for both of these complexes, but that should be conducted on the basis of serious expert analysis, and not on ad hoc ideas.

One of the key aspects of the Paris 2024 Olympics is the development of solutions that are harmonised with environmental protection standards and strengthen social equality. What do you think Belgrade should learn from this as a positive practice in planning investments pertaining to Expo 2027?

— Belgrade is a city that stands on the widest confluence of two rivers in Europe and that makes it a unique location, and when we include the long tradition of greening the streets of Belgrade, we see that we have potential that requires further development and improvement. And, to reiterate, the fact is that facilities that serve the public interest can also house income-generating activities. The two great rivers in our city’s urban zone are public, recreational facilities that simultaneously represent spaces for entertainment, such as the widely-renowned Belgrade ‘splav’ raft venues, which represent a kind of brand of our country. Moreover, the Sava and Danube are powerful transport waterways that are important to the European economy.

All the things I’ve listed aren’t mutually exclusive; care should be taken to ensure the riverbanks are landscaped and accessible to citizens to the greatest possible extent, that the water is clean and that commercial areas on the banks are gradually relocated to the periphery of the city in a rational and sustainable manner, with their current locations reconstructed and converted into recreational, residential and sports zones. With considered planning, facilities can be built that will continue their “life” sustainably even after the end of the event for which they were initially created. Alongside the infrastructure being built for that future “life”, it is crucial to have management that will monitor the development of the market and the needs of the milieu in which they operate, and which will successfully address the demands of the future.

The Western Balkans is one of the world regions facing stronger consequences of climate change. Major cities around the world are applying green and blue solutions in a big way, in an effort to adapt to these conditions. Could Belgrade implement these kinds of solutions and where would these interventions be possible?

— I mentioned in my response to the previous question that Belgrade has a unique location in Europe, a position at the point where two mighty rivers merge. Furthermore, Belgrade’s green “fund” traditionally isn’t negligible. When you observe Belgrade from a bird’s eye view, you see, somewhat surprisingly, that almost all streets in the wider city centre area are treelined, not to mention New Belgrade, which is awash in greenery. Of course, that green “fund” has long faced a kind of construction “aggression”, which is why it is shrinking. There are existing standards stipulating amounts of green areas in a city, from individual plots to the urban agglomeration, and adhering to those standards always ensures there’s enough green space. So, the potential exists!

With considered planning, facilities can be built that will continue their “life” sustainably even after Expo 2027… Here it is crucial to have management that will monitor the development of the market and the needs of the milieu in which they operate

Finally, innovative solutions also exist in this area: river water purification plants that are also parks with lakes (Budapest); the permaculture concept where greenery within a micro-eco-system is merely renewed and maintained. And – as always in history – it is new ideas that develop the milieu.

So, we have rivers (blue) and treelined lanes, parks, meadows (green), and they should be preserved and improved. The solutions are simpler than they might appear to us at first glance; there are existing regulations that need to be adhered to in planning, design, construction and exploitation phases, while there are new ideas that need to be applied. This is nothing complicated if you want it and, as has always been the case throughout history, everything is in our hands… The citizenry has needs and desires, the state implements them and controls the quality, and that’s all there is to it!

Do we have a critical mass of knowledge for the implementation of such major interventions in the Serbian academy and in the domain of public policies?

— We do, of course. We have a significant number of experts who are competent in this topic, and they are present in all required fields. Recently, for example, the National Architectural Strategy was adopted at the state level and represents a document of strategic importance that conceptualises the field of spatial planning and, particularly importantly, defines the criteria for controlling the quality of processes that result in spatial arrangements. And that’s not all! As such, a platform for action exists in a formal and essential sense. And, again, as always in history, everything is up to us, our citizens, society, the state as a framework for the continued existence and development of our society and… our willingness and readiness to act to our own benefit. Is that not both complex and simple at the same time?

PROFESSION

Contests are among the most effective instruments to achieve high quality in architecture, because they represent a ‘competition of ideas’. It’s a shame this golden rule wasn’t respected in the case of the Belgrade Waterfront development

MIGHT

All decisions are up to us, our citizens, society, the state as a framework for the continued existence and development of our society, and our willingness and readiness to act to our own benefit. Is that not both complex and simple at the same time?

TRANSITION

Care should be taken to ensure the riverbanks are landscaped and accessible to citizens, that the water is clean and that commercial areas on the banks are gradually relocated to the periphery of the city, in a rational and sustainable manner