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Ivan Rašković, Professor Of The University Of Belgrade Faculty Of Architecture, President Of The Association Of Belgrade Architects

Seeking Equilibrium Between Public And Private Interests

Belgrade’s development testifies to its economic might and market attractiveness, to the positive and negative values that it shares, in relative terms, with the planet’s other metropolises. Although there is plenty of public debate in our country regarding current architectural solutions, often among laypeople, I would say that the field of architecture has an optimal influence in our environment. The sheer number of design contests organised in our country testifies to this claim

The latest urban planning and architecture solutions in our cities are among the many topics subjected to lively debate in Serbia, not only in the context of the solutions themselves, but first and foremost as a reflection of broader social values, and denying, striving towards and deviating from those values.

In recent times, these debates have been bringing citizens onto the streets, with some architects and urban planners stating that they are directly engaged in political life or are react collectively as representatives of the profession, commenting on the numerous signs of change throughout Serbia, from the Belgrade Waterfront and the route of the metro, to the potential destruction of ecological oases like Šodroš or the Reva Pond, the felling of trees lining streets in the centres of major Serbian cities and the ubiquitous invisible hands of investor urbanism. In order to get the lowdown on whether the dilemmas besieging us are uniquely ours or global issues, the search for the correct balance between public and private interests, the amounts of money circulating in the construction sector and all kinds of better and worse architectural solutions to be found in rural Serbia, we spoke with Ivan Rašković, professor at the Belgrade Faculty of Architecture and president of the Association of Belgrade Architects.

For a foreign visitor or someone arriving from the provinces, the architectural solutions of a capital city relay a message about a country’s development, about its relationship towards history and the future, and certainly towards citizens themselves. Observed from that perspective, what does the latest wave of construction in the Serbian capital tell you about the values that we nurture?

– The wave that you mention primarily testifies to Belgrade being a metropolis, because many brands that extend beyond its boundaries are developing in the city. The legendary ‘splav’ (raft) venues floating on the Sava and Danube, which have long been famous across Europe and beyond, represent a metaphor for the metropolis, combining within them ‘the black and the white’; the nadir and the zenith of urban life. Additionally, Belgrade’s museums have also become one of the city’s brands; the Nikola Tesla museum is particularly prominent, and for good reason, because it displays the legacy of one of the all-time greatest inventors in human history. The diversity of Belgrade’s urban matrix, the presence of architecture with superior values, a rich offer of city amenities, heritage and dramatic multiculturalism, once brought it flattering comparisons with Berlin. The momentum of construction we’re discussing is, in a way, both the cause and consequence of Belgrade’s status as a metropolis.

The volume of all kinds of investments testifies to it being a significant space of great opportunities, so the city’s growth is an expression of the desire to utilise those opportunities. One financial expert told me a few years ago that, at that moment, there was more money circulating in the Belgrade construction sector than there had been in the entire Socialist Federal Yugoslavia prior to its collapse.

A large number of various ethno-complexes have been sprouting up all over Serbia for decades and often represent unskilled and even tasteless interpretations of the rural architecture of our lands

A great advantage is also represented by its position at the confluence of two navigable rivers, the Sava and the Danube, on the border of the Pannonian Plain, which leads directly to the “heart” of the European continent. Of course, the architecture and construction highlighted in your question are important elements of the metropolis that certainly express the system of values and economic might.

Belgrade is growing dynamically, with new buildings and complexes demonstrating that it is also a place to generate profit, in which it doesn’t differ from other world metropolises. New square metres are sold and rented because there is high demand for this type of “good”. The attitude towards heritage is something the public is sensitive to, but there must be consideration for the fact that every city is also a “usable object” and that buildings have their own lifespan, so it certainly can’t live its life as it did, say, a hundred years ago. The development of Belgrade, thus, testifies to its economic might and market attractiveness, to the positive and negative values that it shares, in relative terms, with the planet’s other metropolises.

Whose notions are woven into such solutions? How many of them are the product of relevant international contests, involving foreign and domestic architects – competing, ideas – and what does that tell us about the influence your profession has on shaping the future – not only the future of the capital, but of urban centres across Serbia?

– The ‘idea’ of a city is always the result of the harmonising of public interest and private investments that “fill” the budget, while the city administration further directs them towards development for the benefit of all citizens. Interestingly, our area is known for its long and well-developed tradition of public architectural contests, so its buildings that were ‘won’ in contests include: Palace Albania, the Temple of Saint Sava (on two occasions), St. Mark’s Church in Tašmajdan, New Belgrade’s Hotel Yugoslavia, the General Staff Building in Miloš Veliki Street [Yugoslav MoD], the Palace of Serbia and the National Library. That tradition is not waning – thus, around a year ago, we had as many as five architecture contests: for the faculties of applied arts and music, the hub on the site of the former Ložionica railway depot next to Gazela Bridge, the extension of Student City in New Belgrade… all capital investments! A contest, as a competition between ideas, is certainly the best way to reach the right solution for any architectural topic.

One financial expert told me a few years ago that, at that moment, there was more money circulating in Belgrade’s construction sector than in the entire SFR Yugoslavia prior to its collapse

What happens in a spatial area impacts all members of the community, regardless of the ownership status of a structure or land plot; impacting their movements, views, sense of satisfaction, and their lives in general. Public and private interests must be concordant, through compromise and close collaboration, without radical opposition. The correct solution is to evaluate which locations in the city are of such spatial importance that planning documentation for them must include the obligatory conducting of a public contest, regardless of whether the project is under state or private ownership. And that is actually implemented in our environment, though I would say not to a sufficient extent. The influence of the field of architecture in our area is assessed differently by the public, and therein we have to be mindful that this public, the wider public everywhere around the world, including in our country, is made up of laypeople when it comes to issues of architecture and urban planning.

The public functions according to lines of personal taste, which is a subjective category; the fact that someone doesn’t like a façade in the city or the way some square has been arranged doesn’t necessarily mean those solutions are bad. I would still say that the field of architecture has an optimal influence in our environment; in relative terms, architecture contests are organised in our country much more often than they are in most EU countries and the U.S., but it can always be better.

Investor urbanism is often mentioned in our country as a prevalent private interest that is to the detriment of public interest and the real needs of citizens. Is that fated in the times in which we live globally, or are there also ways to reflect public interest in our cities. Where lies the power of architects and urban planners, and that of citizens?

– Every expression of “urbanism” is by its very nature investor-driven, regardless of who invests the money. On the other hand, it is clear that not every private investment threatens the public interest. However, in a narrower sense, this notion relates to private investors, be they individuals or companies, who manage – through corrupt deeds – to have planning documents amended to favour them.

Thus, this is not fated in the time and space in which we live, but is rather a global phenomenon that has a tradition dating back centuries and is on par with the legal prevention of corruption and influence peddling among individual civil servants – decision makers. Civic action is also a legitimate instrument for crushing negative processes in a city’s development. However, here – as I’ve mentioned – it should be considered that the vast majority of citizens are laypeople when it comes to issues of a city’s development, so in any event they require professional assistance in recognising the real essence of a problem and the direction of its solution.

If “Investor urbanism” implies private investors who manage – through corrupt deeds – to have planning documents amended to favour them, then it is on par with the legal prevention of corruption and influence peddling among individual civil servants – decision makers

Finally, the “power” of an architect in these matters is both indirect and direct; indirectly through planning documentation compiled in a high-quality way and contests that are well organised and adjudication, and directly in cases when they occupy decision-making positions while serving, for example, in the position of a city architect or urban planner, as a member of a planning commission, a state secretary at the ministry or a local government official.

There is a lot of talk at present about smart cities as urban areas that absorb the latest technological solutions, provide important responses to address the challenges of climate change and provide for a better quality of life for citizens. To what extent do you observe such trends in urban planning solutions and plans in Serbia and surrounding countries?

– I’m not an expert on that topic, but I think that our region’s inclusion in those trends is optimal. The planning documentation of the majority of our cities encompasses issues of waste recycling, reducing harmful emissions and developing the concept of “green energy”, as well as protecting the environment. Air pollution in Belgrade, for instance, is the result of incinerating various types of industrial waste in private furnaces. It is necessary to implement major, enduring and financially supported efforts to render these furnaces environmentally acceptable.

One piece of news that we were able to read recently is that the number of abandoned residential units in Serbia has increased by around 10,000 since 2011, to a total of 123,000. How do you interpret this information? What does it say about our housing policy?

– We would have to define precisely what we mean under the term “abandoned apartment”. If that includes apartments that no one currently lives in, there can be various reasons, such as their owners residing and working abroad. Over the past decade, a significant number of apartments have been bought as investments that are waiting for prices to rise, which has nothing to do with the housing policy, which actually finds its place in an important document that’s been prepared over many years by our state under the title National Architecture Strategy.

You spoke in another interview about something that only appears sporadically in our country’s media: architectural solutions in rural areas, or the existence of public places in that space. Is their absence or neglect one of the answers to the question of why those areas are being abandoned, and could addressing that lead to their possible rediscovery?

– Rural areas are still beyond the focus of the architecture profession in our country. The key reason is the imperative of the ideology of modernism to break with the past. That break manifested in attempts to find new, self-grounded form and spatial concepts. The architecture of rural areas is symbolised by the backward and the undesirable. The emergence of postmodernism in the last third of the 20th century created space for the specific utilising of the principles of traditional rural architecture, and results weren’t lacking. Inspiration from folklore architecture is inexhaustible and represents an opportunity for our country to affirm itself culturally and in tourism and economic terms. A large number of various ethno-complexes, primarily intended for hospitality purposes, have been sprouting up all over Serbia for decades. Unfortunately, most of those creations are not architecturally “literate”, nor do they have any genuine connection with tradition, but rather they represent unskilled and even tasteless interpretations of the rural architecture of our lands. Solutions that are properly inspired by the tradition of rural architecture and represent exemplary illustrations of that tradition, such as the works of Božidar Petrović and Blagota Pešić, are also present, though unfortunately to a much lesser extent, for now.

VOX POPULI

The influence of the field of architecture in our area is assessed differently by the public, and we have to be mindful that the wider public are laypeople when it comes to issues of architecture and urban planning

TOPONYMS

The legendary ‘splav’ venues on the Sava and Danube, which have long been famous across Europe and beyond, represent a metaphor for the metropolis, combining within them ‘the black and the white’; the nadir and the zenith of urban life

HOUSING

The very relevant topic of housing policy actually finds its place in an important document that’s been prepared over many years by our state under the title National Architecture Strategy