Croatia / Central & Eastern Europe / History / Zagreb / Popular Culture / Travel / Retrofuturism / Architecture & Design

Yugoslavia in the Year 2000

Throughout 1960, Globus magazine ran a series of articles about what they thought the country would look like in the year 2000. Casting their eyes over existing plans for concrete suburbs and high-rise cities, Globus’s writers were essentially saying that, thanks to socialism, the future was already here.

Globus February 1960 (artist unknown)

Globus, a large-format weekly magazine liberally splattered with adverts for everything from washing powder to motor scooters, was an ideal media platform for the new epoch of plenty.

Throughout 1960 the Zagreb-based magazine Globus ran a series of articles about what they thought the country might look like in 2000. Despite the obvious flights of fancy – air taxis, interplanetary travel, rocket factories on the outskirts of Zagreb - the articles were actually grounded in the present rather than the future. The point of the series was not just to entertain readers with sci-fi speculation but also to draw attention to the advances that Yugoslav communism was already making. Casting their eyes over existing plans for concrete suburbs and high-rise cities, Globus’s writers were essentially saying that, thanks to socialism, the future was already here.

In 1960, Yugoslavia (then the Federal People’s Republic of Yugoslavia or FNRJ) saw itself as a young country, one that had made huge progress in the 15 years that separated it from the chaos and destruction of World War II. By the late 1950s, a combination of state planning and western loans (the latter a consequence of Stalin’s repudiation of Tito in 1948) had resulted in a booming economy and rising living standards. Freed of Soviet shackles, Yugoslav communism was increasingly perceived as something both innovative and pragmatic: workers’ self-management, conceived as a form of socialist democracy radically different to the étatist Muscovite model, had been gradually introduced after 1952. Yugoslavia was also seen as a trend-setter in international relations, moving closer to emerging global players such as Egypt and India in search of a new, non-bloc, anti-colonial consensus. The changing face of Yugoslav society found expression in the conclusions of the communist party’s Seventh Congress (held in Ljubljana in April 1958), which emphasized the need to provide citizens not just with jobs and homes but also leisure possibilities and domestic goods. The era of consumer communism had arrived.

Globus, a large-format weekly magazine liberally splattered with adverts for everything from washing powder to motor scooters, was an ideal media platform for the new epoch of plenty. Its pages were filled with film stars, news from around the globe, and regular updates on the deeds of national leader Josip Broz Tito. A series of articles entitled Yugoslavia in the Year 2000 kicked off in February 1960 with an imaginary reportage from Belgrade written 40 years in the future. Going on to cover Zagreb, Skopje and Sarajevo, the series came to a halt with a fifth feature about Ljubljana in February 1961. Billed as “the Fantastic Story Without Fantasy” these articles were an exercise in futurist prediction based on what was actually being sketched out by architects in 1960. With vast new city-suburbs being built from scratch in Belgrade, Zagreb and Sarajevo, the message couldn’t have been clearer: Yugoslav socialism was synonymous with progress, and it was happening right now.

Avert for scooter made by PRETIS of Sarajevo, under license from German manufacturer NSU. Globus 1960

Belgrade

“The quiet, barely audible monotone of rocket motors put my son to sleep” is how the first article begins. It was written by a 25-year-old journalist (a certain A.Ungaro) pretending to be a 65-year-old returning to his home town after a 40-year absence. He found a modern town of green spaces and skyscrapers: “in the metropolis of glass, concrete and aluminium, the best and most beautiful parts of the old city will be preserved.” In a scene oddly prescient of the current, corporate-financed urban renewal project known as Beograd na Vodi (“Belgrade Waterfront”), the writer described how the main railway station had been removed from the riverside and replaced by bright buildings and public parks. “From Senjak to Kalemegdan, the area that had certainly been the ugliest part of old Belgrade, there was no longer any sign of that chaos of cargo wharfs, railway tracks and empty, steep areas of waste.”

Main sign of transformation came however from the seemingly never-ending block-scape of Novi Beograd, most of which had still been in the planning stages at the time the real Ungaro was writing. The dream of building a Corbusier-inspired concrete city on the northwestern banks of the River Sava dated back to the late Forties, although progress had been fitful until the late Fifties, after which a two-decade spurt of construction produced the 220,000-strong modernist sprawl we know today.

Rijeka’s shipyards were busy building atomic ships; inter-republican postal services were delivered by rocket.

Globus envisaged a green, pedestrianized Novi Beograd in which motor traffic would be banished to the margins. A sense of community would come from the provision of central plazas with cinemas and pavement cafes. Museums and other cultural institutions would occupy a park beside the river. Only the latter part of this description rings true today, thanks in large part to the excitingly angular Museum of Contemporary Art, completed in 1965 and reopened after extensive renovation in 2017.

Belgrade in the year 2000. Globus February 1960.

Many of the things that nowadays seem so iconic about Novi Beograd, such as the boldly brutalist Genex Tower (1977-79) or the sawn-off ziggurats of the Bežanija Blocks (1976-79), look more otherworldly than anything envisaged by Globus in 1960. However the magazine’s writers still had great fun making things up, and occasionally came close to predicting the way in which the 21st century would be lived. Passenger airliners travelled at 3000km per hour and had massive TV screens in the cabin ceiling. Disembarking passengers were given video-phones which could be used to book hotel rooms or access encyclopaedic guides to their destination. People travelled around town by hover-taxi or hover-scooter. Rijeka’s shipyards were busy building atomic ships; inter-republican postal services were delivered by rocket.

Zagreb

Alongside Novi Beograd, Novi Zagreb was the other great example of socialist progress which Globus sought to dangle in front of its readers. Like its Belgrade counterpart, little of it had actually been built by 1960, and most of its neighbourhoods were to be completed between the mid-Sixties and the mid-Seventies. The article about Zagreb appeared in May, written by Globus’s regular feature writer Nenad Brixy (1924-1984), subsequently to achieve fame as the translator of cult Italian comic strip Alan Ford. Brixy’s millennial alter-ego went to a cinema in Novi Zagreb to view a documentary entitled Zagreb Now and Then, which detailed the differences between the Sixties and the new century. “The camera caught our grandparents in their ridiculous clothes running after those antiquated vehicles called trams. We the saw them packed like sardines inside those trams, and then how they ran towards the gates of their factories, glancing nervously at their watches as they went.” Novi Zagreb in 2000 was divided into micro-districts where people could walk from their tower-block homes to their environmentally clean factories without the need to run for trams. If you did need to get somewhere in a hurry you would catch a helicopter taxi or use the super-fast urban railway.

The “old” centre around Trg bana Jelačića and Ilica would be a pedestrianized heritage zone – parking garages outside the centre would dissuade people from driving in. It was the area around ulica Proleterskih brigada (now ulica Grada Vukovara) that would serve as a new civic centre: imposing residential blocks had taken root here already in the 1950s, and the new city hall was to be completed in 1962. Even today it remains an area of capital-city aspirations, with the Lisinski concert hall on one side of the road, the National University Library looming above parklands to the south, and the controversial row of fountains installed in 2013 stretching towards the horizon. But it hardly qualifies as a centre of anything – the roads are too wide, traffic flow is prioritized over pedestrians, and despite a cluster of bars beneath the library, people do not come here to stroll.

Life in Novi Zagreb. Globus May 1960.

Indeed one thing that strikes the modern reader of these articles is the assumption that these neighbourhoods of broad boulevards and concrete solitaires would become the new centres of increasingly dispersed cities. Each super-neighbourhod would be a new urban nucleus, providing work, schooling, healthcare, shopping and leisure opportunities to those who lived there. Although many of the blocks in Novi Beograd and Novi Zagreb come with kindergartens, libraries and shopping parades, the provision of lifestyle infrastructure fell far short of the original blueprint. Paradoxically it was left to the capitalist culture of shopping malls, multiplex cinemas and concert arenas to provide places like Novi Zagreb and Novi Beograd with the social content that the communist planners envisaged, but never quite got round to fulfilling.

Atomic fairytale

Least convincing of the articles was that devoted to Macedonia in June. Despite the appealing subtitle (“The Land of Atomic Fairytale”), the piece didn’t offer much in the way of concrete speculation. After arriving in Skopje in a 150km-per-hour riverboat, author Drago Tović (a feature-writing pseudonym used by career journalist Dramomir Kastratović) was taken on a whistle-stop tour of the republic in a gas-turbine car, looking at housing estates in Prilep and hotels in Ohrid. What the author could not have known was that the capital Skopje was to suffer a catastrophic earthquake in 1963, leading to an ambitious exercise in reconstruction that is nowadays regarded as a set-piece of modern planning.

In October Tović was looking around Bosnian capital Sarajevo. Many of the blocks that make up the concrete suburb of Grbavica had already been built by 1960, and the writer was characteristically upbeat about what it was going to look like when it was all finished, envisioning “swimming pools, flowerbeds, fountains and waterfalls.”. Globus also made a great deal of Marijin Dvor, the proposed new civic and social centre just west of Sarajevo’s historic core. The plans for this area had been unveiled by erstwhile assistant to Le Corbusier Juraj Niedhardt in 1954, and much of it had been built by the time Globus’s articles hit the presses. However Neidhardt’s pièce-de-résistance, the complex housing Bosnia-Herzegovina’s parliament and government, was not completed until 1982.

There were plans for Skopje’s total reconstruction even before the earthquake of 1963. Globus June 1960.

As the Eighties got underway Yugoslavia’s construction boom drew to a premature halt, thanks to a deepening economic crisis driven in large part by the country’s massive foreign debt. The idea of reinventing a city through modern architecture, always a boldly megalomaniac undertaking that seemed to invite its own non-completion, had to be set aside. What makes the Yugoslavia in the Year 2000 series so poignant is not just that Yugoslavia itself never made it to the millennium, but also that the post-war dream of the planned city was in itself something of a mirage.

Perhaps the most accurate article of the series was the one devoted to Ljubljana, guessing correctly that the picturesque Old Town on the banks of the Ljubljanica river would become the recreational centre of a regenerated metropolis – although author (Tović again) overdid things a bit in his description of the river. “On the Lubljanica’s gentle waves I see thousands of boats and little ships, all made from plastic material in all colours and shapes. It’s this part of town that is Ljubljana’s main entertainment zone. The Baroque facades of the houses have been preserved, but the ambience on both banks of the river has changed completely. The people! The bustle! The outfits!”

Globus’s time-travelling team never quite made it to Split, a city whose startling spurt of 1970s modernization brought us the Split-3 residential complex, the Koteks shopping centre, and the magnificent Poljud Stadium – the latter built to host the 1979 Mediterranean Games.

Yugoslavia in 2000 may well have been consigned to the realms of fantasy. But we will always have Split in 1979.

© Jonathan Bousfield