Belgrade is the ugliest city in the world in the most beautiful place in the world

Among the places to visit in Belgrade, there is one that can’t be missed: the historic downtown, situated at the confluence of the rivers Sava and Danube. All too often, the city – desired by many invaders during the 20 past centuries for its strategic importance, lying at the border between Orient and Occident – has been 40 times conquered, destroyed and rebuilt. As a result, different architectural layers mingle with modern movements and the search for identity.

Belgrade has a long and illustrious history, stretching all the way from the first prehistoric settlements in the area. Celts were first to name it Singidun, Romans conquered it later, Romanizing the name into Singidunum. It changed hands a lot of times – Avars, Huns, Ancient Slavs, Hungarians, Byzantines, Bulgarians, Serbs – all of them held the city for some time during the turbulent Middle Ages. Only the Belgrade Fortress remains the trusty witness of those times, with its mixture of various parts – from the Roman military encampment foundations, to the ruins of the Serbian royal castle overlooking the Great War Island, on the confluence of Danube and Sava rivers.

After the successful Ottoman Turkish siege of Belgrade in 1521, it was transformed into an Oriental Kasbah. Over hundred mosques were built inside the city, along with Caravanserais and Hans (guesthouses). The diverse population was settled in mahalas (city quarters), of which Evliya Celebi, the celebrated Turkish traveler from the 17th century, notes the Turkish, Serbian, Bulgarian, Greek, Gipsy, Jewish and Armenian ones. The three brief periods of Austrian rule in the 17-18th centuries left us with a transformed Vauban-style fortification, as well as with the oldest inhabited townhouse in Belgrade, dating from 1720. Unfortunately, very few buildings remain from those times, like the unique mosque of Belgrade, the Bayrakli Mosque.

After Serbia gained some measure of autonomy during the 1830s inside the Ottoman Empire, the Serbian national leaders relentlessly pursued the policy of Europeanization in every field of everyday life. Architecture and city planning were no exception. The earliest townhouses still in use today, even though built in traditional Balkan style, show increasing influence of the Western European architecture.

In the second half of the 19th century, buildings were built in styles indistinguishable from the leading styles of Vienna, Paris or Berlin, although on a smaller scale. New institutions appeared – such as the hotels and banks – displacing the crumbling Turkish houses, mosques and gardens. Emilijan Josimović, the first Serbian city planner in 1870 did away with the tight winding streets of the oriental Belgrade, imposing an orthogonal grid on the present day Dorćol area, but also pushing for creation of new green spaces inside the city. Such building activity continued until the Second World War, mainly following various strains of classicism and later on, modernism, with brief flourishes of Serbian National style, Art Noveau, as well as Russian Academism brought by refugees of the Civil war there.

When Swiss architect Le Corbusier visited Belgrade in 1911 during his travels across Europe, he dismissed the city calling it “ridiculous capital, worse even: a dishonest city, dirty, and disorganized.” His brief comment had become legendary in time – “Belgrade is the ugliest city in the world in the most beautiful place in the world”, referring to the Sava and Danube confluence and the divide between the Pannonian plain and the Balkan hills.

Even before the Second World War, a lot of Belgrade population lived in sub-standard  housing. Even the houses of the rich in the downtown did not escape the destruction of the war, so some construction was in order! The estimated 20% of the modern houses were destroyed in the 20th century by the invading or liberating armed forces…

New Belgrade, founded as a capital for a new Socialist Yugoslavia after WWII, after the hilariously insane Tito-Dimitrov-Hoxha idea of making here a Brasilia-like Capital with institutions of a new confederate state (Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Albania), luckily for all denied by Stalin, represents a generic socio-political showcase of the former state. Planned from tabula-rasa and following the ideas of Le Corbusier´s concept for a Radiant City (in his words: “soleil, espace, verdure” (architecture needs sun, clearance and greenery) – it shows how modernism and brutalism mingle with contemporary architecture, as well as with the impact of an informal economy and the developing corporate business on urbanism. Again Le Corbusier in 1955 had commented some pictures of Belgrade’s most outstanding buildings of Socialist times: “Good God, how ugly!” He blamed Belgrade’s modern architects of “superficial understanding of modern urban planning”.

Following the same project, the new Yugoslav government considered housing to be one of the most important human rights. So, they set out to house the largest amount of people possible, as cheaply and as humanely as possible. Thus, enormous Socialist housing blocks or individual buildings got erected across the city – including the gargantuan project of converting the entire area between Danube and Sava rivers into a new, radiant city – New Belgrade. The marshy terrain was drained during the youth working actions of 1940s and 1950s, after which the state-owned building corporations started filling the rectangular “blocks” with prefabricated high-rises, schools, kindergartens, community centers, hospitals and offices all the way until the dissolution of the country in 1990s. However, when traveling to the Eastern Bloc countries, the tenants of this “Brutalist” edifices found out New Belgrade’s superiority in every way over the appalling bad quality of the dwellings behind the Iron Curtain!

Detractors of the Socialist architecture point to the inhumane colossal housing estates, their apartments copy-pasted all over in bleak concrete; however, they did manage to provide hundreds of thousands of new Belgradeans with shelters far better than what they had in their previous homes. They still remain as a memory of a regime long past which, some would say, tried to do the best for the citizens, whose building were built better than in current times.

Where are we now?

Belgrade continued building up tirelessly in the last years of 20th century. As a consequence of the sordid 1990s, it even boasts the biggest illegal suburb in the Balkans – the (in)famous Kaludjerica, whose red-brick facades are spread all over the green hills in the eastern parts of the city. Of course, the decade left its mark all over the town, as evidenced by numerous extensions, additional floors on decrepit buildings and walled-off balconies, sometimes legalized and sometimes built in secret, defying the not-very-much-implemented law.

The government of Serbia also engaged in some building projects of its own. Currently, the biggest one in Belgrade, and certainly the most controversial one, is the Belgrade Waterfront project, a completely new city quarter covering 100 hectares of the former railway station, train yards, factories and warehouses. Full of splendid new housing complexes, shopping malls and lifestyle opportunities, this kind of “Dubai on Sava River” is allegedly sponsored by foreign investments, mainly by the United Arab Emirates’ construction company „Eagle Hills“. However, since its inception it has been marred by controversies, ranging from accusations of siphoning off the taxpayer’s money, creatively circumventing (or outright breaking) of laws and Constitution, all the way to unexplained nighttime demolitions of existing buildings. Time will tell whether this long-term project will outlive the Serbian current strongman’s visions, bearing in mind the now forcefully silented  majority of Belgrade population is vehemently against this Pharaonic endeavour.

New pages of the Belgrade’s history are written every day – be sure to read the buildings and turn back the time while you stroll through the White City!