The majestic open blocks of New Belgrade

New Belgrade ClassLast week I was invited to give a lecture at the Polytechnic University of Catalonia on the Evolution of the open block of New Belgrade, the master’s thesis that I presented 4 years ago. It was a pleasure to discuss the place I was born in and where I spent 26 years of my life. Hopefully my fellow architects had fun too.

New Belgrade is an emblematic and unique case amongst Eastern European cities. It is an exemplary case of modern urbanism, with numerous examples of neighborhood units organized in the form of an “open block”.

New Belgrade was conceived after WWII to house the governmental and administrative buildings of the new Yugoslavia. The place chosen for its construction was the plain between Belgrade and Zemun (a neighboring city). For centuries said plain served as no man’s land between the borders of two great empires, the Ottoman and the Austro-Hungarian. Left empty, it used to flood. That’s why it took time for Belgrade to find its use and inhabit the territory.

In the 60s New Belgrade was mostly a dormitory city: housing being the dominant function. According to the urban planners of the time, functions had to be separate, with super-neighborhoods for dwellings, separate to all other uses. Such logic dominated the Yugoslavian scene during the following decades. However, in 1982 criticisms of these principles resulted in a Contest to improve the City. The famous French philosopher Henry Lefebre argued for a complex city, composed of several elements combined, that must evolve with time. According to Lefebre New Belgrade lacked urban complexity and centrality.

From that moment on, empty spaces were filled with other types of buildings (especially offices) and new dwellings acquire other forms. Conventional blocks replace super-blocks, density increases and housing is grouped around enclosed or half-enclosed courtyards.

Satellite image of New Belgrade
Satellite image of New Belgrade

It is important to note that New Belgrade was conceived as an independent city, although administratively subject to Belgrade. The City was organized into several districts but these were not completely defined. As such, New Belgrade is one of the largest European cities designed according to functionalist principles.

New Belgrade today is characterized by independent neighborhood units loosely related between each other, with housing being the dominant use. There is no proper urban center, but rather each unit has a community center providing basic needs. With more than 200,000 inhabitants, it is Belgrade’s most populated municipality and amongst the biggest in the whole of Serbia.

New Belgrade - Block 21 from above
Block 21 from above

Through the decades, said independent units evolved according to the country’s political and economic changes, but incorporating as well the world’s urban planning currents. In New Belgrade, both socialist and post socialist super blocks can be seen.

New Belgrade’s residential independent units, Super Blocks, were inspired by the Soviet blocks from the interwar period. The size of a Super Block is determined by the pedestrian distance between its dwellings and its center. On the other hand, the capacity of the local primary school determined each Block’s population, between 5000 and 15000 inhabitants. Super-blocks were built from 1948 till today. Buildings represent all important architectural styles. Thus, New Belgrade is a territory full of experiments, with abundant examples of the modern movement.

New Belgrade - Open Space
Open Space

Each block is huge, from 9 to 68 ha, occupied by separate buildings and with limited vehicular access. The vast majority of blocks are residential, though lately, construction of non-residential ones is increasing. A typical residential block includes housing, a community center, a primary school, a kindergarten, a couple of office buildings and many sports / leisure spaces. Empty spaces represent between 70 and 90% of each unit.

Unlike other Easter European Cities, New Belgrade’s Super-blocks have different compositions. Virtually every unit has its own logic, with buildings set in different ways. Many were the result of architectural competitions that demanded a personalized approach to each block.

In my opinion, citizens of New Belgrade do not identify with their surroundings because the units and the buildings themselves are way too big. This problem is evident especially in the case of the larger repeated units. The lack of content, in most cases, further reinforces the feeling of not belonging to the place.

New Belgrade - Architecture
Architecture

On the other hand, massive Public Spaces are New Belgrade’s most attractive feature.  Maybe not always organized properly, or with a clear use or owner, but these spaces are for sure a resource that many other cities could use. Consequently, better planning and organization should be an integral part of future projects.

As we mentioned, each Super Block has a community center, an administrative and leisure cluster, structured in a fragmented or compact way. Though each center’s location and organization varies, they include one or several main pedestrian streets, one or more squares and some secondary spaces. In general it is a paved area with small green corners.

New Belgrade - Community Center
Community Center

The monumentality of the residential buildings contrasts with the intimacy of the urban centers. This concept seeks to reconcile the antagonism of this two uses, not only with different sizes, but also with the treatment of public space.

New Belgrade is universal in many ways. Structured as a functional city, it is not very different to other Eastern European cities, due to its monumentality, the collectivity of its buildings and the logic of transport. However, it is quite unique since we are talking about an entire city with an independent form, although well incorporated to the rest of Belgrade. Additionally, it’s located in the centre of Belgrade, not in the periphery, thus demonstrating its importance.

Beautiful New Belgrade is an orderly city, full of green parks and trees. During the last 60 years, the place followed some kind of organization and cohesion. Things appear to have changed a bit.  Densification without any contextual planning degrades; a process we can’t afford. New buildings must follow new principles, but always respecting the existing fabric. This usually involves adjusting to the existing structure, and remembering that sometimes contrast provides better results.

New Belgrade in winter
New Belgrade in winter

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