Mortal Cities – Harvard Design Magazine


This text was written for Harvard Design Magazine, No. 42 / Run for Cover!

Mortal Cities

In August 2015 I visited the Partisan Necropolis in Mostar as part of my annual ritual. Every year I walk through Stari Grad (the old city); I cross the new Stari Most (the old bridge), via the Korzo (the old promenade), past the ruins on the Spanish Square by the Bruce Lee monument, and along the Rondo and the old House of Culture (now House of Croats), to the Partisan Necropolis. Three years ago it was already an overgrown, shady hangout. The year before last I was too scared to go up into the park—the grass was high and the entrance had been set on fire just a few months before. But I wanted to try again, despite being warned by taxi drivers and friends (visitors are supposedly threatened and called “communists”). The site had been taken over by nature, littered with broken beer bottles, the stones graffitied with nationalist and fascist scribble.

Mortal Cities – Harvard Design Magazine

The former Yugoslavia, the country where World War I began, has always been a breeding ground for conflict. Borders here have constantly shifted. Bosnians, Serbs, and Croats, as well as minority groups like Roma and Jews, were ruled by the Ottomans, and later the Austrian Empire. After World War II, Yugoslavia was in ruins. Former leader of the Partisan army Josip Broz, better known as Tito, became president of the country, which by then was comprised of six socialist republics—Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro, and Macedonia—plus two autonomous provinces within Serbia, Kosovo and Vojvodina. To counter fascist and nationalist sentiments, Tito introduced a strict socialist regime that emphasized similarities and mutual dependency. Yugoslavia became a laboratory for how to bring together people from diverse backgrounds and religions into one nation. Education, media, theater, film, and architecture were integral to this process.

Between 1960 and 1980, Tito commissioned more than 100 monuments, called spomenik in Serbo-Croatian, to commemorate the victims of fascism. More than historical memorials, they acted as physical propaganda to sell a vision of a shared future—imagined as a world of freedom, equality, independence, and progress. In order for the monuments to appeal to every citizen, a new formal language had to be invented. Unlike traditional war commemorations, the designs were to be free of representational references to victory, military heroes, civilian casualties, or religion. Instead, the monuments relied on abstract forms to invoke a modern, collective future.

Many of the monuments designed by architect and urban planner Bogdan Bogdanović, however, used a formal language that referenced mythology, the Renaissance, and the Baroque. Bogdanović’s spomeniks appear as if ancient ruins (particularly today) with an eternal permanence. In a text from 1994, he reflected on his use of “non-ethnic and a-religious symbols,” and often sought “inspiration in archaeological materials and ventured deeper into the world of archaic images.” He wanted to “represent war and death, the winner and the conquered, and above all the  indestructible joy of life.”

Mortal Cities – Harvard Design Magazine

The Partisan Necropolis, a monument he designed in 1966 in Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina, was dedicated to earth and stone. In this rocky Balkan city, with its traditions of tombstone carving, cobblestone roads, and building on top of rocks, Bogdanović designed a cemetery commemorating 810 partisans. He described the monument as an “acro-necropolis,” and as a microcosm of Mostar where “the city of the dead mirrors the city of the living.” The monument is comprised of five terraces through which water flows down to a niche with ribbed steps. At the top sit a fountain and a cosmological sundial.

A large number of spomeniks survived the Yugoslavian civil war in the 1990s, which in some ways was a battle against architecture. In Mostar, 90 percent of the center was damaged and a third of the buildings were completely destroyed. The Partisan Necropolis was badly bombed during the war. And although it was restored afterward, vandals subsequently defaced it. With the loss of these landmarks, not only was the history and culture of the city destroyed, so too were the identities of its inhabitants.

The most notorious legacy of the war was the division of the city into Catholic Croat and Muslim Bosnian parts—each with its own schools, fire department, hospital, bus station, and cell phone tower network. Diverse groups used to live together peacefully in Mostar, and historical influences from a variety of cultures were clearly visible in the architecture. Today, however, architecture serves to maintain divisions and impose political ideas. The city’s fabric is now a hazy landscape of fragmented and imaginary, self-proclaimed and self-imposed, figurative, divisive commemorations. The past is being retold in competing ways by symbolic architectural interventions. The communication between the city and its citizens has ceased to exist, as history is no longer visible in the architecture and the public spaces. The spomeniks are some of the few places where one can read the historical traces of the city.

Today the monuments are places that recall a recent but distant past, and its demise. For some, this past evokes feelings of nostalgia; for others, the pains of war. The monuments that are located in border areas delimited by the civil war of the 1990s, such as the Partisan Necropolis in Mostar, have become uncanny and threatening sites. The spatial qualities of its design—its grandiosity, its landscape of large poplar trees and tortuous pathways, its alleys and gates, its terraces that were seized by children whose playful voices echoed amid an almost scenographic stone landscape—now provoke another kind of use. This neglected monument has become a meeting place for drug dealers, and with fallen tree trunks blocking the pathways, visitors feel a sense of imminent threat. The alleys and gates have become part of a deserted city. All that is left of Bogdanović’s original promise is that the former city of the dead and the former city of the living still face each other, only now with empty, black, and burned eyes.

Mortal Cities - Harvard Design Magazine - Studio L A