2018 was the year in which the world of architecture ‘discovered’ Yugoslavia again. This was mostly because of the blockbuster exhibition Toward a Concrete Utopia: Architecture in Yugoslavia 1948-1980, organized by New York’s Museum of Modern Art between July and January 2019. Until this exhibition, the first encounter with Yugoslav architecture today is usually via social media, where every few months anti-fascist Second World War monuments (or Spomeniks, as places outside the former Yugoslavia insist on knowing them) are ‘discovered’. This usually comes with reference to their “otherworldliness”, a mislabelling as Soviet, and a failure to mention their connection with the anti-fascist Partisan struggle. Next to the catalogue of the exhibition, among the few other books available for purchase in the MoMA bookshop on the topic of Yugoslavia was the book Spomenik Monument Database by Donald Niebyl (Fuel, 2018), making it the recommended book on one of the most interesting, and controversial aspects of Yugoslav modernism. A tall order for a book which in its impressum has the following disclaimer: “this book is not intended as an exhaustive collection of Yugoslav spomeniks, but as a selection of some of the most impressive and significant of these monuments”. So what is this book?
In the introduction, David Niebyl states that “this book explores the enduring, unique and controversial monument heritage of the former Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, including their origins, and of more recent events that have left Yugoslavia and much of its legacy of ambitious memorials in ruins”. The aim of the book is to fill in the missing information for anyone who, like him, got mesmerized by the images of the monuments online and wanted to visit them. Frustrated by the lack of comprehensive information available online about monuments he wanted to visit, Niebyl built a website where he started gathering all possible information he could find about each individual monument and the memorial architecture dedicated to the Yugoslav Partisan struggle in the Second World War. With time, Niebyl managed to collect a lot of original materials on the monuments, which were in digitized format floating around the web, or were even digitized by the author himself. But then, how does a website which started as a documentation of a fact finding mission become a book? Judging by the hardcover Spomenik Monument Database, it’s not so easy.
Most of the monuments in the book commemorate important sites or figures of the People’s Liberation Struggle, the grass-roots anti-fascist Partisan-led movement that liberated Yugoslavia from the Nazi occupation in the Second World War and transformed the country from a pre-war capitalist monarchy into a socialist republic. The memorial building practice was one of the important aspects of building the Yugoslav project. Although they are often described online as “Tito’s monuments”, as if they owed their existence to the President of Yugoslavia’s personal will, the majority were built as initiatives of the local municipalities, by the local population and often, local organizations of former Partisan fighters. During and after the disintegration of Yugoslavia in violent wars, a large number of monuments were either destroyed or damaged through neglect. In the new countries formed after Yugoslavia fell apart, there is little to no space for socialism and anti-fascism. It is difficult to tell the complex history of socialist Yugoslavia and its aftermath in a few sentences, yet an understanding of its complexity is crucial when attempting to understand not only the function of Yugoslav monuments, but also their aesthetics. In the introduction, Niebyl tries to give a condensed history of the territory of Yugoslavia and the struggle against the Nazi occupation. However, in the effort to maintain a ‘neutral’ outsider position and give space to all interpretations of this history, the text ends up more confusing than clarifying.
The dust jacket of the book unfolds into a stylized map of Yugoslavia with locations of each monument featured in the book. The front cover features the Kosmaj partisan monument photographed in the fog; de rigueur for photographing not only Yugoslav partisan monuments, but “socialist modernism” in general. However, inside the book, the images are much more versatile, ranging from new photographs by the author to archival images, often postcards. Bringing both archival and contemporary images and giving them the same value, even when the monuments described do not exist any more, is an interesting decision and points to the unresolved ambition of this book – is it a source book for travellers, or something else?
The author at least for a moment, resolves this by calling the book a ‘Database’, maybe as a hint that the origin of this book was a website. At the same time he leaves another important issue of what to call these objects – monuments or spomeniks – unresolved, by opting to use both terms. “These evocative monuments, these spomeniks – the word ‘spomenik’ is Serbo-Croatian for ‘memorial’, derived from the root ‘spomen’ – meaning ‘memory’ – have been routinely omitted from the surveys of ‘European’ or ‘World’ architecture and sculpture. And while it is true that images of them have recently proliferated across the internet, the accompanying information about their origins has typically been sparse, or confused, or misleading,’ says Niebyl in the Introduction.
He doesn’t mention that the English neologism ‘spomeniks’ appears for the first time in 2007, in a text by the architect William Jan Neutelings in the photo book Spomenik, by Jan Kempenaers, which was the first engagement with the Yugoslav Partisan monuments outside of Yugoslavia since its disintegration. The term ‘spomenik(s)’, while strongly contested by scholars of Yugoslav modernism as orientalising and exoticising, became dominant. Niebyl opts to use both terms, and shifts from one to another without apparent reason, creating an interesting dialectic between them, opening the question of whether in 2019 one can exist without another, and by implication, whether we can return to the emancipatory potential of (any) socialist modernist legacy, without acknowledging also their failures and shortcomings. But more to the point, putting both terms in the title was a good strategic decision by the author, benefiting from the popularity of the term ‘spomeniks’.
The terminology used in the book can reveal more about the author’s relationship with this material than he probably wanted. Another place where the author is on slippery terrain is the decision to use the term ‘designer’ as a blanket term which bundles together architects, landscape architects, artists and sculptors who, most often in teams, authored these monuments. Often attributing singular authorship to such projects, under the oblique term ‘designer’, Niebyl shows an indifference to the character of the projects which he is claiming to save from obscurity, as one of the most remarkable aspects of the majority of the monuments in the book is their interplay between landscape architecture and sculptural intervention.
The title itself poses yet another terminological puzzle, as the author uses the term ‘Database’ – usually associated with the dynamic and digital collection of information – for a finite and static media object, a book. This leads us to a final question – why is this book not called a guide? Or, at least, an encyclopedia? The book has a series of entries, each dedicated to one monument, and is ordered alphabetically. Each entry is treated in the same encyclopedic way, and includes the pronunciation guide of the place the monument is situated, which often is how colloquially the monument is known, the location plus geo-co-ordinates, designer, year of completion completed, a short history of the site which includes details about the concrete event being memorialised, some information about the design and construction, and current status and condition. Browsing quickly through the book, this structure gives a semblance of rigour and scientific classification, which only starts to show problems when each entry is read carefully – not only because of the unevenness and ad hoc character of the information provided, but also because of a certain undertone of ‘curiosity’ some of the descriptions have.
The book isn’t intended to be read carefully page after page – who reads an encyclopedia like that? On his website Niebyl describes himself as a “writer, history hobbyist and travel enthusiast” and perhaps this description gives the best frame though which one should approach Spomenik Monument Database – an aspirational encyclopedic collection by a hobbyist and enthusiast. While the book certainly provides much needed historical and practical information that was previously lacking in English, its attempt at “discovery” thorough classification is reminiscent most of all of a 19th century cabinet of curiosities.