Architecture Travel Fetishism: A Report from Belgrade
"I don't need to go see the pyramids. I am sure I would be disappointed." So said Dutch architect Willem Jan Neutelings, arguing at a raucous post-symposium dinner against the fetishism of architectural tourism. "I grew up with my teachers showing us their vacation pictures of walls they had seen in France and huts in Africa, instead of teaching us the basics of architecture," he continued. "It was useless. Now everybody runs around trying to find the greatest or the latest. It is so unnecessary. You can understand everything you need to know by looking at drawings. It is better, in fact, because you can be more analytical."
As a dedicated, even fetishistic, practitioner of the art and science of trying to see as many bits of pieces of architecture (and art) as I possibly can, I was stunned. This was an attack on a major part of my life. We were, in fact, in Belgrade together, where I had agreed to give a lecture for the estimable Oris, which labors assiduously to bring interesting and important architecture to the Balkans, because of the chance to see a major city I had not been able to visit before.
I have long been fascinated with the cities of Eastern Europe, which often have a character, logic, spatial sensibility, and style that derive in large part from the centuries of Austro-Hungarian or Prussian rule, but that have developed in ways that deviate from what I was used to when I grew up in Western Europe. Belgrade is slightly different again, because it was part of the Turkish empire for much longer than it was under Viennese domination. It also sits atop a high prow between two rivers, the Sava and the Danube. The result is that there are fewer of the kind of grand axes and monumental civic structures than you find in, say, Zagreb, and more compression, more ramshackle structures, and a series of curved, sloping public spaces that rise out of the landscape and open up to the surroundings.
photo by author
Across the river, Marshal Tito laid out New Belgrade, a vast new city filled with housing projects, government buildings, and sports stadia designed in a highly expressive modernism, stretching out in long bands of concrete, rising up past terraces and composing themselves into asymmetrical stacks of cellular forms. Now shopping malls and office buildings mirroring the blandness, as well as the closed nature, of such structures; everywhere they are being built in front of the pieces of this workers' paradise.
Neutelings, his wife Miriam, and I toured all of this with great interest and delight, despite the deteriorated state in which the city finds itself, and the prospects for it being ruined by badly designed and corruptly generated development. Neutelings, who for years refused to work outside of his native Netherlands, but who is now designing structures for Ljubljana, Paris, and even for us at the Cincinnati Art Museum, obviously enjoyed the exposure to this array. "Yes," he said when I needled him about that, "but I would not go out of my way for it. You have to concentrate on your work and not be distracted by too much other forms and activities."
photo by author (that's Neutlings at second from right)
Now, I feel that we can marvel at much in a place such as Belgrade. But is it useful? The United States is not about to build mass amounts of decent housing for workers, as the old Yugoslavia did. The landscape, building traditions, materials, and social organization of the place will not translate, and should not, to our country. We are also not likely to build any new pyramids, though attempts have been made. Perhaps Neutelings is right, and I am just filling my head with useless forms and images. Luckily, I, unlike him, have given up (for now, I hope) on designing buildings, so perhaps it is my luxury to see such places—or my duty, as describer, critic, and raconteur of architecture and art. Perhaps I should go to the pyramids so I can tell Neutelings about them. I can even draw him a diagram.