When­ever I think about Belgrade, I don’t think about any par­tic­u­lar place there. I al­ways imag­ine my city in its to­tal­ity, as a big, com­plete im­age, filled and framed by the vivid dreams and fears of the peo­ple who re­side there. In real life, Belgrade is frag­mented by its ge­o­graph­i­cal char­ac­ter­is­tics; by its wounds of the re­cent wars; by its am­biva­lent mul­ti­cul­tural char­ac­ter – but deep in my mind, it’s ac­tu­ally in­di­vis­i­ble. Be­cause every­thing that di­vides the city in­te­grates it into an en­tirety at the same time. Belgrade, “like dreams, is made of the de­sires and fears of its cit­i­zens, even if the thread of their dis­course is se­cret, their rules are ab­surd, their per­spec­tives de­ceit­ful, and every­thing con­ceals some­thing else.”1 Belgrade is the cap­i­tal of Ser­bia, a small Euro­pean coun­try cur­rently chal­lenged by a com­pre­hen­sive, mul­ti­level tran­si­tion from au­toc­racy to democ­racy, from so­cial­ism to cap­i­tal­ism, from col­lec­tivism to in­di­vid­u­al­ism, from athe­ism to zealo­tism, from iso­la­tion to glob­al­i­sa­tion, from cel­e­brated to scorned and vice versa. The city of Belgrade is set on the North­ern edge of the Balkan Penin­sula, be­tween the East and the West, be­tween “honey and blood”.2

It is nested atop a hill, an­chored at the con­flu­ence of the Danube and Sava rivers “in an ex­otic-feel­ing lo­ca­tion, where the tec­tonic plates of Is­lam, Ortho­dox Chris­tian­ity and Ro­man Catholi­cism, along­side so­cial­ism and cap­i­tal­ism, have all col­lided.”3

The log­ics of the ax­ial West and the labyrinthine East (as well as the op­po­si­tion be­tween the rich­ness of the North and the poverty of the South) not only col­lide, but ac­tu­ally coil around one an­other in a mag­nif­i­cent vor­tex, while shar­ing the same destiny at the same time in the same place.

Belgrade is the city with a great num­ber of sym­bolic names: Hill of the Bat­tle and Glory, Hill for Con­tem­pla­tion, House of Wars,

Egypt of Rumelia, House of Free­dom, Gate­way of the East, Gate of the West, Gate­way to the Balkans, Gate to Cen­tral Europe and more. Such dif­fer­ent names given to the same sin­gle place show Belgrade’s abil­ity to cun­ningly re­sist var­i­ous his­tor­i­cal chal­lenges and sur­vive by play­ing a weird semi­otic game, flee­ing be­yond mean­ings, aim­ing to be­come hid­den and in­vis­i­ble un­der the cloak of the metaphor.

Con­se­quently, Belgrade si­mul­ta­ne­ously con­tains and ac­tively re­pro­duces all the faceted sym­bols it has em­bod­ied over the cen­turies. The city is a spe­cific amal­gam, an al­loy that con­tains the East and the West and the South and the North, at the same time in the same place. This is its unique par­tic­u­lar­ity. Due to the city’s unique po­si­tion, where cul­tures and civil­i­sa­tions meet, strug­gle, in­ter­act, in­ter­fere and re­late, it has been an all-time at­trac­tive area for set­tle­ment and con­quests.

The first set­tle­ment in the wider area around the city of Belgrade was built by Vin­cha cul­ture more than 5,000 years ago. The Celts built their first set­tle­ment on the ridge above the con­flu­ence more than 2,000 years ago.4

Since then, many cul­tures dis­cov­ered and con­quered this hill: Thraco-Da­cians, Ro­mans, Huns, Sar­ma­tians, Ostro­goths, Franks, Gepids, Goths, Byzan­tines, Avars, Slavs, Cru­saders, Hun­gar­i­ans, Bul­gar­i­ans, Ot­tomans, Aus­tri­ans and Ger­mans. All were in­spired to set­tle here and fight for it. As a re­sult of these cul­tural fric­tions and strug­gles, there are very few cities in the his­tory of the world that were de­stroyed to ashes and built up again as of­ten as Belgrade. “Never calm and never know­ing tran­quil­lity or quiet, as if it never ex­ists but is per­pet­u­ally be­ing cre­ated, built upon and re­cov­ered”.5 As a strate­gic lo­ca­tion, a ma­jor cross­roads be­tween the West

and the Ori­ent, Belgrade wit­nessed 115 wars and was razed to the ground 44 times.6

It seems that “the den­sity of the his­tor­i­cal time here is so great that ev­ery­day life shouldn’t en­ter here any­more”.7 Nev­er­the­less, it is not like this. Seen from the ground, Belgrade looks com­pletely dif­fer­ent – very frag­mented and very per­sonal. De­tails ap­pear from ev­ery­where: par­tic­u­lar de­tails of ev­ery­day life, peo­ple, tex­tures, ma­te­ri­als, forms, colours, smells, sounds, lights, move­ments, na­ture. Every­thing merges: Belgrade with Ze­mun and New Belgrade; the high-den­sity city with the empti­ness of the un­in­hab­ited Great War Is­land that is its nat­u­ral green core; the solid cliff of the Belgrade ridge with the flick­er­ing sur­face of the rivers; mod­ern high-rise build­ings of glass with bombed ru­ins; clas­si­cism and art nou­veau with tra­di­tional Ot­toman houses; trendy and fash­ion­able girls with home­less peo­ple; Sacher­torte with baklava; ke­bab with Wiener schnitzel; disco with belly dance; cig­a­rettes with hookahs; Porsches with horse-drawn car­riages; noise with si­lence; glory with de­feat; city with void; honey with blood. This is also ap­par­ent in the et­y­mo­log­i­cal roots of the names of some of the city ar­eas. It is ob­vi­ous too in the vo­cab­u­lary of the Ser­bian lan­guage. Every­thing over­laps and su­per­poses every­thing else, not only on a spa­tial level, but es­pe­cially on a cul­tural and semi­otic plane. All the things that look beau­ti­ful, per­fect, log­i­cal, sim­ple and un­der­stand­able when seen “in­tel­lec­tu­ally” from above show their true face deep down in the melt­ing pot of real city life: im­per­fect, com­plex and mostly in­com­pre­hen­si­ble with seem­ingly very lit­tle logic. At street level, to speak with Calvino, the dis­course be­gins to be se­cret, the rules be­come ab­surd, their per­spec­tives de­ceit­ful, and every­thing con­ceals some­thing else. Due to its com­plex­ity, Belgrade per­ma­nently and suc­cess­fully avoids be­ing ex­pe­ri­enced to the core. To un­der­stand Belgrade, it’s im­pos­si­ble to be a mere ob­server. Vis­i­tors de­sire to ex­pe­ri­ence the city as much as the city wishes to open up to its vis­i­tors.

Belgrade asks for a per­son to be fully per­me­ated by it. One has to in­vest his whole self in a mu­tual process of re­cip­ro­cal trans­fu­sion of dreams and fears, the de­sire to join and en­joy the con­tem­pla­tive to­geth­er­ness of the city. It is how Belgrade’s ridge has be­come a stage for a “jam ses­sion” of ex­cep­tional per­son­al­i­ties play­ing the city to­gether. Through­out its his­tory as well as to­day, Belgrade “has the ca­pa­bil­ity of pro­vid­ing some­thing for ev­ery­body, be­cause it has been cre­ated by ev­ery­body”.8

This is why Belgrade is deep, in­tro­spec­tive ob­ses­sion of mine. Para­phrased from In­vis­i­ble Cities by Italo Calvino, 1972.

The “Balkans” were men­tioned for the first time in the 15th cen­tury by the Ital­ian writer Philip­pus Cal­li­machus (1437-1496), who wrote that the na­tives called their area Bolchanum (“quem in­co­lae Bolchanum vo­cant”). One the­ory as­serts that the word Balkan orig­i­nates from two words from the Ot­toman lan­guage: ball (honey) and khan (blood). This di­alec­ti­cal unity of op­po­sites is food for thought.

From The Guardian: Travel, Eve-Ann Prentice, Why I love bat­tered Belgrade, 10 Au­gust 2003.

The first fortress on this place was built by the Celts in the 4th cen­tury BC and was known by the Ro­mans as Singidunum (the White City), named af­ter the white wall of the fortress. Still now, the name Belgrade means White City, from the Slavic words beo (white) and grad (town).

Para­phrased from Ivo An­drić, the Yu­goslav 1961 No­bel lau­re­ate in lit­er­a­ture.

From The In­de­pen­dent, Robert Nur­den, Belgrade has risen from the ashes to be­come the Balkans’ party city, 22 March 2009. Us­ing sim­ple, cool-headed math­e­mat­ics, the cal­cu­la­tion 115 wars in­side of 2000 years of his­tory as a city means 1 war ev­ery 17 years.

From a speech by the poet Vladimir Piš­talo held in the Kosančićev Venac neigh­bour­hood of Belgrade on the bombed site where the Na­tional Li­brary of Ser­bia once stood, 6 April 2010.

Para­phrase: “Cities have the ca­pa­bil­ity of pro­vid­ing some­thing for ev­ery­body, only be­cause, and only when, they are cre­ated by ev­ery­body,” Jane Ja­cobs, The Death and Life of Great Amer­i­can Cities, 1961.

Pre­vi­ous spread, left: The core of the city and the old­est part of Belgrade. View to the north above the in­ter­sec­tion be­tween Kralja Mi­lana and Kneza Miloša; right: map of Belgrade by Jo­van Bešlić, 1893. The map shows only the down­town area of to­day’s Belgrade. The map in the left bot­tom cor­ner shows the en­tire ter­ri­tory cov­ered by Belgrade to­day. The Sava and Danube rivers cut the city into three ter­ri­to­rial parts. This page, top: The ci­tyscape of Belgrade show­ing the Kosančićev Venac neigh­bour­hood on the left and the tourist port, framed by Branko’s Bridge over the Sava river; bot­tom: the Belgrade Fortress above the con­flu­ence of the Sava and Danube rivers. Pobed­nik (“the vic­tor”) is a mon­u­men­tal mas­ter­piece by the Yu­gosla­vian sculp­tor Ivan Meštro­vić, 1928

Zo­ran Ðukanović (Šabac, Ser­bia, 1962) is an ar­chi­tect. He teaches ur­ban de­sign, city his­tory and pub­lic art at the Uni­ver­sity of Belgrade, Fac­ulty of Ar­chi­tec­ture, where he leads the Pub­lic Art & Pub­lic Space pro­gramme.

Pre­vi­ous page, left: Ter­az­ije Square, the cen­tral square of Belgrade, with Palace Al­ban­ija de­signed by Mi­ladin Prl­je­vić and Ðorđe Lazare­vić in 1940 based on the 1938 project by Branko Bon and Mi­lan Grakalić; right: calm city life in the cen­tre. This page, left: Con­flu­ence of the Sava and Danube, framed by green­ery. The hori­zon is marked by linked twin tow­ers (tallest in photo) by Mi­ha­jlo Mitro­vić, 1977; right: sun­set at the con­flu­ence of the Danube and Sava in the green heart of the city. Op­po­site page: Friend­ship Park in Novi Beograd, land­scaped in 1961 to mark the first con­fer­ence of the Non-Aligned Coun­tries. In the back­ground stands the tower of the Cen­tral Com­mit­tee of the League of Com­mu­nists of Yu­goslavia by the ar­chi­tect Mi­hailo Janković, 1964

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