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