Photographer Donald Niebyl documents the architectural monoliths that memorialise the region’s most turbulent era
Brutalist architecture – from Eastern Bloc communities to social housing in north London – flourished across Europe from the early 1950s to the mid-1970s. Today it is fetishised for its unavoidable presence and Instagram-friendly aesthetic, but the catalyst behind one of urban culture’s most politically driven movements can be traced all the way back to World War ll, or as it is known in Yugoslavia, the ‘National Liberation War’.
Fresh from publishers Fuel, Spomenik Monument Database by Donald Niebyl is a new publication that brings together more than 80 awe-inspiring Brutalist monuments, exploring each one’s historical value, design, construction and current status. The word spomenik is Serbo-Croatian for ‘memorial’ and, as Niebyl explains, is derived from ‘spomen-’ meaning ‘memory’. When the Kingdom of Yugoslavia was invaded by the combined Axis forces of Germany, Italy, Bulgaria and Hungary, a home-grown, anti-fascist, Communist, partisan resistant army formed, bound and led by the charisma of Josip Broz Tito. Against all the odds, with minimal assistance from the Allies, Tito’s army overcame the might of the Axis forces and ultimately succeeded in liberating their beloved region.
In the wake of World War ll, fuelled by Tito’s movement’s surprise success, the multi-ethnic Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia was formed, spanning the regions of present-day Slovenia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Croatia, Macedonia, Serbia and Montenegro. Although united at this time, many of these factions had in fact considered each other enemies in times of war, afflicting great atrocities on what was now mutual ground. As a result of this unavoidable history, the nascent country’s political elite quickly set about engineering an appropriate national narrative that would become the ‘vocabulary of the revolution’.
Sitting as the bedrock for Yugoslavia’s defining ideals – “brotherhood and unity” – a new political vocabulary would enable productive bonds and warm relationships to flourish where, previously, blood was shed. While part of a wider strategy, it is the vast network of monuments and memorial spaces scattered with intent around the region that exists as a lasting reminder of the strength of tools employed by Yugoslavia’s Communist Party to create a new society with a revitalised image. In spite of their evocative and powerful presence, these monuments (or ‘spomeniks’) have been relentlessly omitted from surveys of both ‘European’ and ‘World’ architecture. Now, finally, in Spomenik Monument Database, author Niebyl maps out the untold stories behind the architectural wonders that have come to define a pivotal and most turbulent political era.
Spomenik Monument Database, by Donald Niebyl, is out now, published by FUEL.