Toward a Concrete Utopia: Yugoslavian Brutalism at MoMA

We at CatSynth are admirers of brutalism, as anyone who follows us on Twitter can attest.  We love the geometric forms, how it screams “modern”, and how it makes such an intense break with tradition.  And I will admit, I also have a little fun using it to poke fun at the architectural conservatism prevalent in places like San Francisco.  But above all, it provides a singular beauty to built spaces.

Brutalism perhaps reached its zenith in the former Yugoslavia during the period between the end of World War II and 1980, a period that is highlighted in a current exhibition at the MoMA, Toward a Concrete Utopia: Architecture in Yugoslavia, 1948–1980.  It highlights the work of several Yugoslavian architects in the period and pieces ranging from prosaic apartments to public arenas to monuments.  The buildings themselves are, of course, not on display in the museum, but their stories are told through models, photographs, and examples of interior objects.


Installation view of Toward a Concrete Utopia: Architecture in Yugoslavia, 1948–1980, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, July 15, 2018–January 13, 2019. © 2018 The Museum of Modern Art. Photo: Martin Seck

A convergence of factors came together which allowed these modernist experiments to flourish.  Yugoslavia broke away from the Soviet bloc in 1948 and began to forge its own socialist path and identity.  It constituted itself as six republics in a federation in which traditional regional identities were subordinate to a new and modern whole.  At the same time, the country was devastated by World War II and needed massive rebuilding.  Finally, new ideas in architecture were emerging along with new materials, notably advances in concrete, steel, and glass allowed a new built environment to take shape.

The simple forms and surfaces were used for everyday buildings, such as apartment complexes, schools, and medical facilities.  But rather than just one-offs, they become part of a unified cityscape, a grand plan.  This was perhaps no more so than in Skopje, the capital of Macedonia, which was devasted by an earthquake in 1963 and largely rebuild using modernist design and principals.

Janko Konstantinov. Telecommunications Center. 1968–81. Skopje, Macedonia. View of the Southwestern Block façade. Photo: Valentin Jeck, commissioned by The Museum of Modern Art, 2016
MARKO MUŠIČ.  Photograph by VALENTIN JECK
Ss. Cyril and Methodius University Campus, Skopje, Macedonia 1967–1974.  (Gotta love an architect named “Music”)

There are, of course, numerous rectilinear designs, sometimes in steel and glass, and sometimes dominated by concrete.  But concrete also allowed for the exploration of curved structures and organic shapes.  We see this in many of the large civic arenas, but also in the brutalist monuments built in the post-war period.  This “cell-like” structure in Macedonia takes it to the extreme, looking at once like an organic organism and a spaceship.

Wandering through the exhibition, one cannot help but imagine being the real spaces.  For me, the modernist, severe style brings a sense of calm and welcome that more traditional styles don’t always provide.  Ornament can be beautiful, but it is rarely ever calming in the way that simple texture and geometry is.  The calming nature of simple forms can extend to the interior spaces as well as the exterior, and the exhibition includes examples of everyday objects and furnishings.

Installation view of Toward a Concrete Utopia: Architecture in Yugoslavia, 1948–1980, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, July 15, 2018–January 13, 2019. © 2018 The Museum of Modern Art. Photo: Martin Seck

Sadly, the Yugoslavian experiment ultimately failed, with country breaking apart and the entire region plunging into extreme nationalism and devastating wars in the 1990s.  This is a cautionary tale as we watch the plague of nationalism rising around the world, including in the United States.  Many of the architectural works in this exhibition did survive the wars.  But they do face continued challenges to their survival, including maintenance and a push to return to more “traditional” forms.  The “Skopje 2014” initiative, for example, is both farcical and tragic.  Despite these challenges, I hope the countries of the region will recognize and preserve the legacy of their modernist period for years to come.

This article only scratches the rough, hardened surface of the wealth in this exhibition.  It was truly a wonderful experience, even if so much was in my imagination through the artifacts.  Toward a Concrete Utopia: Architecture in Yugoslavia, 1948–1980 will be on display at the Museum of Modern Art in New York through January 13, 2019.

Wordless Wednesday: Southern Exposure, NYC

Looking south from the top-floor terrace of the Whitney Museum on an anomalously warm late-November day in New York City.   We see an iconic New York rooftop water tower juxtaposed with 1WTC and other newer buildings. 

Wordless Wednesday: Canyon (4906)

Wordless Wednesday: Washington Mews, New York

View north from Washington Mews, a small alley near Washington Square Park in Manhattan.  I liked the juxtaposition of building shapes and styles.

Every so often I worry I’m posting the same picture twice.  This was one of those times 😸


Wordless Wednesday: California Street, San Francisco

California Street

Plaza of 550 California Street, at Kearny Street, San Francisco.


Wordless Wednesday: California Modernism (Pacific Heights)

To me, this modernist home in the Pacific Heights neighborhood of San Francisco represents the height of “California Cool” of the 1950s and 1960s (even if it was probably built more recently).  It stood out from the more conservative brick-and-stone mansions to either side.


Wordless Wednesday: Brutalism in SF

There aren’t a lot of examples of Brutalism in this architecturally conservative city, but the exception seems to be medical centers.  This one of several medical buildings with Brutalist facades. The photo was taken on a rather dreary and rainy day.


Wordless Wednesday: Circular


Wordless Wednesday: Bronx County Courthouse

Bronx County Courthouse

The Bronx County Courthouse in the Bronx in New York City.  It’s an imposing structure, but with lots of Art Deco details that align it with many of the nearby apartment buildings along the Grand Concourse.


Bronx Museum of the Arts: Gordon Matta-Clark, Susannah Ray, Angel Otero

I make a point of dropping in the Bronx Museum of the Arts when I’m back in New York. This most recent visit did not disappoint, with three strong exhibitions of arts with connections to the borough and New York City at large.

Gordon Matta-Clark: Anarchitect turns familiar notions of architecture upside-down with many projects featuring cuts, holes, and other modifications to derelict and abandoned buildings in New York and beyond. The Bronx of the 1970s was one of his main canvases and the point of departure for his practice. His series featuring the iconic graffiti of the borough’s subway trains and facades leads the exploration, with Matta-Clark observing the built environment as it is.

Gordon Matta-Clark Subway and Graffiti series

The next level of his work modifies the built environment by adding his own elements, or rather removing parts of existing architecture. In his Bronx Floor series, Matta-Clark removes a section of the floor of an abandoned building on Boston Road. This serves as a setting for installations and photography.

Gordon Matta-Clark, Bronx Floor
[Gordon Matta-Clark. Bronx Floor]

Like Matta-Clark, I find these spaces of the Bronx of the 1970s quite inspiring on an aesthetic level. My enjoyment of this often overlooked aesthetic is a bit tempered by the notion that these buildings ended up this way through a variety of bad circumstances: neglect (sometimes deliberate), poor city planning, rising inequality, etc.

From the foment of the South Bronx, Matta-Clark took his concept to Manhattan. In his 1975 project Day’s End, he cut large holes into the abandoned Pier 52 along the Hudson River (I remember the derelict piers that used to line the lower West Side all to well from the 1970s and 1980s).

Gordon Matta-Clark, Day's End
[Gordon Matta-Clark. Day’s End (Pier 52 in Manhattan)]

This served both as a sculpture and installation in its own right, but also as a performance an exhibition space. Interestingly, the authorities did not notice the initial work cutting out a piece of the building, but they did find out about the performances and happenings, and were none too pleased by this. Eventually, the city dropped charges while he was working on a project in Paris.

Gordon Matta-Clark, Conical Intersect
[Gordon Matta-Clark. Conical Intersection (Paris)]

Conical Intersect cuts out a section of a partially demolished mansion in the Les Halles district, adjacent to the still-under-construction Centre Georges Pompidou. This was the setting for film and still photography projects, as well as performances and happenings (including “including roasting 750 pounds of beef for passersby on the Pompidou plaza” [
[Susannah Ray. Hutchison River and Co-Op City, 2015.]

Seeing Ray and Matta-Clarks photographs in the same visit shows the evolution of the Bronx, and in particular how the natural spaces have improved since their nadirs in the early 1980s. The lower Bronx River was once a disaster but is returning to new natural-urban balance in recent years.

Susannah Ray.  Canoes, The Bronx River, 2013
[Susannah Ray. Canoes, The Bronx River, 2013]

You can read more about the revitalization of the lower Bronx River in this 2016 article. Again, we find beauty in these spaces and admire the work that Ray and others are doing to share it.


The final exhibition takes a decidedly inward turn compared to the explorations of Ray and Matta-Clark. In Elegies, artist Angel Otero explores the long history of painting. His large “deconstructed” paintings bring together traditional practice, abstraction, and collage.

Angel Otero.  The Day We Became People, 2017
[Angel Otero. The Day We Became People, 2017]

The exhibition is organized in relation to Robert Motherwell’s Elegy to the Spanish Republic series and includes stark black-and-white pieces from Motherwell, sometimes with statements on art and painting.


[Robert Motherwell]

Otero’s work stands apart from Motherwell’s in its vibrant colors and relation to space, as well as its unique use of material. Although titled Elegies, the paintings are not really elegies at all – or at least not in the typical sense. There is an optimism in his work.

The paintings were all created specifically for this Bronx Museum exhibition.


Our visit to the Bronx Museum was also the subject of a recent CatSynth TV episode, which also took us a little further south to visit our friends at the Bronx Brewery in Port Morris.