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The Socialist Architecture of Svetlana Kana Radević

Dijana Vućinić

Svetlana Kana Radević was one of the great architects of socialist Yugoslavia — her emphasis on public space showed what architecture can achieve when liberated from the constraints of the property market.

Interview by
Owen Hatherley

One of the unexpected hits of the delayed 2021 Biennale of Architecture in Venice has been Skirting the Center, an exhibition by a Montenegrin-American team on the extraordinary work and life of Svetlana Kana Radević, an architect whose career spanned Yugoslavia, the United States, and Japan.

We spoke to Dijana Vućinić, one of the exhibition’s curators.


OH

First of all, if you don’t mind the incredibly obvious question — who was Svetlana Kana Radević? What were her major buildings?

DV

Svetlana Kana Radević is one of the most prominent historical and architectural figures in Montenegro and in Yugoslavia. She was an incredibly talented architect and designer, a true cosmopolitan, a passionate photographer, and a true female role model to many, both in a professional and personal sense. Her most prominent works include Hotel Podgorica, Hotel Zlatibor, an apartment building in Petrovac, as well as the Central Bus station in Podgorica, formerly Titograd.

OH

How well have these survived the processes of privatization and dereliction that seem fairly common in much of the former Yugoslavia?

DV

Most of the buildings are still there, still present. Hotel Podgorica was renovated in 2005 and the original interior is entirely changed, but this building continues to exist as an inclusive public space — a testament to the strength of Kana’s architecture and her politics as an architect. Her other work such as the apartment building in Petrovac on the coast of Montenegro is also very strong in an architectural sense, despite the renovations and other interventions that were done over the years.

Unfortunately, in Montenegro as in other parts of Yugoslavia, protecting the twentieth-century heritage has been a challenging and slow process. We sincerely hope that the exhibitions and research such as this one will contribute to necessary policy changes as well as to the better understanding of the significance of this work — both with the general public and the relevant stakeholders and decision makers.

OH

One of the most interesting things in this is how much Kana Radević seems like both an insider and outsider, someone who built locally in the south of Yugoslavia and who had worked with internationally famous figures such as Louis Kahn and Kisho Kurokawa.

When a few years ago I interviewed architects in Skopje, which also has major work from the same period by Swiss, Japanese, and Polish architects as well as Yugoslav designers, there was a great deal of sadness at how the place had become “provincial,” especially due to the effects of the now-notorious “Skopje 2014” plan. How did she reconcile this divide between the local and international?

DV

Yugoslavian postwar modernization was certainly a great chance for architects. The entire country had been in a constant rebuilding process, and on a level that the majority of countries that succeeded Yugoslavia have never achieved again. As a practicing architect, I am very interested to see how architects and their work surpasses the transition process at various levels.

The ex-YU countries mostly went on this one-way road from left to right, and the architecture or the general opinion about architecture, as well as arts and literature representing a strong Yugoslavian socialist context, have been largely dismissed by this new agenda. Montenegro has been a bit slow in departing from the socialist left and that meant that there is a tendency to still celebrate and recognize the Yugoslavian opus as fundamental.

Being very aware, in every part of her career, of the environment she worked in, Kana was always able not only to adapt to, but also to understand and interpret the circumstances that define architecture and public space. The way she chose the tools and defined the ambiance in her work placed her on a much higher, international level, even though she was building and creating locally. She chose to base her practice in Montenegro as she had greater creative freedom here to build outside the constraints of an architectural culture driven by the real estate market.

OH

The Japanese connection is particularly intriguing; reading studies from the ’60s I’ve come across comparisons between Yugoslav and Japanese growth rates as then the highest in the world, and of course Kenzō Tange was hired to replan Skopje after the earthquake of 1963. What was Kana Radević’s interest in Japan, which if I’m not wrong formed the basis of some of her academic work?

DV

Many architects in Yugoslavia got interested in Japanese architecture as it was present in Skopje. The academic work you refer to is yet to be studied and it definitely shows Kana’s interest in [Kisho] Kurokawa’s work, but also allows us to draw the parallel throughout her work from Belgrade to the United States, Montenegro, and Japan – not only in architectural language but also typologies from corporate to housing, and monument and landscape design. Fortunately, the archive we had the access to has an amazing collection of photos and negatives that has helped us place the drawings within the timeline, and it has been fascinating to discover these connections.

Kana aspired to work outside of Montenegro and Yugoslavia, and she made it her personal agenda. Leaving for the United States to study in Louis Kahn’s studio at the University of Pennsylvania was a part of this agenda. She joined the studio not only as a graduate student but as an accomplished architect with several built works, and major architecture and other awards. Her choice of Kahn’s studio and later practice under Kurokawa seem to be an obvious one based on her projects and interests, while the influences from these exchanges are most evident in the project for Hotel Zlatibor in Užice.

OH

Alongside all this of course most of her constructed work is either in Montenegro, or in Serbia, in the form of the Hotel Zlatibor in Užice. Was there a conscious decision on her part, given how qualified and traveled she became, to concentrate on her home region? Is there a sense in which she was a “regionalist” designer?

DV

Kana started designing and building in Montenegro (and Yugoslavia) as soon as she graduated. Hotel Podgorica (constructed when she was only twenty-eight) and the great Borba award brought her an instant recognition and new commissions. She kept working on projects even while in the United States — the Monument complex in Barutana and Hotel Zlatibor are some of the projects from this period. She managed to have an independent practice, to be recognized as an author and to be a very dedicated civil servant, all at the same time. In Montenegro, she is nowadays recognized not only as an architect but as one of the greatest historical figures.

We can only guess now, but being aware of the position women had back in the day in the world of architecture, and as one coming from a foreign country in particular, I do not believe it would be possible for her to have such a career in the United States, Western Europe, or anywhere else outside of Montenegro, as a matter of fact. She could have worked for Kahn or in some other major studio but would certainly be and stay anonymous like many other great female architects.

OH

Judging from her biography and her public image Kana Radević seems to have been highly charismatic. How did a figure like this manage to become obscure — to the point where she was seldom mentioned even in sympathetic accounts of architecture in socialist Yugoslavia?

DV

Back in Yugoslavia, Montenegro was a periphery. Kana’s legacy, although very present in Montenegro, is yet to be determined. In order to understand properly the lack of the legacy Kana left behind, we must acknowledge that the University of Montenegro was founded in 1974, and without the faculty of architecture that has been established way after Kana’s death. This means that there was no base for her to develop further and transfer her politics, thoughts and ideas. There was no architectural critique that would analyze or celebrate her work in Montenegro and then bring it up further in Yugoslavia.

The lack of an institutional archive base for her work or any architectural work makes it very hard to not only study the course of architectural narrative in the entire country, but also impossible to place her work within the wider content, both Yugoslav and international. Having this in mind, we must acknowledge that she became an architect in Montenegro, which had barely any architectural heritage, or any modern architectural heritage, for that matter.

It was a time of an overall modernization in the postwar Yugoslavia, and the accents of this modernization have been centered around big cities and larger republics, such as Belgrade (Serbia), Zagreb (Croatia), Sarajevo (Bosnia and Herzegovina), and Ljubljana (Slovenia).