After appearing first in France in the 1910s, Art Deco spread all over the world in 1925 when it “seduced the world”. That is, according to the ‘Art Déco France – Amérique du Nord’ exhibition I visited a few months ago at Cité de l’Architecture et du Patrimoine in Paris’ 16th arrondissement. Subsequently walking around autumnal Trocadéro, I found myself wondering about two very distinct visions that I had assumed to be Art Deco: the Зграда команде ваздухопловства (“Air Force Command Building”), one of my favourite buildings in Belgrade, together with unrealised Soviet projects such as the Дворец Советов (“Palace of the Soviets”) which were set to be built in Moscow in the 30’s or 40’s. How did this French seduction from the time period of the roaring 20’s travel to two geographically distant yet somewhat culturally similar countries, both at some point in time harbouring historical alliances with France? And how does that impact look like in affluential Eastern and Southern European capitals that were once the focal points of the two states, namely the USSR and the Kingdom of Yugoslavia respectively? This article explores these two questions, using the terms Soviet and Yugoslav interchangeably with Russian and Serbian, whilst maintaining a purely architectural focus.
Haunting is how I would describe the Air Force Command Building in the neighbourhood of Zemun in Belgrade today. Adorned with delicate metal emblems of wreaths, eagles and stars on its gates as well as a striking sculpture of Icarus on its east flank, the building remains in use today under management of the Army of Serbia with the likes of air force personnel visible through circular windows that lace the outside. Referring to the photo above, one can see to it that the Air Force Command Building is a grey vision confronted with curves, layers and cubic windows in a U-formation all of which face the Park of Aviators, home to a monument dedicated to the fallen fighters of the national revolution in 1941-45. According to Serbian art historian Stojanović (2019), the architect of the building – Dragiša Brašovan – had been inspired by French architect August Perret’s 1902 apartment building on 25 rue Benjamin Franklin in Paris for the iconic U-shape of the Air Force Command Building. The building being one of his most original works is not completely alien to the Yugoslav scene, however, the Air Force Command Building in particular stands out in its neighbourhood which possesses a distinct charm from its past in the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
After research of Serbian sources, having believed that Air Force Command Building is a mix of both Bauhaus and Art Deco, it was curious to find that the Air Force Command Building is considered an example of Yugoslav Modernism. Yugoslav Modernism was one of the major architecture styles of Yugoslavia in the 30’s in the form of Interwar Modernism, also reappearing in another form in the late 40’s. This is a style that, in the middle of two World Wars, encapsulates a major stylistic change in the state for the sake of modernising and unifying the six Yugoslav nations into a bigger South-Slavic body. Serbia in particular constructed more Modernist buildings than any other state due to the foundation of the Group of Architects of the Modern Movement in Belgrade in 1928 (Đorđević & Marjanović, 2016). Later linking the typical Art Deco mythological symbolism of Markov’s Icarus to the sphinxes, forest and lake spirits, centaurs, Pan, as well as satyrs that I had seen at a 30’s state hotel just outside of Belgrade – Хотел „Авала“ (“Avala Hotel”) – two things can be understood. Yugoslav Modernism often contains elements of other architectural styles, especially in subtle forms or details. Furthermore, in its mature period from the 30’s to 40’s, the movement was more geared towards developing a national, distinctive style within each state. This explains why the Avala Hotel uses elements of Serbian Byzantine heritage whilst keeping to modern Bauhaus style alongside prominent Renaissance elements. It is mixed and highly creative precisely because it is an exploration of multiple styles to celebrate South Slavic identity. In other words, mythological imagery, which is also heavily used in Art Deco and therefore fooled me, features in the Hotel Avala for the sake of the celebration of Yugoslav individuality above that of aesthetic.
But how did this all start, and why is there so little written on Yugoslav Art Deco as its own concept? Narrowing the research down to Serbian Art Deco – to stay in the scope of my initial vision of the Air Force Command Building – Prosen (2016) explains that Art Deco entered the scene in Serbia in the interwar period in which French exhibitions inspired the adoption of Parisian elements on buildings in Belgrade. In his findings, he explains that the style was significant in 1935 to 1941. The Style Moderne in an exhibition titled ‘Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts’, held in 1925, later known as Art Deco. Instead of the Air Force Command Building or the Avala Hotel, one should look instead at the French Embassy in Belgrade which had been constructed in 1933 by French architect Roger-Henri Expert together with Serbian architect Josif Najman. Not pictured in this article, it is allegedly the best example of Art Deco in all of Serbia, indicative of the historical relationship between the two countries. Art Deco in Belgrade was also encouraged by the participation of Russian architects in the Yugoslav architecture scene. It was curious coincidence to find that it was the Russian architect Viktor Lukomski who had designed the Avala Hotel, built in 1931, which I had previously mentioned. The hotel was stylised with traditional motifs and facades inspired by medieval Serbian architecture and Serbo-Byzantine elements, with Prosen (2016) denoting it a “temple located in the South-Slavic Arcadia”. These romantic elements are therefore a national variety of Art Deco and other styles, shaped to represent the Kingdom in different time periods. There were many more Russian artists, sculptors and designers that contributed to this Serbian Art Deco, including Vladimir Zagorodnyuk, Aleksandr Medvedev, Valeriy Stashevski and many more.
Having explored Yugoslav Art Deco, we can now enter the discussion of Soviet or Russian Art Deco. From my Master’s dissertation from 2022 titled “What Happens when the New Soviet Man comes to Belgrade in the 1940s: Lived Experience of Social Control through Urban Planning in former USSR and Yugoslavia’, I had already explored a little bit of Art Deco expression following the accession of the Soviet Union as a state. Art Deco was undertaken by the Soviet Union in the form of the Stalinist Style which saw Art Deco gain most prominence in a short period between roughly 1932 and 37 (Brafa Art Fair, 2019). It was largely shaped by the Russian Avant-Garde movement headed by many notable figures such as Alexander Rodchenko, later overtaken by Socialist Realism – an art philosophy which strove to represent the prosperous, new Soviet reality following a dissolution of the Russian Empire after the 1917 October Revolution. Like Serbian or Yugoslav Art Deco, Soviet Art Deco is subtle and appears in buildings under the pretext that the viewer pays attention to less obvious details. Socialist Realism faced a much bigger trajectory in Russia, compared to Yugoslav countries where it was very short-lived. For that reason, the USSR was much more geared towards creating proud Monumentalist buildings in the capital to showcase the strength, success and magnificence of the USSR just as Yugoslavia for their identity.
The Palace of the Soviets project emerged in the 1930’s as one grand display of Art Deco – especially its statue – mixed in with Neoclassicism and above all, Socialist Realism. This classes the project as a piece of Stalinist architecture. Buildings like the Moscow State University, Ministry of Coal Industry, Building No. 120 on the Prospekt Mira, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Russia, all of which are in Moscow, are all examples of Stalinist architecture. They are easily mistaken for Art Deco when compared with widespread examples of Western Art Deco buildings like the American Radiator Building in New York or even Senate House of SOAS in London due to the form and atmosphere of these wonders. They are, however, all classic pieces of Stalinist architecture which, together with some elements of Art Deco, was largely based in the 19th Empire style as well as Russian Baroque and Gothic styles depending on the period. It is important to understand that the Soviet government under Stalin approved building designs so that Socialist Realism was at the heart of every project. Whilst buildings only contain elements of Art Deco, Soviet metros are perhaps one of the better places to witness what can also be considered as Art Deco. The Mayakovskaya underground station, built in 1938 and in Stalinist style, possesses more profound elements of Art Deco. The station’s design was constructed on the pretext of a Soviet future as envisioned by the Soviet poet Mayakovsky together with a mosaic composition of his poem ‘Moscow Sky’ on the ceiling of the northern exit hall. Within the sphere of Stalinist architecture, futurism and Socialist Realism are always intertwined. Whilst this is very much a feature in Art Deco, like Yugoslav Modernism, it was the intention of design that places these buildings under an umbrella term – in this case, Stalinist architecture. On a final note, the relationship between Russia and France in this regard is more convoluted than the Yugoslav example due to less involvement of French architects for the sake of Art Deco in Russia.
In conclusion, Art Deco had a place in Yugoslav and Soviet territories having been influenced by the Parisian “New Age” that took the world by storm through exhibitions in the 1920s. Serbian Art Deco appears in buildings primarily under the pretext of Yugoslav Modernism meanwhile, in the USSR, the architecture featured for a very short period under the pretext of Stalinist or post-Constructivist styles. It can be said that Art Deco did not make as big an impression on art and architecture as it did in other parts of the world, or at least, not in a pure form. Art Deco however is seen in many buildings that can only be described as unique and one-of-a-kind in two very geographically distant formerly Communist state capitals with different historical trajectories.