On 22 September 2018, sometime around 9:30am, Aca Šimunov (41) and Stefan Dabetić (26), two construction workers, fell to their deaths while accessing the twenty-second floor of one of Belgrade’s luxury Waterfront district high-rises. Their deaths were not extraordinary events in 2018: fifty-one other workers died on their jobs that year in Serbia, a plurality of them construction workers. The Belgrade Waterfront, a 3.5-billion euro private-public partnership between the Emirati firm Eagle Hills and the Serbian government, exemplifies the city’s recent housing project construction boom. Envisioning a bright future of luxury apartments, high-rises, marinas, hotels and shopping malls, the project signals Serbia’s commitment to a post-socialist modernity circumscribed by capital.
On the surface, the Waterfront projects a vision of a-historic glass and steel, the architecture of finance capital. Its towers are almost ‘out of time’, their uninterrupted cuboids reflecting a watered-down version of the high-modernist aesthetic developed by Mies van der Rohe for midtown Manhattan in the late 1950s. Sprinkled between the high-rises are neo-futurist designs such as the 168m Kula Belgrade tower. Nothing in the Waterfront appears to have its own historical narrative. The modernist referent of its glass facades simply serves as a weakened memory, something which, in the words of Fredric Jameson, ‘serves to annihilate time’.1
While many of these projects are mixed-use with significant commercial components, the majority of their square meterage comprises residential units for the real-estate market. This is for a good financial reason: average real-estate prices in Belgrade have continued to grow at a rate of 7% per year since the end of the recession in 2014. Based primarily in the premium and high-end segment of the market, such housing satisfies a growing demand in a population that has experienced easier access to bank loans and the opening of the country’s economy after the fall of Milošević. According to Deloitte and Touche, the average return on equity for the banking sector in Serbia was 11.3% in 2018. Such favourable conditions for constructing profitable luxury housing also drive speculatory investment on the part of a nascent bourgeoisie, further raising real-estate prices. Belgrade’s construction boom has thus relied on a quick turn-around of investment and conservative architectural endeavours, comprised mostly of modernist and a-historic designs.
As the largest of these projects, the Belgrade Waterfront is situated at the apex of Serbia’s long-standing ambitions to join the European family of nations. Paradoxically, its ‘end of history’ narrative relies heavily on historical comparison. Introducing the project to the National Assembly in 2015, Serbian president (then prime-minister), Aleksandar Vučić linked the Waterfront’s revitalization of the post-industrial Savamala district with nineteenth-century de-Ottomanization under Prince Miloš Obrenović (1830–39, 1858–60). In Vučić’s exposé, Belgrade’s post-Ottoman transition was a simile for Serbia’s economic transition to market capitalism. Vučić compared himself to Miloš – they had both undertaken an arduous struggle against a ‘backward people’, unwilling to step into modernity.
Such narratives of universal, capitalist progress rely on a depthless engagement with history based on a fantasy of uncontested pasts. As the Belgrade city manager Goran Vesić noted in 2017: ‘the Savamala was created thus – with the stick. A Serbian merchant town built by Miloš to oppose the Kalemegdan fortress, which remained in Turkish hands … Today, it is made with cranes, with trucks, and with machines’. Official narratives frame the two transitions – from empire to nation state and from socialism to capitalism – as nodes in one continuous progression, tellingly skipping over the entirety of Yugoslav history. And yet a more careful examination of Belgrade’s nineteenth-century history may likewise bring into focus the contradictions inherent in both post-Ottoman and post-socialist transitions.