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16 Works of Yugoslav Modernist Architecture in Africa & the Middle East

Updated: Nov 18, 2022

In recent years, the unique modernist architecture of Yugoslavia has begun to be increasingly celebrated around the world and recognized for being a singular architectural manifestation, distinct from the work made by either the Cold-War eastern or western powers. However, what has not received as much attention or recognition are the works by Yugoslav architects that were built outside the area of Yugoslavia. Because of the influence and political relationships which Yugoslavia cultivated through creating and participating in the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) (which was a "a forum of 120 developing world states that were not formally aligned with or against any major power blocs"), Yugoslavia was thus able to export its architecture and modernist design aesthetics to many NAM member states. One of the most noticeable footprints in this regard made by Yugoslavia was in creating a huge amount of buildings and infrastructure across the African and the Middle Eastern landscape. Many of these architectural works have long gone unrecognized, not only as excellent examples of Yugoslav architecture, but also as stunning examples of modernist world architecture in their own right. The whole phenomenon of Yugoslav architecture in Africa and the Middle East is only just beginning to be explored, most notably by academic researcher Łukasz Stanek. Here I will give a brief run-down of sixteen notable architectural examples that will help to communicate an idea of the variety of forms in which Yugoslav modernism manifested itself across these regions during this pivotal time period.

 

1.) International Trade Fair, Lagos, Nigeria

Name: International Trade Fair complex

Location: Lagos, Nigeria

Architect(s): Zoran Bojović, with Predrag Ðaković, Milorad Cvijić & Ljiljana Bojović

Year completed: 1974-1977

Coordinates: 6°27'49.1"N 3°14'49.6"E

Description: Located just off of the Lagos-Badagry Expressway on the western edge of Lagos, Nigeria is situated the 350 hectare International Trade Fair complex. This massive development project was intended to host Nigeria's first ever international trade fair and upon its opening in 1977, it was said to be the largest market place ever created in sub-Saharan Africa. The creation of the trade fair grounds, which ended up totaling 40,000 sq m, was built by Yugoslav construction/engineering firm Energoprojekt, while the buildings of the complex were designed by a design team lead by Belgrade architect Zoran Bojović. The spatial planning of the complex is characterized by its circular flow of connectivity and accessibility between exhibition halls, which was a layout Bojović formulated after being inspired by the results he saw from a field research exercise in rural Nigeria where he asked young village children to draw maps of their small communities. Meanwhile, while the buildings themselves display an playfully ambitious design which invokes a wistful future-oriented design of angular and geometric styles. While the complex continues to host various activities and events, many parts of it have descended into a poor condition over recent years. The most prevalent activity of the former fairground complex is the sale of use car parts, of which it is the largest marketplace of this kind in all of Nigeria.

 

2.) The FINDECO House, Lusaka, Zambia

Name: The FINDECO House

Location: Lusaka, Zambia

Architect(s): Dušan Milenković & Branimir Ganović

Year completed: 1971-1974? [conflicting dates from various sources]

Coordinates: 15°25'27.6"S 28°17'01.8"E

Description: Standing at 90m tall and consisting of 23 floors (with 8,900 sq m of floor space), the FINDECO House is the tallest skyscraper in Zambia, making it one of the most iconic buildings in the country. The name of the building comes from its original owners, who were the State FINance and DEvelopment COrporation. The building is unique in that its floors are cantilevered off of a central pillar, giving the structure a gravity defying appearance. This tower was built for FINDECO at the height of Zambia's copper export trade (which the state corporation managed). However, almost as soon as the tower was completed, the global copper prices plummeted, leaving the corporation all but gutted and Zambia in a recession which continues to present times. Today the FINDECO House largely operates as general office and retail space. In 2013, a huge Samsung sign was installed at the top of the tower. Efforts have been put forward in recent years to renovate and modernize the building, but so far, no such activities have manifested. Also, it is relevant to note that the white skyscraper next to the FINDECO House, which is ZANACO Bank HQ, which was also designed by Yugoslav engineers and architects.

 

3.) International Conference Centre, Kampala, Uganda

A view of the interior of the International Conference Center at Kampala. Photo credit: Cletus Lwalijja

Name: International Conference Center at Serena Hotel

Location: Kampala, Uganda

Architect(s): built by Yugoslav architects of the Energoprojekt engineering/construction firm

Year completed: 1975

Coordinates: 0°19'03.4"N 32°35'11.2"E

Description: The Kampala International Conference Center was unveiled in 1975 and constructed and designed by the Yugoslav construction firm Energoprojekt to accommodate the 13th Summit of the Organization of African Unity (OAU). This facility conference facility, along with its adjoining hotel, were constructed in a mind-boggling nine months in order to be ready in time for the OAU conference. Made in a unique hexagonal shape, the building it clad in decorative aluminum panel not only for their attractive appearance, but also to protect the building from the intense tropical sunlight. The summit was presided over by notorious Uganda leader President Idi Amin, also known as the "Butcher of Uganda" who was considered one of the cruelest despots in history. This conference center was used by President Amin for all sorts of personal activities, limited not only to his wedding reception when he wed his wife Sarah Kyolaba Amin, but also, according to some sources, the basement level of the center was used as a torture chamber for Amin's opponents and enemies. The complex has been used consistently over the years for a variety of events and governmental purposes, being updated and renovated in several instances in recent years. It continues to be well used and in good condition to present day.

A vintage image showing the Conference Center in Kampala, Uganda during the 1970s.
A 1990s view of Hotel Nile in Kampala, Uganda.
A vintage commemorative stamp showing Hotel Nile and the convention center in Kampala.

It is also important to note that situated directly next to the conference complex is Hotel "Nile" (today known as the "Serena Hotel"), which is a large complex meant to house the many attendees of the conventions held here. Just like the conference complex, Hotel Nile was also created by the Yugoslavia-based Energoprojekt company at the same time as the Conference Center and designed by Aleksandar Keković. As one of the most senior architects of Energoprojekt, Keković authored numerous projects all over Africa, such as the Entebbe Airport (there in Kampala), the Garaboulli Irrigation System in Libya, the Lagos School Center in Nigeria, among others. The Nile Hotel was designed as a first-class accommodation to host world leaders and other exclusive guests and was one of the most elite hotels in the country at the time. Constructed in the pre-fab concrete panel system, the hotel originally had a flat white unadorned facade with its broadsides entirely taken up with balconies accented with corrugated railings. President Idi Amin loved the hotel to such a degree that he used it as his personal palace, with some sources recounting that he even made outrageous claims that he was born on the site where it was constructed. This hotel was also the choice of residence for many who worked at the nearby State Research Bureau, which was an agency that served as the secret police for Idi Amin and carried out much of his dirty work and torture. In 2006, the hotel underwent a complete renovation and exterior make-over. It was during this construction that numerous skeletons were unearthed in the hotel's basement from Amin's torture exploits. Today, branded as "Hotel Serena", the new facility has been expanded and bears no resemblance to its former Hotel Nile years, now having been painted orange and plastered over with a faux-Baroque exterior. The hotel continues to be an exclusive accommodation, with guests paying as much as $300 a night to stay here, even despite its dark history. In addition, the new Serena Hotel continues to be a place central to government operations, with it routinely being booked for official functions and is the location where Ugandan presidents deliver their State of the Union addresses.

 

4.) The Babylon Hotel, Baghdad, Iraq

A vintage postcard view of the Babylon Hotel in Baghdad

Name: The Babylon Hotel

Location: Baghdad, Iraq

Architect(s): Edvard Ravnikar, Majda Kregar, Edo Ravnikar Jr & Miha Kerin

Year completed: 1969-1982

Coordinates: 33°17'28.2"N 44°23'23.7"E

Description: Located along the banks of the Tigris River in Baghdad is a fascinating stair-stepped-styled complex that was originally called the Babylon Hotel, thus named because the shape of the hotel was meant to be symbolic for the ancient hanging gardens of Babylon. Unveiled in 1982 and created by an architect team led by famous Slovene architect Edvard Ravnikar, it is interesting to note that this 'hanging gardens' symbolism was a bit post-hoc, as this hotel complex was originally slated to be built by the Montenegrin construction firm Lovćeninženjering on the Adriatic coast in Budva, Montengro (mirroring the surrounding mountains), but after the original project fell through, the construction firm repurposed the hotel plan after the Yugoslav government assigned it to build a luxury hotel in Baghdad. Interestingly, very little of the original plans were changed. When it was completed in 1982, it became an instantly iconic landmark of Baghdad. It has continued to operate over the years, even in light of the Iraq War, and has unfortunately suffered several car bombs in 2010 and 2015, which seriously damaged parts of the complex.

 

5.) Conference Palace, Libreville, Gabon

A vintage postcard view of the exterior of the Conference Palace in Libreville
A vintage photo showing the interior of the Conference Palace at Libreville. Photo credit: Miodrag Živković archive

Name: Conference Palace (Palais de conferences)

Location: Libreville, Gabon

Architect(s): built by Yugoslav architects of the Energoprojekt engineering/construction firm

Year completed: 1977, demolished 2014

Coordinates: unknown

Description: This massive conference center complex in Libreville was built to accommodate the 14th Summit of the Organization of African Unity (OAU), held in 1977 and was completed by engineers and architects of the Belgrade construction firm Energoprojekt. The complex was decorated in the finest stylings of the time period, with a opulent lobby area which contained a massive sculptural relief by Belgrade artist Miodrag Živković (as seen in the above photo). Some sources even describe the Conference Palace as the most luxurious building of its kind in Africa. However, the Conference Palace was demolished in 2014 to make way for a new complex for the president of Gabon. As a result of its demolition, I have been unable to establish its exact site of its former location. Furthermore, I have unforunately been unable to find many photos showing its interior or features.

 

6.) Mulungushi Conference Center, Lusaka, Zambia

A view of the Mulungushi Conference Center. Photo credit: micc.co.zm

Name: Mulungushi Conference Center

Location: Lusaka, Zambia

Architect(s): built by Yugoslav architects of the Energoprojekt engineering/construction firm

Year completed: 1970

Coordinates: 15°23'22.4"S 28°18'48.1"E

Description: The creation of the Mulungushi Conference Center was the result of a interesting crisis in 1970 when the then-president of Zambia, Kenneth D. Kaunda, was slated to host the 3rd meeting of the Non-Aligned Movement. The problem was that Zambia had nowhere to host the event, so Kaunda made a plea to Yugoslavia for help, who, within days, had engineers from the Belgrade construction firm Energoprojekt onsite making plans for the creation of an event center. Construction occurred so fast that it literally was being designed as it was in the process of being built. Miraculously, within those four months, the center was completed and ready for hosting the Non-Aligned conference. This events center included over 4,000 seats, while around the center were built 65 additional villas for hosting the events presidential visitors. The conference center is still in use to this day and appears in good condition.

 

7.) Al Khulafa Residential Complex, Baghdad, Iraq

Name: Al Khulafa Residential Complex

Location: Baghdad, Iraq

Architect(s): Zoran Bojović & Ljiljana Bojović

Year completed: 1984

Coordinates: