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

Updated: Apr 1

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 ten 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). 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.

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: 33°20'49.3"N 44°23'11.9"E

Description: Built along Baghdad's famous Khulafa Street just north of the city center and Tigris River is a residential and administrative complex known as "Al Khulafa Buildings". Unveiled in 1984 and designed by the Energoprojekt architect team of Zoran Bojović & Ljiljana Bojović, these two 11-story tall high-rise tower set are overtly modernist in their styling, but in such a way that they make subtle references to the traditional architecture of Iraq at the same time. For example, such features can be seen in the window screens across the broad faces of the building, along with the arch-shaped windows along the top edge of the structure. The two towers of the complex are situated in an odd fashion, where they strangely sandwich between them old Al Khulafa Mosque building. As soon as it was created, these towers stood out as a unique landmark along Khulafa Street, as their white color allows them to stand out as bright beacons among the sea of traditional sandstone homes. The Al Khulafa Buildings continue to exist in good condition and are still used to this day.

8.) Sheraton Hotel, Harare, Zimbabwe

A vintage postcard view from the 1980s of the Sheraton Hotel in Harare

Name: originally the Sheraton Hotel (today called "Rainbow Towers Hotel")

Location: Harare, Zimbabwe

Architect(s): Ljiljana Bakić & Dragoljub Bakić

Year completed: 1982-1986

Coordinates: 17°49'51.7"S 31°02'04.4"E

Description: Situated in the city center of Zimbabwe's capital Harare is a hotel complex that was originally built as a Sheraton when it was unveiled in 1986. Created by the Belgrade husband and wife architect team Ljiljana Bakić & Dragoljub Bakić, who were working with the Yugoslav engineering firm Energoprojekt at the time, this luxurious hotel was and continues to be the only 5-star establishment in Zimbabwe, as well as the largest hotel in the country (with nearly 400 rooms). Its merged double-tower form (67m tall and 18 stories high) is characterized by its smooth golden shape, curved beveled summit and huge glass walls on its board faces, features which give the facade a sleek and almost futuristic modern appearance. Attached to the west side of the hotel was built a massive conference center which echoed the opulence of the building's exterior. In the days leading up to the hotel's conference center hosting the British Commonwealth Summit in 1991, a bomb was set off in the hotel's ground floor, injuring several people. The hotel continues to operate to this day (changing its name to the "Rainbow Towers" in 2005) and exists in excellent condition.

9.) Entebbe International Airport, Entebbe, Uganda

Name: Entebbe International Airport

Location: Entebbe, Uganda

Architect(s): Aleksandar Keković

Year completed: 1972-1973

Coordinates: 0°02'42.2"N 32°26'32.2"E

Description: Located roughly 45km south of Uganda's capital of Kampala is the Entebbe International Airport. The airport's present facility was unveiled in 1973 and was created by famous Montenegrin architect Aleksandar Keković, who worked for the Yugoslav engineering firm Energoprojekt. The airport here at Entebbe is most remembered for an incident in 1976 when an Air France Airbus A300 jet headed from Tel Aviv to Paris was hijacked by a group called the "Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine" and re-routed to the Entebbe Airport. The group held the Israeli and Jewish passengers of the plane hostage and demanded the release of about 40 Palestinian militants who were imprisoned in Israel. The plane was re-routed to Entebbe Airport because the President of Uganda, Idi Amin, supported the hijacker's cause. The hostages were freed a week later by the Israeli Defense Forces in a dramatic rescue called "Operation Entebbe". Additional dramatic actions occurred at this site three years later in 1979 when parts of the airport were destroyed during the Uganda-Tanzanian War. The airport complex which Keković designed is still in operation, but there are plans over the next few years to renovate and modernize the airport's facilities.

10.) State Ministries Complex, Kano, Nigeria

Name: State Ministries Complex

Location: Kano, Nigeria

Architect(s): Milica Šterić & Zoran Bojović

Year completed: 1978

Coordinates: 11°59'05.4"N 8°32'20.9"E

Description: Starting in the late 1970s, the Yugoslav engineering and construction firm Energoprojekt undertook the construction of three major projects in Nigeria. The first of these projects was the creation of the State Ministries Complex for the Nigeria state of Kano, which would be built in the center of the city of Kano. This complex would house the state Ministries of Finance, Information, Environment, Justice, among several others. This sprawling complex was designed by Energoprojekt architects Milica Šterić & Zoran Bojović. Šterić herself was an architect who had been with the company since its inception and who hand selected from university not only Bojović, but many architects such as Dragoljub Bakić and Aleksanadar Kekovi who would go on to design some of Energoprojekt's most iconic works in Africa. The architecture of the Ministries Complex here in Kano would employ many features to combat the intense sun and heat endemic to this region, such as a bright white color to increase sun reflection, as well as lattice screens over south facing windows (which itself was a technique borrowed from local architectural traditions). Furthermore, during an interview, Bojović states that part of his inspiration behind the form of this complex was seeing stacked bags of peanuts (Kano's main exports) as he went on his daily walks with Šterić during their time in Kano working on this project. In addition, this project, as well as many other Energoprojekt efforts in Africa, were created of prefabricated standardized sections, which increased the speed and efficiency of construction. As of present day, the State Ministries Complex continues to operate and exists in a reasonably good state of repair.

BONUS UPDATE - 3/31/2020

After I published this article two days ago, I was reached out to by academic researcher Łukasz Stanek, the expert in African modernist architecture I mentioned in this article's intro. In chatting with him, I asked if he had any recommendations for any further sites that he felt that I should include on this list. He proceeded to provide me with information from his new book "Architecture in Global Socialism: Eastern Europe, West Africa, and the Middle East in the Cold War", which documents in great detail a huge amount of modernist architecture across Africa and the Middle East. The following bonus entries, consisting of 8 buildings spread across four locations, are ones which Stanek recommended that I include and which he writes about in his above-mentioned book. I will review each of the four sites below.

11.) Central Post Office, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

Name: Central Post Office/Headquarters for Ethio Telecom

Location: Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

Architect(s): Ivan Štraus & Zdravko Kovačević

Year completed: 1964

Coordinates: 9°01'14.4"N 38°45'09.8"E

Description: Located in the city center of the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa is what was originally built at the Central Post Office headquarters complex for the country, as well as the Ministry of Postal, Telegraph and Telephone Services and the Ethiopia Telecommunications Head Office (Ethio Telecom). This project came about, in part, as a result of Ethiopia's Emperor Haile Selassie strong relationship with Yugoslav President Josip Broz Tito through the Non-Aligned Movement (a relationship that was so strong that Tito named Selassie an honorary citizen of Belgrade). The creation of this ministry building was among the influential early works of famous Bosnian architect Ivan Štraus, who (along with his long time architect partner Zdravko Kovačević) would later go on to create some of the most famous buildings in Yugoslavia, such as the Holiday Inn, Elektroprivreda and UNIS Towers in Sarajevo, as well as the Aviation Museum in Belgrade. Created in the International Style, this massive complex in Addis Ababa is composed of two detached long thin 8-story tall modernist buildings (45m & 65m long by 15m wide) oriented perpendicular to each other. The complex remains is use in its original purpose to this day and stands in good state and condition.

12.) Duke of Harar Memorial Hospital, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

Name: Originally named "Duke of Harar Memorial Hospital" (today called "Black Lion Hospital")

Location: Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

Architect(s): designed by employees of the Yugoslav construction firm "Union Engineering"

Year completed: 1964-1973

Coordinates: 9°01'14.1"N 38°45'01.1"E

Description: Situated right in the city center of Addis Ababa, just a few dozen meters away from the famous Dilachn Monument, is the famous "Black Lion Hospital", which was originally called the Duke of Harar Memorial Hospital (which was named after the second son of the Ethiopia's Emporer Haile Selassie, who was named Prince Makonnen Haile Selassie). Built in large part by architects and engineers of the Yugoslav construction firm "Union Engineering", work began on this massive 8-story, 155m long, 535-bed modernist hospital complex in 1964, however, its completion was slowed considerably as the result of funding problems. When it was finially unveiled in 1973, it was the largest, technically advanced and most renowned medical facility in Ethiopia, with sources indicating that it was initially "run by a team of Swiss physicians, nurses, paramedical personnel and administrators" focused on using the complex as a teaching hospital. However, the very next year after the hospital's opening, Emporer Haile Selassie was overthrown by the Derg, who were a Soviet-backed Marxist–Leninist military dictatorship. At that time, the hospital's name was changed to the "Black Lion" (Tikur Anbessa). In present times, the hospital is still in operation, however, the level of medical care it provides still lags behind many other nations of Africa. A 2014 NPR article about the condition of the Black Lion Hospital can be found at THIS link.

13.) Bayan Conference Center, Kuwait City, Kuwait

A view of one of the original concept drawings by Maksimović for the Bayan Conference Center. Photo credit: courtesy of Łukasz Stanek

Name: Originally named "Bayan Conference Center" (now called "Bayan Palace Conference Center")

Location: Kuwait City, Kuwait

Architect(s): Stojan Maksimović

Year completed: 1987

Coordinates: 29°18'11.0"N 48°02'07.6"E

Description: After creating the world-renowned Sava Center in Belgrade in 1979, its creator Stojan Maksimović became one of the most celebrated architects in Yugoslavia. As a result, the year after the opening of the Sava Center, the government of Kuwait (who itself was a member of the Non-Aligned Movement) personally invited Maksimović to participate in a design competition for the creation of a massive new conference center complex in its capital, Kuwait City, which was to host the 5th Conference of the Arab League in 1986. In 1980, the proposal that Maksimović put forward for the conference center won the competition, with construction on the complex beginning shortly thereafter. However, sources relate that for some reason, the final form of the complex unveiled in 1986 (which was called the Bayan Conference Center and that he created in cooperation with the Kuwaiti firm 'Archicentre'), looked vastly dissimilar Maksimović's concept (as seen in the above photos). Meanwhile, just three years after it was opened, the conference center suffered significant damage as a result of Iraq's invasion of Kuwait during the Gulf War. After Kuwait achieved its freedom from Iraqi annexation at the end of the war in 1991, the complex was renamed the "Bayan Palace Conference Center" after a large scale renovation project repaired the structure. It continues to operate to present day and is the largest complex of its kind in the country.

14.) 5 Halls at Kwame Nkrumah Univ. of Science & Technology, Kumasi, Ghana

Africa Hall at KNUST, John Owusu-Addo/Miro Marasović (chief univ. arch.), Niksa Ciko (arch. in charge), 1965. Photo credit: Łukasz Stanek
Staff Club House at KNUST, Niksa Ciko (arch. in charge), Miro Marasović/John Owusu- Addo (chief univ. arch.), 1964. Photo credit: Łukasz Stanek

Name: 5 Halls at Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST)

Location: Kumasi, Ghana

Architect(s): Mira Marasović, Niksa Ciko & John Owusu-Addo

Year completed: all works completed between 1964 & 1968

Coordinates: College of Architecture: 6°40'26.1"N 1°33'52.3"W, Senior Staff Club: 6°40'24.8"N 1°34'42.5"W, Africa Hall: 6°40'50.8"N 1°34'31.3"W, Unity Hall: 6°40'46.1"N 1°34'17.9"W

Description: In 1960, the government of Ghana wished to develop the small vocational school known as the Kumasi College of Technology into a full-fledged university. As a result, the institution was renamed Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST) (named after Kwame Nkrumah, the first president of Ghana). Through the subsequent years during the 1960s, the university went through a massive expansion, during which a huge amount of campus buildings were added. Five of these new KNUST campus buildings (which included the Vice-Chancellor's Lodge, Unity Hall, Africa Hall, the Senior Staff Club and the College of Architecture) were all created by architect-teams which included Yugoslav architects Mira Marasović and Niksa Ciko, who worked on teams with other Ghanaian and international architects which included John Owusu-Addo, B. Kalogjera and K.M.G. Kirkbride. All of the buildings were completed between 1963 and 1968. These new buildings stood as significant landmarks of new architectural trends for Ghana, while Stanek remarks in his book that many commentators in Ghana during the unveiling of these buildings remarked that they symbolized a break with the heritage of architectural colonialism in Africa. Crafted in what appears to be an adaption of the International Style, the Senior Staff Club appears to be inspired by the most famous of Yugoslav International Style works: The Yugoslav Pavillion at the 1958 World's Expo in Brussels by Vjenceslav Richter, while the Vice-Chancelor's Lodge almost seems to channel the early modernism of Bauhaus in its design. All of these four halls continue to operate to present day and are all in good condition.

Selected Sources:

-Dubravka Sekulić paper: Energoprojekt in Nigeria

-EP Hydro paper: "Energoprojekt - 60 years of success" [PDF]

-Vladimir Kulić paper: "Building the Non-Aligned Babel"

-NYC Museum of Modern Art book: "Toward a Concrete Utopia: Architecture in Yugoslavia, 1948–1980"

-Łukasz Stanek paper: "Architects from Socialist Countries in Ghana (1957–67)"

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