Updated: Feb 1
Spread across the Yugoslav landscape in countless towns, cities and villages were legions of attractively alluring and seductive department stores and shopping centers. As the country began to decentralize in the late 1950s, the “Workers Self-Management” style of socialism that came out of that transition began to allow certain levels of market forces to steer production, trade, commerce, imports, etc, etc, creating something akin to “market socialism”. From this, a modest “consumer culture” emerged in Yugoslavia. People began to develop a taste for retail goods, exotic imports, time-saving appliances, and much more. This was a significant shift away from socialism as it was practiced in the Soviet-sphere, which was a system where little attention was paid to the tastes or desires of the consumer.
As a result of this shift towards “market socialism”, western-style department stores began to be constructed in huge numbers across Yugoslavia. These commercial centers were not the austere chaste sort of shops emphasizing utility and practicality one might expect to see in the USSR, instead, they were bright vibrant buildings created in adventurous and exciting architectural styles which were so distinct that it could be argued they pioneered a uniquely Yugoslav approach to modernist commercial architecture. Within the shops were impressive selections of not only domestic products, but, in some cases, a wide array of import products as well… American blue jeans, British rock records, designer clothes, Bulgarian perfumes, among other such seductive products. Even further, these modern markets operated not only as commercial spaces, but also, in a very Western way, social places for young people to congregate together.
As a result of the popularity and attractiveness of many of these shopping centers, they became local landmarks for the communities which they served, so much so that they were often featured as central symbolic attractions on the promotional postcards for these towns and villages. In contemporary times, as the capitalist ‘mega marts’ on the outskirts of town dominate a large portion of commercial retail, these Yugoslav-era monuments to ‘market socialism” are being increasingly abandoned and even demolished in many cases. In this article, we will examine a few notable examples of Yugoslav department stores and explore this distinct typology of Yugoslav modernist architecture that manifested in a myriad of forms across the country during the 1960s to the 1980s.
1.) Unima Department Store, Sarajevo, BiH
Name: Unima Department Store (aka: Sarajka)
Location: Sarajevo, BiH
Architect(s): Vladimir Zarahović
Year built: 1975 (demolished 2007)
Coordinates: 43°51'30.5"N 18°24'59.9"E
Description: The Department Store “Unima” of Sarajevo, BiH was unveiled in the newly created October Square (today called “Children of Sarajevo Square”) during a festive ceremony on April 5th, 1975, the 30th anniversary of the WWII liberation of Sarajevo. It was intimately referred to by locals as “Sarajka”. This massive five-level 17,000 sq m complex employed over 500 people and was meant to operate as the new commercial center of the city. Sarajka was created by famous architect Vladimir Zarahović, whose concept for the building’s design was characterized by a snowflake shaped structure adorned with a series of bright blue panels embossed triangle patterns. Sarajka was a seminal work of architecture and most modern shopping complex in the BiH republic, drawing in not only local people, but also people from all over Yugoslavia. Articles online are filled with nostalgic stories about Sarajka from people who grew up in Sarajevo during the 70s and 80s, as the center became a notable center of youth gathering and "hanging out". However, Sarajka became a casualty of the Bosnian War, sitting completely destroyed by its end. After sitting ruined for more than a decade, the entire structure was demolished in 2007. The BBI Center was built in its place in 2009.
2.) 'Beograd' Department Store, Bor, Serbia
Name: "Beograd" Department Store
Location: Bor, Serbia
Year built: 1970s?
Coordinates: 44°04'42.3"N 22°05'57.9"E
Description: At the north end of Freedom Square in the town of Bor, Serbia is the Department Store “Beograd”, which was a chain of stores founded in Belgrade in 1965 and was among the largest chains in Europe during the Yugoslav-era. As seen in the above image of this department store, the center operates as a bustling center of community life, with families shopping and children playing. The complex is characterized by the bold yellow geometric pattern of its textured metal screen which covers building’s entire front facade. Despite being a center of community activity, the “Beograd” complex closed and fell into disrepair during the economic turmoil of the 1990s. However, in 2010, an investment group intent on reinvigorating the “Beograd” chain injected 1.5 million euros into re-opening it, at which point its old fading yellow screen was painted bright red. While it remains open to present-day, unresolved roof drainage issues have resulted with the screen’s new red paint chipping away, slowly revealing its original defiant yellow color.
3.) Patrija Department Store, Prijedor, BiH
Name: Patrija Department Store
Location: Prijedor, BiH
Year built: 1979 (demolished 2019/2020)
Coordinates: 44°58'46.5"N 16°42'34.7"E
Description: At the center of Prijedor within Major Zoran Karlica Square are the ruins of the Patrija Department Store (Robna kuća Patrija). When constructed in 1979, this unique and distinctive red modernist complex stood as a bold testament to the ambitiousness of 70s era Yugoslav commercial architecture and design aesthetics . During the Yugoslav-era, Patrija was not only the town's most popular department store, it was also considered to be a landmark of Prijedor and was featured prominently and proudly on the town's postcards. However, after the dismantling of Yugoslavia, the business went into decline and was completely defunct by the early 2000s. It then proceeded to deteriorate, sitting blighted, abandoned and vacant for almost 20 years, with it becoming an embarrassment to the town rather than a point of pride. It sat vacant for so long mostly the result of unclear and disputed property ownership. However, with property rights resolved in 2018, the Patrija building was sold to developers. A 3.5 million euro redevelopment project calls for the building to be torn down completely and rebuilt as a streamlined glass shopping center by 2020. Dismantling of the building began in August of 2019. Sources report to me that by January/Feburary of 2020 the old department store was completed demolished.
4.) Vesna Department Store, Slavonski Brod, Croatia
Name: Vesna Department Store
Location: Slavonski Brod, Croatia
Architect(s): Milivoj Peterčić
Year built: 1971
Coordinates: 45°09'16.5"N 18°00'42.2"E
Description: Located in the Croatian town of Slavonski Brod, situated right at the western edge of its central promenade of Ivana Brlić-Mažuranić Square, is the “Vesna” Department Store. Designed by notable Zagreb architect Milivoj Peterčić, Vensa immediately became a central community hub upon its opening in 1971. Its concrete framed brick facade is cantilevered out to such a degree that the whole structure almost appears to float above the wrap-around glass walls of the ground level. Such engaging architectural flourishes made such places all the more exciting for shoppers, illustrating that, although Yugoslavia was a communist country, businesses were firmly exploring the Western capitalist idea of creating unique “consumer experiences” for their patrons. However, as the Yugoslav era passed, Vesna found itself struggling in a newly independent Croatia, then, by 2013, it went bankrupt and shop was left abandoned. As of 2020, it continues to sit vacant and poor condition, while Slavonski Brod is struggling to sell the building.
5.) HIT Department Store, Mostar, BiH
Name: Department Store “HIT”
Location: Mostar, BiH
Architect(s): Safet Galešić
Year built: 1973 (demolished early 1990s)
Coordinates: 43°20'38.2"N 17°48'26.8"E [former location]
Description: Originally located on Mostar’s Spanish Square at the site of the old train station was the imposing Department Store “HIT” (Herzegovina Integrated Trade), just a block west of the Neretva River. Built by Bosnian architect Safet Galešić, this massive 5,300 sq m retail outlet became one of the central commercial hubs (and even a tourist attraction) for Mostar as soon as it was unveiled in 1973. With a facade dominated by a decorative white metal screen, this loud modernist structure stood in sharp contrast to Mostar’s ancient architecture. HIT became such a cultural symbol for Mostar that when 36 local workers died in a bus crash in 1985, a large memorial ceremony attended by 30,000 people was held in front of the store. However, during the Bosnian War of the 1990s, the area of Spanish Square became a frontline of fighting, resulting in structure being completely destroyed by artillery. It was subsequently demolished. Since 1994, the new Croatian National Theatre has been under construction at HIT’s former location.
6.) Razvitak Department Store, Mostar, BiH
Name: Razvitak Department Store
Location: Mostar, BiH
Architect(s): Ante Paljaga
Year built: 1970
Coordinates: 43°20'39.6"N 17°48'48.5"E
Description: Less than 1km north of Mostar's Old Bridge in the town's center on the east side of the river are the ruins of the old Razvitak Department Store. Unveiled on March 1st, 1970, this innovative new modernist shopping center instantly became one of Mostar's landmarks upon its opening (even being featured on the town's postcards). Created by Bosnian architect Ante Paljaga, the unique concrete panels surrounding the facade of the structure bear a series of dynamic ancient designs borrowed from the carved figures found on the region's medieval tombstones known as 'stećci'. With stećci being an integral part of the region's culture and history, Paljaga including their imagery on this building was a way to integrate local vernacular design and cultural heritage into the building's modernist visual language, thus creating a distinct 'local' style of Yugoslav modernism. Also, seen in the above vintage photo is a 64 apartment 7 floor high-rise which was built next to the shopping center during its initial construction.
During the Bosnian War of the 1990s, the Razvitak Shopping Center, along with its accompanying residential high rise, were severely damaged by shelling and bombing that went on. After the war, the high rise was demolished as the building had become a safety hazard in danger of potentially collapsing, however, the shopping center was left as it was, abandoned and destroyed. Now, more than 20 years after the war, the fate of the Razvitak is still in question. Some recent proposals in 2018 have been put forward to tear down the old ruins and redevelop the site, while other proposals suggest the building's original facade should be preserved. however, it is unclear whether these efforts will be carried out. One of the biggest road blocks in the development and resolution of the future of this site are prolonged legal disputes between the city of Mostar and the residents of the current high rise. Currently, the ruins are surrounded by fencing and it is prohibited to enter.
7.) NAMA Department Store, Ljubljana, Slovenia
Name: NAMA Department Store
Location: Ljubljana, Slovenia
Architect(s): building designed by Franjo Lušičić, NAMA designed by Miloš Lapajne & Bogdan Fink
Year built: Original building from 1938, addition built in 1965
Coordinates: 46°03'08.5"N 14°30'12.0"E
Description: On the corner of Slovenian Road and Cankar Street in the city center of Ljubljana, an early modernist building was created by architect Franjo Lušičić to operate as a department store for the Czech footwear company "Bata". However, in 1956, the massive Zagreb department store chain known as NAMA (“Narodni magazin” or “The People’s Store”) moved into the commercial space replacing "Bata" (making it the first NAMA franchise in Slovenia). In an effort to cater to an ever growing market, in 1965 NAMA added a huge addition onto the south end of the original 1938 building. Created by an architect team composed of Miloš Lapajne & Bogdan Fink, this addition added a huge amount of space onto the structure so that when it was completed it became the largest department store in Slovenia, with over 10,000 sq m of retail floor space. This 1965 addition to the original building was composed of 6 levels retail space with an exterior facade that was fashioned in an adapted International Style design. The facade is characterized by stark geometric lines around decorative red panels and horizontal layers composed of vertically-arranged thin stone blocks. Sources relate that Ljubljana's NAMA was such a cultural landmark that even President Josip Broz Tito and his wife Jovanka visited the department store when they were visiting the city. This NAMA location in Ljubljana continues to operate to the present-day, and while the 1938 section of the building looks almost exactly the same, the 1965 addition was covered over in 2002 with glass panels, which caused objection from many people as a result of its original archite's opposition to the project not being respected.
8.) Izbor Department Store, Bar, Montenegro
Name: The Izbor Department Store
Location: Bar, Montenegro
Architect(s): Batrić Mijović
Year built: 1980-1984
Coordinates: 42°05'54.8"N 19°05'42.1"E
Description: Situated on the north edge of the city center of Bar, Montenegro is the Izbor Department Store. Built in 1984 by Montenegrin architect Batrić Mijović, this fascinating and uniquely designed structure is a notable example of the ambitious and innovative visual aesthetics used in late-Yugoslav-era commercial architecture, with the complex characterized by its series of three angular tent-like pavilion halls. Standing as Mijović's best-known and celebrated building, it is recognized to this day for its visionary and future-oriented style of modernism, which seems to borrow elements from popular mid-century utopian and futurist architectural concepts. While the building still stands to present-day, sources relate that it is currently occupied by inattentive owners who harbor future plans to tear down the Izbor Department Store and redevelop it into a modern mall complex.