17 Examples of the Stunning Architectural Modernism of Yugoslav Department Stores
Updated: Feb 1, 2022
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
Architect(s): Bureau of "Arhitectura i Urbanizam"
Year built: 1970
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. Unveiled in 1970, the building was designed by the Belgrade architecture bureau "Arhitectura i Urbanizam", which was led by the architects Krešmir Martinković, Čedomir Beloš and Felix Bajlons. 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