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The Violent History of Sarajevo’s Postmodernist Icon

Updated: May 25

Situated at the west end of Sarajevo, Bosnia i Herzegovina in the neighborhood of Nedžarići, right across from the towering Hotel Radon Plaza, is a derelict and dilapidated complex of old ruined buildings. The husks of these sad buildings have stood in this condition for nearly three decades now, pockmarked with bullet and shell holes, overgrown with vegetation and seemingly forgotten by time. However, while appearing marginalized and forlorn now, these ruins were once a monumental work in the bold architectural style of postmodernism, perhaps even being one of the most significant examples of the style erected here in Sarajevo. In this article, we will explore the history of these ruins, as well as examine their significance and the events that led to their tragic and violent demise.

A 1992 photo of the Dom Penzionera in Sarajevo taken by UN troops
A 1992 photo of the Dom Penzionera in Sarajevo taken by UN troops

In 1986, the Social Fund for Pensions and Disability Insurance of the Socialist Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina announced a competition for the conceptual design contest for a new facility that would come to be known as the “Dom Penzionera” (“Retirement Home”). This commission for this project was awarded to an ambitious proposal put forward by the Sarajevo architect Mladen Gvozden of the firm “Arhitekt”. It was around this era of 1980s that Gvozden was rising to architectural prominence in Sarajevo, having created numerous notable projects throughout the decade, most notably the Parrot Building (“Zgrada Papagajka”) in the city center along the Miljacka River (made along with Dragan Bijedić), which itself is another postmodernist icon.

A 1992 photo of the Dom Penzionera in Sarajevo taken by UN troops
A 1992 photo of the Dom Penzionera in Sarajevo taken by UN troops

The Dom Penzionera was completed in 1992 after five years of construction by the local contractor GP Bosna. Built at a cost of roughly 16 million Deutsch Marks, the facility consisted of 16,000 square meters of floor space and contained 150 beds (which were intended for use both as pensioner living and hotel room accommodation). A seven-level tower next to the apartments would include not only residential services for the elderly, but also an intensive care unit on the top floor and a dedicated morgue in the tower’s basement. Upon completion, it stood as among the most ambitious and innovative retirement communities in the country. Broken up into several distinct components, the most noticeable and overt characteristic of the Dom Penzionera is its in-your-face pop-art usage of bold playful color combinations and eclectic use of various architectural shapes and forms. Embodying the “more is more” and “less is a bore” ideals of postmodernism (a response to modernist architect Mies van der Rohe’s motto “less is more”), this bright fragmented arrangement of Bauhaus-inspired curves, traditional row house apartments, futuristic glass tubes, vividly colored bricks, and a collage of modern, traditional and vernacular motifs all comes together to form something completely new in the Sarajevo built landscape. This visual eclecticism, which was seen as unacceptable in the Le Corbusier’s essentialist “form follows function” modernism, takes center stage in the exuberant and chaotic celebration of color, texture and pattern that defines Gvozden’s Dom Penzionera. As a result of this dynamic playful appearance, locals in Sarajevo gave the complex the affectionate nickname “Disneyland”.

A 1992 photo of the Dom Penzionera in Sarajevo taken by UN troops
A 1992 photo of the Dom Penzionera in Sarajevo taken by UN troops

To understand Gvozden’s architectural philosophy behind creating the Dom Penzionera, it helps to read the words by American architect Robert Venturi (considered one of the fathers of postmodern architecture), who famously remarked: “I like elements which are hybrid rather than “pure”, compromising rather than “clean”, accommodating rather than “excluding”, inconsistent and equivocal rather than “direct and clear”... I am for messy vitality rather than obvious unity… an architecture of complexity and contradiction must embody the difficult unity of inclusion rather than the easy unity of exclusion.” Furthermore, to put it more lightly, English architectural historian Elain Harwood says of postmodernism, “it was THE style of the 1980s, when architects recognized that something more than modernism was needed… that buildings should relate to history, to their surroundings, and, above all, have a great sense of fun!”. The Dom Penzionera borrows numerous motifs from several other postmodernist icons around the world, such as the glass facades with apple green window mullions, as made famous in the New Staatsgalerie in Stuttgart, Germany (created in 1984 by British architect Robert Stirling), as well as the bisected gable from the Vanna Venturi House in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (created by architect Robert Venturi in 1964 and credited as the first postmodern structure). In fact, one could argue that this complex is a showcase of the "gable", with its many examples across the apartments even being outlined and highlighted in accent colors in order to emphasize them. The significance of the "gable" is that during the era of Le Corbusian modernism, the gable was thrown out all together and replaced with flat roofs. As such, Gvozden's displaying the gable so prominently and front-and-center can be seen as him reclaiming the gable's traditional architectural shape from Le Corbusier's rubbish bin and reasserting it back into Sarajevo's built environment. In addition, not only were the brightly colored and playful forms of Gvozden’s Dom Penzionera quintessentially postmodern, they also gestured to the Holiday Inn Hotel at the center of Sarajevo, a famous bold yellow tower made by Sarajevo architect Ivan Štraus for the 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo [read more about that in THIS article].

A vintage photo of the Holiday Inn Olympic Hotel in Sarajevo

However, Gvozden’s Dom Penzionera standing as an icon of Sarajevo’s modern architectural backdrop was not a destiny that came to pass. As construction on the complex was completed in 1992, several dozen pensioners were preparing themselves to move into the facility, with care workers readying rooms and services for their elderly patrons. Yet, as the year progressed, the Bosnian War broke out and the long violent Siege of Sarajevo began. This series of events put a sudden end to the Dom Penzionera ever having the ability to hold an official opening or welcoming retired folks to their new home. With the start of the conflict in Sarajevo, UN peacekeeping forces of UNPROFOR from the Netherlands, Canada, France, Belgium, Sweden (among others) stationed in Sarajevo appropriated the Dom Penzionera, moving into the facility and turning it into a makeshift barracks. This site was chosen for the UN troops because it was just a few hundred meters away from the main UN Headquarters, which was being housed in the PTT building along Bulevar Meše Selimovića (what is today the BH Telecom building). These UN forces were enchanted by the playful design of the Dom Penzionera and gave it the nickname “The Rainbow Hotel”. The photos taken by these UN soldiers of their new home are some of the only existing images depicting the facility before its untimely devastation and destruction.

A 1992 photo of two UN troops standing in front of the Dom Penzionera
A 2004 photo of the Dom Penzionera in ruins. Credit: Alessandro Castiglioni

The area where the facility is located, on the west end of Sarajevo on the edge of Ilidža, was right on the frontlines of this siege zone and, as a result, the Dom Penzionera received a violent pummeling from Bosnian Serb VRS sniper and artillery fire. One account of this assault on the building on May 14th, 1992 by a Dutch soldier Martin van der Velden reads as follows (translated here into English): “We woke up early this morning with what I believe to be the heaviest shooting yet. You can hear heavy mortars smashing in the direct vicinity of Hotel Rainbow. It feels as though the machine guns of the warring factions are indeed within Hotel Rainbow itself! The building regularly vibrates to its foundations due to heavy mortar impacts.” As a result of this, the UN peacekeepers were forced to move out after only a few months stationed there. When they returned a few months later, the facility was ransacked and left in a state of ruin. In addition to the Dom Penzionera, the famous Oslobođenje Newspaper building across the street was also destroyed (where the Hotel Radon Plaza stands today). The Oslobođenje complex was also created by Mladen Gvozden (with Ahmed Kapidžić and Kenan Šahović) from 1981-1982.

A 1993 photo of the main building of the Dom Penzionera. Credit: Johnny Saunderson / Alamy
A 1990s photo of the ruins of the Oslobođenje Newspaper building. Credit: Håkan Uragård
A vintage 1990s photo of the PTT Building that acted as the UN HQ during the war.

By the end of the war in the mid-1990s, the Dom Penzionera was completely devastated and left in utter and complete ruin. In this new independent country of Bosnia i Herzegovina, the state-owned Social Fund for Pensions and Disability Insurance retained ownership of the remnants of the facility, keeping hold of it for more than two decades, all while numerous other government properties around the city were privatized. During these decades, the facility sat as an unfortunate graffiti-covered blight upon the landscape and, with its thousands of bullet holes and shelling scars, served as a constant reminder of the war for all those who passed by it. Several gestures and attempts during these years were made by the Social Fund to renovate and restore the ruined Dom Penzionera (as overcrowding in retirement facilities in Sarajevo continues to be a significant problem), however, none of the efforts came to fruition. In recent years, t