Mass Housing Legacies: Former Yugoslavia Teaches the Enduring United States
Activists in the United States today, as in Britain and elsewhere, rail against gentrification and displacement as discriminatory and crippling effects of the private housing market. Yet Americans seem squeamish to redeem a fully American heritage—that of government housing production and ownership. As Lawrence Vale and other have chronicled, U.S. housing policies since the 1980s have gradually dismantled the nation’s strongest bulwark against market vagaries: public housing. In the wake of the now-defunct HOPE VI program, especially, much of the public housing stock of the United States has been demolished and replaced with mixed-income complexes with a smaller number of low-cost units. The Overton window of housing policy discourse assumes that the market will be the only provider of even daring attempts to provide affordable housing for the masses.
Few of the country’s most powerful declarations of state dedication to mass affordable housing—large-scale urban public housing complexes—survive outside of New York City and scattered towers in a few other cities. Government has expunged most of the record of mass housing funded by the 1937 and 1949 United States Housing Acts, including Pruitt-Igoe in St. Louis and Cabrini-Green in Chicago (figure 1). Although the rote declarations since the 1970s of such projects as architectural failures has been complicated by recent historical scholarship, redemption of the intent—and physical form—of mass housing remains incomplete. Americans now admit that the buildings were not to blame, but yet there is no reversal of the last thirty years of destruction.
To explore the possibility not only that the architecture did not cause the failure of U.S. projects but that the high-rise type can work well, the case of the Yugoslavia is instructive. Residents of former Yugoslavian states—like in much of Europe and parts of Asia—do not have vacant fields, strip malls, and new, privately built mixed-income complexes in place of their postwar social housing. Former Yugoslavian cities bear all traces of the heroic effort to meet urgent demand for quality housing through large-scale state intervention. The estates that developed starting with a five-year plan of 1947 and continuing into the 1980s—which somewhat parallel the U.S. program and provide a set of contrapuntal gestures that are nonetheless complementary—still stand. They testify to the city-making of a twentieth-century moment in which, as Florian Urban states, “the right to a dignified dwelling was promoted more effectively around the world than democratic elections, freedom of speech or racial equality.” However, these towers are as contradictory as their U.S. parallels were: but where the supposed “land of the free” ended up using towers to concentrate poverty, in soft-communist Yugoslavia it’s alleged that the middle class took priority over the working class in obtaining apartments.
Comparisons between Yugoslavia and the U.S. are complicated. When the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia was producing mass housing, its political economy was socialist and built around a robust welfare state, its masses largely unable to purchase private houses. Architects worked to develop projects that would promote community, ameliorate old divisions between ethnic groups, largely based on religion, and dilute class segregation.
In the United States, by contrast, the build-up of mass low-cost housing coincided with federal policies that promoted homeownership and enabled middle- and even working-class white families to purchase their own houses, and cheaply. Public housing was an afterthought, and often punitive in design, landscaping, and amenities.
But there are similarities. Both countries turned to tower and slab block housing forms to support mass urbanization that sent tens (in the U.S., hundreds) of thousands of rural residents to industrial employment in cities. The Great Migration in the United States and the accelerated urbanization of Yugoslavia strained urban housing stocks and demanded a large-scale development program. Unfortunately, U.S. public housing officials allowed local governments to build and maintain racially segregated projects, and were indifferent to the failure to achieve racial and class integration, even after court orders. By the HOPE VI era, public housing in the U.S. had few residents who were not poor, and few who were white. Too often, though, it's the architecture that’s taken the blame.
Anyone in the United States who wants to comprehend how mass housing can work—and how it actually feels—would do well to visit surviving Yugoslavian estates. Fužine in Ljubljana, capital of Slovenia, provides an excellent grounding (figures 2-5). The massive project houses 20,000 people—more than Pruitt-Igoe or Cabrini-Green were designed to shelter. Fužine sits outside of the center city, in a setting evocative of rural life—fields are not far, and the site definitely seems transitional. Yugoslavian projects largely occupied peripheral sites, due to cost but also postwar programs to revitalize historic city centers, so that housing construction never required the wrenching destruction of working-class districts like in the U.S. There is a distinction between the aura of a place like Fužine, sitting on the edge of a city that it never threatened, and any U.S. parallel, which bore politics of strident displacement from the start.
In contrast to austere, value-engineered U.S. towers, Fužine’s concrete mid-rise and high-rise buildings, built between 1977-1988, are far from monolithic. Decorative port cochere entries, brick panels, and geometric elements relate the development to both geographic and architectural aspects of Ljubljana (figure 2). The largest brace of character, however, comes from the accumulation of evidence of everyday inhabitation. Ground level unit-dwellers have great freedom to plant gardens as they wish, and the resulting individuation means that the pedestrian visual field is dominated by the inhabitants’ interventions, not the towers (figure 3). Above, balconies contain house plants, including some trees, as well as furniture, screens, and other trappings of life.
Even the relatively more severe Bežanijski Blokovi (or blocks) in Belgrade, capital of Serbia, are tempered by the inscriptions of their occupants (figures 6-9). Since the fall of Yugoslavia, though, deterioration has mounted here and across New Belgrade’s towers. These towers are legendary for their relentless monolithic planning—of the fifty buildings built across four blocks in Novi Beograd, or New Belgrade, forty-four are set into parallel rows of twenty-two. These stepped concrete forms evince a geologic form, as if they were a simulated mountain range (see figure 7). The population may be over 40,000 people, making the Bežanijski Blokovi a formidably dense settlement. By the U.S. myths, this should be a terrible place. It’s not. Perhaps stability in population plays a part—many resident families have occupied the same units for decades, or since construction. Moreover, after the fall of socialism the units were privatized, as condominiums, so that they are owned individually (although the grounds and common structures are still government property). Here is where an American might imagine what Pruitt-Igoe could have been had the state not neglected it so long that demolition seemed the only viable option, and if a mixture of classes could have been attained.
In Sarajevo’s Ciglane (1965-1985), a set of buildings that repeat mass-engineered concrete elements adorned with brick sections, the district barely seems like a work of statecraft at all (figures 10-13). On the central Pješačka Zona, cafes, bars, and a grocery store are busy day in and day out (see figure 12). Although the development’s siting on a hill necessitates a tram and lots of large stairs to reach towers, circulation does not seem forced, nor is it disdained by occupants. The monotony of design dissipates beneath the way of life that is on display, and it is inviting.
Several other housing estates in the former Yugoslavia could complete this picture, but the brief tour here suggests that mass housing forms can be viable, urbane, and attractive. The United States never let mass housing breathe and never implemented it with the conviction that it could be a viable choice for Americans of all classes. Still, what the United States built was likely far more resilient than the life that political conditions allowed there. Meanwhile, as support for public housing was eroding in the 1960s, fair-housing victories opened up opportunities for entry into the private market, to the detriment of mass housing. Both changes were part of wider adoption of neoliberal policies that eroded welfare spending and claims to build it back. U.S. housing activists today largely accept market provision of housing as a given.
Of course, the former Yugoslavian states are far from faithful to Tito’s socialist ideals, and neoliberalism and ethnic nationalism have been problems there since the fall of the old state. The housing estates, however, have weathered the assaults. These Yugoslavian projects suggest that mass housing from the postwar era always had the potential to assimilate into the architectural and social structures of cities if given a chance. The United States should ask why its projects failed to do this, and whether their destruction resolved the reasons why—or just deferred the solutions we need.
 Florian Urban, Tower and Slab: Histories of Global Mass Housing, 13.
 Vladana B. Punik Prica, “New Belgrade – a Successful Project?,” Matica Srpska Journal of Fine Arts 48 (2018): 207.
 For history, see Đorđe Alfirević and Sanja Simonović Alfirević, “Urban Housing Experiments in Yugoslavia, 1948-70,” Spatium 34 (December 2015): 2. For an anecdotal account of cooperation within a housing tower, see Marcus
Tanner, “Yugoslavia: A family at War in Tower-block Number 5: Marcus Tanner Finds Neighbours in Sarajevo Who Share Bread and Troubles,” The Independent, July 9, 1992.
 Jelica Jovanović, “Mass Heritage of New Belgrade: Housing Laboratory and So Much More,” Period Polytenica Architecture 48, no. 2 (2017): 112.