Remembering the expansive legacy of Srdjan Jovanović Weiss

1967 – 2022

Remembering the expansive legacy of Srdjan Jovanović Weiss

Srdjan Jovanović Weiss was invited to pitch buildings for Ordos in Mongolia in 2008, and the resultant tiered structure was intended to respond to the natural elements. (Courtesy NAO)

Srdjan Jovanović Weiss died tragically last week at the age of 55, leaving behind decades of inventive essays, architectural concepts, research projects, and speculations, often in collaboration with close friends and colleagues. His work drew from his experience in post-communist Yugoslavia before and after its dismantling, as well as on-site research in places as disparate and far afield as New York City, Flint, Michigan, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Inner Mongolia, China, and Birobidzhan, a Jewish settlement in far southeastern Siberia, Russia, to theorize and iterate architectural concepts.

His essays on the architecture of the former Yugoslavia, where he was born in Subotica and grew up in Novi Sad, in the Vojvodina region northeast of Belgrade—before attending the University of Belgrade and the Harvard Graduate School of Design, graduating with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in architecture in 1995 and 1997—belong to a tradition of historical criticism that cataloged Yugoslavia’s distinctive form of constructivist modernism after its break with the Soviet Union. His style of analysis was joyfully mischievous, finding delight in the upending of expectations and in aberrant phenomena, celebrating them through clever theoretical inventions.

Srdjan Jovanović Weiss in black and white
Srdjan Jovanović Weiss (Courtesy NAO)

Take, for instance, his 2000 essay in the first issue of Cabinet, where he was an early regular contributor, on “NATO as Architectural Critic.” He analyzes the bombing of the Army Headquarters building in Belgrade during the Kosovo intervention: The building seemingly had a great strategic value, yet it had been long ago emptied of personnel and equipment. If the action was instead a symbolic one against a state institution, the building appeared devoid of the usual pomp and circumstance of a monument, having been designed in a non-ornamental style that lacked classical representations of power. Its eventual bombing was a form of criticism, according to his theory, because it signified its failure to live up to its architect’s intention to design a monument to Yugoslavia’s national identity. It didn’t count as a protected cultural treasure by NATO, and therefore could be destroyed. He loved this kind of playful analysis of the social history of architecture, the stakes heightened by humanitarian conflict and cross-cultural misunderstanding. He wasn’t seeking to teach a moral lesson by it; he was enjoying the exploration of the ideas.

Another article for Cabinet magazine, republished in a 2011 volume he co-edited, Evasions of Power, analyzes the “wonderful neglect” of a modern apartment building in Kalesija, Bosnia. Weiss speculates on a photo of the building, which had evidently been repaired and repainted on the outside, except for one floor. A satellite dish noticeably larger than its neighbors is visible on the balcony. But the exterior of the building outside the unit—and only that unit—remains markedly un-renovated, the original concrete material exposed, pockmarked by bullet holes.

Should its disrepair be read as a deliberate act of protest by the unit’s owners to preserve the traces of a war that had displaced Serb inhabitants from the area? A response by a housing cooperative to its owner’s refusal to pay renovation fees? An indicator of the limits of urban renewal where the municipality lacked resources to clean up its public face? Weiss did some research and found that another apartment remained unrenovated on the opposite side, filling in some details about the owners. The point wasn’t to find definitive answers, though: it was to theorize an absurd situation and draw from it an unexpected possibility: neglect could be a deliberate choice, a legitimate form of expression.

“The owners of the two unrenovated apartments in Kalesija answered these questions with their inactions. What is striking is the precision and respect with which the town officials marked out the owners’ dissent. The perfectly delineated edge marking the boundary between what personal property is renovated and what is not speaks to the new ability to refuse the image of reconstruction. It is an inspiring precedent that suggests a future for neglect as a tool for integrated exceptionality.”

Long before “normalizing” things made its way into the common vernacular, Weiss founded the Normal Group for Architecture with Sabine von Fischer in 1998. That year, the office won the competition for the main office of Mies Van der Rohe Foundation in Barcelona with an unrealized concept for the Blur building. They designed a Rubber Bar for the Swiss Institute in 2000 and a gallery on Rivington Street for Participant in 2003. In the same year, Normal produced a concept for Housing for Elderly Socialists, a sprawling sloping structure designed for an unspecified mid-sized post-socialist town. The renderings glorify fashionable elderly socialists in over-the-top schematic designs, which characteristically leaned toward the absurd and satirical.

rendering of a long linear housing complex in a field of sunflowers
Housing for Elderly Socialists (Courtesy NAO)

His approach to practicing architecture embraced a variety of collaborative research projects, public forums, exhibitions, and explorations of urban spaces and national territories. In 2002, Interactive Normalization brought architects and thinkers from Western Europe and the U.S. to Yugoslav modernist sites in Belgrade like the reflectively domed Museum of Aviation for a series of forums. The agenda was ambitiously experimental: to theorize ad hoc activities and everyday actions as seeds of radical utopian possibilities that could be incorporated into pragmatic organizational strategies.

In 2003, he reconstituted his office as Normal Architecture Office (NAO), collaborating closely with Katherine Carl and Thaddeus Pawlowski—then a former student at the University of Pennsylvania, now director of Columbia GSAPP’s Center for Resilient Cities and Landscapes—on exhibitions, installations, and architectural concepts. Some of the more significant conceptual projects from this period were a crematorium for a cemetery in his childhood hometown of Novi Sad, Serbia, and conversion of a handball stadium into a new media center for, also in Novi Sad.

In an essay for the German publication Stadtbauwelt in 2005, republished in his 2006 book Almost Architecture, Weiss coined the term “turbo architecture,” borrowing from the musical genre of “turbo-folk,” a kitschy techno style popular in the post-Soviet period, and “turbo culture,” describing the extravagant patterns of post-communist commercial development. He used it to characterize the postmodern architectural tendencies emerging in the aftermath of Yugoslavia’s breakup and the collapse of socialism.

The signs of excess echoed what was happening in New York and other highly capitalized places around the world: “[A]nything that ends up being called ‘turbo culture’ will . . . house greedy dreams of extended individual comfort which then will result in bunkers of extra-legal wealth, bunkers that we will eventually be tempted to call architecture, places that we will be tempted to call the city,” he wrote of the “blitzkrieg of popular and illegal construction” happening in Serbia.

“By and large, this architecture. . . with bulky forms, rounded edges, bold and shiny, clad with an array of metal and glass panels, in distorted and sometimes soft shapes, clashing postures of primary geometries, as additions of pieces, computer rendered, with mushroom looking mansards, unfinished, incomplete, symmetrical, as bunker-like mini castles, with triumphant arches, stripped surfaces, or quasi-Byzantine, neo-classical, looking inflated and big, reflective, round, red, yellow, gold, pitched, lush inside, cheap and glitzy, amorphous, awkward, clumsy, hulking, placed on roofs, on terraces, impenetrable, in big numbers, and bulbous, silver, clad in marble, domed, wavy, semi-curved, with concrete arches, cantilevering parts, balustrades, round towers, spikes, cornices, tiled roofs, looking corpulent and hovering.”

Weiss also co-organized and named the Lost Highway Expedition, a roving 2006 research exploration of the republics that had formerly constituted Yugoslavia. Joined by Kyong Park, Marjetica Potrč, Azra Aksamija, Ivan Kucina, Marc Neelen, Ana Džokić, and Katherine Carl and eventually hundreds of friends and colleagues, the group set off on a monthlong journey, using the incomplete Highway of Brotherhood and Unity connecting the Balkans as a guide and metaphor, and coordinating public programs at independent art spaces that had sprung up since the breakup along the way. In the chaos of the unplanned postwar period, the expedition took the notion of self-organization as a model for reconnecting people in Ljubljana, Zagreb, Novi Sad, Belgrade, Skopje, Pristina, Tirana, Podgorica, and Sarajevo who had been severed by war and collective trauma and had never crossed the new borders between places.

the cover of a book on socialist architecture, grey with grey stripes
The cover of Socialist Architecture: The Reappearing Act (Courtesy NAO)

The search for something absent even became the premise for a pedagogical model: the School of Missing Studies, which he initiated as a project with Katherine Carl in 2003, and used this experimental method to research places undergoing rapid transition. In practice, it involved observational site tours of places like Yugoslav architectural monuments and overdeveloped neighborhoods in New York with groups of students. The goal was not to develop architectural projects, however, but to provoke critical thinking about the politics and history of spaces, to engage participants in the social meaning of their development in a particular manner.

In 2008, Weiss was invited by Ai Weiwei and Herzog & de Meuron to participate in Ordos 100, a quixotic development project far out in the Mongolian desert in which 100 architects were selected to build villas as part of a Chinese state-sponsored development scheme. Relishing the project’s absurdity, for Villa 62, NAO proposed a tiered structure responsive to natural elements. According to his plan, the house would eventually disappear into the sandy landscape, prophesying the destiny of the few villas and public buildings constructed in the failed development site.

Weiss’s exhibition-and-installation designs such as Anne Tyng: Inhabiting Geometry at ICA Philadelphia in 2009, Yona Friedman: About Cities at the Drawing Center in New York in 2007, Repurpose Philadelphia in the Belmont neighborhood of West Philadelphia, and projects for Flint Public Art Project’s 2013 Free City festival tended to be roughly fabricated with inexpensive, accessible materials like cardboard, rope, and plexiglass, using them to define ad hoc, site-specific spaces. His Z-Block injection-molded Styrofoam modular stacking seating system, conceived for the 2009 Ideology of Design exhibition at Museum of Contemporary Art of Vojvodina, was reproduced by the CUNY Graduate Center’s James Gallery for the 2011–2012 Shifters exhibition, traveling to Flint for use in a variety of public events.

From 2007 to 2013, Weiss completed a doctorate in Eyal Weizman’s Research Architecture program at Goldsmiths University of London. He revisited the theme of Balkanization in socialist architecture to analyze the figurative reappearance of monuments as ruins. In the book Socialist Architecture: A Vanishing Act (2012), he collaborated with photographer Armin Linke to document the idiosyncratic informal local activities happening around discarded monuments, discovering in them a kind of magical new life, their reappearance with unintended meanings. Then, in Socialist Architecture: The Reappearing Act (2017) he wrote a more scholarly history of the architects and their intentions drawn from his doctoral work but still inflected with experimental exploration, and an unexpected twist:

“These locations are now emptied of the ideology that made them. On the other hand, they are full of a new kind of life, and today this significance is more open-ended than ever intended… The effects of the lack of a decisive outcome for their abandoned socialist architecture creates the spatial experience and the fate of historical Yugoslav architecture—as a form of success.”

a bombed brick structure
Wing of the Army Headquarters after NATO bombing (Vladimir Kulic)

Like many of his peers who grew up in Yugoslavia, only to become citizens of Serbia—a nation they didn’t recognize with which they didn’t identify—dark humor and absurdity played a continuous role in his thinking. In Weiss’s case, being of Jewish descent from the Vojvodina region of Serbia, it was a double or triple alienation. From his early architectural proposals for ex-Yugoslav institutions through his writing for Cabinet, books, scholarly work, and reviews for the Architect’s Newspaper, positivistic goals and quantifiable outcomes of the kind typically funded by foundations and cultural institutes are generally absent. His 2015 exhibition on dictators, Romancing True Power, at the New School with Nina Khrushcheva made a sport of playing with double entendres comparing building scale and heights of the representative architecture of dictatorships with the reputations of the “dicks.”

Despite its spirit of play and enjoyment, in the background of Weiss’s research architecture, tragedy was never far away. His collaboration with Forensic Architecture, for instance, looked at Staro Sajmište, a Belgrade fairground that became a death camp during the Nazi occupation of Yugoslavia. It’s the kind of site that is difficult to view ironically, and which Weiss didn’t usually concentrate on. In sites like these, relativism fails. Without the resort to moralizing, meaning tends to collapse. The consolation of the absurd, however, is to be immersed in nonsense as a kind of revolt against the fiction of meaning. Weiss’s work belongs to an avant-garde tradition that is unable or unwilling to sustain the illusion of meaning: the suspension of disbelief in the stories we tell to disguise the ubiquitous realities of homelessness, heartbreak, death, and destruction. Yet its truth still brings us joy and laughter.