Bread and Circuses

Terazije in New BelgradeDid you hear about a replica of Terazije in New Belgrade? Yes, you read it, right?

One of the best remembered statements from the tragic times during the wars in ex-Yugoslavia that reflected perfectly the weltanschaung of many of its actors came from the wartime mayor of Trebinje, Bozidar Vučurović. As the Montenegrin units of the Yugoslav Army (JNA) were shelling the UNESCO protected old town of Dubrovnik in Croatia, Vučurović was asked to explain why he and his allies are destroying the city that the Serbs claim to be a part of their cultural heritage. Vučurović was not confused. “If needed”, he promptly explained, “we will build an older and more beautiful Dubrovnik!”

Leaving aside many other aspects of this anthological announcement, I ask you to pay attention to the idea that something old and genuine can not only be remade back to what it looked like (an almost alchemical art practiced by the skilled restaurateurs), but can also be made into something much better, with new, “older” qualities that were not there in its original form. The original in this case is not good enough, it has to be enhanced with our perceptions of what it should look like so that it becomes “more beautiful”.

Living in a dynamic metropolis like Belgrade in troubled times you get to hear a lot of silly ideas on its development. Thus in the 1990s we heard ideas of transforming the Great War Island into a golf course. Then several years ago there was much talk on rebuilding the 15th c castle of Despotes Stefan where the Victor monument and the plateau surrounding it are now. For better or worse, most of these ideas were never realized, some because of the public outcry, many more because of the lack of funding.

Last winter, however, came the news that the City of Belgrade will be funding a €600,000 worth project of building a replica of the Terazije square as it looked in the 1930s. To make it even worse the replica is to be built in New Belgrade. Yours truly here was no less than appalled (for reasons that you will read below), but has thought that the waters of the Danube and Sava will carry away this project as they did many others. Not so: for the reasons unknown – but suspected to be the panem et circenses atmosphere before the elections – this endeavor was promptly put into action and there you have it, a huge building site is now in full swing in New Belgrade.

Let me explain in more detail the idea of the project. On an empty field in central New Belgrade, right next door to its railway station and the flee market, several construction companies, including those that have experience in building movie scenery, are currently building ten façades with complete ground-floor facilities, a fountain and tracks for a horse-drawn tram. The whole scenery is supposed to look like Terazije square back in the (oh so romantic) 1930s, but – as we shall see – will look only roughly the same. Once finished, the facilities of this amusement park will be rented to businesses (new ones, of course) as well as to the old craftsmen and non-profitable galleries.

It is not quite clear whom and how came up with this idea. The rumor had it that the make-believe Terazije will be used for shooting the sequel of the “Montevideo” movie.

This is, as far as we know now, not true. However, the whole idea for this project can obviously be linked with the huge success of this movie and the retro-mania that hit Serbia since (think as well of all the “ethno-villages” that are appearing all over in the last few years).

I have read a number of comments in the media by people who seem to justify this move. Some say the new-old Terazije will have excellent tourist potential, others that they are eager to see how life looked in Terazije in the 1930s. I must say that I disagree with every single one of these comments. There are plenty of reasons why I am against this project. Here are just some of them.

1.The strangest thing of all is that the original Terazije is actually there, they have not went under the sea and were not obliterated by an earthquake. They still exist in the same spot where they have been for almost two centuries. The same goes for most of the buildings that will be mimicked in New Belgrade. And all of this is located just a 10-minute-drive from the construction site. Why would anyone like to see the copy of Hotel Moskva instead of the original one?

2. While at this very moment the equally impressive buildings from the 1930s and other eras are in real life being torn down or remodeled beyond recognition the city is investing into building mock ones. Just a few steps away from the original square you have genuine works of art by top architects falling apart from neglect. How about investing the same money into repairing the originals and opening them to the public?

3. Perhaps I could be lured into saying that I agree with the idea if the whole and exact copies were to be rebuilt, in order to have a sort of a historic park. However, not only will Terazije 2 only be scenes, empty shells of buildings, but they will be – as announced – in a slightly different scale (sic!). The pictures from the construction site reveal that most of the details will not be the same as well. Perhaps as a historian I see things differently but I fail to understand how will modern businesses with their modern trappings manage to bring closer the air of the past? In the end, to top it all, not even the most obvious things that will create the atmosphere of mock Terazije will be close to what they were earlier: the announced horse trams were a long gone memory in Belgrade of the 1930s. The first electric tram was introduced already in 1894 and by 1904 all the impractical horse-drawn ones were out of use.

4. Perhaps (but just perhaps) if Serbia and Belgrade were a society so rich that has done everything else for its cultural heritage and the city, I would say “yes” to building a large-scale amusement park with a historical theme. Just so that those who don’t know better could have their fun. However, let me remind you that even the grand temple of Serbia’s heritage, the National Museum, as well as many other institutions of culture that are preserving what is most valuable in Serbian culture, are in the state of utter neglect and have for years been waiting for the funds for reconstruction and reopening. And all of this is being done by the city that aims to become the European capital of culture? Somebody must be pulling my leg here.

5. The only reason why this should be built would be to generate money from renting the space. If so, why is the City of Belgrade building an amusement park cum retailing space and stepping in to compete with privately owned shopping malls?

6. In the end, to rebuild the older than old Terazije in New Belgrade is nothing less of a slap in the face of architects, urban planners and all the progress that the city has seen in the last century. How about building replica of a medieval village right in the center of a 1970s block of buildings? Or a full-fledged reconstruction of a monastery in a shopping mall? …?

To sum it up: this must be by far the strangest, dumbest and kitschiest idea ever realized in Belgrade. Instead of protecting and repairing the original old buildings and urban features of Belgrade, instead of letting the museums present and explain the original artifacts, the city fathers are building cheap copies or originals where culture and past will be presented by costumed extras and mustached waiters! Instead of caring for the old Terazije that have seen better days, we are building a fake, older and more beautiful one! Mayor Vučurović would be proud of the City of Belgrade. I am just wondering why the Belgraders are putting up with this shelling of our city and culture?

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