Serbian Pavilion





The pavilion building lies precisely along the northern edge of the biennale grounds, facing both the Giardini and the city. During the months of the exhibitions, visitors arrive, wandering across the seemingly endless garden interior, all the way to the far north corner of the site, where the pavilion is situated between Egypt and Austria. Though the architecture of the building follows the principles of Italian rationalism of the Mussolini era, Italy is not represented here. Written above the portal in masonry letters stands the inscription “Jugoslavia,” marking the building as probably the last remaining place where Yugoslavia is still present in an international institutional context.

The designers of the exhibitions arrive usually from the north, the city side or the backside, as it were, entering through the back door. This service entrance to the pavilion is active mainly during the spring weeks when the exhibition is being built. It leads through a small, unmarked door in the outer wall of the biennale terrain that starts behind the Belgian, Dutch, and Italian pavilions on the west, goes through the back alleys and courtyards of houses of the Castello neighborhood, and bends across the island of Sant’Elena on the north. Facing the city, the pavilion together with other exhibition structures forms a massive and silent urban body, similar to a citadel or remains of Roman infrastructure.

In this spatial situation, where the pavilion with its public front and the obscure back resembles a theatre with a stage and a backstage, the designers and artists meet the visitors of the show, as if in a set for a play whose title, Jugoslavia, is already suspended above the scene. There is no doubt that the notion of Yugoslavia creates the limits of a symbolic territory, within which any event in the pavilion is positioned and interpreted.

How is this fictive geography of the Giardini, where nonexistent countries are found in the map of international art and architecture, constructed and upheld? It seems that from its very beginning, the Giardini have been a site of testing of urban imaginaries and of construction of urban models that both represent and contest the city and the world surrounding them.

At the start of the 19th century, the “royal gardens for public walks” had arrived in the city as an unwanted gift from its ruler, Napoleon. A dense city quarter and the religious buildings of the Middle Ages were pulled down to make way for the garden whose rational design introduced in the city the new mythologies of modernity. For the first time, nature was contained and exposed in the city for the leisure and the well-being of the urban dweller. In the end of the 19th and the early 20th century, the public gardens were transformed once again into an idealized image of the world in the form of an international exhibition. Creation of nations and the construction of national identities and cultures, in the world overshadowed by totalitarianism at the time, were reflected in the architectures of the national pavilions.

It is not a surprise that this built image of the world functions today as an extraterritorial zone in the city, a garden and a world on its own at the same time. The character of the space and the time are perceived differently here, in discontinuity with the rest of the city: The space is organized as a sort of a collage of global, or at least European, geography, and its time is structured through the absolute permanence of architecture, in contrast with the absolute transience of the exhibition events.

The demarcation line between the external space of the city and of the internal world of the international exposition is the line that the Jugoslavian Pavilion, like a border post of sorts, still courageously keeps. On the inner side, where geopolitical imaginaries and their representations are unrestricted, the symbol of Yugoslav is still present; on the outer side, in the domain of the real, there is a blank wall whose meaning is unknown.

A fiction of representation of nations and states in built form had certainly occupied the architect Brenno del Giudice when he conceived and constructed Venetian Pavilion between 1932 and 1938. The building is a linear architectonic sequence stretched along the northern edge of the biennale grounds, where the entire architectural energy is turned toward the garden interior and away from the new neighborhood of Sant’Elena constructed at the time. The building design is reduced nearly entirely to the single elevation, with a few equal rooms attached behind. In the garden of nations, the building also represents an unexpected political–cultural alliance: Under one roof and in a uniform architectonic order, four new nations were introduced to the biennale for the first time: Poland, Romania, Switzerland (today Egypt), and on the far left, Yugoslavia. The host and the benefactor, Venice, is presented as the centerpiece.

The blending of political geography and topography of the site further invites free associations, and the border of the biennale with the pavilions lined up along it starts to remind one of the European border and the European Union membership.

Looking at the Venetian Pavilion today, it is difficult to judge the architects’ motives. The building can be seen as a pragmatic response to the need for enclosure of the site, and at the same time it can be interpreted as a diagram of political liaisons and maneuvers in Europe of the period. This is the image on an imperialist cultural field, with the Italian state headed by Mussolini in its center.

The building illustrates exceptionally well the ability of architectural form to encapsulate history, relating, in this case, Mussolini’s Italy of the 1930s with the creation of the Yugoslav nation, the breakup of socialist Yugoslavia, and many other references, within a single building façade. And this comes not by virtue of an architect’s decision.

Much like the “Yugoslav” Pavilion, the entire biennale site is an assemblage of the 19th-and 20th-century artifacts and histories. This assemblage holds together in its existent state with the help of laws on the protection of cultural heritage and environment of the Italian state and the city of Venice.

In the process of inheritance of Yugoslav property abroad, the Yugoslav Pavilion came under the ownership of the Republic of Serbia; this information is now indicated by a smaller inscription, “Serbia,” on the right side of the portal. Certainly, what the pavilion makes clear is that a fixed representation of a national identity in the form of a building is both stifling and unstable. The protection of Yugoslavia’s presence in the context of the biennale is not more than a collateral effect; its presence is of interest, at least before the eyes of the law, merely as part of the historical image of Venice. A similar dissonance between form and meaning is found in most pavilions in the Giardini. The fact that all parties involved in the biennale, from the artists to the audience, concur with these conditions shows that an architectural portrayal of nations’ images has become a matter of no interest. But it also shows that the provocation the anachronistic pavilion buildings present for an active artistic engagement with the national histories of the 20th century, as well as with the concepts and roles of nations and states generally, is still strong and compelling. The pavilions have become tools to rethink questions of identity; their architecture is far from obsolete. For Yugoslavia and Serbia, this holds true even more. One image can enter a dialogue with another ; it can inhabit it, corrupt it, and change its meaning.

In the migration of meanings since its creation to the present, the Giardini went from a public garden of the early 19th century as symbol of modernity to an international art exhibition of the early 20th century as symbol of internationalism, to a protected heritage location as one of the symbols of Venice’s culture and appeal today. In this manner, heritage became the most recent in the row of mechanisms through which various urban imaginaries have found their built form on this site. Together with the rest of the city of Venice, the Giardini have become a museum of history, a huge, fantastical ship floating in the lagoon.

As you approach the pavilion standing under the title “Jugoslavia” this time again, you might find that the encounter with the past is unpredictable, every time different. The past can be heavy, beautiful, or funny, meaningless and forgotten.

In the pavilion, a new exhibition will offer insights into the art and architecture of Serbia and their relations to former Yugoslavia. The exhibitors have finished their work and have left the set to the audience. In the corner of the room, diagonally from the entrance to the left, you will notice the small back door from the beginning of the story. The door keeps the space of fantasy of the exhibition set protected against the intrusion of the so-called real world and the present time. In other words, the door is a passage of sorts from one reality to another, and it can be seen as a metaphor of a possible transformation from one set of common values, institutions, and laws to another. To open such doors would be similar to entering the backstage of a theatre, examining the mechanisms behind an illusion. It can be dangerous, as it goes against common beliefs, ruins the stories, and destroys the symbols.

Perhaps for the time being, the door can stay closed. To open it would mean the readiness to break with the present conventions of the biennale institution, the first convention being the national representation of art and architecture, the second being the convention on the protection of architecture and urban form of the biennale site as part of the cultural heritage of the city. The moment this break is made will mean that the histories and the images of the 20th century have nothing more to tell us about the world we live in.


Milica Topalović, born in 1971, is an architect from Belgrade. She is currently based in Singapore as Assistant Professor of Architecture and Territorial Planning at the ETH Future Cities Laboratory. In 2006, she joined the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology as head of research at the ETH Studio Basel Contemporary City Institute and the chair of Professors Roger Diener and Marcel Meili. She graduated with distinction from the Faculty of Architecture in Belgrade and received a Master’s degree from the Berlage Institute in Rotterdam in 2001 with a thesis on Belgrade’s post-socialist urban transformation.

Since 2000 she also works independently across scales from urban research to architecture to spatial installation. For the work with Bas Princen, Topalović was awarded the basis Prix de Rome for Architecture 2006 and a residency at the MAK-Schindler Centre for Art and Architecture in Los Angeles in 2005. Their retrospective exhibition “Invisible Frontier” was shown at AUT, Innsbruck, in 2008.

Topalović has lectured and exhibited widely, recently including deSingel in Antwerp, Munich’s Haus der Kunst, and the Swedish Architecture Museum. She regularly contributes essays on urbanism, architecture, and art to various magazines and publications including Oase and San Rocco.