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Sava Center, architecture & politics

Case Study

Congress center ‘’Sava’’ in Belgrade – link between architecture and politics by Predrag Marković


Link between politics, as manifestation of power, and architecture, as materialized idea of reality is as old as both disciplines. Regime established at the end of the Second World War on territory of former Yugoslavia, led by its ideological directives, engaged itself in erection of a new, representative and administrative city, New Belgrade. In that constructive, socio-political trance, many public and administrative buildings rose. ‘’Sava Center’’ was one among them. Considering specific time and place, as well as requirements of program, function and realization, it is clear that it was one of the most important projects in this region in the 20th century.

The thesis of this work is: ‘’Sava Center’’ complex represents just one in series of the ‘’state’’ projects in New Belgrade, like Federation Palace or the Building of Socio-political Organizations, projects that were triggered, partially determinated and to a large extension monitored by the state and its apparatus. Critically observed from today’s point of view, ‘’Sava Center’’ presents materialized section of several influences. We could discern them in deep analysis. This work, also, intends to question the presence of ideological symbolism in project, characteristic for the other administrative projects in New Belgrade.

Subject of this research is congress center ‘’Sava’’, the first constructed part of the ‘’Sava Center’’ complex, known as ‘’building A’’. Latter, it was followed by a concert hall (building B) and the hotel. It is important to state that organization of The Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe was real actuator of designing and constructing the unique complex in this region, at that moment. Named project won many domestic and foreign prizes which brought recognition to the main author, architect Stojan Maksimović and the whole design team. ‘’In 1979,The Pritzker Architecture prize was established for the most successful accomplishments in the world. Nomination and selection of the project “Sava Center” among 10 shortlisted projects was recognition of a great significance to the author.

Positioning ‘’Sava Center’’ in theoretical and historical settings, this essay tends to research political context of the time when it rose, and contribute to analysis of the ‘’Sava Center’’ complex. Questioning the hypothesis tries to determine the level of ideological influence and its presence in the project. The aim of research is, after studying the project of congress center, to establish new links between Stojan Maksimović and domestic, world architecture, as well as expanding the field of interpretation of this project.

The basic method used in this work is a case study. This research claims that architecture of public buildings in New Belgrade must be studied ‘’in detail’’. Considering various author’s attitudes and political directives, general conditions of the period, conclusions could be reached more precisely, regarding the link between architectural praxis and projects supported by the government.


As the initiative for building congress center came from federal, over republic, to the level of Belgrade city council .Automatically, City Construction department was in charge for design. At that moment, Stojan Maksimović was a leading architect there. Although young, he had eminent competition entries and built projects which made important step forward in contemporary Serbian architecture. During his studies at the Faculty of Architecture in the 50’s, Maksimović was in direct contact with some of the most significant personalities in the history of contemporary Architecture of this region: Nikola Dobrović, Milan Zloković, Stanko Mandić, Uroš Martinović and many others. Maksimović’s architectural formation was more influenced by Munich-based architect Josef Wiedemann. He was a coeval and admirer of Mies van der Rohe’s work, whose motto was ”less is more’‘ which Maksimović adopted only as state of reduction. As Zoran Manević notes:” During his stay in Munich, Maksimović was under influences which were considerable addition to his, previously acquired, academic knowledge. Adopted, they were upgraded by Maksimović and adapted to his own sensibility.”

Deeper analysis of Maksimović’s projects, reveal that buildings are denied of unnecessary space for traditional communications, the dominance of so called ”dimensive interiors”, flowing space in which functions permeat each other and integrate into coalescence of interior and exterior, close or farther from surroundings. Maksimović’s projects are not ”shocking” neither in terms of classical monumentalism, nor in terms of romantic nationalism.They simply serve users in the best possible way, linking their activities inside the unique ”flowing space”, in continual contact with surroudings. Buildings erect from floorplans and sections .They are not just a simple background of facades.” The Interior of the building is always unique, multifunctional and simultaneously polyvalent, aestheticaly articulated space with contents that permeate and create ambiental values of different linked functions, which carry their natural and artificial, architectonic labels. That is the esence of his creative philosophy.”


Zoran Manević verifies: ’’In the mid-50’s, spirit of social-realism, omnipresent in post-war period, more in theory than in practice, was at its deathbed. Yugoslavia terminated close relationships with the Soviet Union and the countries of the Eastern block. It turned itself toward Europe in everything, as well as in Architecture.’’ Consequences of that political shift were expressed in domestic architectural environment .It intensified usage of glass and steel, materials and building techniques which triumphed in the international style on the West. This kind of architecture, often related to bureaucracy and corporative business, ‘’denied its social idealism’’ and simultaneously was convenient to prove actuality and capability of domestic building practice and government standing behind it.

Picture 1. Alley in front of ‘’Sava Center’’

New Belgrade was ideal polygon to catch up with the world in architectural theory and practice. It was the largest , contemporaneous construction attempt of regime. Mihailo Mitrović testifies: ’’In 30 years of building New Belgrade, main projects were mostly recidives of already surpassed styles, late modernism, post-mies purism, over-rated brutalism or modernistic mannerism.’’ In this aesthetic cacophony which represented the ambience where congress center arose, the West postmodern was promoted‘’an idea which different theoreticians used to allude to different syndromes.’’ Mihailo Mitrović notices: ’’The main concept of ’’Sava Center’’ is based on first cues of postmodernism, inhibitions of admireres of Kevin Roche, Ole Meyer and James Stirling.’’

Except this aesthetic pluralism, there was another challenge for congress center in New Belgrade. As Ljiljana Blagojević remarks: ’’New Belgrade was realised as the city of ’’public ownership’’, and for a long time , without internal economic dynamism. The city was dependent on intervention of the government in everything, completely denied its own reproduction. Instead of vital functions of the city, in the real center of New Belgrade, there was an economic, social and physical void.’’Sava Center was supposed to fill exactly this void and its position in urban fabric of New Belgrade and certain commercial potentials .

In the beginning of 70’s, in City Construction department, a group of engineers gathered in ‘Metro section’’ working on studies for improvement of urban structure in Belgrade. At that time, cities of the developed world were being adjusted for new ways of public transport services. This meant that the underground metro network was important for the future development of the city. Branislav Jovin,one of the members of this group said:’’ Until then, Belgrade had been planned according to old urban principles, which were forgotten in contemporary urban practice. This essential shift, in developing strategy of the city, brought, also, numerous changes in economic, architectural and urban images of the city. Finally, this was a positive impulse in evolution of New Belgrade’s blank central zone. Right, this central zone was planned to be enriched with a metro line.’’


In the first half of 70’s, there was a large expansion of congress activities all over the world as it seemed like appropriate form of cooperation. Construction of congress centers throughout the world were followed partly by ever larger demands of leading regional cities for possessing halls, specialized for organizing congresses and large conventions, as the term ‘’congress tourism’’ was still in its conception. At that time, concert halls were often used for holding congresses, conferences, which led to conjugation of functions in unique space. Such an example, in Yugoslavia, was concert hall ‘’Vatroslav Lisinski’’ in Zagreb, built from 1960. to 1973. by the Croatian architect Marijan Haberle. The main hall has 1841 seats. There is also a small hall with 305 seats. Author’s states are clearly readable in space. Tomislav Premerl says about that:’’ Haberle tends to unite unique construction elements in new, free, formal structures with rigorous functional conception. His architecture is soft and transparent, but clear and strict in function.’’ A Long construction period of concert hall showed that Haberle was not a kind of architect attracted by fashionable Architecture. Following his own vision, after 13 years, he completed a piece which, from design till realization, lost nothing of its actuality. ’’He stayed consistent with his own creative sequence of very clear principles of modern essence in Architecture. He showed how it could be formed out of function and how function was the limit. Limit was a crucial determinant and the beginning of real creative freedom.’’

Before designing such a complex building as congress center, the leading architect and his associates had a unique opportunity to visit several, the most important, congress centers in the world. As architect Maksimović testified, on that occasion, congress centers in Helsinki, Copenhagen and Paris were visited. He came back from the journey very impressed.’’ During our visit to Helsinki, I had a chance to talk to late Alvar Aalto and to witness the ingenuity of that extraordinary man. Finlandia hall made the greatest impression on me.’’

Picture 2. ‘’Vatroslav Lisinski’’ Concert Hall Picture                 3. Finlandia Hall

Finlandia Hall represents the first and the only completed building of Aalto’s masterplan of Hesinki central district, which was first presented in 1961. According to that masterplan which treated central zone of the city around Toonlahti bay, Aalto envisioned wide fan-shaped, terraced square, which would descend towards the bay. On the left bank, a series of buildings, for cultural purpose, would be erected. Concert hall was designed in 1962.and built from 1967. to 1972. The design of congress center was done in 1970. and building itself was erected between 1973. and 1975., just before the first Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe. In that conference, held in ‘’Finlandia’’ in July 1975., Josip Broz Tito, the president of former Yugoslavia, announced that the next conference, would be held in Belgrade in 1977.It was the direct reason for creation of ‘’Sava Center’’. ’’A congress wing of ‘’Finlandia’’ consisted of two halls with 450 seats which could be joined, and equipped with all necessary devices for interpreters, television and radio broadcasting’’. It served to the architects of ‘’Sava Center’’ as a fine example which should be exceeded.


’’Belgrade, the capital of Federation and diplomatic center, didn’t have a building which could adequately respond to demands of the international, eight months lasting conference. It was clear that construction of a congress center is inevitable. This occasion was used for deciding about the stages for construction of congress center, a concert hall and the five star hotel which would define a unique multifunctional complex in this region. Size of the needed plot and large infrastructure demands, necessary for successful functioning of this kind of complex, made it obvious that New Belgrade would be an ideal location. As Branislav Jovin states: ’’A positive fact for such decision was that ,according to the masterplan of Belgrade from 1972, construction of significant public buildings was planned in the coastal region of New Belgrade Just beside that plot, notified as Block 19, the main pedestrian promenade was envisioned, to connect New Belgrade, over the river Sava, with the historical center of Belgrade.’’ That’s how ‘’Sava Center’’ was located next to the highway, which made possible easy and quick access to the airport, and city center. Regarding the time left, it was decided that each phase of design and construction should last 11 months. Simultaneously with determining location, architect Maksimović and his his close co-workers, were preparing programme of future congress center, which City council, as one of the largest investors, had to approve. Federal and City council’s budgets participated in financing whole Sava Center project with 40%,for the expenses, and the budget of Republic of Serbia gave remaining 20%.’’ In financing Sava Center beside the city council, republic and federal government participated. This can be justified by great significance of the project for the country and a short construction period.

Picture 4. Location of congress center, 1976.

Program that City council approved in the April 1976. defined: Building should be in accordance with the concept of forming center in socio-economic development and program of spatial development and construction of Belgrade in period 1976-1985…halls for meetings and conferences should have 800-1000 seats with administrative section with 700 seats. Program should be adaptable for multifunctional usage of space because it is a public center with the widest gravitation zone. Congress hall should be located along Milentija Popovića street. The highest point of the building should be at height of GF+6 residential floors…Finishing of the building should be in accordance with the environment, using materials which would constructively, functionally and visually fit into previously formed surroundings. According to this program, congress center should have approximately 28.000 square meters and 25.000 square meters more for exterior, accesses and arranged surfaces. As Stojan Maksimović noticed:’’ For the incredible deadline of eleven months for designing and construction, the only possible method of work was ‘’design and build’’. This meant simultaneous process of designing and building. As the building was of a great significance for the government, organization and supervision of all activities were under constant control at the highest possible level.’’

Picture 5. Ground floor plan of congress center

Beside the architect Maksimović, who was the leading architect of congress center. The design team consisted of a civil engineer Radomir Mihajlović who was the principal construction designer, architect Branislav Jovin who was the principal designer of access roads and free surfaces, and the head designer of interior, architect Aleksandar Šaletić. About 200 architects, divided in sections were all the time with the team.This enormous project organization directed Engineer Milutin Dovijanić ,the executive director of City Construction section. From May 1976. to May 1977. all projects were done (more than 100 elaborates) .Construction of congress center began in June 1976. The main contractor of the building was ‘’Trudbenik’’, and many other companies were involved in construction. ‘’Every moment, during the day or night, there were between 900 and 1100 people on the site’’ which represented the biggest and most active construction site in the country.

Congress center was assigned to business meetings, organizing large conventions, seminars, symposiums, counselings, and all kinds of other gatherings. Wide range of possible activities formed a complex design program in terms of function. Having all this in mind, there were used previously gathered experiences and this project offered to satisfy a demand for functionality and flexibility of the complex. Whole building consists of several functional units, which form an integral totality. Interconnected, those units could satisfy a variety of needs. There are 3 congress halls, differently conceived, the largest hall is, at the same time, the most complex and attractive one. Because of its flexibility for damming, or splitting into 2 or 3 smaller halls, this space is functionally the most demanding but also the most important in the building. The main congress hall has 1000 seats while the remaining two are differently organized. Lecture hall has 240 seats and ‘’round table’’ hall is with 220 seats. In the book ‘’Sava Center in Belgrade’’, anonymous author judges:’’ Functionally, clear division on contents in space, mutual conditioning with expressed flexibility, constructively, usage of the only system that provides stability of the building and fast construction and aesthetically, principle of the open architecture of our time.”

Main congress hall during the conference in 1977


Zoran Manević states in conclusion of his doctoral thesis:’’ Influence of political and social changes appears in the world of architecture in two layers: within general directions of its development and also within definitive decisions for applying certain forms with symbolical values.’’ For example, ‘’Sava Center’’ belongs to the first type of this relationship, because government was the one that used diplomatic maneuvers to gain organization of so important international conference, triggered the creation of this representative complex. As Ivan Štraus notices: ’’Seventies in Yugoslavia were a period of extraordinary building intensity, based on increasing economic power of country, as a consequence of uncontrollable incurring debts abroad. In those years of false prosperity based on foreign credits, these architectural realizations were often in clash with economic potential of the city or region. Architects were busy, having short deadlines, as a consequence of politicians insistance to finish the project during their mandate.’’ The construction of congress center ‘’Sava’’, regarding complexity of the design and construction, organization and synchronization of all factors, represents superb reach of domestic architectural and construction practice of that time.

Influence of politics and government, on the project itself wasn’t too much obvious. Formally, it was symbolical, like on Federation Palace and Building of Socio-Political Organizations, but definitely, some traces of it can be found. The architect, Stojan Maksimović testifies that the government monitored development of the design with a great attention. ’’As the project was of significant importance for the government, there was its permanent control and supervision. Representing Federal presidency, Stane Dolanc was personally in charge of this task.’’ At that time, he was a secretary of Executive Committee of Presidency in the Communist Party , so it could be said that the evolution of design was supervisioned constantly by the state and from the highest political level. Trace of political symbolism in the design of ‘’Sava Center’’ can be already found in positioning the building. Sweep of the main mass from Milentija Popovića street is justified by creation of representative access zone. It can be interpreted as intentional creation of dominant pedestrian axis whose focal point is Building of Socio-Political Organizations, where were the headquarters of the Communist Party. During the arrangement of the interior of ‘’Sava Center’’, only the highlight of Yugoslav artworks, made by reliable artists, were exhibited.

Picture 7. Aerial view

As Mihailo Mitrović notes:’’ Building ‘’Sava Center’’ constrained Serbian architecture to embed in the current of European tendencies, where it was thoroughly absent, for a long time, thanks to political barriers and almost destinal need to represent national ideal of self-sproutence and difference to the rest of the world.’’ This statement is confirmed by Zoran Manević: ’’Construction of ‘’Sava Center’’ represents the moment when political needs of wider community overbalanced the mentality of ambience. Foreign technology and forms, borrowed directly from contemporary European architecture found themselves, like previously erected Palace Belgrade, still in an inappropriate milieu.’’

After the completion of ‘’Sava Center’’ complex and The hotel ‘’Intercontinental’’, remains the wail that the vision of Spacial planning of Belgrade from 1976. to 1985. wasn’t realized. ‘’Beside significant material and ideological investments in building a new city, there wasn’t success in equalizing the central zone of new Belgrade with the historical center of Belgrade.’’ Although, ‘’Sava Center’’ represents important visual and functional landmark, which keeps the potential of initiating further development of the central zone in New Belgrade.


Congress center ‘’Sava’’ marked a period of time and an ideological system which, by all disadvantages, left behind itself significant architectural heritage, a completely new city. Perhaps it’s most remarkable value is not the quality of those buildings but cognition of capabilities of reach building practice, which is appreciated by numerous international recognitions. Although New Belgrade is a result of ideological vision, buildings like ‘’Sava Center’’ with their aesthetical, economic, cultural and social significance, erase the mark of political interference, and highlight space and its qualities. As Zoran Manević said: ’’This building of Stojan Maksimović bridged the abyss which separated Serbian architecture from world-class accomplishments.’’ The first director of ”Sava Center’’, Miloje Popović, resumes: ’’In fact, ’’Sava Center’’ is living history of Belgrade, Serbia, and former Yugoslavia. The greatest events were held in Sava Center in first two years.The president Tito, as a world-known celebrity was the man, thanks to whom,this center was built. His authority and vision, made possible that we have such magnificent place.”

‘’If we, in the City council, hadn’t been united and made a decision to build this center, it wouldn’t be a large, important, international conference hall, If we hadn’t been sure that Belgrade could carry out so complex and expensive project, we wouldn’t have engaged ourselves in this big adventure. I can clearly see now, although we saw it then, how complex, risky and strenuous. At the end, we succeeded, and here we are, 3 decades later, we have ‘’Sava Center’’, preserved and with the same function as it was planned.‘’ remembers Živorad Kovačević, mayor of Belgrade at the time of building ‘’Sava Center’’.‘’ For 30 years, over 800 domestic and international gatherings and conferences have been held, with more than 1.600.000. visitors .Also, more than 10.000.000.visitors attended over 20.000 cultural manifestations. It’s a treasure-house, full of history.”
Different from some other ‘’state’’ projects in New Belgrade, ‘’Sava Center’’ is a complex in which formal expression, ideological symbolism are presented only in traces. There is impression that it could be also experienced as a monument of a regime and its leader. In that way, we can draw a parallel between numerous and well-known construction endeavors of the legendary French president François Mitterrand and Sava Center. The example of ‘’Sava Center’’ proves that it is possible to establish relation between architecture and politics in which architecture won’t be just bare medium of translation ideological symbols, but also pride and landmark of a time and a city.

Picture 8. Architect Stojan Maksimović at work, designing Sava Center