Shared Layers of History – Urban Phenomena of Post Communist-Cities #7

After the fall of communism, we had to learn how to shop and sell, how to build and how to lead an everyday life in a completely new realm. It does not matter if we are in Belgrade, Warsaw, Berlin or Bratislava – our cities are layered with history and scarred with the changes

One cannot understand the post-communist attitude towards sharing without knowing the twisted history and numerous transformations involved in the perspective. Presented here is our selection of socio-urban phenomena that helps explain – and hopefully offers a more detailed picture of – today’s public spaces.


In the Western Balkans, the collapse of the socialist economic system in Yugoslavia and Albania has given rise to extensive informal building activity that represents a new form of urbanisation. After the territorial division of former Yugoslavia – including the political and social turns made in the wake of the breakup – as well as the rapid transformation from a socialist planned economy into a neoliberal market economy, the high pressure of urban development was met with weak public institutions which had not yet adapted to the post-socialist and post-war order. Serbia shows one of the most visually fascinating forms of illegal superstructures, many of which ignored design principles and legal construction regulations. The self-initiated roof extensions, so called “nadogradnje” are an example of self-organized bottom-up urbanism. The way inhabitants solved the lack of housing and initiated construction projects on their own account is outstanding.

Next to Branko’s Bridge, leading into the historical centre of Belgrade, sit two family houses. Nothing special one might say, but the houses are on top of each other. The imagine of this particular mid-1990s building became an icon of the traumatic urban transformations in Belgrade and other parts of former Yugoslavia. It was a laughing point, an object of popular jokes. Even after 2000, it wasn’t possible to take these buildings down. Thanks to the intricate Serbian building law, the owners had all the needed paperwork – everything was formally legal. As a continuation of this fascinating story of a house on a house another absurdity occurred, so typical for understanding problem-solving in this part of the world. Unable to remove the extensions, municipal officials swept the problem under the rug by covering them with a giant billboard.

New urban and architectural orders of varying scale bear witness to this development and are firmly rooted in the cityscape, both visually and structurally. One of the side effects of this deregulated situation was the informalisation of public space. As a consequence of the privatisation of municipal residential buildings, many of these buildings were extended anywhere from one to three storeys.

The phenomenon of such extreme roof extensions has been vastly commented. Curator Kai Vöckler held an exhibition called “Balkanology” at the Swiss Architecture Museum in Basel in 2008. Eight years later, in 2016, the Salon of the Museum of Contemporary Art Belgrade hosted an exhibition of Branislav Nikolić titled “Superstructure”. It showed a roof structure or architectural addition transformed into an artistic object symbolising the spread of unregulated building in urban areas. More recently, there is the photographic work of Gregor Theune “Nadogradnje: Urban Self-Regulation in Post-Yugoslav Cities” (2016).

What is interesting, nadogradnje are not unique to the post-socialist period; the two houses were built on a building from 1930s that was previously expanded with additional floors in the 1960s. Moreover, it is not only a phenomenon of architecture and building engineering, but also an issue in a broader context: political, philosophical and sociological. There is a certain disregard for established architectural norms and the defiance of formal rules and regulations. Such structures existed long before the collapse of Yugoslavia and today can be found in many post-Yugoslav major cities, not only in Serbia.

This article was published in Magazyn Miasta / Cities Magazine # 1/17  – our special international issue released as a part of Shared Cities: Creative Momentum (SCCM) project. You can read more about the project here. You can download PDF version of the issue for free here.

Main photo: Gregor Theune