Abstract brutalist monuments of former Yugoslavia are having a moment
A new book has been published that comprehensively catalogues the abstract brutalist monuments known as Spomeniks that were built across Yugoslavia between the 1960s and the 1990s. While a handful were commissioned by Josep Broz Tito, others were created to commemorate the struggles of the communist revolutionary forces during WWII, and today, the idiosyncratic creations are valued not only for their historical significance, but for their innovative, forward-looking designs.
The book was written by Donald Niebyl, an American researcher who, in 2015, began the Spomenik Database, a website cataloguing the monuments across the former Yugoslav region. The original aim of the project was to act as a free educational tool for people around the world to learn about the often-overlooked, artistically-ambitious and culturally-significant monuments. The database includes resources such as historical profiles, essays, news articles, maps and documentaries, as well as photographs taken by Donald.
“I was inspired to start this project when I first saw mysterious photographs of Spomeniks by Belgian photographer Jan Kempenaers. While the photos were amazing, they listed little context and gave no indication of how to find them. Upon further investigation, I found that virtually no meaningful information was available on these strange structures. So, as a result, I decided I was going to go over to the former Yugoslav region to try and find these monuments and explore them,” Donald told Lonely Planet Travel News.
After months of preparation, Donald’s trip saw him tracking down as many Spomeniks as possible, and he gathered local history, information and geo-location data. When he returned home, he decided to assemble it all into a website. “As I put it together, it grew and grew, and people around the world began to express interest in what I was doing. From there, a London-based publishing company, Fuel Publishing & Design, contacted me and expressed enthusiasm in working together to create a book on the topic,” he said.
Out now, Spomenik Monument Database brings together more than 80 examples of the monuments, each of which has been extensively documented. A fold-out map on the reverse of the dust jacket even shows the exact GPS coordinates of each Spomenik featured.
“Instead of trying to sensationalise these historical sites, I attempted to document the monuments in a way that communicated their actual status and the level to which local communities engage with them. As the initial exploration was so difficult for me, I wanted to create an educational resource that would help all future visitors, as well as providing information that could make people appreciate them in a more meaningful way,” Donald said.
Since then, surviving artists and architects who created some of the Spomeniks have contacted Donald thanking him and offering assistance in his project. In many cases, his website is the first exposure some of the artists have received in decades, as many were often marginalized and erased from their respective country's artistic histories after the Yugoslav Wars. Meanwhile, Donald’s work has led to the growth of a whole new tourist industry focused of the exploration of the Spomeniks. “It has all turned out into so much more than I ever could have anticipated from when I started this project only just a few years ago,” Donald said.