“We have an inside joke,” says Maja Dimitrijevic in her cluttered office at the Palace of Serbia, otherwise known as the SIV. “We are like the cleaning lady who inherited a Rolls-Royce but we can’t afford to buy spare parts.” Dimitrijevic is the architect in charge of maintaining the jewel in the crown of the Serbian government’s design assets. This modernist monolith houses several ministries and formal reception facilities, with 744 offices spread across eight football fields’ worth of floor space.
The story of the building’s birth reflects the complexities of this part of the world. Construction started just two years after the end of the Second World War, following the winning designs of Croatian architect Vladimir Potocnjak. But in 1948, Yugoslavia’s departure from Stalin’s Eastern Bloc put a spanner in the works. When construction restarted in 1956 under new Serbian architect Mihailo Jankovic, the client and the country’s flamboyant leader, Josip Broz Tito, wanted a building that was uniquely Yugoslav: a built expression of the patchwork of nations that made up the state. The breakup of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s saw the structure become Serbia’s Palace of Federation, yet as we navigate the seemingly endless corridors, halls, salons and lobbies, the Yugoslav legacy of this palace, completed in 1961, is palpable.
An elegant network of staircases leads to the lofty main hall, which is naturally lit through the misty glass-panelled ceiling; the gold mosaics of two mighty columns glisten vividly. The Hall of Yugoslavia is dominated by an extraordinary dome-cum-chandelier structure. The palace also houses a collection of 200 important works of art. “Everyone from my generation will recognise this,” says 45-year-old Dimitrijevic, looking up at the colourful expressionist mural by Lazar Vujaklija at one end of the hall. “Those birds and flowers were in our school books.”
Slavomir Andjelic, one of the palace’s two curators, knows this remarkable art collection better than most. “This is the most valuable assemblage of 20th-century art pieces from the former Yugoslavia,” he says. Looking up at a personal favourite, a vast modernistic piece called “Flight to Cosmos” by Petar Lubarda, the curator ponders the wall painting wistfully. “These works of art were ahead of their time. They were modern then but they are modern now as well.”
Encircling the main Hall of Yugoslavia are six salons, each devoted to one of the republics that constituted the now-defunct state. In the Croatian salon, for instance, a striking abstract mural covers the entire wall, depicting one of the country’s famous rock formations. Here smartly uniformed staff are polishing rows of champagne flutes and placing them on pristine white tablecloths. “Tomorrow we’re hosting the president of Croatia and his delegation,” says Dimitrijevic in a matter-of-fact tone. Will the delegates be pleased to be in such historic surroundings? She starts to laugh: “Of course they will.” The halls and salons play host to some serious delegations: Russia’s President Putin was here in 2014 and China’s Xi Jinping visited in 2016.
The SIV’s interiors are as varied and kaleidoscopic as the landscape and the people that once formed Yugoslavia. Perhaps the only thing that unites this eclectic vision is the constant attention to detail. “There are so many types of stone used here,” says Dimitrijevic as she walks across a marble chequerboard of pinks, yellows, browns and greens that paves the floor. “Many of the quarries in Bosnia or Macedonia, for instance, no longer exist, or the supply of a particular colour is exhausted,” she says, getting into the nitty-gritty conservation that makes up much of her job. “But you learn so much; I am now an expert in Serbian carpet tassels. You can’t work here unless you fall in love with this building, until you see the enthusiasm and skill of the people who designed and constructed it.” Rather like all matters of history and culture in this part of the world, assessing the Palace of Serbia’s significance is problematic to say the least. “The building was almost taboo for most of the population,” says Slavomir Andjelic. “The rules for who could enter were very strict indeed. Even the building’s spatial concept provokes a restrictive feeling.”
Ironically these restrictions, along with the lack of funding in the difficult wartime years of the 1990s, helped create a time capsule where then-unfashionable features of the 1950s and 1960s were left entirely intact. Maja Dimitrijevic was brought on when the Serbian government started to take the building’s preservation seriously. In 2013 it was declared a national monument. However, budgetary constraints are a constant hindrance to the huge task of preservation. Back in her office, Dimitrijevic places an original inventory on her desk with a thump; the weighty volume only features tables and desks. “I have counted 50 different coffee- table designs,” she says. “But we can’t possibly know how many thousands of original pieces are here today.” One thing is for sure though: with its forest of beautifully designed chairs in cherry, pear and walnut wood as well as the multitude of brass, copper, glass and chrome fittings, the palace is a vast depository of original and lovingly preserved mid-century modern furniture.
This design wealth has not gone unnoticed. “Italian delegates are always impressed,” says Dimitrijevic. And, at long last, a regional appreciation of this building is emerging. Rare open days to the Palace of Serbia have seen the expansive spaces filling with thousands of wide-eyed visitors from across the country. As a new era of European integration beckons, Serbia has its eyes set on joining the EU by 2025. With an elegant modernist masterpiece at its disposal to woo former foes and new partners alike, it seems it could use its design heritage to open a new geopolitical chapter.