brutalism / bru·tal·ismˈbro͞odlˌizəm / n [U] 1 a style of architecture or art characterized by a deliberate plainness, crudity, or violence of imagery 2 first applied to functionalist buildings of the 1950s and 1960s that made much use of steel and concrete in starkly massive blocks
The grassy knoll, capitalism versus communism, Bjork's swan dress; no topic in the past half-century has been more bitterly contested than Brutalism. Most people err on the side of caution and hate this stark, imposing style of architecture while others are apathetic to its searing dullness, having been raised on it along with white bread and canned tuna. Yet it's a vociferous crew of architects and designers determined to convince the general public that, yes, the emperor is wearing clothes and, no, Brutalism is the unsung hero of architecture.
Personally, I have a complicated relationship with Brutalism; my gut reaction is to hate it, but the tiny corner of my brain reserved for perverse urban oddities can't resist loving it. Brutalist architecture piques my curiosity, and I like exploring these hulking artifacts of post-war days to better understand the relationship between people and the built environment. I largely view Brutalist buildings as extensions of an architect's puffed up ego and lack of imagination, offensive buildings that ignore -- nay, insult -- the needs of the building's occupants and surroundings. If you've ever seen a scale model or architectural rendering of a Brutalist building from the 1950s or 60s, you'll notice the focus is on the building: tiny white boxes perfectly arranged like a tray of delicate finger sandwiches, idyllic settings promising sunny days and bright futures; injecting the reality of people to these scenes would merely be a pin to this over-inflated balloon of idealism.
A shining example of Brutalism, Kumrovec's political school was built in the hills of Yugoslavia to honor the country's leader, Josip Tito. This copper-clad, sprawling, stealth aircraft-shaped building was designed in the 1970s, when the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia was at its zenith, and with an eternal supply of optimism at hand, it was only natural that the new political school's design be Brutalist. The facility opened in 1981 to much fanfare, hosting political leaders from around the world and boasting a library fully stocked of materials on socialism and communism. But with Tito's passing the year before and no contingency plan in place for running Yugoslavia, the political school operated for less than a decade before rendering itself obsolete in 1990. (Like the Memorial Hall, the school also hosted Vukovar's refugees in the 1990s.)
I visited the building on a gorgeous fall day, eagerly crossing the glass-strewn threshold to get a better look at this curious place. And my, oh my, how the mighty have fallen. The building has been empty for only a decade or two, just enough time for an aura of decay to set in so deeply that no one wants to touch the building, well, apart from a Swiss film crew that offered $3 million to use it for a horror movie. For a concrete building, I was surprised to find so much rot and decay inside, a result of unwelcome (but inevitable; hey, this is Brutalism) water wreaking havoc on cheap building materials and decorative ferns that had acquired a Little Shop of Horrors persona.
Following the design tenets of Brutalism, the political school lobby is a massively cavernous affair of concrete, blond wood, institutional tile, and poor lighting. I could picture students between classes, gathering at the circular bar with fixed wooden stools, seats now unoccupied except for the plants growing out of them. Once-bright concrete surfaces are now coated in a creamy sludge of algae, light filters through dirty windows and illuminates the ruins. The huge theater behind the bar is completely rotted out, its cheap foam seats and flimsy particle board tables bloated with water and mold. In the much-heralded political library, books are strewn everywhere, a tragedy in its own right, and an upturned piece of antiquated technology reminds us of the days when calculators were the size of living rooms. Purple desk chairs dance unattended in meeting rooms, porn hangs from walls and suggests unchecked levels of testosterone seen only in all-male political schools.
I sneezed at the mold, I slipped on the wet tile, I crouched until my knees hurt in a pitch-black electrical room taking flash pictures on my phone. I ran through the empty halls and imagined what life was like in this stark, serious building; did the people actually like this place? Or did they feel small and out of place then, cowering under Tito's -- and the architectural world's --- cult of personality? Judging by the current state of the political school, I'd say the people were more than happy to leave this irrelevant building behind, a move I completely agree with.
Additional history of the building, compliments of Citizenship in Southeast Europe's website:
Prominent Yugoslav intellectuals, professors and politicians, such as Slavoj Žižek, Žarko Puhovski, Furio Radin, Milorad Pupovac, Dušan Janjić, Milan Kučan, Kiro Gligorov, Ivica Račan (its President throughout the 1980s), lectured at or were associated with the Kumrovec Political School, which also regularly held international symposia and conferences. Teaching the basics of political science, the history and theory of socialism and Marxism, the School hosted young, promising members of the League of Communists who often had the privilege to attend debates or see film screenings which would normally be considered problematic for the wider public space.
After the disbandment of the League of Communist of Yugoslavia at its last congress in January 1990, in the second half of the same year the Political School was pronounced bankrupt and was handed over to the Croatian Ministry of Internal Affairs. It functioned as a military training centre, hosting new recruits to the Croatian Army, as well as former French Foreign Legion members. Many of the School’s former employees lost their jobs, while the profile of the School’s attendees radically changed.
Postcard & quick note
I found this postcard in a dark closet in the Memorial House and surmise it's from the mid-1980s. And after that exploration, I found myself without any camera battery power, with just my iPhone to document the political school. That being said, all of these photos are from my phone (not my best work, ahem) and many are of poor quality.
Halls & gym
Kitchen & restaurant
Library & file room