The essence is that a Bosnian man has his own style. He makes his own buildings, space, and the city according to himself and human proportions. He is not a mystic - he's a realist and hence we have realistic architecture: comfortable, amenable, and democratic at the same time. All the roofs and doors of his houses are practically the same and the houses can be considered to belong to anyone and made for everyone, as long as they are within the human proportions.
-Placard at Sarajevo's Vijećnica (City Hall) explaining the city's architecture
I'll be the first to admit that I hate concrete as a building material. I think it's cheap, ugly, homogeneous, and boring, essentially a crime against architecture. Concrete is synonymous with 20th-century architecture, especially communism, and its mere presence overwhelms even the most beautiful of places. While I appreciate and enjoy learning about all forms of architecture, including Bauhaus and (one day soon) Tel Aviv's White City, I simply think concrete buildings are more shortsighted displays of an architect's ego than a celebration of craftsmanship and community. Concrete? Meh.
Why am I going off on poor, defenseless concrete, you ask? Because after visiting Sarajevo, a city that dates back to the early 12th century, I think the city's abundance of concrete buildings is a downright tragedy. While I'm no expert on architecture in this region, I noticed three main architectural styles in Sarajevo: Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian, and socialist. I thoroughly enjoyed the first two styles in Sarajevo, especially when mixed together, but the last one was a real soul crusher. Enjoy my photos and overview of Sarajevo's beautiful (and not so beautiful) architecture.
Architecture from the Ottoman Empire
The Ottoman Empire ruled Sarajevo (as well as the rest of Bosnia and Herzegovina) for more than 400 years starting in the late 1400s. Sarajevo is best known for its 15th century Baščaršija, or old bazaar, that serves as the city’s pedestrian-only cultural and historical center. The wooden kiosk “sebilj” is a popular meeting place and a wonderful spot to have a coffee (no alcohol) and people watch. Within this charming little area swarming with tourists is the beautiful circa 1555 stone bezistan, or covered market for trading crafts. Sarajevo’s architecture from the Ottoman era is notable for its small, dark wooden buildings, narrow passageways, clay tile roofs, and domes; within the old town and beyond are many original mosques and minarets from this period.
Architecture from the Austro-Hungarian Empire
Architecture from this period is mostly found along the Miljacka River and Mula Mustafe Bašeskije Street. Sarajevo was part of Austria-Hungary from 1848 to 1918, and the architecture produced during this period is typically grand, symmetrical stone buildings with decorative flourishes, from flowers to geometric shapes to balconies to human figures. Most of Sarajevo’s buildings from this era are intact and retain their original decorative elements, meaning they either miraculously survived the Siege of Sarajevo or were lovingly restored. Tragically, many of the buildings are covered in graffiti or grime from constant car exhaust, and being surrounded by fast-moving traffic, narrow sidewalks, and few trees doesn’t exactly encourage people passing by to enjoy their beauty.
Mixing Ottoman & Austro-Hungarian Styles
This is where Sarajevo's architecture gets really interesting. Think exotic keystone arches, colorful stripes, and stars mixed with grand proportions, smooth stone, and detailed craftsmanship. Mixing the two styles, likely an overlap of the Ottoman Empire and Austro-Hungarian rule, is what really makes Sarajevo's architecture unique and beautiful.
Architecture from the Socialist/Yugoslavia Era to Today
The Wikipedia page for Bosnian architecture minces no words when it comes to Sarajevo's modern architecture:
[H]omogeneity of materials replaced traditional heterogeneity and concrete became a material of choice for construction. Such practices [...] caused several problems. [...] There was insufficiency of infrastructure, electricity, water and central heating to sustain new public housing development due to poor planning while residential skyscrapers inappropriately intermingled with existing architectural context. Poor construction methods and lack of quality due to lack of resources caused unhealthy living environments. All these issues led to diminishing cultural identity of Bosnia and Herzegovina while draining its natural and human resources. On the other hand, there were few architectural projects that attempted to address issues of cultural diversity.
To better understand my aversion to concrete, look no further than Sarajevo: the crushing monotony of Soviet-style architecture casts a pall on the city's exquisite Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian architecture. When Bosnia and Herzegovina became part of Yugoslavia in 1918, the country's predominant architectural style morphed into drab, communist-inspired concrete block buildings with flat roofs. When Sarajevo hosted the Olympics in 1984 (more on that in my next post!), concrete was en vogue so much of the buildings during this period used concrete when flexing their architectural muscles to the world (think yellow Hotel Holiday). Following the Siege of Sarajevo in the 1990s, much of the city was damaged so concrete buildings (and the architectural abomination of spandrel glass) again was used in new construction. For the sake of preserving Sarajevo's incredibly unique history and architecture, I hope that going forward the city is more judicious in choosing warmer (literally and figuratively) building materials and making spaces more people and community friendly.