An illustrated guide to urban exploration in the Russian capital.
7 November 2017
Crumpling into a chair beside the bed in a box-room decorated with black and rose-print wallpaper, I decided that I probably needed a holiday. For the past ten days I had led a tour group around the monuments of Yugoslavia: climbing mountains, ladders, and memorial staircases, crossing three borders and booking, in total, more than a hundred hotel beds. Now we had come full circle, finishing up back in Belgrade at Hotel Jugoslavija. I had grown sick of hotels though, and so I treated myself, instead, to a three-day holiday in Belgrade’s most iconic Brutalist high-rise: the Western City Gate, or Genex Tower.
Booking an apartment over the internet, I was told to telephone my host when I arrived at the door to the skyscraper; but she saw me first, and was waving down at me already as I heaved my backpack across the red tiles of the plaza.
I had first laid eyes on the Genex Tower several years before, from a taxi coming out of the airport. It had looked like some kind of star cruiser, perched up on end amongst the jostling blocks of Novi Beograd. I was mesmerised. Coming to stay in the building now though, it wasn’t just the visual aesthetics that attracted me. Rather I was interested to learn how it felt, the way it worked, the rhythm of its day-to-day proceedings. I wanted to try using the Genex Tower for the job it was built to do.
What follows is an account of my three days spent in the Genex Tower… and a meditation on the psychosocial dimensions of Brutalist architecture.
Genex & The Western City Gate
Rising from Blok 33 of Novi Beograd, Serbia, the ‘Western City Gate’ – built from 1977-1980 – would become the ultimate icon of Yugoslav economic progress (and prowess).
Designed by architect Mihajlo Mitrović, Belgrade’s Western City Gate consists of two conjoined skyscrapers. The larger high-rise, at 30 storeys, is divided into residential properties. The smaller 26-storey tower was designed for commercial office use. Each tower features two cylindrical service shafts, positioned at either end of these reinforced concrete skeleton structures, and at the 26th floor the towers are connected by a two-storey bridge. A concrete rotunda, sat above the bridge and supported on one of the office building’s service shafts, was designed for a rotating restaurant; but the rotating mechanism wasn’t installed, so the restaurant never turned.
At a height of 115 metres (377 feet) – or 140 metres (459 feet) including the restaurant – Western City Gate was once the tallest residential high-rise in Serbia (a title it now shares with the remodelled Ušće Tower). The name of the building refers to its location, positioned on the main road between Belgrade Nikola Tesla Airport and the city centre. Officially, it was a symbolic gateway welcoming visitors to Belgrade; but it must have served equally well as propaganda, a poster for Yugoslav power and prosperity.
Inasmuch as the Western City Gate stood as a monument to Yugoslav economic growth, however, the building’s fate would be intrinsically linked to that of the organisation it was built to house: and even today, the building is more often referred to as the ‘Genex Tower’ (in Serbian, ‘Kula Geneks’) after Yugoslavia’s premier trading company.
Genex – the General Export Company – was founded in 1952, and grew fast in the post-war climate of socialist Yugoslavia. Its success was a measure of Tito’s international diplomacy: particularly after 1964, when Yugoslavia signed a formal agreement of cooperation with the Soviet Union’s Comecon (Council for Mutual Economic Assistance), giving them access to Soviet markets while allowing them to maintain their politically nonaligned status. Genex thrived due to this ability to deal freely with partners in both the East and the West.
In those years the Soviet Union operated a largely barter-based system of foreign trade with its fellow socialist nations. Each year they posted a list of goods offered up for trade – natural gases, oil, ferrous metals and mineral ores, plastics and fertilisers – and foreign companies would offer, in return, whatever their own countries were able to trade.
Genex supplied the USSR with Yugoslav-built machine tools, ships, shoes and other consumer goods; the Soviets sent them fuel and metals in return, and whatever Yugoslavia couldn’t use was sold, westwards, for a profit. By the end of 1989 the General Export Company was responsible for 12% of all Yugoslav foreign trade.
The disintegration of the USSR was a fatal blow, however: in the decade that followed, Genex struggled through a series of failed trade agreements with former Soviet states; economic sanctions; and court proceedings after five company directors were arrested on corruption charges. At the end of 1989, the Genex Group boasted a turnover in excess of four billion dollars… but eight years later, by April 1998, the company had its telephone lines and electricity cut off over unpaid bills and was facing bankruptcy settlements. It was an ignoble end for a business empire which, for 46 years, had become synonymous with Yugoslav commerce.
The company’s base of operations – the commercial tower of the Western City Gate, no longer, strictly, the ‘Genex Tower’ – began looking for new tenants. Meanwhile, life continued in the other half: a residential high-rise that was built as an icon of prosperity but now, as the 1990s rolled on, would find itself slipping gradually into decline.
The Genex Tower as an Icon of New Brutalism
Brutalist architecture has, in recent years, enjoyed something of a renaissance in interest; though often the movement is reduced to little more than its aesthetics, so that ‘Brutalism’ has become a modern buzzword for almost any stark-contoured concrete building.
Brutalism, as it was originally defined, represented new ideas in both design and social philosophy. It emerged almost as a protest against the frivolous forms of much early 20th century and late imperial architecture, a socialist critique which valued function over form.
Brutalism was about pride in efficiency. Instead of hiding structures behind artificial facades of glass and plaster, the style celebrated the raw materials – the nuts and bolts – from which a structure was composed. Lift and service shafts, stairwells and corridors, would often extend outside the main body of a building, so that function itself became an explicit feature of the view.
The Japanese architect Kenzō Tange, a notable proponent of the Brutalist style, explains: “There is a powerful need for symbolism, and that means the architecture must have something that appeals to the human heart. Nevertheless, the basic forms, spaces, and appearances must be logical.” Significantly, Brutalism was a style of honesty, one that celebrated engineering prowess through a transparent (yet symbolically monumental) reveal of the building’s inner workings.
Celebrated architectural critic Reyner Banham proposed a three-point definition for this style in a 1955 essay titled The New Brutalism: “1. Memorability as an Image; 2. Clear exhibition of Structure; and 3. Valuation of Materials ‘as found.’”
By that definition the Western City Gate is one of the truest, most unapologetically Brutalist buildings I have ever encountered (and I’m not alone: the British architecture writer Herbert Wright calls the Genex Tower, “perhaps the most fantastic example of Brutalist high-rise anywhere in the world.”) Though not stated in Banham’s checklist, however, there was an inherently social aspect to Brutalism as well. The style advertises function, rather than wealth. It is more concerned with community than with capital… so it’s no wonder that Brutalism found a warm welcome in the late 20th century socialist states of Eastern Europe.
In my previous article about Novi Beograd I described how the district’s sheer concrete buildings provided a neutral atmosphere in which the colours of day-to-day life felt ever more real… and this effect, it seems, was no accident. According to Alison and Peter Smithson, pioneering architects of the Brutalist style, “the bare structure was ready for dressing by the art of inhabitation.”
Ernő Goldfinger meanwhile, designer of several iconic Brutalist buildings in London including the Balfron Tower (1967) and Trellick Tower (1972), once said: “The success of any scheme depends on the human factor – the relationship of people to each other and the frame to their daily life which the building provides.”
More recently Jacobs and Merriman talk about “dwelling with” as opposed to “dwelling in” such buildings.
To stand back and consider Belgrade’s Western City Gate from a distance, it is the epitome of Reyner Banham’s ‘New Brutalism’: a single, iconic shape as memorable as any monument; a structure defined by its function, from the exterior service shafts all the way up to its rooftop restaurant; 30 floors of bare concrete with no effort whatsoever to clad, bury or disguise the materials from which it was built. But such definitions say nothing of the lived experience. I wanted to know how the Genex Tower held up against more social-philosophical theories of Brutalism – as a space where architecture was not consumed by individuals but rather provided the framework for better social living (what the Smithsons might have referred to as a “more ethical way of inhabiting”) – but to evaluate the building in those terms was going to require a total immersion.
[A special thank you goes to Oli Mould, whose paper Brutalism Redux: Relational Monumentality and the Urban Politics of Brutalist Architecture has proved an illuminating roadmap through the history and philosophy of the Brutalist movement.]
Anti-Beauty & Decay
“Just like how stone awakened awe in medieval times, concrete will undoubtedly come to inspire a modern wonder in the people of today.”
– Kenzo Tange, Architect
The apartment was equipped with every modern convenience I could have hoped for. Its rooms were square yet spacious, their boxiness softened by tasteful furnishings that seemed to effortlessly invoke the entire lifespan of the building: from the seventies-style colour choices of the kitchen through to the contemporary-contoured whirlpool bath.
I set my backpack down on the rug-covered parquet floor and flicked on the bedroom lights – the switch was fitted with a red LED light, and it moved with a heavy, satisfying Clunk.
While it would be rash to assume that all apartments inside the Genex Tower were as neatly kitted out as this guest-ready rental, some features were clearly universal to all residents; the chunky pipes, the hum of the lift mechanism inside the walls of the building. I opened the bathroom window and found I was peering out through a porthole, my view of Novi Beograd framed in heavy, raw concrete. From the kitchen meanwhile, a window opened into the dark ventilation shaft at the building’s core: a huge space that echoed with the distant sounds of life inside other floors of the Genex Tower.
I was going to be very comfortable here, I decided.
Later I took a walk to the shops, down leafy streets through the heart of Blok 33. It felt reassuring, to glance back every now and again to see that warm concrete tower on the horizon behind me. This, perhaps, was the essence of that ‘memorability’ the New Brutalists were speaking of: my home wasn’t located in one block out of many, but rather it had a uniquely monumental character.
In the same way that some monuments rise above their host cities almost as guardian angels (I’m picturing the Statue of Liberty in New York, Mother Motherland in Kiev, Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro), so too did the Western City Gate exude (what felt to me like) a benevolent presence over Novi Beograd. But this wasn’t some universal yet distant archetype watching over me – it was Home. There was something very comforting in that.
Brutalism is a style that rejects traditional concepts of beauty – it has even been described by some as an exercise in ‘anti-beauty’ – but reaching the ground floor plaza on my return to the tower, the scene of decay that greeted me was ugly, pure and simple.
These recent years of neglect have not been kind to the Western City Gate (or at least, not to the parts of it that the public can see). The warm red tiles of the plaza were cracked, poked through with weeds, while a hollow that looked like a former fountain pool was now empty, dry and choked with dirt. Sloppy graffiti completed the portrait of decline.
Taking the spiral staircase from the road up to the podium on the east side of the tower, a signpost greeted me with the advertisement for a pizzeria. The sign pointed towards a ground-floor shopfront with its doors wide open. It looked as though a bomb had gone off in there; piles of refuse – broken glass, chipboard, smashed furniture – lay scattered about the entrance. I poked my head inside and found the premises entirely wrecked, abandoned. The partition ceiling was gone, revealing the core of the building above… a 30-floor shaft of sheer concrete. It made me dizzy to look at it.
Someone had been sleeping in here, it seemed, judging by the blankets that lay twisted around an empty vodka bottle. Two minutes later I was back inside the warm, well-to-do hospitality of the tower and the contrast was staggering: a gaping social divide here plotted vertically, not horizontally across the city.
In the afternoon I went out again. A Serbian friend picked me up by car, pulling over beside the plaza to let me in. He grimaced at the tower. “Most people here don’t like this thing,” he said. “we call it the ugliest building in Belgrade.”
“It’s impressive though,” I offered, and he agreed:
“I guess it doesn’t want to be pretty. It’s just massive, powerful, and it doesn’t give a fuck what you think about it. I can respect that, even if I don’t like looking at it.”
Monumentalism & Conspiracy
“During the fabled First Time or Zep Tepi, when gods, or aliens, ruled on Earth, the waters of the abyss receded, the primordial darkness was banished, and the human biogenetic experiment emerged from the light. Zep Tepi is Genesis… the First Time or the Golden Age of Alchemy where the gods moved through the Void and created the grids of our reality.”
– Ellie Crystal, Psychic
Later that evening I tried to cook some of the ingredients I had bought at the shops. I couldn’t get the oven to work though, so I went to call on my neighbours. My hosts owned two side-by-side apartments on a lower floor of the building, their entrances facing one another across a private reception space. They happily showed me where the switch was for the gas, but it proved redundant when they suddenly offered to cook for me instead. Classic Serbian hospitality.
Local news played in the background to my meal, and after that I left it on – watching the television with the sound down, listening to the start-stop hum of the nearby lift mechanism as I idly browsed through articles about the Genex Tower on my laptop. One of the posts I read made throwaway references to some alleged Masonic connection… and digging deeper, I found my way to a blog page speculating various occult theories about the Western City Gate.
The tower stands at Blok 33, Novi Beograd – corresponding, the website said, with the thirty-three degrees of regular Freemasonry. Seeing as how Tito was a Mason himself, the author explained, this could hardly be passed off as coincidence.
The companies Genex and Zepter (the latter, whose logo has adorned the commercial tower for around a decade) were implicated in the theory too. Their names allude to the ‘Genesis’ period of Egyptian mythology – or ‘Zep Tepi’ – an era which is symbolically personified by the Egyptian god Aker.
Aker is typically depicted as two lions seated back to back, with a sun symbol and the hieroglyph for ‘horizon’ placed between them. The sun on the horizon represents dawn and sunset, while the lions are named ‘Yesterday’ and ‘Tomorrow.’ Aker is a gateway god: and according to the Pyramid Texts of King Teti he guards the Western Gate, opening it at close of day for Ra to pass through on his descent to the underworld.
The theories made my head spin, but I loved the idea that this building – the Western City Gate – could inspire such a labour. The Brutalist architects had wanted their buildings to achieve memorability as images, to be monumental; and this remarkable work of paranoid speculation (which went on almost to personify the tower as a malevolent, sentient entity) demonstrated a profound success in that regard.
It was infectious, too. My mind started wandering elsewhere in Belgrade, to the Eastern City Gate. Two towers in the west and the three stepped pyramids that mirrored them in the east: gateways of the rising and setting sun.
The blog post had signed off: “When I look at the top … I could feel some beings living up there and watching us…” and so I crossed to the window to gaze out into the night. Novi Beograd glowed a soft orange all around, while the plaza below was bathed in shadow. I wondered if anyone down there in the darkness was looking back up at me.
The 30th Floor
By my third day inside the Genex Tower I had slipped into a very comfortable routine. During the day I would go for long walks around Novi Beograd or down to the Sava River, photographing other examples of Belgrade’s Brutalist architecture, or else peeking inside the abandoned buildings that lay on the outskirts of the city. On many of those trips my castle in the sky remained visible, hovering just above the concrete horizon. In the evenings I settled in to write or read in the apartment, the sounds of pipes and lift motors behind the walls like an ever present heartbeat.
I was beginning to make friends with some of the other residents, too. There was an older gentleman from one of the higher floors, always floating around the building and immaculately dressed, despite seeming to have nowhere particular to go; and a young mother from a lower floor, with whom I shared a wordless, running joke about the impatience of the ground floor security system (which allowed residents only a handful of seconds to swipe their key-fobs, cross the lobby and get through the next door, before they re-locked). On the first day, she had held the door for me – next time, I was holding the doors for her as she manoeuvred a pram through them.
Generally, I felt a sense of community between the Genex residents I encountered. Strangers who might pass by without a second glance outside the building were here stopping to chat almost by default; and even me, a foreigner, by the effort of managing a simple Zdravo in greeting seemed to be included in this custom. The plaza outside may have lain in ruins, but just past those security doors the atmosphere was eminently welcoming.
Most of my Serbian friends expressed disinterest at my talk about the Western City Gate, whereas those inside it seemed to share a sense of mutual pride and care for the place. It reminded me of a joke I heard from Poland:
Why does the Palace of Culture and Science have the best views in Warsaw?
Because it’s the only place in Warsaw where you can’t see the Palace of Culture and Science.
Similarly, for some Serbs the Genex Tower might have offered the best views in Novi Beograd… but in all this time I was still yet to climb any higher than my apartment.
On my last day I decided to go to the top.
The lift inside the residential tower of the Western City Gate was a mirror-lined coffin that shuddered as it sped maniacally up towards the 30th floor. The effect was completed by a speaker system blasting out the frantic guitar solo to Ram Jam’s Black Betty along the way, so that by the time I stepped out onto the top level – the number ’30’ stamped helpfully across the floor – I was equal parts anxious and excited.
Long before I travelled to Belgrade, I was looking at photos taken by people who’d snuck past security and got out onto the Genex rooftop. I always pictured I would try doing the same (I had even heard whispers of an unlocked access hatch), but by the time I arrived up there I suddenly had no appetite for illicit exploration.
The Genex Tower felt not like an obstacle to surmount, but rather I had enjoyed simply participating with it; using this structure for the function it was designed for. I found I had no will to subvert the order of things in the building. Rather I was content to relax, to watch films and read the notices pinned to the board downstairs; to greet the neighbours, go to the shops and sit to drink a coffee, then return.
Gazing out from the porthole window on the 30th floor, Novi Beograd looked like a Lego block city down below; dense white stacks rose in orderly patterns from the greenery of parks and gardens. Then the lift whirred back into action, called to a lower floor and the hard rock jukebox faded away down the shaft to be replaced by the natural ambience of the building. I stood alone beside the window as the stairwell echoed with the sound of Yugoslav technology, and I decided that for all its inconveniences the Genex Tower – Belgrade’s Western City Gate – was exactly the kind of place I would want to call ‘Home.’