An illustrated guide to urban exploration in the Russian capital.
25 July 2016
The House of Revolution towers over the centre of Nikšić, Montenegro. This massive building was designed as a memorial centre celebrating Yugoslav unity and the efforts of the WWII-era partisans who laid the ground for the socialist revolution. It’s a bit of a wreck these days, though.
According to local media, 13 people so far have died in the building. Newspapers have branded it a ‘communist deathtrap,’ and it’s easy to see why: the structure features half a dozen floors of bare, crumbling concrete, rusting walkways and flooded lower levels; an obstacle course of pitch dark corridors and sudden drops.
But even in death, this monumental social centre has found a new kind of life… as I would discover when I explored the building for myself, and met the young Montenegrins for whom the House of Revolution has become a vast – yet potentially deadly – playground.
A House of Life, Death and Revolution
The House of Revolution – or Dom Revolucije – was conceived as a monument to Yugoslav communism, and, like practically every other memorial built here during that period, to commemorate the deeds of the WWII-era Yugoslav partisans. More than that though, this large complex would incorporate a covered theatre and a summer amphitheatre, a conference centre and cinema, school rooms, offices, galleries, studios, radio and television suites; it would feature a national restaurant, a library, a youth centre and café. That was the plan, at least. By inviting participation, by building a social hub inside a monumental form, the citizens themselves would form the cogs in a memorial machine that celebrated the victory of life – and social unity – over death.
Construction was started in 1976, on a design by the Slovenian architect Marko Mušič (the same architect responsible for the Saints Cyril and Methodius University in Skopje, Macedonia, and the brutalist Kolasin Town Hall elsewhere in Montenegro). It was an era characterised by a certain kind of mania, amongst the socialist nations of the Eastern Bloc, for building ever larger and increasingly more dramatic modernist structures; yet if the Nikšić House of Revolution was ever finished, it might just have topped them all.
The original plan was for a building that measured 7,230 square metres in surface area – but the structure grew as the project went on, until the House of Revolution was sprawling across a plot of some 21,738 square metres (imagine three football pitches, lined up side-by-side, and filled with concrete shapes stacked up to a dizzying height). It ran to a cost equivalent to €25 million by today’s rates, and it was large enough to accommodate 7,000 people at once: one quarter of the population of Nikšić, Montenegro’s second largest city and a booming industrial centre of Yugoslavia.
More than 400 tons of steel went into the project, red metal trusses that would support a concrete superstructure, and all of it was covered by a geodesic shell of bright blue glass. As a monument, the Dom Revolucije would be no mournful memento mori: but rather this structure spoke to the future, an expressionistic (and more significantly, functional) love song to the promised utopia of the Yugoslav dream.
The complex would never see its opening ceremony, however. Although Montenegro wouldn’t vote for its independence from Belgrade until 2006, construction of the memorial house in Nikšić was derailed in 1989 by the growing conflicts precipitating the break-up of Yugoslavia. Since then, the site has sat unfinished: naked concrete and bare steel girders exposed to the elements; windows smashed to scatter blue crystal shards across a carpet of moss.
In this unloved state, the House of Revolution slowly began to accumulate filth. The building’s basements and subterranean passages flooded, a mixture of sewage and rainwater that now sits stagnating at depths – according to local sources – of up to 10 metres. Rubbish bags are tossed over walls and out of sight inside the structure, forming an open-air tip that has raised grave concerns amongst environmental campaigners.
According to one citizen interviewed for a 2011 article on Balkan Insight, the building was said to be frequented by drug addicts and had become “the source of infection” in the city.
More alarming still, that same article detailed how the building had claimed the lives of 13 people; the latest two having been discovered in May that year. Aged 28 and 54, the pair had been missing for three months when their bodies were recovered from the flooded basement levels of the House of Revolution. Already by then, the locals had taken to calling this place the ‘House of Death’ – a sad antithesis of everything the original design concept had stood for.
Inside the Crystal Palace
We took a hire car to Nikšić; driving 50km from the Montenegrin capital, Podgorica, along serpentine roads that clung to the edges of dramatic river valleys. On one corner we sped past a giant concrete swan – some kind of monument – but there was nowhere to stop on the narrow road and soon after we found ourselves arriving into the outskirts of the city.
There were five of us in the car that day. Two Australians, a Russian, a Spaniard and myself: a strange enough mix as to utterly confuse almost every local that we spoke with. We parked the car within sight of the great big glass and concrete monstrosity that towered over the city centre. It appeared humungous, though I don’t think any of us yet realised that we were still only looking at the very tip of the iceberg.
A corrugated metal barrier ran down the nearest side of the building plot, but we didn’t enter immediately. I had hoped to find some subtle entry point – however it proved to be difficult, given that the House of Revolution sits in the middle of a city block, framed between busy boulevards. We reached a traffic junction at the western end where part of the fence was down and the building’s dark, cavernous insides belched open so wide that we could have driven off the road and straight inside.
Any hope of subtlety abandoned, we simply sauntered five-abreast into the ruin. Rather than draw attention though, it felt as though we disappeared from sight the moment we crossed that threshold. I noticed how people averted their eyes from the building – saw past it, or through it instead. Up until then we had drawn curious glances from our fellow pedestrians (Nikšić isn’t exactly a popular tourist destination) but the moment we entered the hole, it was like we ceased to be of interest.
Concrete, dust and graffiti: those were my first impressions of this former would-be palace of the people. The first few chambers were no more than empty cubes, but beyond them, moving through by torchlight, we came upon what might once have been a theatre. Bare rows of seating formed rings at the basin of a huge, echoing chamber, the walls daubed in names and slogans, graffitied gas masks watching our every step. I could already see why locals called this place a deathtrap: ahead of us fell a sheer drop where the basements of the building, some two or three floors below, gaped open without warning.
Circumnavigating the pit, I peered into the ugly darkness down below. There was liquid flooding those lower levels, though it was impossible to tell how deep it was. I couldn’t see a way out, either – no ladder to swim to, no visible steps, just smooth walls rising around the thick, murky ooze. You couldn’t have designed a better trap and it was startling to think I’d got this far without so much as climbing a fence; to realise that certain death awaited the clumsy and the drunk, only metres away from an inviting roadside entrance.
So far, the House of Revolution felt grim, oppressive and deadly. But that would change soon enough, as we made our way past the theatre and towards higher ground at the building’s far end, lit with the promise of sunlight.
Side chambers broke off from this main cathedral space, concrete cubes beneath slanted glass ceilings designed to catch the light. I wondered what they would have been used for – classrooms, cafes, museum spaces? The blue glass that once covered them was smashed and scattered, most of it laying as crystals that crunched beneath my feet.
Those blue crystal drifts grew deeper, further back into the building. The House of Revolution curves around on itself – a C-shaped floor plan – and as I reached the inner edge I stood beneath a wall of broken glass. Metal and concrete gantries rose up here into higher levels, and all of it would once have been wrapped in windows: but now those windows were fractured so that raw, unfiltered sunlight fell between patchwork squares illuminated in blue, the shadows of beams and girders forming a psychedelic crosshatch over glittering crystal dunes.
The architect’s plan, sunlight bursting through uniform blue glass, would have set a grand and modern atmosphere inside the House of Revolution. But I wondered if this wasn’t more striking still: the jagged silhouettes, the chaos of broken panes; the feeling of walking through that space was extraordinary, and disorientating in ways that had never been planned. It was beautiful – not the careful beauty of architecture however, but a wild beauty more like the random passion of storms.
On first entering the building, edging around those sinister pits in darkness, our group of five had stuck quite close together. But now they’d gone, the rest of them: sunlight had made us confident, and each was off exploring in our own directions. Someone called to me from a basement level – his voice bouncing up stairwells, echoing over concrete balconies from a space somewhere beneath – and I ventured down to take a look at the underground.
Two of them were down there, hunched over a pile of bones. A jawbone lay on the concrete floor, surrounded by a confetti of teeth and gemstones; other bones, ribs and vertebrae, lay scattered all about the basement space.
This had been a stray dog, most likely. The bones were too large for anything smaller… but even though we ruled out human fairly quickly, I couldn’t help but think of all those news stories, the 13 missing people whose corpses had been found inside the Nikšić House of Revolution.
I wouldn’t have long to dwell on it though, as suddenly the concrete dungeon was ringing with voices and laughter. Another group, much larger than our own, had entered the complex from the far eastern end: we were no longer alone.
Children of the Revolution
I climbed the stairs to a higher vantage point – a concrete gantry that curved and snaked between the rust-red pillars – and snuck a glance towards the far end of the building. There was a whole gang of them, milling around beneath the exposed bars of the eastern plaza. Listening to the voices I realised these were children; and then the group suddenly began to move in our direction, approaching us down the hollow spine of the memorial house. The eldest couldn’t have been much more than twelve.
Our groups collided on the broken glass, but these local kids paid no attention to us. They swarmed us, surrounded us, moved through our group and then moved on, without so much as making eye contact. There was something strangely territorial about the manoeuvre, I thought, but then they were gone just as suddenly: whooping and hollering as they disappeared into some side passage, the sounds soon replaced by the distant rattle and ping of metal bars being climbed.
The foyer returned to silence in the blue-tinted sun, and we continued on our own way – soon splitting up again to roam in different directions.
I climbed higher, following one gantry up towards another, taking metal rung steps to reach a walkway that circled the outer wall high above the amphitheatre. This pathway fed from one chamber to the next, a separate topography that overlapped and overlooked the main spaces, snaking through square holes in concrete, disappearing along hidden passageways between the walls to pop out again, onto another spywalk high up above the next space.
As I carefully circled a ledge that jutted out three storeys high above a huge, bare, windowless vault in the centre of the complex, I spotted some figures down below. It was two of my friends, being led across the chamber floor by three young Montenegrins. I called out to them, and they shouted back: “They’re giving us a tour! We’ll meet you on the roof.”
It took me a while to find my way there. This building wasn’t designed for convenience, it seemed, but rather one’s passage through the consecutive spaces felt forced, guided, an illogical journey mapped out in three-dimensional twists and turns. Had the House of Revolution ever been finished – fitted with its studios and cafes, memorials and museums – the intended visitor experience might have made more sense. As it stood however, navigating through this shell was slow and confusing.
I was dusty and frustrated by the time I finally emerged onto the roof; I had forgotten, too, how hot it was that day. The grey plateau was bathed in brilliant light, a large open space with the central tower of the House of Revolution rising from its midst. I had to keep reminding myself that I wasn’t stood on the ground – but rather that this plaza and the building at its centre were elevated high up in the sky above the streets and houses of Nikšić.
My friends were waiting for me nearby, flanked by tour guides half their height. I stuck out my hand, introduced myself to these kids; but they didn’t take it, didn’t offer their names in return, just gave me a solemn nod of acknowledgement. We followed them across the rooftop plaza. There was graffiti on the walls of the main tower; one section had even been converted to a climbing wall, with the addition of bolted-on grips. One of our guides showed off his skills while the other two conferred discretely between themselves. Other children floated about nearby, casting occasional curious glances in our direction.
The whole place felt like some kind of post-Yugoslav Lord of the Flies; and though we were outsiders here culturally, and linguistically, it was our ages that really set us apart. I felt an unexpected pang of jealousy. When I was their age I had been playing in ruins, in tree houses… but these kids, they’d inherited a palace: a vast, brutalist fortress where adults didn’t dare to tread.
As we crossed the rooftop, something broke nearby. I looked up – there were two youths, a few years older than our guides, watching from a window on the top floor of the tower. One of them flicked his arm, and there was a crash just a little way behind us. They were throwing stones at us, I realised.
We soon ducked out of view though, as our guides led us down into a gulley that opened along one end of the rooftop. Through one dark space after another they led us, beneath low-hanging girders and then jumping down through a hatch to a lower area. They moved fast, and they would stop and sigh and roll their eyes at one another whenever they waited for us to catch up.
After taking us on a long, circular route through these hidden spaces tucked inside the roof, eventually our path fed back into the building’s main tower. Up we went, through bright, airy chambers scattered with broken glass and feathers. Nikšić rolled out beneath us meanwhile, its regular, grid formation more visible with every floor until somewhere near the top, we came out into a hall with a 360-degree view over the city.
This is where the other kids had been, I realised, as I looked down over the rooftop plaza: they’d stood on this ledge and thrown projectiles at us, but now they’d gone. I wondered what sort of interactions these children had, what kind of a society they’d built inside the secret city; but our guides didn’t seem much interested in talking. The smallest of them had assumed the role of chief tour guide – and he’d stand with arms folded over his chest as we took in each new view, then briskly wave us on to the next stop as if he had somewhere else to be.
We reached the top floor, where a small terrace looked out across the full length of the memorial house. Beneath us, framed between steel girders, I could make out the theatre in the darkness. It felt like an incredibly long way down.
Meanwhile our guide was climbing again, scrambling up a narrow concrete ledge with all the agility of a mountain goat. I peered over the side – it was a sheer drop beyond, straight down to tarmac at ground level. He reached the top, the very highest point of the building, and stood as if surveying his kingdom.
“Фото,” he commanded, pointing at my camera; and I obliged.
Soon after that we climbed back down – this time taking a single staircase all the way to the theatre hall. I thanked the boy but he only gave the faintest nod and then they left us there, these wild children, turning their backs on us as they sauntered nonchalantly away through the ruin.
Dom Revolucije: The House of Revolution, Reborn
There are plans afoot to finally complete the House of Revolution.
Back in 2011, the Mayor of Nikšić was calling for the unfinished complex to be developed into a ‘Centre of Contemporary Art of Montenegro’; but at an estimated cost of €50 million, the plan seemed a long way from being realised without international support. More recently, a March 2016 article on Dezeen cited a project by Swiss and Slovenian architects, aimed at breathing new life into the structure.
“The project was intended to be an architectural hybrid that would represent the socio-political structure of Nikšić,” read a statement issued by the Swiss firm HHF Architects.
In fitting with the building’s original design, the new complex would feature events spaces along with a gallery, offices, workshops and a cafe. It would be adapted to include an underground car park, a children’s play area, yet with a majority of the space left open and undefined. According to this plan, 70% of the complex would be developed into safe promenades and public spaces, a flexible social forum at the heart of the city.
It’ll be interesting to see if the project goes ahead – and it’s refreshing too, to think how closely the new design conforms to the original idea of a multipurpose social centre sketched up by Marko Mušič back in the 1970s. The only significant difference now, is that the new design strips the House of Revolution of all its political attachments; and this, I believe, is crucial to its success.
In the media the building has been called a “deathtrap,” a “source of infection,” and branded as a no-go zone frequented by drug addicts and criminals. My experience was quite different, however – I saw a bold and breathtaking social space, a unique and striking monument that invited playful participation. But more specifically, some papers damned it as a communist deathtrap: and I can’t help but wonder if such politicisation is half the problem.
Perhaps it’s telling that the people I encountered inside – the people engaging this space with imagination and an open mind – were those young enough to have no memories of communism. For these Montenegrin children the House of Revolution was not an embarrassing symbol of failed utopia, so much as a playground of infinite possibilities; and considering how the future of Montenegro ultimately belongs to their generation, maybe there’s hope that the project might yet come to fruition in a society liberated from the political baggage of the twentieth century.