Thursday, November 11, 2010

Belgrade – beauty in brick and stone

A pedant chronicler has noted that during its tumultuous history Belgrade had been destroyed exactly forty six times. The city had been reduced to ruins by the passing armies of the foe and friend alike, and further ravaged by the passage of time.
Of its destruction, everything is known. It is history. And precisely because of this history, composed of wars, large and small, it has almost been forgotten that Belgrade had been built at least as many times as it has been torn down. Sometimes, it rose again from the ashes, and sometimes it was only dolled-up, with make-up covering its scars which go along with every important historic personality of such stature and standing.
An aesthetics-minded hair splitter may note that the city is, in fact, a huge mish-mash of styles and architectural epochs, wherein a normal person can hardly sort anything out. But Belgrade finds beauty precisely in this diversity. To them, the Baroque perfection and monumentality of a Vienna and a Budapest are somewhat monotonous, the gleam of Paris a mere indiscretion, while Manhattan makes them immediately thinks of elevators…
At the beginning of the 20th century Belgrade started slowly changing from an oriental town – “the last caravan-saray” of the once powerful Ottoman Empire – into a European city. Anticipating future trends, Serbian Prince Milos Obrenovic embarked on the first city zoning mission. The Prince Milos Street, the main Belgrade thoroughfare, does not, therefore, bear his name only by accident: the Prince had really laid out this busy street himself, and it was partly built during his lifetime.
The features of oriental architecture entirely disappeared in the second half of the 19th century, especially after the Turks departure from Serbia. At the time, Belgrade became a Mecca for builders and architects from Italy, Germany, Austria, and Hungary. Each of them left his mark on the capital’s architecture. The most important works of the period have by now almost entirely disappeared from various tour books, but the Serb school of architecture – whose traces survive into the present – its origins then.
This school – of native Serb genius coupled with foreign experience and expertise – involves a beauty tailored to fit the city’s size (and the investor’s wallets, of course), achieving a splendor still to be recognized in the granite facades of the Kneza Mihajla street, the city’s most beautiful pedestrian mall. Some may object by saying that this beauty is merely cosmetics, and that solely the fronts of the ornate buildings have been preserved. But even the awareness that the beauty of happier days may and must be preserved is a sign of spiritual health.
It is a beauty not perceived by many. Much like any other international center, Belgrade is also divided into three horizons, or levels. As of recently, it has begun to grow downwards: fabulous business and shopping malls and train stations have been appearing underground. The street level is made pretty by the cordial smiles and the beauty of the city’s female inhabitants, by the glow of shops windows, and by the greenish patina coating the old monuments. The third horizon consists of the facades and the pigeons. Nowadays, however, in the hustle and bustle of our age, there are not too many Belgrade inhabitants – or even visitors – who can spare a glance and have the patience to enjoy the rich mixture of this everlasting city’s styles. Hence this testimony recorded by the camera.

1 comment:

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