Greater Surbiton

The perfect is the enemy of the good

Serbia’s oldest theatre destroyed

The Bradt travel guide to Serbia (2005) has this to say about the building pictured on the left, in the town of Subotica: ‘Facing the Town Hall are the six tall pillars of the neoclassical People’s Theatre (Narodno Pozoriste, or Nepszinhaz in Hungarian), dating from 1854 and the oldest theatre in the country.’ I was able to see it with my own eyes last summer when I was exploring Serbia. There are many things about Serbia to attract the tourist: good-looking inhabitants who are generally kind and helpful toward foreign visitors; streets that are safe to walk in at night; lovely lush, green, rolling countryside; great food; low prices; and, of course, the legendary medieval monasteries. But nobody could accuse Serbia of being a country of beautiful buildings. Of all Serbia’s towns, Subotica, an ethnically mixed, bilingual Serbian-Hungarian town on the northern tip of the country, stands out as being one of the most architecturally splendid, thanks to the Secessionist architecture it inherited from Hungary, of which Subotica was part until the end of World War I. It may not remain so.

Today, just over six months after I saw it, Serbia’s oldest theatre looks very different. Despite its status as a listed building on Serbia’s National Register, and after a long period of neglect by the town’s authorities had left it unusable as a theatre, it was at the start of last year, apparently in virtual secrecy, slated for demolition, allegedly to be replace by a modern theatre building. After the demolition contract was signed, a campaign arose in its defence, headed by leading architects of the town, that extended to both Serbia and Hungary. In the words of Subotica architect Viktorija Aladzic, ‘The existing theatre was one of the highest achievements of that era. Nobody destroys the highest achievements of earlier eras apart from us. That was a place for meetings and gatherings of different nationalities and religions in a single place, a place for the unification of our citizen class that built a town that we are today trying so hard to destroy.’ Or in the words of chief architect Sabo Zombor, who lost his job because of his opposition to the demolition: ‘As chief architect and expert, I could not permit myself to watch in silence as the town theatre that was a symbol and defining element of the visual identity of the town centre was destroyed, in order that in its place should pop up, who knows when, a twenty-eight metre concrete-and-glass monstrosity.’

In the face of the public campaign, which was apparently supported by 90% of Subotica’s citizenry and backed by a petition that attracted several thousand signatories, the town mayor, Geza Kucera of the Alliance of Vojvodina Magyars, offered a compromise whereby one-third of the building, including the facade, main hall, main staircases and ballroom were to be saved. This compromise was, however, not honoured, and the building has been totally wrecked. The magnificent building was turned into a ruin.

In March 2004, Kosovo was engulfed in a wave of violence, as Albanian thugs attacked ethnic Serbs and vandalised and desecrated Serbian Orthodox monasteries and churches. Whether there is any real difference between what these rioters did to Kosovo’s religious buildings, and what the town authorities have done to the Subotica theatre, is a moot point. In Belgrade and Nis, Serbia proper’s second city, local racists responded to the Kosovo riots by attacking the cities’ mosques; the seventeenth-century Ottoman Bajrakli mosque in Belgrade was seriously damaged; the nineteenth-century Islam-Aga mosque in Nis was completely burned out. In Belgrade, historic Ottoman gravestones at the Kalemegdan fortress, Belgrade’s leading tourist attraction, were smashed with sledgehammers on the orders of Dragan Nikolic, curator of the Military Museum and supposedly in charge of their protection, as a ‘patriotic’ act.

Serbia is not the only country in the region that is suffering from this kind of vandalism. In Croatia, Bosnia and elsewhere, corrupt and primitive local politicians are frequently destroying the landscape and architectural heritage of their local areas. Less extreme than the Subotica case and at least reparable, but nevertheless ghastly is the ‘reconstruction’ carried out on the seafront of the Croatian city of Split, on the outside wall of the palace of the Roman Emperor Diocletian; this beautiful spot is now marred by an ultra-modern esplanade replete with motorway-style street-lamps.

That the ‘reconstruction’ is deeply unpopular among the Split citizenry, and that there is talk of it being reversed, may not matter to those who commissioned it; people speak of a so-called ‘construction mafia’ that bribes corrupt officials to carry out unwanted, poor-quality building work at the public expense. In Croatia, the ‘biggest joke in the state’ is the fact that there are now two bridges at Maslenica linking Split to Zagreb, eight-hundred metres apart. After the original was destroyed in the war, the construction of a new bridge was entrusted by President Franjo Tudjman to a crony, Jure Radic. Radic built the new bridge in the wrong place, allegedly to increase construction costs and his company’s profits. The new bridge is closed for an average of 600 hours every year due to high winds, a problem that did not affect the original bridge. So a second new bridge at Maslenica has had to be built where the original bridge had stood; the second new bridge does not have to be closed when the wind is strong. The fiasco did not hurt Radic’s career, however; he is currently contracted to build an even larger and more expensive bridge linking Croatia’s Peljesac peninsula to the mainland.

Another bridge-related joke concerns the Old Bridge in Mostar in Bosnia-Hercegovina, destroyed by Croatian shelling in 1993. The Croats were said to have reassured the Muslims later that ‘We’ll build you an even older one.’

Travellers to the former Yugoslavia are advised to remember, that a beautiful historic building or town centre that you visit may, months later, no longer be there.

Wednesday, 16 January 2008 - Posted by | Balkans, Bosnia, Croatia, Former Yugoslavia, Serbia


  1. […] Surbiton writes on the vanishing historical sites of the Balkans: “Travellers to the former Yugoslavia are […]

    Pingback by Global Voices Online » The Balkans: Mismanaged History | Wednesday, 16 January 2008

  2. […] off with a look at his wonderful post and photo’s on the destruction of Serbia’s oldest theater. Then poke around, read who he is. Enjoy. Yet another part of the antitotalitarian left searching […]

    Pingback by A Second Hand Conjecture » A New Blog to Spotlight: Greater Surbiton | Wednesday, 23 January 2008

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

%d bloggers like this: