2015 - In Progress
This work is following urban redevelopment of an area in central Belgrade.
Being local you either like this construction endeavour or you hate it, alternatively you might choose not to care about politics.
To rationalize why this photographic project came to be and what is it about presents an elusive task. The fact that I am continuously compelled to observe this affair certainly demands explanation. Maybe my attraction to it comes from fear of history repeating itself, the fact that people running the country now are basically the same as those who were in power during 1990s, the darkest period in modern Serbian history, it certainly stems from my unwillingness to accept doctrine of the authoritarian political and social order, unlike the seeming majority of my fellow citizens. Maybe it is about physical world embodiment of ruling elite’s power and vision and its enchantment for the masses, it certainly is about senseless destruction of key infrastructure and legacy, the turbidity of funding and urban planning.
The definite interpretation will have to be shaped after the final act of this comedy unfolds; unfortunately it is not yet in sight. This project continues.
Since the beginning of the modern era, there were ambitions and plans to bring Belgrade “down to the rivers”. These ambitions sound logical, the city being situated on the confluence of two major Central European waterways. Truth be told, Belgrade was never far from the river banks, centre of the city, back in the day as well as now, is less then kilometre away from either Sava or Danube. The answer to this quest for closeness to the river then could be found when viewed from the other side, as closeness to the centre, where square metre is valued the most.
The specific area that has our attention, on the right bank of the River Sava, remained relatively underdeveloped by today’s standards. Till the mid-19th century this place was marshlands. Along with the advancing industrialisation came the railway and the need for railway station, so the marsh was dried (filled with dirt) and in 1884 the railway station was opened. At the beginning of the 21st century, in the surroundings of the Main Railway Station, one could find Central Bus Station, numerous industrial and warehousing lots, buildings of historical importance that were utilized as hotels, restaurants and cafés as well as dwellings of couple of thousand people, predominantly railway and river shipping workers.
In the last 50 years a handful of redevelopment plans and studies were made, but each one fell through because of the high cost associated with building on inherently unstable soil and dislocating the railway infrastructure. The latest incarnation of redevelopment plan was announced in 2012 as part of election campaign for Serbian Progressive Party (founded and still led by defectors from nationalist far-right Serbian Radical Party while their leader was on trial at International Tribunal in Hague for war crimes/ethnic cleansing). Soon after, these former right wing nationalists came into power by embracing centrist neo-liberal capitalist ideas that secured them funding from the west and were appealing when presented to the impoverished nation.
Now with control of the legislature, the laws could be passed and long-standing regulations could be changed to enable realisation of this project. Belgrade Waterfront is a joint venture between UAE investor and Republic of Serbia, with stake holdings of 68% and 32% respectively. The start-up capital of this enterprise was around 30,000.00EUR but the complete project is valued at over $3.5 billion US, the details of the further funding, beyond the start-up capital, are unavailable to public. There was neither public discussion nor competition regarding urbanistic and architectural planning of this development and its impact on the city with already strained infrastructure.
In the course of last 6 years more than 50km of railway tracks were removed, Main Railway Station was demolished (save the main building), four high-rise residential buildings and a shopping mall were finished, few more residential buildings and tower are in various phases of construction. Numerous access roads and boulevards were built throughout the area with no real benefit to the rest of the city. Not a single pre-redevelopment inhabitable structure remains, raw sewage is still dumped directly into the river in that same area (Belgrade still has no sewage treatment plant), almost no new railway infrastructure has been built to replace what was destroyed and the bus station will soon be removed from the centre of the city.
For establishment politicians talking about this redevelopment is the favourite (if not mandatory) topic, the morale booster for the people. Some of the words they know by heart: “tallest building in [this part of] Europe”, “biggest shopping mall in the region”, “biggest construction site in Europe”. No one cares to fact-check their claims, the handful of media outlets that dare to be critical of the government don’t do it anymore because it would deflect form more pressing issues. While giving a speech on occasion of finishing the first building of the project, president of Serbia, the main contriver of this venture, said: “We have managed to make, from a dump and an eyesore, one of the most beautiful parts [of the whole World*]. Belgrade has finally descended to its rivers.”
* Here I give myself liberty to finish president’s thought, thinking I know by now how he would like his landmark project presented to the public.