Dezeen Magazine

Federal Executive Council of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia

"It's no surprise that the government were reluctant to let members of the public in"

Opinion: an unloved relic of 1950s socialist Yugoslavia is one of the finest buildings of its era. But in modern Serbia, its overtly political message doesn't chime well with the prevailing ideology, says Owen Hatherley.

Readers of William Morris' utopia of arts and crafts communism, News from Nowhere, will remember that Britain's Houses of Parliament is converted therein into a shed for storing manure. This is an ultimate vision of political desecration, but it points to something that is actually quite common – what to do with buildings that are built to embody one ideology in the context of another?

Sometimes, functionality and architectural interest trumps ideology. Milan Central Station, for instance, was intended as a monument to fascism, and it shows: but that doesn't encumber you in taking your train, although its iconography surely gives some succour to northern Italy's hardly negligible far-right. Some buildings offer a particularly acute version of the question – what to do with a building whose every tiny detail was intended to embody an ideology that is actively hostile to the current occupiers?

This was the question being begged when I, and 50 or so others, were given a guided tour of the Federal Executive Council of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, in Belgrade. This was this long dead state's equivalent in symbolic importance to the Houses of Parliament, and while it hasn't quite been filled with dung, the disrespect in which it was held by its owners was conspicuous.

The tour was part of the programme at the 55th October Salon, an arts event held in the Serbian capital, this year on the theme of Disappearing Things. Many of the artworks reflect on the architectural legacy of socialist-era Yugoslavia, from Marko Lulic and Andrea Palasti's works exploring Belgrade's (never built) Museum of the Revolution, to Igor Bosnjak's images of Tito's bunker in Bosnia, Darko Aleksovski's drawings of now-disused small-town factories in Macedonia, David Pujado's series of photographs of Belgrade's most dramatic Modernist buildings, and most relevantly of all in Dusan Dordevic's images of the Federal Executive Council itself.

The tour of the Council – now called the Palace of Serbia – was advertised by the organisers as part of a symposium on Disappearing Architecture. The current owners, the Serbian government, who use it occasionally for meetings and ministries, did not agree to give permission until literally the night before. Still, the big turnout suggested a lot of people wanted to see inside.

The building is at the heart of New Belgrade, a city expansion mostly built between the 1950s and 1980s, originally as the Socialist Federal Republic's capital. The basic plan of the Federal Executive Council (it has the catchy acronym SIV in Serbo-Croatian) was first designed in the late 1940s when Yugoslavia was briefly allied to the Soviet Union, and reflects Stalinist practice in its monumental symmetry and the enormous plaza that frames it. But architect Mihailo Jankovic's late 1950s design dates from the era in which Yugoslavia espoused modern art – along with workers' self-management and national autonomy for its six constituent republics – as a gesture towards a non-Stalinist form of communism.

The full story of the Socialist Federal Republic is too complex and controversial for an article like this, but it is written all over the building. As much as the art and design of the United Nations in New York or UNESCO in Paris embodied the post-war spirit with the unusual bonus of a massive budget, so too did SIV exemplify what socialist Yugoslavia liked to think about itself.

Through the main hall that housed the Council, flanked by two long, wide wings of offices, an anteroom leads to a panoramic, Picasso-esque mural, depicting a crucial battle of the Partisan war fought by pan-Yugoslav communists against both the Nazi occupation and their nationalist local allies. Placed by the entrance, it would be seen by everyone that entered the building. Its reminder of pan-Balkan unity and equality obviously didn't help much when the state collapsed into war in the early 1990s. Yet the only gestures against it are two flanking 1998 busts of Serbian national heroes. The space around it is more opulent than was the norm in this or any other era – intense rose-coloured marble, a top-lit ceiling with a Mondrian-esque pattern in yellow and violet. This then leads to the Council's main hall, which is flanked by several subsidiary halls for each republic.

And here, really, is where the thoughts of the Houses of Parliament as dung-heap came in. Palace of Serbia as it may now be, in the building's original design, Serbia is but one of six republics given its own office. The building's guide and official curator gave descriptions so dismissive that, I was told, the October Salon's English interpreter began adding extra things that he hadn't bothered to mention. The first Republican office we came to was Macedonia – "there's a lot of red, because Macedonia is very hot" – the next, Montenegro – "that lion on the carpet is there because that's how Montenegrins like to see themselves". Or he'd point to an abstract by a Kosovan artist and call it "a typical Albanian landscape", or to another painting and describe it as being by "a Croatian Jew". However, he did take care to point out his own contributions, copies of Byzantine icons or photographs of Tesla.

To give him credit, however, he must have had some role in preserving much of the building's original design, which is in the absolute first rank of its era, as important and fascinating as the Royal Festival Hall or Oscar Niemeyer's Communist HQ in Paris, the two buildings which it most resembles. The furniture is both comfortable and sharply modern. The carpets, with their motifs plundered as much from Abstract Expressionism as from local historic motifs, are completely unique, and the light fittings, chandeliers in a variety of twisted and warped repeated forms, different in every room, are in a genre all of their own.

However, the Festival Hall, or Niemeyer's public buildings, are still used by their original owners. Here, nearly every fitting, nearly every artwork has a political meaning – with dozens of paintings, abstracts, reliefs and sculptures referring to the Partisans, plenty of others referring to socialism, and most of all, with the entire design and layout of all but one room designed to evoke the history, climate and values of countries that are not Serbia. It was obvious why our host's paintings on national themes were thrown in, as a sort of inoculating charm against the values of the building.

The most obvious criticism that could have been made of SIV was its occasional gestures to national kitsch, particularly in the cosy warmth of the Macedonian office. The central Hall of Yugoslavia, however, is truly astonishing. An Abstract Expressionist painting in rich oranges and reds by the painter Petar Lubarda takes up one wall, a bright, naif/abstract representation by Lazar Vujaklija of Yugoslavia and its role in the world occupies another, and a mosaic of the Partisans frames the doors, all under a convex circular light-well, its glass faceted and patterned, arranged into the shape of a star.

One of the first functions of this room on completion in 1961 was the first meeting of the Non-Aligned Movement, founded by Yugoslavia and newly independent countries like India and Ghana, intended as a counterweight to the imperialism of America and Russia – a support network of countries committing themselves to an agenda of modernisation and equality. "We're as distant from this now as modern Greeks are from ancient Greeks", comments one of the symposium's Serbian participants.

The most recent monuments built in Belgrade are figurative bronzes in the likeness of the last Russian Tsar, Nicholas II, funded by Russia, and the Azerbaijani dictator Heydar Aliyev, funded by Azerbaijan. An identikit riverside development backed by developers from the UAE appears on billboards around the city, as does the current Russian president, accompanied by the banner "Thanks, Putin!" (he recently negotiated a gas deal with the Serbian government). It's no surprise that the government were reluctant to let members of the public in to see the Federal Executive Council. In a context like this, a building that speaks of internationalism, solidarity and openness rather than provincialism, oligarchy and graft might give people ideas.

Owen Hatherley is a critic and author, focussing on architecture, politics and culture. His books include Militant Modernism (2009), A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain (2010), and A New Kind of Bleak: Journeys Through urban Britain (2012).