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03 Jun 13

Visionaries Plan Savamala’s Revival as Art Quarter

It may be a transit zone for truck drivers right now but Savamala was once the beating heart of Belgrade - and will be once again if a group of artists have their way.

Nemanja Cabric
BIRN Belgrade
Architects at a round table in Mixer House | Photo by Nemanja Cabric

As the architects in Mixer house at Karađorđeva 46 pore over their strategies to develop the run-down area of Belgrade known as Savamala, the ground under their feet literally shakes – and not solely from excitement.

As always, ideas and plans are all but drowned out by the rumble of trucks crossing this old urban zone.

When large vehicles thunder past the window, the glasses on the oval-shaped desk in the building dance from the vibration.

Maja Lalić, founder of the Mixer festival, a festival of artistic creativity that takes place from May 28 to June 2, rises from her seat to shut the door. She then sits back and resumes her study of the plans for Savamala on display.

The riverbank area under Branko’s bridge is a network of walkways and forgotten alleys that run between ruined facades of old houses and enormous, long-disused warehouses.

Lalić and her colleagues have ambitious plans to turn the whole quarter into an arts district. “We don’t have an area in Belgrade dedicated to creativity,” she notes.

“We think it’s up to the creative disciplines to create a new, more conscious and openhearted economy that cares about its surroundings and about people,” she adds.

The initiators of this plan say the community should not wait for government or for private investors to build the infrastructure they need.

On the contrary, Lalić wants artists to take the first steps and use their activities to steer the development of Savamala in the right direction.

Ruined heart:

Founder of the Mixer festival Maja Lalic | Photo by Nemanja Cabric

Savamala undoubtedly has a prime position in the midst of the city, under one of the most important bridges, near the Port of Belgrade and the Sava riverbank.

Despite this, it does not function like a city-centre zone, but like “a Bermuda triangle”, Lalić says, through which locals pass in a hurry, holding their noses and blocking their ears.

“We believe it could become a place of significant social interaction,” she adds.

Earlier plans to make Savamala an integral part of the city centre have come and gone, although the quarter was built in 1830s with that idea.

Under the rule of Prince Miloš Obrenović, Savamala arose as the first new urban area in Belgrade beyond the walls of the old Kalemegdan fortress.

It once housed important state institutions such as the National Assembly and the Ministry of Finance, as well as businesses.

At its high point it was a great trading centre and the most developed quarter in the city.

Its fortunes declined after the Communist takeover of Yugoslavia in 1945.

The new authorities considered it a relic and symbol of the capitalist system and allowed it to fall into neglect.

Even today, the half-ruined buildings reveal the rich architectural legacy of the 19th and early 20th century as well as some recollections of the earlier Ottoman era.

But Savamala is now mainly used by truck drivers heading to the new port on the Danube through Karađorđeva Street.

A case study of this paradox is the fate of Geozavod building, erected between 1905 and 1907.

Although a listed protected heritage site and widely considered one of the most beautiful buildings in the city, it has become a wreck.

The walls and parts of the ceiling are damaged, the doors are broken, antiquities have been destroyed and books stolen.

No new Dubai, thanks:

A detail from this year's Mixer Festival at Savamala | Photo by Nemanja Cabric

Many dilapidated buildings in Savamala have in the meantime fallen into the hands of powerful companies and tycoons with development plans of their own.

If they get their way, the neighbourhood will be turned into “a Dubai on the Sava,” Lalić warns.

“We started uniting because we sensed that type of danger,” she says.

“Art can start some issues only to see its efforts ruined by big capital. We feel the need to ‘programme’ Savamala in an efficient way, to stop it from becoming a new Dubai.”

Her preferred vision is as a hotspot for galleries, concert spaces, small artisan shops and museums that are different from the normal ones, which either “do not work, or, if they are functional, are not vivid.

“What we want here is some kind of alternative content; everything that exists here must go through a creative filter,” Lalić opines.

Their own business plan for their own building, Mixer House, is based completely on creative disciplines, with a gift shop that offers products designed by local artists, a restaurant and a bar.

“For the first time in Serbia we have cooperation between the business sector and culture,” Lalić says, referring to the festival.

She explains that Mixer festival communicates with various sponsors, encouraging them to invest in activities included in the programme.

The next step is to involve them in starting the changes that will build on the concept of Savamala as a “culture district”.

Lalić says that official megalomania is one of the biggest problems that Serbia faces, having in mind a huge construction project known as “Sava Amphitheatre”.

If it is ever realised, it would transform the current look of Savamala and the whole Kalemegdan plateau, stretching from the fortress to the right bank of the Sava.

“Grandiose projects that never come to life still manage to block smaller things that would be easier to get done,” Lalić observes.

“There will never be enough money to complete these projects,” she cautions.

“I urge the authorities to be realistic and respond to the request that life puts before us: reduce the noise, improve the quality of air, and create conditions for artists to work and exhibit.”

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