With the descent of the Iron Curtain after World War II, all of Southeastern Europe bar Greece and Turkey fell into the hands of communist regimes – some like Bulgaria and Romania were Soviet satellites, secluded Albania’s closest ally was, curiously, China, and the vast Yugoslavia followed its own direction as a non-aligned state.
One thing that united these countries in their (ultimately unsuccessful) pursuit of a communist society was the construction of awe-inspiring monumental buildings. The new communist architecture in the Balkans followed a radically different trend than that of the past and left behind some truly imposing buildings.
From the world’s largest civilian building to an abandoned concrete flying saucer on a mountain top, kashkaval tourist will guide you through 8 striking communist buildings in the Balkans.
1. 99 domes and some fishing net: National Library of Kosovo, Pristina
Kosovo may still have some bad rep over the war in the late 1990s, but the Kosovar capital Pristina may stun you with one of Southeastern Europe’s most unique buildings. The current National Library of Kosovo was opened in 1982 and designed by a Croatian architect, since at the time Kosovo was part of Yugoslavia.
The one-of-a-kind appearance of the building owes a lot to the 99 white domes topping it… and the thick metal net which covers it entirely. Curiously, ethnic Albanians and Serbs still argue about the cultural influences in the building’s design – some find elements of Islamic art in its design, while others argue that the shapes were inspired by Byzantine traditions.
2. Administrative behemoth: Palace of the Parliament, Bucharest
Well, Bucharest isn’t strictly in the Balkans, but being so close, it would be a shame not to include the world’s largest administrative building in this list. Enter the Palace of the Parliament, the child of infamous Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu’s megalomania. Located bang in the middle of the capital of Romania, the construction of the Palace of the Parliament required that an entire historic neighborhood be torn down in the 1980s… as well as the underlying hill!
With its well over 1000 rooms, 12 overground and 8 underground floors and nearly square shape measuring 270 by 240 metres, the Palace of the Parliament was meant to host the entire administration of Romania’s communist government. And while those plans never came to fruition, the gargantuan edifice remains one of Bucharest’s most famous attractions.
3. Communist flying saucer: Buzludzha
Located at 1441 metres above sea level on the main ridge of the Balkan Mountains, the Buzludzha Memorial House of the Bulgarian Communist Party is easy to spot from afar. And this not just because of its massive proportions, but also because of its unmistakable shape resembling a concrete flying saucer – yes, you got that right!
Unveiled in 1981 to honour 90 years of the first socialist gathering in Bulgaria on this very mountain peak, the Buzludzha Memorial today sits abandoned and in a state of great disrepair. Its vast main hall, topped by a huge hammer and sickle, offers a mind-blowing post-apocalyptic view!
4. Concrete jewel: Central Post Office, Skopje
These days, central Skopje’s architecture is mostly a mix of pretentious neo-historical buildings and more authentic Ottoman monuments. With neighbours like that, the Central Post Office in the Republic of Macedonia’s largest city captures the visitor’s attention with its circular shape and modernist details.
The Central Post Office’s unique appearance is no surprise, as it was designed by Macedonian architect Janko Konstantinov, who studied under world-famous Finnish Alvar Aalto. Built in three stages from 1974 to 1989 as part the city’s reconstruction from the disastrous earthquake of 1963, this whimsical concrete building is an under-appreciated gem in Skopje’s cityscape.
5. Skyscraper city gates: Western and Eastern City Gate, Belgrade
Marking the Serbian capital Belgrade’s western and eastern entrances by road, you would expect to find ancient city gates or perhaps just a road sign. Instead, Belgrade impresses with two groups of brutalist skyscrapers. Constructed in the 1970s and 1980s, these concrete creations stand out on the Belgrade skyline not just with their size, but with their characteristic designs too.
Belgrade’s Eastern City Gate is actually a group of three near-identical residential buildings, each 99 metres tall and somewhat resembling a staircase in shape. In contrast, the Western City Gate consists of two residential skyscrapers connected by a skyway and topped by a revolving restaurant standing at a height 140 metres!
6. Honouring Bulgaria’s 1300th anniversary: National Palace of Culture, Sofia
Since its opening in 1981, the National Palace of Culture edifice has had a vital presence in Sofia’s city centre as a hub for concerts, cinema screenings and congresses. Though this giant piece of concrete and glass is important not just because of its function and proportions, but because of its unique style too.
An octagonal building with architectural details and decorations inspired by Bulgaria’s cultural and history, the National Palace of Culture took just three years to build. Its construction involved just as much metal as that of the Eiffel Tower… and an additional 335,000 cubic metres of concrete!
7. Pre-fabricated mammoth: Mamutica, Zagreb
Rightfully nicknamed Mamutica (“female mammoth”), this 240-metre-long residential building in one of Zagreb’s more distant neighbourhoods has to be among Croatia’s largest structures. While pre-fabricated residential buildings abound in all of Eastern Europe, few can compare with Mamutica’s sheer size.
At the complex’s peak, about 5000 people used to call one of the more than 1200 apartments in this building their home. And it’s no surprise that a popular Croatian crime TV series has been named after this giant apartment building, with episodes revolving around criminal cases happening only in and around Mamutica itself!
8. Protecting the fatherland: bunkers of Albania
We’ll finish with not one striking communist building, but with… 700,000! Albania’s communist leader, Enver Hoxha, was so paranoid about a possible foreign invasion (that never happened) that he built thousands and thousands of bunkers all over the country. Today, most of them are completely abandoned, though some have been repurposed for habitation or even used to host cafés or stores.
Albania’s unmistakable round bunkers are a ubiquitous sight in towns and villages alike. There’s one for every four people living in the country and an average of 24 bunkers per square kilometre. The bunkers were built over a span of 40 years and the fears of a foreign invasion only subsided with Hoxha’s death in 1985, leaving Albania with a whole lot of useless concrete shelters.