During the late 1940s, the population of Belgrade swelled significantly, fed by a baby boom and a deep-rooted sense of post-war displacement. As Belgrade stretched outwards, its towers and estates were moving in a very different direction—up. This physical movement was also at work on a figurative level, and would later give way to one of the most controversial architectural movements of the 20th century: Brutalism. This severe, visual style shapes the landscapes of Novi Beograd, warranting it its fitting nickname Biokovi or “blocks”.
A rekindled admiration for Brutalism amongst artists in the UK is evident, and typified by its stars in London: Balfron Tower and the Barbican. In her new book Biokovi – Novi Beograde London-based photographer Lola Paproka spends a summer in the Serbian capital. Lola, herself born in communist-built estates in Poland, documents the New Belgrade blocks and their residents with curator, long-term friend and Belgrade native Mima Bulj. The result is an ode to the housing estates that fell into dereliction and are now better remembered for social alienation and desolation than the utopian idealism under which they were initially built.
In line with her book launch, we caught up with Lola to find out more about her experience creating Blokovi – Novi Beograd, and why Brutalist architecture is so pertinent to her work.
Elizabeth Coop: Tell us a bit about your new book, Blokovi-Novi Beograd
Lola Paprocka: Blokovi is a photographic series exploring the New Belgrade apartment blocks and their residents. The book works to combine both portraiture and images of Brutalist estates – both are real interests of mine. I was keen to include some social documentation in there too, to capture spontaneous interactions with strangers on the streets. But, these social interactions would always come secondary, the Brutalist architecture would inform the overarching narrative.
EC: How did the project come about?
LP: The conversation started with my best friend Mima Bulj, who wanted me as ‘an outsider’, to capture her hometown in the way I saw and experienced it for the very first time. Mima was born in Belgrade and lived there until she was eight years old before moving to New Zealand with her family. I was born in Poland before moving to the UK in my late teens. Mima and I have always talked very openly about our struggles with finding a true sense of place, feeling stuck somewhere between the Eastern and Western worlds. It also goes without saying that I have a little bit of an obsession with Brutalist architecture and was immediately drawn into the context of this project. I travelled there one summer to begin documenting. After meeting some of the locals and beginning to shoot, the series seemed to move along very organically.
EC: You were born and raised in Poland, has this influenced Blokovi in any way?
LP: Yes, definitely! I was born and raised in estate blocks myself and my Polish heritage has certainly left me with a nostalgia for estates and “concrete everything”. I guess this was the main reason Mima approached me for this collaboration of ideas.
EC: How did you approach the portraits of those that live there in Belgrade?
LP: It was pretty difficult at first because of the language barrier. I worked closely with my partner Pani Paul, also a photographer. He helped me during the who process, especially editing images, making selects and through his encouragement to approach total strangers. Mima was always at hand as ‘translator’ too. Everyone was very friendly, and surprisingly no one refused to have their photo taken. I also met a few people in Belgrade who took me to their homes and were kind enough to show me around.
EC: So, what are you planning on shooting next?
LP: I’ve been working on a project centred around Polish estates for a few years now. It’s an ongoing process but after shooting for Blokovi I found that the series was only truly brought to life when I started shooting on a 120mm medium format camera. It really helped to capture the ‘coldness’ that is inextricably linked to raw materials such as concrete – so I am looking forward to exploring and developing this as a technique.
EC: When people close the book, what do you hope they will be thinking?
LP: Ah, that’s a tough one! That they want to travel to Belgrade, to visit the amazing city.
Blokovi – Novi Beograd is available for pre-order here