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Viktorija Aladžić – Subotica. Theatre – a mirror of the city

I have been infected with the idea of the city since the first lectures by Professor Bogdan Bogdanović. I did not yet realise that they were just an unexpected incident in a dark Balkan vilajet, and in my first college year it seemed to me that we would always have lecturers of this quality. Three years later the Belgrade Faculty of Architecture no longer wanted Professor Bogdanović, and we were also deprived of the opportunity to learn architectural design in his studio.

But the idea of the city remained, this great question to which so many have tried to find an answer: what is the city? In my case this question regarded the city in which I had been born: Subotica. When I came back from Belgrade – this chaotic, noisy, overwhelming, polluted and incredibly interesting metropolis – to Subotica, which you could walk across in ten minutes, I became enchanted with what Subotica had been, I began my quest to understand how a city arises, and how and why it falls.

Vojvodina – a region in the northern part of which Subotica lies, called Vajdaság in Hungarian – in the Middle Ages belonged to the Hungarian Kingdom, but after its downfall it came under Turkish rule, which lasted almost to the end of the 17th century, when under the terms of the Treaty of Karlowitz (1699) the region was taken over by the Habsburgs. As a result of the constant Turkish threat, the settlements here never evolved beyond mere groupings of cottages giving provisional shelter. Subotica (Szabadka in Hungarian) also belonged to this category, being inhabited by less than two thousand people in the early 18th century.

If I were to name one effort on which the energies of Subotica citizens were focused, it would definitely be the 200-year-long endeavour to turn the chaotic, muddy settlement with scattered buildings, irregular streets and mud houses, little more than dugouts, into an orderly, well organised and comfortable town.

Untrodden wilderness stretched around the old settlement, with a spider-web of lazy rivers and streams, extensive blotches of marshes and dangerous swamps, where horses became bogged down, and sometimes even whole carriages with animals and people drowned in the mud. The legendary Panonian mud! The people who settled here came mostly from the mountainous Balkans, fleeing from the Turks. Others were encouraged by the Habsburgs to settle in the newly acquired land. They brought with them their expertise in raising cattle and wine-growing. They built their modest houses around the no longer existing lone defensive tower, grouped according to nationality, each living apart from the others: the Serbs, Bunjevci,* Hungarians… “At first there was no plan as to how and who would build their house. It happened spontaneously. Everyone chose a patch of land and built a house on it. Gradually a family evolved, that is a brotherly settlement.”[i] The Bunjevci settled to the south and west of the former fortress, the Serbs to the north-east, and the Hungarians to the north. Although later representatives of particular communities started to take joint action in the common interest of all the inhabitants of Subotica, the principle of the groups going their separate course was more or less rigorously respected. Gradually others started to arrive in pursuit of making a living: Jews, Roma, Germans, Poles, Czechs, Slovaks and Cincari.** In 1779 Subotica received the status of a Free Royal City from Maria Teresa.[ii]

A theatre is founded

The first inn in the town, the so called Great Tavern, where wanderers could eat and spend the night, was built in 1766 or 1767 as a modest one-storey building with clay walls, thatch roof and eaves.[iii] In late 1828, at a municipal meeting concerned with the economy, Deputy Mayor Josip Sarić reported on the bad shape of the Great Tavern and the need to build another one. At that time it was the only public building where the inhabitants could gather, in a very small number, and of course it was inaccessible to the majority of the population, that is to women and children. Historical documents say that in 1747 the first recorded theatre performance took place in Subotica.[iv]

The new inn was not built but the idea was not abandoned. There were several attempts to buy an existing building and adapt it for the new purpose but this never came to fruition. And finally the decision was taken – a representative building combining the functions of a hotel and a theatre was to be built in Subotica.

The task was entrusted to János Scultety (Janoš Škulteti), an engineer and construction inspector, who in 1844 asked the municipality for permission to tour all cities with well constructed and recognised theatres, so that something similar could be designed for Subotica.[v] A year later the design was ready; the cornerstone was laid in 1848 but the revolutionary events in Hungary made the continuation of the works impossible.[vi] Despite the repressive policy of the absolutist regime in Vienna, the town got its act together after the fall of the revolution and restarted the construction process; the hotel wing was finished in 1856 and the following year the other wing was ready – with a theatre auditorium. The building also housed a ballroom, a restaurant and a confectionery. The V-shaped mass was endowed with classicist features, the six-columned Corinthian portico giving it a monumental character.

It was the first representative public building in the town, and soon became the symbol of Subotica. It functioned as the centre of municipal life, with all cultural and social events taking place there. Each group could celebrate its holidays there, organise celebrations, and thus expressing its national feelings and nurturing its culture. But at the same time, the inhabitants gathering there were ever more strongly experiencing the sense of belonging to a community different than the group they originated from. The citizenship of Subotica started to emerge from the multinational and multi-religious mixture.

It was also thanks to the theatre that the square it adjoined was ordered, paved and street lamps installed. It would have been unseemly if citizens going to the theatre had to wade through mud. Thus, the first representative public space in the town came into being. The theatre was responsible for the external and then internal transformation of Subotica, when craftsmen and farmers – living in the city as the Hungarian tradition of “field towns” would have it – started to perceive themselves as townspeople and businessmen by dint of their education, profession and social status.

Plugging Subotica in to the railway network in 1869 was a watershed. Previously, goods were transported the hard way or not at all. As there was no river nearby, they had to be delivered by horse-drawn carriages to the closest river harbour in Bai on the Danube or Szeged on the Tisza. The railway brought momentous changes with it. The fertile and extensive farmland around Subotica could at last be exploited in its full potential to export wheat, which was in great demand in Europe. The town was rapidly changing in its appearance, and many cottages in the centre were replaced with representative multi-storey townhouses. By the end of the 19th century Subotica had almost one 100,000 inhabitants.

Modernisation of the theatre was already necessary. It was done by Ferenc Raichl, the designer of the most beautiful Art Nouveau townhouses in Subotica, and coincided with great changes in the city centre. In 1907 the municipality received permission from the ministry in Budapest to replace the modest Baroque town hall with a new one, in the Hungarian Art Nouveau style, designed by Marcell Komor and Dezső Jakab. Finding room for the monumental new structure required razing the surrounding houses and clearing the space between the future town hall and the theatre, the side façade of which, previously facing a narrow and dark street, now became part of the new square.

The magnificent new town hall – the symbol of the bourgeois Subotica and its incredible prosperity – was opened in 1912.On the morning of March 11th 1915, a fire broke out in the theatre hall. It did not consume the entire building but the First World War made any repairs impossible. The end of war the brought great changes. The city, together with Vojvodina, became part of the new Yugoslav state: the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenians. Alongside the political changes the war brought even more profound structural transformations. The previously strong Subotica burgherhood disappeared – some were expelled, some fled or intended to leave the city and settle somewhere in Hungary, to which Subotica had belonged, and the rest simply became impoverished during the wartime years. The difficult economic situation of the newly founded state, composed of non-homogeneous territories devastated and ravaged by the war, did not favour a speedy return to the former municipal glory. And yet the citizens of Subotica did not forget about their theatre. It was reconstructed and reopened in 1927; the ballroom was replaced by a cinema.

Not long after theatrical life started to flourish again, not long after the new burgherhood began to be aware of its role and status, another world war broke out, and when it ended, Yugoslavia stopped being a kingdom and became the Federal People’s Republic of Yugoslavia and then the Socialist Federal People’s Republic of Yugoslavia. This was another disaster for the Subotica burgherhood – perhaps the biggest one. Wealthy, respectable citizens were robbed of their property overnight, the prosperous Jewish community was decimated in concentration camps and many others never came back from the frontlines. Despite severe losses a new protagonist entered the stage – the working class, enthusiastically ready to raise the country from the ashes with their bare hands.

In late 1945 the theatre building became the seat of two repertory theatres: the Croat National Theatre (Hrvatsko narodno kazalište) and Hungarian National Theatre (Magyar Népszínház). Six years later the two theatres merged into the National Theatre (Narodno pozorište – Népszínház). But despite repairs the structure did not fully meet the requirements of the new socialist theatre.

The beginning of the end

The problem of the theatre in Subotica was not resolved during the following decades. Its structural condition was worsening and performances were often cancelled because of insufficient number of spectators. Young people were interested in other things – parties in the newly built House of Youth or in the first private disco “Largo”, known all over Yugoslavia.

The most avant-garde theatre personality in Yugoslavia was Ljubiša Ristić, who in 1977, with Nada Kokotović, founded the KPGT.*** In the autumn of 1985 he was invited to Subotica to help revitalise the theatre. But his arrival proved to be the final blow. Ristić directed avant-garde performances, staged in various venues across the city, which created a kind of cultural boom and drew the greatest names of Yugoslav theatre to Subotica, but also precipitated the devastation of the building. The work of Ristić in Subotica provoked a discussion in the intellectual circles all over the country, split into passionate admirers and fervent opponents of his concept of theatre. In Yugoslavia you could already perceive the signs of the ideological crisis and calamity, which were to lead to the bloody wars in the 1990s, while Subotica was turned into stage space for Ristić’s theatre, which was the last attempt at preserving the multinational Yugoslav identity, with a new concept of respecting particular national identities but also with a seed of destruction present in the very essence of this concept. Subotica public opinion, as if mesmerised by the proposed dream of a new unity and Yugoslav identity, joined in initiatives demanding that the existing theatre building would be razed and replaced with a new one, adequate to the new tendencies and expected changes.

Several public debates were held which led to a unanimous conclusion that the new theatre could not be rebuilt but had to be raised from scratch. The Subotica Institute of Monument Protection developed the first urban planning and conservation programme of its reconstruction.[vii] The opportunity was taken to take stock of the state of the building and the municipal authorities established a committee for the reconstruction and building of the National Theatre.

As the existing auditorium did not meet the requirements of Ljubiša Ristić’s theatre, an open, ambient theatre was created. The original upholstered chairs disappeared from the auditorium, replaced by folding metal stands on the stage, while actors performed in the space for the audience. Under the aegis of high-sounding ideas, a brutal destruction of the theatre building was carried out. The chairs were removed without the permission of the Institute of Monuments Protection and this institution opined that the building was in a critical state due to the way it had been used. Towards the end of 1986 the Institute inscribed the theatre building on the local monuments list.[viii]

Despite this decision Ristić did not abandon his conception, in which he enjoyed strong political support from the city authorities. On his initiative, specialists from West Berlin, Vienna and Paris were employed, and in 1988 they developed three variants of renovating and building the theatre, called “All-stage,” “Theatre machine” and “Black box”. The last one was the most radical – a black cube, with no stage and auditorium inside, movable and easily transformable for the purposes of a given show. This option terrified the inhabitants of Subotica.[ix]

On a wider political plane, Yugoslavia was looking for an idea for the country’s survival, possibilities were opening for a multi-party democratic system but it all held the strong seeds of destruction. In Subotica, formerly possessing cultural institutions attracting the loyalty of all inhabitants regardless of their nationality and religion, ethnic-based cultural associations, councils and institutions were founded. The intellectual elite, which had been weak anyway, gradually dispersed in countless ethnic cultural centres: Serbian, Hungarian, Bunjevci, Jewish, German… The communist unanimity was replaced with multi-party unanimity, which additionally divided the Subotica elite. A quiet and unnoticeable destruction of the city began. People were still going to the same places but now everyone found a particular way of showing his or her new identity, through new symbols and new behaviours, which became the norm.

Thanks to the efforts of specialists struggling for the protection of monuments, the parliament of the Autonomous Province of Vojvodina passed a decree in 1991 which gave the building of the National Theatre in Subotica the status of a monument of great value.[x] The war was raging in Yugoslavia by then. Although the country was falling apart, in 1991–1992, together with the Association of Architects in Subotica, a national competition for the design of reconstructing the theatre building was announced and many entries were filed. Two equal prizes went to Energoprojekt and Studio 212-Yustat from Belgrade. After a public tender in 1998, the Yugoslav Centre of Stage Art and Technology Yustat-PRO from Belgrade signed a contract for preparing the necessary documentation on the architectural and construction design of the adaptation, reconstruction and extension of the National Theatre building in Subotica. The authors of the design included such renowned architects and designers as Professor Ranko Radović, Zorica Savičić, Ištvan Hupko and Prof. Dr. Radivoj Dinulović.

Public presentation of the main design took place on March 23rd 2007. Only then did the inhabitants of Subotica realise that the existing theatre would be largely razed and replaced by a monumental new edifice, although the façade was not described in the design and it was not clear were the funds would come from.

Several local political parties and branches of national parties as well as private people started a campaign aimed at preventing the demolition of the theatre. In early April 2007 the Hungarian National Committee of ICOMOS issued an open appeal to the Subotica authorities to preserve the building, historically the sixth theatre house in the Carpathian Basin built of lasting material. At the same time, signatures were collected across the city, required to announce a referendum in which the inhabitants themselves would decide on the future fate of the theatre. The campaign called “Let’s Save the Theatre” collected more than 14,000 signatures. Despite intense protests, demolition started on June 4th 2007. Two days later the Serbian Ministry of Culture received a letter from Michael Petzet, the representative of ICOMOS in Paris, asking for the demolition to be abandoned. But it was too late.

The central part of the building, with six Corinthian columns planned for renovation, had been completely stripped down. All the stuccoes had been destroyed and the original cast iron fencing was cut into pieces and sold for scrap. The central marble staircase was seriously damaged. The unique reinforced concrete structure of the auditorium was dismantled.

The new theatre building was to be completed in 2012, but in the beginning of this year the city authorities announced that there was no money to continue the building process and that the work would be halted. And now, side by side with the beautiful mansions and the architecturally magnificent town hall, there is a monstrous concrete skeleton. Not only was the theatre destroyed. Zoning regulations for Subotica focus on demolition and in the last decade several important historical buildings also met the same fate: the oldest Art Nouveau houses in Vasa Stajić Street, Hajzler’s Baths, and the Sombor turnstile building.

Epilogue

Today, Subotica is governed by a coalition of 13 parties, which are divided amongst the municipal departments. None of them have a sufficient number of specialists, so a historian is responsible for the protection of monuments, a lawyer is responsible for urban planning, a construction engineer is responsible for culture and a sociologist is responsible for the economy. We could add that a native of Subotica, an orthopaedist by profession, used to be the minister of culture of Serbia. The number of municipal officials has risen to 400 people. Parties have become institutions offering jobs. It is almost impossible to find employment without one of the party cards. In such a situation each party has its own policy, not communicating and not cooperating with others. Piecemeal decisions are taken, in a one-term view, projects are started and left half-done, unfinished, there is a constant lack of continuity in all domains, and everyone is focused on getting re-elected rather than on the good of the community. In the spiritual sense the city has collapsed and the demolition of the theatre is the most grotesque and shocking expression of that. What started to emerge after the downfall of Slobodan Milošević in October 2000 is strikingly remindful of the unfinished monumental skeleton of the theatre. The media is full of noble declarations and grand promises of small politicians, but apart from the skeleton and the promises of a wonderful, beautifully planned and completely unreal future life, there is nothing, just like in the case of the theatre. In the heart of Subotica there is a horrible, grey, ominous concrete skeleton and the inhabitants have abandoned the walkways in the city centre, which were once teeming with life. Even if someone passes along, they do it with their heads down, walking rapidly, so that the eye does not meet this hapless structure, continuously reminding the citizens of all the other failures.


* A Slav Roman Catholic ethnic group, who in the 18th century settled in northern and eastern Vojvodina, along the border between today’s Croatia and Vojvodina, as well as in the Pest and Csongrád Komitats in Hungary.

** That is, the Aromuni, a Roman people living in the Balkans, mostly Orthodox, speaking their own language [eds].

*** The name comes from the first letters of the word theatre in Croatian (kazalište), Serbian (pozorište), Slovenian (gledališče) and Macedonian (teatar).


[i] Branko Peruničić, Postanak i razvitak baština na području Subotice od 1686. godine, Srpska akademija nauka, Beograd 1958, p. 27.

[ii] Viktorija Aladžić, Razvoj koncepta unutrašnjeg grada Subotice u XVIII i XIX veku, „Arhitektura i urbanizam” 2012, no 29, Institut za urbanizam i arhitekturu Srbije, Beograd, pp. 22–27.

[iii] Viktorija Aladžić, O izgradnji Mađarkuće, današnje Muzičke škole, „Zbornik radova Građevinskog fakulteta” 2005, no 14, Građevinski fakultet u Subotici, pp. 11–19.

[iv] Gordana Vujnović Prčić, Viktorija Vujković Lamić, Zgrada subotičkog pozorišta, Međuopštinski zavod za zaštitu spomenika kulture, NIP „Subotičke novine“, Subotica 1992, p. 7.

[v] IAS, M, 18.A.33./aec. 1844.

[vi] Péter Hanák, Povijest Mađarske, Barbat, Zagreb 1995, pp. 139–144.

[vii] Dokumentacija MZZSK, no 39-8 z 03.07.1985. godine

[viii] Dokumentacija MZZSK, no 110-3 from 30.12.1986.

[ix] Viktorija Aladžić, Report: The History of the National Theater in Subotica, „Centropa” 2011, vol. 11, no 2, New York, pp. 153–166.

[x] СK 1220. Službeni list APV, 28, 1991.

An informal citizens group called “Smile at Subotica” has been active for two years, a ray of hope that something could be changed after all. The group co-organised the conference “Heritage protection within urban development” in May 2011 and co-authored the Subotica declaration on heritage protection within urban development, prepared by many international experts taking part in the seminar. Since that time, the “Smile at Subotica” group has collected signatures under an open letter demanding the adoption of the declaration by the municipal council. Later it organised several guided tours, with the author of this article showing the guests the most important buildings in the city and telling them about their history. Each walk was attended by about 200 participants. From time to time the group organises meetings in various venues across the city, devoted to great citizens of Subotica. In October 2012 it mounted a happening during which 1500 notices were handed to owners of houses planned for demolition in the General regulation plan for Central Zone I and the city centre;the notices were given the form of obituaries. After this campaign the Plan was withdrawn for a review. The most recent success of this group of enthusiasts is the accession of Subotica to the Réseau Art Nouveau Network during the general assembly in Aveiro on January 25th 2013. The informal group continues its work in the hope that membership of the city in this organisation will raise the awareness of the importance of the architectural heritage of Subotica, not only among ordinary inhabitants but also among decision-makers, and that this heritage will be a place around which the dispersed and fragmented civil society of Subotica will gather and unify, regardless of political, national and religious affiliations.

Viktorija Aladžić – is Assistant Professor at the Faculty of Civil Engineering in Subotica, she received her PhD at the Faculty of Geography, University of Belgrade. Her research focuses on the history of architecture of her home town Subotica, she is active in protecting building heritage and has published many articles in journals and scientific magazines on different themes concerning building heritage. She is a co-author of the two monographies printed in 2004, and 2006 entitled Gradotvorci I and Gradotvorci II which contain stories about the history of 150 houses from the turn of the 20th century in Subotica. She was a scholar of the 6th edition of the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage programme Thesaurus Poloniae.

Text reprinted courtesy of Herito (nr 10/2013)
www.herito.pl/en