Among a number of urban techno-utopias envisioned in socialist Yugoslavia, the long-term project known as Sinturbanizam [synthetic urbanism] devised by the Croatian architect, artist, and theorist Vjenceslav Richter was by far most consistently developed. Resonating with many other techno-utopian proposals of the 1960s, Richter’s “synthetic urbanism” sought to condense all urban functions into a single megastructure in the shape of a giant inhabitable “ziggurat.” However, this basic idea continuously morphed over some twenty years to encompass a range of architectural and artistic concerns, from its initial roots in the 1950s push for the synthesis of the arts, to environmentalism of the 1970s. Throughout this long gestation, Sinturbanizam remained firmly anchored in the emancipatory aspirations of Yugoslav self-managing socialism, seeking to give optimal urban form to the evolving political system. By maintaining such hopeful trust in socialism, Richter’s vision set itself apart from its contemporaries in the West, such as those by Archigram, Constant Nieuwenhuis, Yona Friedman, or Superstudio, who either ignored current politics or used their projects as ironic critique of post-war society. Alongside his contemporaries in the socialist world, such as Oskar and Zofia Hansen in Poland, Karel Honzík in Czechoslovakia, or group NER in the Soviet Union, Richter thus kept alive the utopian impulse of the historical avant-garde well into the time when such impulses came under attack from rising postmodernism.

Vjenceslav Richter, Project Synthurbanism, Ziggurat Section, 1963–1964. Courtesy of Vjenceslav Richter Archive, Museum of Contemporary Art, Zagreb

Vjencelav Richter (1917–2002) was one of ex-Yugoslavia’s most prominent architects, designers, and artists, who made his name by designing exhibition pavilions in the country and abroad. He was also a committed activist dedicated to promoting the avant-garde values in the fields of architecture and art. After Yugoslavia was expelled from the Soviet orbit in 1948, he was among the first to push the limits of cultural liberalisation. As a co-founder and chief ideologue of the group EXAT 51[1]Eksperimentalni atelier [Experimental Studio], Yugoslavia’s first post-war independent artistic group based in Zagreb, Richter argued for the synthesis of the visual arts in the creation of totally designed environments based on abstraction and continuous experimentation. Such advocacy reached its pinnacle in his celebrated design for the Pavilion of Yugoslavia at Expo 58[2] in Brussels, a true modernist Gesamtkunstwerk and the most iconic architectural representation of Yugoslavia’s socialist self-management.[3]

Sinturbanizam made its debut as the focus of an eponymous book published in 1964.[4] Divided into two distinct parts, the volume begins as a detailed treatise on the synthesis of the plastic arts, but turns half-way through into a utopian proposal for a city for one million. Synthesis, nevertheless, remains the leitmotif throughout the text, albeit not of the arts but of urban functions: the proposal compresses an entire city worth of programmes into a single urban form, a pyramidal megastructure for 8–12,000 inhabitants that unifies everything from housing to work, education, and social life. The ground floor is occupied by an enormous covered plaza equipped with civic and commercial programmes, with additional public spaces scattered throughout the structure. Individual apartments cascade down the slopes of the pyramid, endowed with beautiful views of the surrounding park. The top houses a meeting hall for 6,000 citizens, constituting the unit’s political heart and the site of the self-managing process. A hundred such pyramids—or “ziggurats,” as Richter called them—form the greater city, submerged in greenery and connected by an orthogonal grid of efficient roads.

Vjenceslav Richter, Project Synthurbanism, Block Plan, 1963–1964. Courtesy of Vjenceslav Richter Archive, Museum of Contemporary Art, Zagreb

Explicitly opposing the “analytical urbanism” of modernist luminaries like Le Corbusier, the proposal was motivated precisely by the problems created by modernist planning, namely the enormous amounts of time wasted in traffic due to the segregation of urban functions.[5] Richter considered such waste “worse than cancer.”[6] He therefore sought to reverse the usual relationship of space and time in the modernist city: by compressing the commonly dispersed urban space, he hoped to reduce circulation to a minimum, thus affording the inhabitants additional free time that could be used for more creative purposes, or simply for leisure. The result, as he later claimed, would be a “four-dimensional city.”[7]

In addition to blending urban functions and space-time, Sinturbanizam was also intended to be synthetic in a third, political, sense by engaging with the totality of social relations. The project’s ultimate goal was to foster a radically egalitarian society in accordance with self-managing socialism: “Inside a ziggurat, all living functions of the collective occur in front of its member-citizens. From an early age, people see and learn those functions as a part of the collective organism, thus gaining a sense of belonging and responsibility. At the same time, the possibilities of self-management appear as a real and tangible political function.” [8] In other words, Richter saw the ziggurat as both an embodiment and a spatial representation of socialism, or to put it differently, both as a physical framework and as a symbolic device for the forging of new society.

Vjenceslav Richter, Project Synthurbanism, Zigurat, 1963–1964. Courtesy of Vjenceslav Richter Archive, Museum of Contemporary Art, Zagreb

In spite of being conceived for the specific conditions of Yugoslav self-managing socialism, Sinturbanizam nevertheless owed a great deal to the wider international world of techno-utopias, which flourished throughout the 1960s. Richter was abundantly aware of them, not least as the Yugoslav correspondent of the French journal L’Architecture d’Aujourd’hui. Some of the projects published in the journal’s 1962 issue dedicated to “fantastic architectures” clearly resonated with Richter’s subsequent ideas, most obviously his taste for “spatial” and “three-dimensional urbanism,” known from the work of Yona Friedman, Constant Nieuwenhuis, and Oscar and Zofia Hansen.[9] The issue also prominently featured varied pyramidal and conical structures, including Frank Lloyd Wright’s project for a civic centre in Pittsburgh shaped as a giant truncated cone, which the famous architect explicitly named a ziggurat. In addition to such architectural proposals, Richter was also familiar with wider discussions about the future of the city premised on the continuing technological optimism. Among several other important titles in this genre, his personal library included the seminal volume Où vivrons-nous demain? by the French author, critic, and historian Michel Ragon, which was widely read and translated.[10]

Richter certainly shared some important concerns with his techno-utopian peers in the West, such as Archigram and Yona Friedman: interest in the problem of mobility, technology as its primary solution, and the compression of programmes into a single massive megastructure. His political and economic circumstances, however, were significantly different, prompting in turn a fundamentally different vision. Rather than facilitating a flexible system for the self-organisation of radically atomised individuals, Richter still sought to build a place-based community that would maintain social bonds and responsibilities. The project thus kept alive socialism’s potential to generate a harmonious society; in Richter’s own words, “Socialism-communism is certainly that social movement that, while seeking a harmonious relationship between the individual and the collective, becomes interested in man as an integral biological and social being.”[11] Such explicit allegiance to socialism—and especially to the Yugoslav self-managing version of it—was more than a mere attempt to flatter the governing ideology. Richter had been at the centre of discussions about the adequate representations of self-management through his work on the national exhibition pavilion in Brussels (1958), Turin (1961), and Milan (1964), and it should not be surprising that he felt confident enough to go beyond representations and engage in actual spatial organisation of self-managing life.

Vjenceslav Richter, Project Synthurbanism, Block Plan, 1963–1964. Courtesy of Vjenceslav Richter Archive, Museum of Contemporary Art, Zagreb

Between Sinturbanizam’s debut in 1964 and the early 1980s, Richter took every opportunity to present his vision of socialist life, which unavoidably exposed him to the critiques that often interpreted the project in distinctly dystopian terms.[12] As a result, he updated the proposal through several increasingly daring iterations. A 1968 essay titled “Heliopolis—A Four-Dimensional City” allowed the ziggurats to rotate around their centres in order to facilitate an egalitarian exposure to sunshine and view from all the apartments.[13] At the same time, residential units were intended to slide in and out, affording the inhabitants an additional degree of freedom. Richter’s trust in the liberating potential of technology in this instance became so fantastical that the project acquired a distinctly surreal dimension, not unlike the Villa Girasole in Verona, the famous rotating home of the Italian engineer Angelo Invernizzi, except on a much larger scale. The drawings that followed the text somewhat later stressed the project’s surrealism even further. Especially interesting in that respect was a well-known section through the ziggurat, in which each individual room followed a different central perspective with its own vanishing point, a poignant evocation of the simultaneity of space-time. The powerful intersection of art and technology was also legible in the new accent on mobility, closely resonating with Richter’s contemporaneous art practice that experimented with modular mobile objects, which he called “systemic sculptures.”

Vjenceslav Richter, Project Synthurbanism, Ziggurat, 1963–1964. Courtesy of Vjenceslav Richter Archive, Museum of Contemporary Art, Zagreb

By the early 1970s, Sinturbanizam further evolved to an even more totalising vision that would produce a new kind of human, the “Homo Zigguratus.” Intended as the second edition of the book, the proposal, however, was never published or exhibited and only remains in manuscript form.[14] Reflecting the influence of the growing environmentalist movement, this iteration shifted the emphasis to the city’s relationship with nature. The natural world is no longer kept outside the buildings, but instead penetrates the interior of the megastructures and overgrows their outer form, allowing the ziggurats to become “green hills” in continuity with the landscape of the “inter-ziggurat space.”[15] Questions of environmental control, energy consumption, waste recycling, and pollution are all posed, even if they are not definitively answered. Except for hand-drawn sketches that accompany the manuscript, there were few new large-scale drawings illustrating this version of the project, but even just reading the text clearly differs from the more austere vision of ten years before, evoking instead what may be termed a techno-pastoral.

Even though Richter was adamant that he considered Sinturbanizam a serious urban proposal, the project nevertheless found its greatest success in art exhibitions in Yugoslavia and abroad, which included numerous international events on both sides of the Iron Curtain and both sides of the Atlantic. Sinturbanizam was displayed twice at the Biennial of São Paolo, in 1965 and in 1977, and in 1972 it was a part of Richter’s one-man show at Trigon in Graz, a regular exhibition of Austrian, Italian, and Yugoslav artists.[16] In 1978, it was presented in Moscow at the symposium The Synthesis of Visual Arts and Architecture in Socialist Society.[17] However, the project’s most intriguing appearances were in the United States, where the ideological discrepancies with the host country were especially stark. After participating in the Fifth Guggenheim International Exhibition in New York in 1967, Richter was invited to take part in the seminal exhibition Plus by Minus: Today’s Half Century at the Albright-Knox Gallery in Buffalo. The show for the first time introduced the American audiences to the tradition of “pure abstraction,” exhibiting works of legendary avant-garde artists, including László Moholy-Nagy, El Lissitzky, Kurt Schwitters, Alexander Rodchenko, and, Kazimir Malevich, as well as the rising stars such as Robert Smithson, Frank Stella, and Donald Judd.[18] Alongside another architect-turned-artist, Tony Smith, Richter was commissioned to design an “environment,” with the idea that his explicit social engagement would contrast Smith’s “pure” abstraction.[19] Making the contrast obvious, Richter exhibited six systemic sculptures alongside ten panels of Sinturbanizam, with explicit references to the project’s ideological connotations.[20] The review in The New York Times singled out Richter’s appearance as a “spectacular debut” and a “showstopper,” emphasising the direct link between his sculptures and the “visionary schemes of urban planning.”[21]

Vjenceslav Richter, Project Synthurbanism , 1963–1964. Courtesy of Vjenceslav Richter Archive, Museum of Contemporary Art, Zagreb

However, it is tempting to speculate if Sinturbanizam’s possible next showing in the United States would have been equally well received had it not fallen through. In the wake of his success in Buffalo, Richter was invited to participate in the ill-fated Art and Technology exhibition at LACMA (Los Angeles County Museum of Art), which paired artists with the leading American corporations in order to explore the links between art and technology. In April 1969 Richter travelled to Los Angeles to discuss his ideas with the representatives of several companies involved in the programme, including IBM, after which he was paired with Litton Industries, a defence contractor specialising in electronics.[22] The famous physicist and Nobel Prize winner Richard Feynman served as a consultant.[23] Richter planned to produce a massive modular mobile sculpture, not unlike his celebrated “reliefmetres,” except much larger. As the exhibition catalogue explained, the sculpture would be equipped with a computer-controlled mechanism allowing “each mono-element to be moved back and forth according to a premeditated programme, rendering a perpetually changing ‘membrane’ of forms not unlike a rippling surface of water. The ultimate extension of this notion for Richter would be to enlarge the size of the basic unit into architectural dimension, eventually culminating in systems architecture,’ his dream for future urban planning.”[24] Sinturbanizam was not explicitly mentioned, but it was clear that it provided the basis for the mentioned “urban planning dreams.” And yet, the plan would never become reality: after consultations with Feynman, the project was downsized, but following Richter’s departure from Los Angeles Litton’s engineers made the calculations and concluded that the cost would still be astronomical and the project was shelved.[25]

Vjenceslav Richter, Project Synthurbanism , 1963–1964. Courtesy of Vjenceslav Richter Archive, Museum of Contemporary Art, Zagreb

In retrospect, Richter’s failure to exhibit in Los Angeles alongside Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, James Turrell, Richard Serra, and several other superstars may have saved him from the criticism that haunted the occasion. In the wake of the civil rights movement, amidst a recession that prompted massive subsidies for corporate economy, and at the height of the protests against the Vietnam war, LACMA invited a group of exclusively white male artists to work in collusion with giant corporations, some of which were important cogs in the industrial-military complex responsible for the war atrocities.[26] The critical response was brutal. As the art critic Max Kozloff aptly pointed out in Artforum, the “collectivist, synthetic, art-for-people-and-life positions of the Constructivists and the Bauhaus”—historical precedents to the project of uniting art and technology—stood in sharp contrast with the “indifference to socialist aesthetics” of the exhibitors.[27] With its living link to “socialist aesthetics,” how would have Richter’s project been received in such a context, especially when paired with one of the leading corporations of the industrial-military complex? Would its emancipatory aspirations have been sufficient to function as a truly dissenting voice in a problematic show? Or would it have been seen as a sell-out willingly legitimising the American imperial project? Or simply as a naïve foreigner caught up in an unfamiliar context?

We will never know. What we do know is that Richter was sincere in his aspiration to give architectural form to the project of socialist Yugoslavia and its system of self-management. As a result, Sinturbanizam connected the artistic and social revolutions in a way unseen since the abolishment of Soviet Constructivism. Such engagement sets Richter’s vision apart from the majority of the international neo-avant-garde movements flourishing in the West, which either explicitly opposed the direction of post-war society or totally withdrew from it. In that sense, it may be more in line with a number of other visionary proposals that emerged around the former socialist world, offering a hopeful reinvention of the built environment while socialism still offered reasons for optimism. Together with Sinturbanizam, they all wait to take their place on the map of modern architectural history, which, without them, can only remain patchy and incomplete.

Vladimir Kulić is an architectural historian, critic, and curator; Associate Professor of architectural history at Iowa State University.