The towers of the Western City Gate of Belgrade (thus named because of their position by the highway on the western approach to the city) were built in 1971-79 at the centre of the modernist New Belgrade neighbourhood. With their overall height of 115 metres they were (and still are) the tallest structures in Belgrade and, as such, immediately became one of its landmarks. The Western City Gate consists of two towers of unequal height: the lower was used by the state-owned Genex company (hence its popular name, the Genex Tower) and the higher (26 floors) was a residential block with eight units per floor. The towers are joined at the top by a two-storey bridge, visually effective but also practical precaution in case of a fire. On top of the whole structure stands round structure, originally a restaurant for the Genex employees. In the 1990s its residents struggled with electricity shortages while the company shrank so that, nowadays, it only has a dozen employees. In all three attempts to sell the empty tower no bidders were found, officially because of the lack of parking space (the parking underneath can only accommodate about one hundred vehicles). After years of being neglected as a “commie building”, nowadays, it enjoys the status of one of Belgrade’s iconic buildings. The towers are not listed as cultural heritage. The overall condition of the building is good, though its concrete brut façade is missing in a few spots. The plaza in front of the towers is in a very bad state, missing much of the pavement and is overgrown with weeds.
Text by Vladimir Dulović
1979Mixed: residential and business
2018 State and private
Form of government
1979 Socialist Federative Republic
2018 Parliamentary Democracy
Spatial Planning Agency
1979 Urban planning institute Belgrade
2018 Urban planning institute Belgrade
Type of heritage and protection
Interview with Matija Zlatanović
MZ: It happened to me a couple of times when we went there, because of course, those large, beautiful, imposing buildings are bait for architecture students and, among other things, at the end of the day, for their professors who don’t have to think too much about what to do with them. So in every generation, in practically every subject, you could find someone who would get Geneks, whether to go there to draw it, whether it was technical drawing, whether it was architecture, or if it was urbanism. Just as it is, with its very being and grandeur Geneks always drew attention, especially that of us students at the time. And whoever came to draw it would always have a hard time getting to the top, say, along those large tubes attached to the main building and that contain the service routes, the so-called “zones of movement”: lifts, stairs, etc. Usually, the poor students would wait for someone to leave the building and then rush in to draw it. And in the office building there was, of course, always a receptionist, surrounded by drooping tropical plants from the early 90s, in all that laminate and threadbare faux leather, who would tell anyone who showed up that his only job was to tell people, “no entry”. Like some one-headed monster from a by-gone age who would never let people pass and so on. And that was an experience, especially when I later worked as a tour guide where people would always be interested and want to go in, can we climb to the top… I’d say, “Guys, at the reception desk, at the counter, there’ll be a man who will just chase you away.” His only function was to spend eight hours a day there and tell people to go away, that they can’t go in. Everyone who tried, and many people tried more than once, would always come out and say, “Yup, you were right”. And that’s that as far as the current context goes. But, of course, if we looked at the second tower, the residential one, where it would happen a couple of times when I bring a tour group here that we’d be approached by a lonely older guy who’d say, “Would you like to come with me to have a little rakija and to see what the view’s like”. When that first happened I thought who knows what this gentleman’s end game is but it turns out that he’s simply a friendly, well-meaning gentleman who takes tourists up, pours them a rakija and so on. So that’s another moment linked to that unfortunate restaurant that was supposed to rotate, which is closed, its role has been taken by people who’re simply here, who live here.
Interview with Ralph van den Zijden
RvdZ: Well, Genex was one of the stops from the beginning of the first tour I developed in 2011. I knew the city a little bit and I knew Genex had to be a part of it, to show it to tourists. One reason why I wanted that is that it is an impressive building, to start with. But I also wanted to kind of confirm the prejudices of foreigners coming to Еastern Europe as they see it here or the Balkans. You know, common prejudices how it’s all grey and it’s concrete and it’s all boring buildings and actually I wanted to take them to Genex to show them yes, you have these really impressive concrete buildings but you also have other parts – after that, we would go to Ada that is very green. It’s not just these concrete buildings. On the other hand, that was my first idea or reason to take people there, but I also started to learn, to get to know the building better, from different perspectives, literally. So, if you walk underneath the building it’s a very impressive site: there is a bridge in between two main buildings and, if you look up it’s just a very impressive architectural piece. I always liked it, I also liked it for its ugly beauty and I know that not all the tourists and visitors appreciate it in the same way but they all are impressed and they all take pictures. And it still is the stop on many of our tours.
VD: Would it be ok to say that the image of the building is undergoing kind of a big change in the last years, that the whole building is coming back? What an impressive building you can see from the fortress, you can see from various parts of town, that it’s coming in this imagined panorama of Belgrade where you can see the Pobednik, and you can see the Orthodox Cathedral, you can see everything else, and then you can see the Genex building? Would you say that it is one of the symbols of Belgrade?
RvdZ: Yeah, in that way it is. Of course, you cannot avoid it, you will always see it from everywhere, it’s peaking up high. I don’t know if it’s loved as a symbol like maybe the statue of the Victor is, but when you have the skyline of Belgrade Genex really fits in. And if you see Genex on any picture or any profile or the shape of Genex - and you’ve been to Belgrade - you will know it’s Belgrade, undeniable Belgrade.
VD: And why do you think it’s not as loved as some other sites?
RvdZ: Well, because of this mix – you either love it or you hate it. It is beautiful in its own modernist, architectural way and if you like that way of architecture, but it’s not very cuddly or warm or it doesn’t symbolize beautiful history like the statue of Victor, for instance. So it’s a harsh, cold object. I mean, you cannot deny it, whether you love it or not, it is like that. So, that doesn’t make it easy to love, I think. Unless you like this kind of architecture or you’re interested in that thing. And that’s what I’ve seen in the past years, it’s growing very fast, the interest of foreigners at least, for this kind of architecture. So now I have people who almost especially come for Genex to Belgrade. Or for Genex and the surrounding buildings, they come to Belgrade for New Belgrade. I think a few years ago that would be unimaginable, people would come to Belgrade for many reasons but not to see newly built, well 1960s and ‘70s built area of New Belgrade and it’s in such a way popular now that we even developed an offer, architecture tours that may only focus on this kind of architecture with again Genex, of course, as a highlight. I have clients who come and spend half an hour at Genex and the next day by themselves they would go back to Genex to spend even more time there, to take pictures from a different angle. So, I guess the Belgradians maybe not starting to love Genex more and more, I can’t tell anything about it – you probably know more about that, about those impressions – but from the tourist perspective, from the outside perspective, there is a growing appreciation for it.
Interview with Paris Petrovski
PP: Well, yes and no, how can I put it. Horses for courses. There are simply all kinds of people out there. One thing’s for sure – the apartments are really good! Spacious, airy, the view – you can see for yourself – is phenomenal. We’re now in transition as a building, the residential part, we’ve rented out space for advertising, raised a bit of money and we’re successfully maintaining our part. The building board is good, it functions. The social structure of the residents is varied. If you remember, earlier in former Yugoslavia, there was a housing fund where all public companies gave apartments to their workers, so in our building – the last two floors are pilots, from 18 to 28 are ambassadors and diplomats, below them are Tanjug journalists and, I’d say, cultured people those first residents, educated… However, that’s changed quite a lot, people sold their apartments. Attitudes to the Western Gate, without question a monument and one of the symbols of the city – as you said, béton brut, Mihailo Mitrović designed it quite well – are subconscious, nobody who lives here thinks about that. In any case, when you come home to the plateau, the imposing monumentality of the building washes over you and you’re kind of glad you live here.
VD: But when we take into account its current state, this neglected plateau, the empty tower – what can that be a symbol of in these times?
PP: Well, a symbol of deconstruction. Literally, a symbol of a failed system. But I believe that’s temporary, that transition has to pass and at the end of the day, someone will buy it, fix it up… or the City will take responsibility or the state. A symbol of deconstruction. Socialism fell apart, the Iron Curtain fell, the product of self-management now awaits its buyer, to become again… I’m an optimist, we’re in a time of new investment, the Belgrade Waterfront, what-not, opening up, Europe, China… Everything will fall into place.
VD: And what if the Belgrade Waterfront and similar projects simply open much more modern, high-tech offices and so on, where your tower won’t be able to compete?
PP: Well I’m simply convinced that the leaders of our society won’t allow it to fall apart. They can’t knock it down. Simply, it would be stupid not to use existing resources. Now, in this here society of ours, like in the rest of the Balkans probably, the rule is to love me tender. So if someone doesn’t have a personal interest, that politician, that decision-maker, can’t get their slice of pie – they just aren’t interested. He would rather do a new project where he or his brother or whoever has his “bit”. That’s a problem, to figure out how to somehow work them in.
VD: This building is now getting noticed by foreigners. Cycling and walking tours pass by. They ask about it and it’s showing up on maps as a symbol of New Belgrade and Belgrade as a whole. Do you think that because of this the City or the state should grant it some kind of recognition or protection?
PP: Of course! Except, we are, as a building board, we have a pretty well-developed community in the building and we meet regularly and it really functions. And everyone’s just passing the buck. Should we fix it up so it isn’t an embarrassment… As you say, tour groups pass by. Twenty foreigners here, 35 architecture students, post-graduate students researching the history of architecture. And this really is a symbol of béton brut, it’s in textbooks around the world. People come here and they’re shocked. I personally wrote several letters, I told the mayor, please – it was Djilas back then – let’s not embarrass ourselves, fix the fountain… That’s not much money, the infrastructure is in place, it just needs someone to be responsible for its upkeep. As a building board, we’re financially capable. And as I said, they’re passing the buck. The city authorities pass it to Genex, Genex passes it up to the government, the government passes it back to the city authorities and it goes round and round and nobody lifts a finger.