A friend sent me this photograph, which was taken by someone in Kalesija, a town in the Tuzla canton within the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. It depicts the corner of a building whose exterior has been renovated and painted in a vivid, optimistic color—somewhere between peach and orange. A sharply defined area has been omitted from the new renovation; it appears to be the facade of a single apartment. On the old concrete walls that are not covered with the new paint, one can still spot traces of decay. On closer inspection, one can also see what appear to be bullet marks dispersed across the raw surface, as if the building had been randomly fired upon. A large satellite dish—the largest of the many in the image—sits on the balcony of the apartment. The perfect outline of the unrenovated area suggests that it is the result of purposeful neglect.
I sent this image to various friends and colleagues, as well as to blogs and social networking sites without much description other than a caption reading “wonderful neglect” and a note stating where it was taken. The responses were surprisingly diverse. On one end of the spectrum, the image was read as a symbol of civil disobedience—resistance to a renovation that in its collective character too strongly echoed an older ethos of socialist solidarity. At the other extreme were pragmatic interpretations that understood the gesture as a strictly financial one. This was best summarized in the wry note from a colleague who wondered if the owner had spent all his money on the satellite dish on his terrace instead.
Since I first circulated the image, I have learned more about the circumstances surrounding the renovation. As it turns out, the unrenovated section is one of the two areas left out. The two areas mark the facade belonging to two distinct apartments that reportedly did not contribute money to the reconstruction of the entire building. At least one of the owners lives abroad. In the summer of 2007, the municipality of Kalesija decided to paint this particular building, together with a few other buildings, in order to make the town “better and more beautiful.” However, despite its good intentions, the city did not have sufficient funds to pay for the entire project and the owners of the individual apartments were also asked to contribute toward the restoration, in the way a coop or condominium fee increase would be used in a US context to fund general work on a building.
It is not possible to know with certainty the motivations of the owners who rebuffed the city’s request, but their refusal does open a space for speculation, particularly given the complex social dynamics of the area. Before the war, Kalesija was predominantly Bosnian Muslim (today known as Bosniak), with a small Serbian minority. On 2 May 1992, during the early stages of the Bosnian war, the Bosnian Serbian army overran the town and started to displace the Muslims. Only twenty days later, the Bosnian forces reclaimed the city. Many of the Serbs who originally lived in Kalesija fled. Today, the town is ninety-nine percent Bosniak. The years following the 1995 Dayton Accords, which ended the war in Bosnia, saw concerted efforts toward urban renewal across the country. In Tuzla, the government plan of 2000 for the return of displaced populations noted that residents who had fled had started to return in significant numbers by 1998, though they largely consisted of Bosniaks from other parts of Bosnia as well as abroad. The return of Serbs to towns like Kalesija was reported as minimal, but significant enough to inspire the government further encourage Serbs to return with a scheme for better financial aid.
In larger Bosnian towns, such as Mostar and Sarajevo, the urban renewal took the form of conventional reconstruction of buildings, and sometimes entire areas, that had been shelled during the war. Though included in many international preservation lists and often used as case studies in design and preservation curriculums in North American universities, such cities have nevertheless had difficulties securing long-term international aid. The iconic parts of Mostar, like the Old Bridge, were only finally reconstructed through a complex partnership between UNESCO, the World Bank, and local government. Meanwhile, the status of Sarajevo’s 1997 application to the World Heritage List as a “unique symbol of universal multiculture” is still listed as “tentative” on the UNESCO’s website.
The situation is different in towns like Kalesija. There, individual initiatives are more typical, with citizens organizing themselves to repair their architectural surroundings. The social conditions have also given rise to self-styled developers who transform property formerly controlled by the socialist government—successfully adapting, say, collective housing into condominiums—while making their fortunes. And then there are the chronically under-funded municipal authorities, as was the case with the building in question.
It’s entirely possible that the two owners refused to participate in the renovation simply because of their financial situations—the fact that at least one of them lives abroad, however, to some extent undermines this mundane reading. A more critical interpretation, however, might ask questions about the politics of refusal in the post-war era of abrupt democratization.
For some who witnessed the destruction of the town during the war, the bullet holes are not simply an eyesore to be covered up, but a testament to the suffering of the entire population. If, however, the decision to keep the bullet holes visible is motivated by a desire to assign blame—we may not know whether the damage was caused by the initial Serbian offensive or the Bosniak counterattack, but perhaps the owners do—then the testimony of the building points away from a generalized sense of grief and toward a continuation of the war by other, symbolic, means.
The value of speculation like this lies less in the particular case of one apartment building in a Bosniak town than in the larger questions about the future of neglect as a strategy within democratic values and systems. Is negligence a tool that can operate with a force equal to that of urban reconstruction? Is refusing to renovate as powerful a statement as renovating? And in a larger sense, if there is not enough money to upgrade a particular building or an element of municipal infrastructure, should citizens be allowed to refuse when asked to contribute? And if they do contribute, should they have a voice in how their money is used, and in the way participation is managed and directed?
The owners of the two unrenovated apartments in Kalesija answered these questions with their inactions. What is striking is the precision and respect with which the town officials marked out the owners’ dissent. The perfectly delineated edge marking the boundary between what personal property is renovated and what is not speaks to the new ability to refuse the image of reconstruction. It is an inspiring precedent that suggests a future for neglect as a tool for integrated exceptionality.
The author wishes to thank Nebojsa Seric-Shoba for bringing the photograph to his attention.
The first version of this article was printed in Cabinet 38, Summer 2010.