Malcolm McLaren once tipped me off to a useful piece of advice for when visiting a new city for the first time. This wasn’t any great insight or revelation that McLaren felt compelled to share with me personally: it was the fortunate outcome a television programme that he was presenting.
In this show, the entertainment Svengali brought to life the characters of London’s historic underbelly by pointing out evidence of their homes and business premises visible above the familiar twentieth century storefronts.
Belgrade Streets Reveal Secrets
These were streets I had walked almost daily for some years but I had missed most of what was now being revealed to me. It is not any exaggeration to say that my take-out from the programme was to open up a new world waiting for me in plain sight.
From that time on, I have made every effort to look up at buildings around me rather than maintain a street level eye line. In any city I visit, at home or abroad, I now try to raise my gaze in a literally eye-opening step to discover the still beating heart of history all around.
The architecture of a city is a valuable key to unlock its story. From the grand museums and churches to the less salubrious back streets that hide their former glories under layers of soot and grime, buildings hold the secrets of a city.
When I look up at the second or third storey frontages and old office buildings, I can glimpse the tapestry of a town’s social and economic past. While street level shop fronts change every few years, the more ornate stone signatures of history leave their trace behind. The influences of architectural fashion, the emblems, motifs and cornices of long-gone regimes, and the changing economic signage of a building are there waiting to be re-discovered. All it takes to enjoy these pieces of history all around is to look up once in a while.
That simple act has made me aware of a London I had walked by for years. It also opens my eyes to any new city, and it has allowed me to discover the architectural riches of Belgrade’s past in a way that even many of the great city’s own residents are likely to miss.
With its great boulevards and wide thoroughfares, pedestrianised shopping streets and characterful old quarter, Belgrade is ripe with buildings of ornate charm and fascinating social signposting. The shifting times and changing powers are illustrated in the elaborate facades of many Belgrade’s building. Uncovering them can offer rich reward for very little effort.
Those of us who live in great cities can be in such a rush to get from A to B, or be too hooked on window shopping, to notice what is in front of our eyes – if we just look a little higher up. So I encourage you to try it for yourself: Next time you walk the streets of a city, take your eyes off the pavements and shopfronts, and look up at the buildings towering around you. You might discover something that you had not noticed before.
Marcus Agar has been commissioned by Wannabe Magazine to write a series of reports on life in Serbia. Click for Serbian or an interview in English or Serbian.