First Lady of Montenegrin Architecture

Svetlana Kana Radević (1937-2000) is one of the most important Montenegrin architects. Her architecture marked the Modern movement in Montenegro and defined a standard in architecture that few can achieve. She is the youngest winner of the federal Borba award for architecture (1968), the only women, as well as the only Montenegrin architect to win this award. She also received the 13th July award in 1968 and the Award of the Liberation of Podgorica in 1992.  

Kana Radević was born in Podgorica, Montenegro in 1937. She graduated from the Faculty of Architecture in Belgrade, and reached the final year at the Art History Department at the Faculty of Philosophy, studying at two Faculties at the same time. She obtained her Master degree in US as a Fulbright fellow, at the University of Pennsylvania, in the class of Louis Kahn. Her professional experience was acquired in Paris, Moscow and in Japan, at the atelier of Kisho Kurokawa. She was a regular member of the Doclean Academy of Sciences and Arts and an foreign member of the Russian Academy of Architecture and construction, where she was admitted in 1994, at the same time as Kenzo Tange.

Svetlana Kana Radević. Photo: TV Archive, 1980

I always wanted to build. Even my childhood games where architectural in a sense. I loved making houses out of cardboard boxes. Cutting out, I would make windows and doors with shutters. And that moment of opening those shutters, that is actually a breach into a newly made space, the interior space, which seemed very mysterious, very provocative.  – these are Kana’s words on childhood and architectural beginnings, shown in the movie One and only life – Svetlana Kana Radević.

Her working life was spent in Podgorica in Invest-engineering enterprise for design, at her own design atelier and as an independent artist. From the very beginning of her career she had notable success at design competitions. Her important works are: Hotel Podgorica in Podgorica, Montenegro (1967); Bus terminal in Podgorica, Montenegro (1968); Mixed use building in Petrovac, Montenegro (1968); Mixed use building in Mojkovac, Montenegro (1969); Hotel Mojkovac in Mojkovac, Montenegro (1968-1974); Memorial complex Barutana in Podgorica, Montenegro (1980); Hotel Zlatibor in Užice, Serbia (1981); Lexicographic Institute in Podgorica, Montenegro (1984-1989); Business Center Kruševac in Podgorica, Montenegro (1991, with Lj. Radević). Many of her works were a result of cooperation with her sister Ljiljana Radević, also an architect.

The most important of Kana’s works is Hotel Podgorica in Podgorica, Montenegro, whose design was the winning proposal at the competition. It was also her first important work which placed her at the very top of the architectural scene. The hotel was officially open on July 13th 1967, the Montenegrin National Day. The following year it was awarded first the state, and right after the federal Borba award for architecture.

Hotel Podgorica represents an exquisite mix of modernity and a refined relationship to the natural and historical context. The building is well placed in relation to the topography of the site, the river Morača and the remains of the medieval fortification located on the opposite side of the river. The impression of unity with its surrounding is additionally emphasized by the use of the pebbles from Morača on the facades and in the interior. Through a refined interpretation of the genius loci and the use of a material from the immediate surrounding, Kana brings Montenegrin architecture closer to the most contemporary trends of the time.

The language of architecture is one of the oldest. Certainly it is one of the most expressive elements of identity. Orientation towards the local visual culture of searching through tradition is not just a simple aesthetic choice, but rather part of the fight for the right to an identity. In that process tradition plays an enormous role. But it also carries a risk. The risk is in the relation to the tradition. It is common to have a static relation, accepting the original as something static, something tradition has never been. Thus – tradition is action and it is continuity. That is the difference between tradition and primitivism. Accepting one traditional visual element is acceptable only in its transposition, in the logic of the process, in spirit,  and certainly not in the literal translation of the form.  – Kana expresses her opinion on tradition and identity.

Hotel Podgorica, Podgorica (1967). Photo: Duško Miljanić

The bus terminal in Podgorica with its massing, form and materials certainly was influenced by Le Corbusier’s building of the Parliament in Chandigarh, which was built a few years earlier. The main motif of the building is the curved roof canopy, which covers the building like a crown. Kana combines raw concrete with the local Morača pebble, which she previously used successfully on the hotel building.

Bus Terminal, Podgorica (1968)

Mixed-use building, Petrovac (1968)

Mixed-use buildings at the seaside (Petrovac) and in the mountain (Mojkovac) showcase a special attitude of the author towards the architectural form, which in these cases also respects the local characteristics, the context and climate conditions. The seaside building features a flat roof, deep canopies and balconies, while the building in Mojkovac, in addition to the practical slopped roof, has a fir tree shape which is characteristic for the area. When I’m designing an apartment I would prefer if the apartment is open. Actually I advocate for an idea of an open apartment. Because everyone has their own feelings, their style if you want, of the apartment, the house, how they should look. And that’s why we should allow them to intervene, to get a space in which they would make themselves a home after their own taste.

Mixed-use building, Mojkovac (1969)

Shortly after, in Mojkovac Kana designed a hotel that imitated the characteristics of a mountain house. The steep slopes of the tin roof, formed as a response to the heavy snowfall, she cascades, reducing each subsequent volume. The windows she positions diagonally through the building height, creating an interesting but choreographed play of colors and volumes.

Hotel Mojkovac, Mojkovac (1968-1974)

Kana had the opportunity to design at Barutana, close to Podgorica, a memorial to the warriors fallen in the liberation wars, starting from the First Balkan war to the Second world war. Grouping different motives (a vertical dominant, a radial sequence of elements, separate groups), she managed to create a unique and moved memorial center. On this Kana says: One of the most difficult design tasks is the monument because it belongs to the domain of non programmatic architecture. The monument is a fixation of certain act for future generations. But this fixation doesn’t mean oblivion. That’s why the monument must be introduced into the cycle of life. I am not for a monument that is experienced in one moment of intense emotions, in pain, in suffering, but rather for a continued experience, for the liberation of the sanctity and dignity, for the feeling that life triumphs over death.  

Memorial complex Barutana, Podgorica (1980)

What especially differentiated Kana from her colleagues was hotel design. Her sensibility enabled a bold approach to the free forms that are hotels. Hotel Zlatibor in Užice, Serbia, which was also the winning competition design, was designed as a tower. For its peculiar look and the base on which it’s placed, the citizens called it “the rocket”. The windows are placed in vertical strips, visually elongating the hotel and adding to the impression that it is ready for take-off.

Hotel Zlatibor, Užice (1981). Photo: Time Zone Photography

Lexicographic Institute, Podgorica (1984-1989)

The Lexicographic Institute is an example of a successful addition, a merging of old and modern, at a corner location in Podgorica’s downtown. Placed at the main city boulevard, the building is realized in glass and opens towards the street.

Business center Kruševac Kana designed in a post-modern style. It was conceived as a covered semi-closed center with a plethora of shops and offices. Its design is reminiscent of the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele in Milan, the oldest shopping center in the world, with a covered yet open and accessible main hall. The feeling of happiness of a person is unthinkable without the feeling of freedom. Space is the one that strongly mobilizes this feeling of freedom, which releases an activity, which dares us to act. In a way, it is a bit conflicting situation between the city in which a person lives and which is actually completely built, and that need for space. That’s why even the smallest spaces are precious. Not just in the city but also in the apartment, in the building. That space, that feeling where a person feels free, active, which inspires, which moves, which carries. – says Kana.

Business center Kruševac, Podgorica (1991, with Lj. Radević).

As a female architect, it was not easy for Kana Radević to gain an equal position in society that acknowledges success only to men. However, professionalism, quality of her personality and her projects succeeded to keep her in the top. It is impossible not to mention her avant-garde personal style and look that made her stand out, just like her buildings stood out among others. In a small town, which was Podgorica until recently, many knew of Kana and could easily recognize her.

Architecture is not the adventure of space and material. It is also an ethical act. All decisions are made for the people, in the name of the people. In the past the architect worked for an individual, today he works for society. That relation between the society and the art is very interactive. The approach to architecture and space Kana had is not shared by some of our contemporary colleagues, allowing private interests of individuals to overtake the interest of the society. Next-door to the most important work of Kana Radević and the modern Montenegrin architecture in general – Hotel Podgorica – a tower was design and built which disrupts the harmony of the ambient on the coast of Morača, which Kana masterly achieved by subtly incorporating the building in its environment. However, it is encouraging that a group of young architects gathered around the idea of protecting the Hotel as a building heritage. This group symbolically called itself KANA, abbreviated from “Architects! Who else?” (“Ko, ako ne arhitekt?”), with which Kana’s name is experiencing renewed popularity and remains a synonym for a responsible approach to space.

(Used quotes from Svetlana Kana Radević are part of the movie One and only life – Svetlana Kana Radević (Život jedini čovjeka – Svetlana Kana Radević), TV Archive, director Branislav Mićunović, Radio Television Montenegro, 1980.)

The author of the article is Milica Vujošević, Phd, an architect, researcher and artist. She graduated and obtained her doctoral degree at the Faculty of Architecture, University of Belgrade. The fields of her interests are sustainability in architecture and energy efficiency. She works with foreign funded projects. She works with foreign funded projects. She is a co-founder of architectural organization KANA/Architects! Who else? in Montenegro.  

Translation by: Milena Zindović



  1. Great read! Is there any english subtitled version available of that film mentioned in the article One and Only life?


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