Vesna Bugarski (1930 - 1992) in memoriam
by Start (Sarajevo)
The image of a young woman driving a sports car with a bright-coloured scarf flowing in the wind was in the 1950s outside all norms of female behaviour, not only in the Bosnian countryside but also in Sarajevo itself. The woman in question is Vesna Bugarski, the first female architect in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
When she decided to study architecture Vesna, like so many of her female counterparts in other spheres of learning, had to confront the stereotype according to which a woman’s place was in the home, or in some ‘female’ job. When she arrived at the architectural faculty in Belgrade (there was no such thing in Sarajevo), all the other students were men. After a while, thanks to her bright spirit and sharp tongue, she won many friends there. As soon as an architectural section was formed in Sarajevo, she returned to her native city where she remained until her tragic death.
Vesna Bugarski was born on 2 May 1930 in a respected Sarajevo family. Her father Dušan taught foreign languages in Sarajevo high schools, her mother was a scion of the well-known Serb Despić family (their house is now part of the Sarajevo city museum).
Those who knew her speak of a woman free of all inhibitions. She was devoted to those whom she loved and rude to those whom she did not. According to Mirjana and Momo Hrisafović, she would tell people openly: ‘I don’t like you.’ She was buoyant and unusual. Once she ate an ant for a bet. She cooked unusual dishes and her house was full of all kinds of spices. The retired architect Boro Spasojević, her devoted friend, remembers her as someone ‘of temperament, who loved company. She was also a great swimmer.’
One of the first generations of architectural students in Sarajevo, which contained only one other female student, she graduated in 1964 and began to work for Prosperitet, the first Sarajevo firm dealing with planning and interior design. Her acquaintance from student days, Vera Ćemalović, who belonged to the second generation of architectural students, recalls that girls were then not as stimulated as boys to study. ‘In my year there were only six or seven women out of thirty students. Women were just not expected to proceed to higher education. I became a student because of the establishment of the faculty in Sarajevo: I had no means to study in Zagreb or Belgrade. Both sexes found it hard to make ends meet, but women more so than men.’ What money there was would be spent on the male child. ‘There were men even in intellectual circles who would say: "What can you do, you’re a women." But Vesna could do it: her appearance and style negated such talk.’
Vesna Bugarski was lucky in that her family gave her full support. Her parents were educated people, who never stopped her from doing what she wanted, despite occasional worries. Vesna’s brother, Professor Ranko Bugarski who lives in Belgrade, remembers: ‘After her graduation, she wanted to work on a building project at Korana, a place near Pale. We used to ask her: "But Vesna, will you be able to order about all those male workers?" It was an unusual profession for women at that time.’
What made the difference was Vesna’s character. Her brother tells us with a smile:’Disregarding all objections, she did what she had intended to do - she found a job on the Korana project. She held to her own views like a man and she never allowed anyone to tell her what to do.’ After this job she spent several years in Denmark, where interior design earned her a comfortable living. On her return to Sarajevo, she concentrated on art rather than architecture. She produced tapestries - which were rare then - on a loom that she brought from Denmark, made knitted ties and other art objects. She also designed interiors for offices and occasional flats. Most of this work was destroyed in the war.
She became famous for her ponchos, worn by women who wished to wear less conventional clothes. Women then wore skirts, twin-sets and such like. Vesna, however, almost always wore trousers. She wore large bracelets and white bell-bottom trousers, colourful T-shirts with a poncho on top. She wore curls and walked in a jaunty manner to which many objected, Vera Ćemalović recalls. She also loved sports cars, which was rather shocking then for a woman. She was a keen swimmer and skier. After graduating she met and married another architect, Ivo Ramljak, but they soon divorced. She had no children, preferring to be an aunt to her brother’s two sons. ‘We all remember her arriving in her white sports car and taking them for a ride.’ She also loved travelling.
When the war came to Bosnia-Herzegovina, she refused to leave Sarajevo. Despite constant warnings she went out every day. She told her brother: ‘I won’t let those brutes on the mountains dictate to me when I can go out and how I should live and behave.’ On 22 August 1992 she was returning from the market to her flat at 18 Obala Street when a grenade fired from one of the surrounding hills practically cut her in half. The architect Ivan Š traus later wrote in Oslobođenje: ‘A year ago the barbarians killed the architect Vesna Bugarski, who was born in Sarajevo to a family of high ethics and reputation. She belonged to the first generation of students at the University of Sarajevo’s architectural faculty, and became a highly respected interior designer. She was a woman who took the side of common existence, a brave woman who - imprisoned by mindless destruction - used to visit the wounded parts of the old city.’
After her death, everything in her flat was stolen: the loom, the sitting-room furniture designed in the Turkish manner, the Venetian mirror, the multi-coloured bedroom articles. The flat once filled with her spirit was left empty.
The well-known architect Aida Daidžić, whose father had been one of Vesna’s fellow students, recalls how hard she herself had found it as a woman to be accepted in her profession. She had received strong support from her mother, one of the first Muslim women from Montenegro to study in Zagreb. But when she told her parents that she wished to study architecture, her father, an otherwise liberal man, said: ‘Architecture is not for women.’ ‘My mother then said that she would divorce him if he didn’t let me study what I wanted, arguing that I had to decide for myself, otherwise I’d nag them later.’ At the time when Aida began her studies, the male-female ratio in the faculty was already fifty-fifty. Gender discrimination began afterwards, when applying for jobs. This was first time that she herself experienced discrimination, which turned her into a fighter for human, and especially women’s, rights. ‘Here I was, an educated woman, who was supposed to make and serve coffee. I was on the lowest ladder in the firm and, of course, was the worst paid. After a year of training I spent eight years as a second-rank designer. The director then told her he could not promote her because there were already two older women waiting for promotion. It all became clear to me. During the morning break I would see women go to the market and return heavily loaded, while the men would open a newspaper and turn up for breakfast at their leisure.’ Male colleagues would attend meetings leaving her to complete drawings.
So she decided to leave and do post-graduate studies in Zagreb. She then got a scholarship to continue her studies in Germany. It was due to this that she spent the war years outside Sarajevo. After the war ended she decided to return. She was able to open her own architectural office and also began to teach at the university. ‘I don’t like people to think of me as a woman who has made a career in the world of men, but as someone who is better than them’, she adds laughingly. Aida Daidžić runs the ARCO planning bureau and the URB forum - the city forum for urban development. She is also a member of BISER, an international initiative for the women of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Of the many designs she has produced, she is particularly proud of the Gravestone Memorial and the Memorial Room at Potočari.
In contrast to the time when Vesna Bugarski lived and worked, and when women architects were a rarity, there are today many women in this profession. There is no discrimination in education, but gender inequality persists in jobs. Proof of this can be deduced from the fact that a two-month search through Sarajevo did not reveal a single house designed by a woman.
Translated from a somewhat longer profile, prepared by a team of journalists and partly funded by USAID, published in Start (Sarajevo), 9 August 2005