Culture Watch

Critics Lash ‘Dated’ Aesthetics of Skopje 2014

By Dejan Bugjevac

24 June 2010 Experts say officials made big mistake when they refused to listen to professional artists and outside voices as they drew up their plans to rebuild Macedonia’s capital.

After the catastrophic earthquake of 1963, which destroyed 80 per cent of Skopje, Macedonia’s capital became a symbol of international solidarity as around 80 countries rushed to send aid.

The prominent Japanese architect, Kenzo Tange won an international competition to rebuild the city centre, as a result of which a detailed urban plan, the famous “Variation IX”, was drawn up. Emerging from disaster, Skopje seized the opportunity to establish itself as a modern city.

Today, Skopje is facing a new makeover, a massive architectural reconstruction and development project dubbed “Skopje 2014”. But this time no role is being offered to internationally renowned experts. Instead, the design and execution of the changes have been entrusted to people close to the Macedonian government, which is the main investor in the project.

Public interest in the project is enormous. A computer presentation given by the city’s Centar Municipality early this year, depicting all the monuments to be constructed by 2014, immediately became the most viewed and most commented-on video clip in the country.

Internet portals were flooded with discussions of what the city would look like in four years’ time, while the debate also dominated much of the electronic media.

The architectural challenges now being realized on the ground, with costs estimated up to 200 million euro, involve constructing a range of marble and bronze monuments of historic figures alongside other sculptures, bridges, fountains, museums, a hall for the Macedonian philharmonic orchestra, hotels and a church.

Other items on the agenda are the upgrading of parliament and new buildings for state and government institutions such as the foreign ministry, the constitutional court, an electronic communications agency and the national archive. Most of the new work will be located in the city centre, in and around Macedonia Square.

Whether it concerns experts or ordinary people, opinions on the project are sharply divided – either full support or complete dismissal.

To some opponents, the project fits neither the look nor history of the city, is architecturally untypical of the times we live in today and will disfigure the city.

They complain that none of the many debates held on the controversial project has achieved anything, as the government has been deaf to criticism.

They also question why no international competition was held for the makeover, as there was in the 1960s, which, considering the large scope and budget for the project, would have attracted prominent international architects.

Instead, the project has been funneled towards local architects none of whose biographies includes significant projects.

Supporters of Skopje 2014, on the other hand, welcome the fact that something is finally being done. Skopje will at last become a truly metropolitan city and an architectural and urban whole, they say. The project will endow the city with landmarks and buildings entwining the city with Macedonia’s national identity.

However, while the public has become fully engaged in a heated debate on the new look of the city, few architects and urban planners have become involved.
Most have refused to comment, or have said they need more time to form an objective opinion.

According to colleagues, some have refrained from speaking out because they were directly or indirectly involved in the projects. Others are aware that the competition for designing certain parts of “Skopje 2014” remains open and don’t want to alienate the same authorities who will be awarding the last commissions.

Lack of engagement in public discussion of the project by architects, town planners, art historians and art critics has meant that its aesthetic, visual and artistic qualities have also been little discussed.

Misko Ralev, architecture professor at the American College in Skopje, believes this omission is a mistake.

Architectural ideas “need to go through the professional filter, which pays attention to their aesthetic and artistic qualities, so that they can be properly translated into projects and realizations,” he says. “The procedure should guarantee that professional objectivity is taken into consideration,” he adds.

One of the main controversies concerning the aesthetics of the project is the planned use of old architectural forms such the baroque and the neoclassical styles – styles more typical to the Latin countries of Southern Europe than the Balkans.

“This idea to modify these old styles is characterized by an enormous dose of amateurism and naivety,” Ralev complains, “and if that’s not the case, then it just underlines the huge arrogance of the people who planned this.”

Ralev worries that architecture is seriously undervalued in today’s Macedonia as a professional discipline.

“The vulgar aesthetics of the so-called Skopje 2014, which try to re-enact history… are only one consequence of the overall treatment of architecture in our country,” he says.

Konca Pirkovska, an art historian, also questions the aesthetics of the project, though she regrets the polarized nature of the debate as well. Leaving Skopje as it is today is not viable, she opines.

“It’s unfortunate that we cannot reach consensus and that a general feeling of malice seems to have prevailed,” she says. “I have the impression that no one wants to change a thing; we want everything to remain the same as it was.”

However, she is not impressed by the attempt to revive baroque motifs for use in 21st-century Macedonia.
“The small [historic] things left in Macedonia, such as some buildings in neoclassical or neo-baroque style in Bitola, Skopje and other towns, were built by different invaders,” she recalls.

“But what’s happening now is anachronistic. They are trying to compensate now for several lost centuries.

“I do not see the point of building a Triumphal Arch, in an aesthetic, conceptual or spatial sense,” she goes on. “This is absurd. Where did this idea come from? What is our triumph - does it lie in Macedonia’s independence?”

Pirkovska says she would have preferred to see something built “that would reflect our own time”, though she accepts that perhaps anything is “better than doing nothing”.

For Nebojsa Vilic, professor of art history at the Faculty of Dramatic Arts in Skopje, the root problem behind “Skopje 2014” lies in the lack of a truly democratic public discussion.

He complains of the government’s “avoidance of a wide-open public debate, avoidance of the opinions of experts, and deafness to their reactions”.

Vilic refers to recent addition to the city landscape as a classic example of this official spirit of insensitivity.

Mother Theresa Memorial House
Mother Theresa Memorial House

This is the memorial house to Mother Teresa (who was born in Skopje), designed by a local architect, Vangel Bozinovski, and which opened in January 2009 to a storm of criticism for its allegedly kitsch qualities.

One professor at Vienna’s Technical University complained that “if it weren’t for the Christian cross [on top], it could be a disco or casino”. Other critics also derided it as tasteless.

Vilic says those wanting to redesign the centre of the city need to remember that it is composed of a mixture of architectural styles, blended together in an organic fashion over several centuries.

“Contrary to this ‘instant’ mixture, today’s Skopje has built up this mixture [of styles] gradually,” he says, “while in the Skopje of the future there will be a violent compression of time”.

The consequences, according to Vilic, will be strange and unwelcome; the inhabitants of the rebuilt city will be left “schizophrenically wandering among an instrumentalized past, a politicized present and a future without ideas.

“However, architectural achievements do not promote temporary accomplishments, they remain forever. This is why I believe that all of us who oppose this project have the right to demand a more democratic approach.”

Dejan Bugjevac is journalist with weekly Globus. Balkan Insight is BIRN`s online publication. This article is funded under the BICCED project, supported by the Swiss Cultural Programme.

Copyright 2014