Building an older, more beautiful Skopje… or the city of broken urban dreams

When the project Skopje 2014 became public earlier this year, it lead to protests over high costs, bad taste and the absence of public consultation. The plan foresees a large number of new buildings and statues in the center of Skopje.  Just having returned from Skopje, the ‘plan’ has already transformed the center of Skopje. Originally, it like the plan was too ambitious and outlandish to actually be realized. However, with big gaping holes on the main square, buildings sprouting up on the other side of the Vardar river, and statues already proliferating like Macedonia wants to catch up on two centuries of national monuments in two years, this plan turning into reality.

Goce Delchev

Admittedly, the plan ‘Skopje 2014’ was actually a clever branding trick of the current VMRO government to bring together a number of projects agreed by the previous city administration and interspersing them with a generous dosage of statues.  So what’s wrong with Skopje 2014. There is no doubt that the center of Skopje was in dire need of a make over. It is at least the third master plan for the center of Skopje, the first two foresaw a modernist Skopje in the decades after the 1963 earthquake. However, only parts were realized, leading to unconnected modernist buildings scattered throughout the center, including the magnificent national opera. This third effort to give the city a coherent aesthetic  is a post-modern hodgepodge of styles, including some pseudo-antique palaces and kitsch in no short supply. It is essentially anti-modern in its outlook. Ironically, by scattering the center with an odd mixture of styles, the project seems to affirm the emptiness of national identity rather than re-affirming the nation building project of the government.

Greek columns in Skopje

Besides being a costly enterprise in a country with limited resources, the project is also divisive and, as an Albanian friend told me, ‘provocative.’ The many monuments (three are already in place–one was put up as I visited Skopje) only celebrate the history of Macedonians (not to mention the ridiculous such as seeing Goce Delchev on a horse when he probably never rode a horse all his life). It is clearly an effort to engage in nation building for the majority, not to build bridges with the minority. The planned construction of a church on part of the main square symbolically asserts ownership of a civic site by one religious community. Ideas of also building a mosque is no remedy: it just suggests that identity is about choosing between one or the other, not a civic public space which atheists, Christians, Muslims and others can use jointly. Of course not only will minorities and civic minded Macedonians be alienated from the center. The planned statue of Alexander the Great is certainly not going to help in moving towards a solution in the name dispute (as have other provocative steps over recent years, such as the renaming of the highway and airport).

Considering the speed of the construction, it suggest that the government is able to move quickly when it really wants, one can only hope that might translate to more constructive aspects of governing.

Meanwhile the urban landscape of Skopje is changing quickly.  As a friend in Skopje told me, at least it might lead to some new tourist crowds–just like the those going to Bucharest to admire the Centrul Civic.

Ceaucesu with Masterpiece

7 Responses to Building an older, more beautiful Skopje… or the city of broken urban dreams

  1. F says:

    I am Macedonian living in the UK and yes I can say that the project is a bit too soon or to quickly done. But as I can see from the (non)Knowledge of the students about Yugoslavia, the true history is not known. The people who live in Macedonia are Macedonians so all of the history should be celebrated by all the Macedonians. Just a quick question: Is the UK government going to build french statues to celebrate their history or to the other minorities who live here?
    Are you going to add the Indian language as a second language in the UK, since there are more than enough people who live and work here.
    The sad thing is that these students that will gain a diploma, in lets say politics or international politics, are going to work on the problems between some countries for which they dont know anything about it.
    The history books in Greece state that at the north of Greece at the time before Alexander lived barbarians who formed a country called Macedonia. And then nowadays the dont want to give up that name!? which is not theirs.
    The name issue. Under what democratic rules EU is proving right the backing up of the Greek veto? Every country has the right to call its self as it wish, you should go back and look in the books written by the cradle of democracy, the Greek philosophers.
    This is all a unfair, injustice and cruel to the people of Macedonia.

  2. Dan says:

    First, I would like to say kudos to poster before me. Well said!
    Many criticize this project. As usual, people just want to be negative towards this small struggling nation. To the people that critisize that this project was not an International competition, I say this: The last competition in the 1960’s was a DISASTER! It led to communist looking grey ugly wierd shaped blocks. Buildings built in every direction, and an overall depressing feel. Also, as I was in Macedonia in the summer of 2010, I met an AMAZING Macedonian architect. She pined that she must leave Macedonia, because there was no work. She aspired to go to Canada. As I am Canadian, part of me was proud, but the other part of me was sad. If Macedonia does not reckognize their HOME GROWN talents, then before long, everyone will leave! I say it is GOOD that the project is a “home based” project. It stimulates ECONOMY and NATIONAL PRIDE!
    Secondly..Macedonia was a country that has been occupied by probably ever dictator out there. From the Romans to the Ottomans, there is ENOUGH architectural influence on the country, and in the city of Skopje (just look at the old Turkish bazzar part of town…which I might add, is finally having the beautiful buildings restored by Macedonians), to justify why the statues in the town square…called MACEDONIA SQUARE reflect those of Macedonian heros and saints. WHO CARES if Dolce was never on a horse? Should we make a statue of him eating tavche gravche? COME ON!
    As far as the “style” is concerned. MANY cities world wide STILL use these types of architecture today. Why can’t Skopje? Are they exempt? Besides, there IS a twist of modernization to the buildings, and many modern buildings are also being erected. Let’s also not forget, that before the quake, Skopje was a beautiful Europen city. Maybe they would like to recapture some of that? Should they not be allowed to? It seems like every time this country wants to try to do something..SOMEONE has a negative cog in the wheel. ALL cities in the world have their right to build, and move on. What should Skopje do? Sit in the ugly state it was, just to appease haters?
    The arch – It has been said “what do they have to be triumphal about? REALLY!? How about that Macedonia is still called Macedonia! One of the OLDEST names in the world. They are STILL HERE! Greece was not always called Greece. And what about areas that are wiped off the face of the planet since 1912, like Thrace? THAT to me is triumphant. They were the LION who got kicked so many times, he turned into a whimpering dog. NOW the dog is biting back. They are STILL HERE. UNITED MACEDONIANS WORLDWIDE!
    Alexander the Great? YES. He was Macedonian, from a part of Macedonia that was NEVER a part of Greece until 1912. Google maps of atlas’ of 1912 to see for yourself. Where does Greece stop? At the Aegean part of Macedonia is where. And, as my blogger friend has pointed out…Macedonians, and Alexander were seen as “barbarians” to the Greeks before they decided to hold secret meetings with Bulgaria and Serbia to divide their land. Sure…then he was Greek when they wanted something, right? Pfft. Records show, that the ancient Macedonians were banned from the ancient Olympics. Because they won too many of the games, and were therefore labelled, “barbaric”.
    Lack of a mosque in the new design. Well, maybe that is true. But on last count, there are more mosques in the downtown core than Christian churches. One just has to ride the roads of Macedonia to see the landscape dotted with the spires of mosques. Now, I truly believe they are BEAUTIFUL structures. And I love and respect my muslem friends here and abroad. But Macedonia was based on Christianity, and as long as the cross on Vardar Mt. still shines, and the gorgeous mosques of the city are not torn down….I do not see what the worry is about. In Canada, we are the most diverse country in the WORLD, but we would NOT feel inclined to build statues of heros from every nation of the peoples that live here. Our statues are of Native Canadian, Canadian born, French and British Empire influence.
    And, yes, Macedonia has Ottoman influence (the museum in Bitola is 1/2 is dedicated to the 1st ruler of Turkey who studied there. There is also a statue in Skopje honouring an Albanian hero.)
    The cost. Many cufaw at the cost of the construction. Do you HONESTLY THINK that if the city had an International competition it would be cheaper? I say these naysayers are just jealous they did not get their money grubbing claws on the project.
    Afterall, at the end of the day…this country is called (and acknowledged by most of the world’s nations as) the REPUBLIC OF MACEDONIA. NOT Greece. NOT Albania. NOT Bulgaria. NOT Serbia, or any other country that has stuck it’s nose into it’s business.
    If you don’t like it…DON’T GO THERE. It’s simple. But, I would HOPE that the world would embrace what this small country is trying to achieve. They are the ONLY country in Europe that has had MORE asked of them from the EU, and has succeeded, than any other country presently in the EU, or aspiring to.
    Give them a break…for once!
    I can’t wait to visit Skopje, Macedonia in 2014! Hope you will too! 🙂

    • Marco says:

      Honest thinking at least. I’m not much into history and historical based judgment, but I truthfully appreciate the part, I quote “They are the ONLY country in Europe that has had MORE asked of them from the EU, and has succeeded, than any other country presently in the EU, or aspiring to.”. Right now, each European is facing the bizarre tragedy to carry the fat bankrupt greek ass on it’s back. Faced with unlawful bandit migrants from the absolutely corrupted mafia-countries Bulgaria&Romania. And also, politically and democratically is way way ahead of similar Lithuania, Slovakia Czech Rep… Portugal, Cyprus, Slovenia, and others. I truly hope that UK&Germany will stand for what matters and pull this country out of the shit that’s unjust-fully put into. Don’t have clear hopes for the pervert France though.

  3. Georg Ouster says:

    sorry but it looks HORRIBLE… typical example of an attempt to quickly build national identity through kitsch transitional aesthetics and architecture…

    Classical-type buildings and old-fashioned monuments are popping out like mushrooms after the rain in every god-forsaken corner, and what? they´re supposed to represent economically and culturally devastated Macedonian society? what a farce… It would be wiser to spend all that money in education and economy revitalization…

    Just take for example main Skopje Airport which is called “Alexander the Great”…yeah right, like ex-Yu Macedonians are descendants of Hellenic Alexander the Great… Jesus….

    And this isn’t only the case with Macedonia, don’t get me wrong, it could be seen all over the ex-Yu countries…

    • Martin says:

      Georg,

      As I went to study abroad and became physically detached from Macedonia for a number of years, a number of realizations dawned on me that were not apparent back home. Juxtaposed to the Skopje 2014 project, even before it went underway, it became too obvious to me that all European nations had undergone a process of hard-core nation building. The foundations for building a nation in Europe were set between the two world wars.

      Macedonia had never had the chance to do this because it was under this or that military rule. Once the internet became widespread and the quality and quantity of content became readily available, Macedonians became more aware of the links the nation has to Macedonians from antiquity. Even without learning the facts, it has always FELT that way, that we are part of that historic continuity. Who else would tell this to Macedonians?

      To help you understand that this is a part of the maturing process of a nation, please remember Germany and its calling to Teutonic and Aryan roots. The only difference is that this happened there some decades ago. Yes, we are late in Macedonia, but thanks to all the obvious reasons.

      I will admit however, that the government went insane with the project. Too many monuments were erected. The architectural style is fitting to the Skopje center. It looks all right. Whether it belongs there is open for debate. Personally, I would have wanted to see something done in a brave new fashion, something minimalist, modernist. It would have been a tough sale to the voting body. Also, this style is probably much cheaper.

  4. Pingback: Skopje 2014 in 2014: Mission accomplished? | Florian Bieber

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