Skopje 2014 in 2014: Mission accomplished?

Panorama of the 'new' center

Panorama of the new center

When the short video of Skopje 2014 was released around four years ago, I was among the many viewers who saw this plan as either a joke or a grandiose plan that would not (or at least not fully) see the light of day. Now, the year is here and Skopje is transformed. Not all the buildings are completed, but Skopje has been transformed in the past years: more monuments and buildings have been either built or have progressed to a stage that they are likely to be completed this year than the original video suggested. Over the past days, I had the pleasure to participate in a number of discussions on the project in Skopje, giving me the opportunity to reflect on the project. A recent survey suggests that Macedonians are divided over the project. However, it is probably too early to judge whether the project will be successful in remolding nationalist narratives. If the reconstruction–in combination with new historical narratives promoted in the media, text books and museums–is able to survive in the years to come, it is likely to take root.

New facade of the government in the making

New facade of the government in the making

One of the striking features of the project is the speed. I have witnessed few building projects pursued with such determination and speed. This is a government in a hurry: no doubt elections play a role. The quicker the project is completed, the more it presents itself as a fait accompli any subsequent government will have a hard time to reverse. In addition, there is something else at work. When building modern architecture, the process of building is an acceptable part of the process. In fact, often the building process itself is a source of reflecting on modernity, materials, techniques, etc. However, this process is about suggesting that the new cityscape is actually not new. There is something nearly shameful about the building process. The Porta Makedonija—Skopje’s arc de triomphe was a large concrete cube during its construction, in need to be covered up as quickly as possible (I was told that for the anniversary of Macedonian independence a few years back, the top portion was not yet covered so the arc was provisionally covered with a printed version of the stone ornaments). Once complete, the effect is to seem like the new is the old, and the older socialist modern architecture is the new, intruding the in the space.

Many columns, little in between

Many columns, little in between

Facade with a bit of building attached

Facade with a bit of building attached

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The project is also mostly about the façade. The buildings on the northern bank of the Vardar are grotesquely narrow. The large façade has just as much building behind it to not seem like only a façade. However, reports suggest that the internal spaces are dysfunctional, with balconies not accessible, office spaces inadequate for use. However, criticizing the buildings for this is to misunderstand their purpose. If their goal is to cover up what is behind them, the internal function is just a tool to justify the façade, not a purpose itself. In this sense, the façades fulfill their intended goal. They hide the Čaršija the old center of Skopje, making it invisible from the new center, they block the view of the minarets and they hide the modern architecture of the opera or are given as a make-over to the government complex and other socialist era buildings.

After, 2014

After, 2014

Before, 1999

Before, 1999

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One aspect critics of the project have to contend with is the blank canvas the government found when it started the project. The center of Skopje had been neglected in the post-Socialist period; this neglect provides probably the most potent justification for the project: ‘at least something is finally being done.’ This sheds light on broader social dilemma: what is the urban and also social project in post-Socialism that can structure public spaces other than nation-building. The main other project is that of an uncontrolled market economy and the privatization of the public space into malls and shopping centers, devoid of any local meaning and shaped the reproduction of an outside commercial aesthetic. Thus, the inability to provide for an alternative urban project to shape the public space (such as the one Skopje had after the earthquake), made the current urban plan possible.

A final feature that was striking during the discussions was the fear factor many noted. Besides a few protests that mobilized not many citizens and the installation of a golden toilet bowl as a protest monument in the early phases of Skopje 2014, there has been little open resistance to the project, despite its massive intrusion in the public space. Organizations critical of the project have been subject to low-level harassment by the government and its crack-down on independent media and aggressive constant campaigning have led to a serious deterioration of democracy. The center is monitored with cameras and many activists fear engaging in a public and visible critique of the project, i.e. through graffiti, such as in Bulgaria, or ‘guerrilla’ action to erect alternative monuments (with the exception of the appearance of a Tito statue, which was localized away from the official monuments and in front of a school named after Tito and home to several early commemorations of Tito). The project is thus representing coercive imposition of the government’s narrative of the past and on the urban landscape that because of its visibility requires a level of control that further undermines democracy. As such, Skopje 2014 as a project is not just an imposed, kitschy and often grotesque reconfiguration of public space, it also has large detrimental consequences for society and democracy.

Tito among the citizens of Skopje

(I have blogged earlier about Skopje 2014, including photos I took over the years, on parallels with other building projects, and the early phases of the project in 2010 here and here)

Answers to the Balkan Lego Challenge

Here are the answers to the four Balkan Lego Challenges:

1st Challenge: Skopje

Image

Image

2nd Challenge: Sarajevo, 28.6.1914

Image

Image

3rd Challenge: Gastarbajterski venacular

4th Challenge: Belgrade

Pictures from Skopje (2009-2013)

A colleague recently asked me about the photos I have been posting on facebook of Skopje over the years of the Skopje 2014 project. I thus decided to upload the best photos from a four year period (2009-2013).

Copyright for all photos with Florian Bieber. If you would like to reproduce the photos, please contact me.

Of Eurovisions and Riots in Macedonia

Untitled

What links Eurovision, EU mediation and riots on the streets of Skopje? Not much at first glance. It is still an odd coincidence that a scandal over this years contribution to the Eurovision song contest by Macedonia and major riots in Skopje occur at the same time these days. The song “Empire” by Esma Redzepova and Vlatko Lozanovski (aka Lonzano) is at first glance the class kitschy pop that works well at the Eurovision song contest (although definitely not the caliber to do particularly well there). The lyrics are banal, but what to expect from ESC song:

Vlatko:
Odam,cekoram po nebo,      I walk, I walk through the skies,
Letam jas niz vremeto,          I fly through the times,
I koga zaspivam,                      And when I fall asleep,
Pesni jas sonuvam                   I dream of music

Background vocals
Ejgidi more dejgidi,
Nasi pesni ubavi                       Our beautiful songs

Esma:
Zivotot e muzika,                     Life is music
Energija,                                       Energy
Nasata imperija                         Our Empire

Chorus:
Imperija,imperija,                    Empire, Empire,
Muzika caruva na zemjata,    Music rules on earth
Imperija,imperija,                    Empire, Empire
Najmokna sila na planetata   Most powerful force on the planet

Vlatko:
Koga spie cela vselena,            When the whole universe sleeps,
Peam vo nokite,                          I sing in the nights,
Gi dopiram svezdite                  I reach for the stars,
So krilja na notite                       With wings of musical notes.

[the video of the original song imperija has been deleted and is now been purged from cyberspace and replaced by the new song, F.B. 19.3.2013]

Of course from the lyrics it is clear that the empire they are singing about is music. However, the link between a video clip that looks like a promotion of the controversial Skopje 2014 building program and references to “Empire” with images of the statue of Alexander the Great, the Macedonian Arc de Triomph do evoke not only musical empires. So unsurprisingly some media in Greece took offense (‘ONCE AGAIN FYR MACEDONIA PROVOKES GREECE’ and a moronic comment by the Greece ESC participant Agathonas Iakovides: “The Greek history cannot be insulted by anyone I am Greek from head to toe”), as did Bulgaria and Esma and Lonzano cancelled their trip to Bulgaria. Luckily Germany did not protest over the video showing a monument that looks a lot like the Brandenburg gate & Siegessäule in miniature or France (and Romania) for the depiction of an obvious copy of the Arc de Triomphe or the Bucharest Arcul de Triumf.

Also domestically, the video came under extensive criticism for showing off Skopje 2014 project that is rejected by many as kitschy, wasteful and nationalist. The combined international and domestic protests thus made the MRT withdraw the clip as “it did not comply with the broadcasters requirements.” In its stead, some really funny spoofs popped up, the one being the clip below, a wonderfully cut duet of Darth Vader and Jabba the Hut

[unfortunately this spoof has been deleted for copyright infringement, F.B. 19.3.2013]

So what does this silly story have to do with the unrest that has been going on in Skopje in the days since Talat Xhaferi,  a former NLA commander, was named Minister of Defense or the mediation of the EU in Macedonia a few days ago over the opposition boycott of parliament and the threat to boycott elections?

The current government has maneuvered the country in a very difficult and volatile situation. The unrest first by Macedonian war veterans against Xhaferis nomination, followed by Albanian counter protests demonstrate the volatility of Macedonia and the risks of playing with nationalism in an environment were few of the underlying prejudice and segregation has been tackled. Instead, the ruling VRME-DPMNE has been combining its nation building strategy with accommodating the largest Albanian party–a double act that seems to be running out of steam. At the same time, the opposition boycott and EU intervention is reminiscent of the polarization that has plagued neighboring Albania for more than a decade and is both a sign of weakness of the opposition and the government. Finally, the Eurovision ‘scandal’ (the only real scandal or rather sad part of the story is that Esma Redzepova is one of the two singing the song) signals either naivete or willful confrontation the current Macedonian government seems to be good at provoking Greece and Bulgaria. These three dimensions–rising nationalist confrontation, polarization of the main parties that requires external mediation and continued confrontation with Greece–cannot be good news for Macedonia and filming a new video clip is the least of all troubles coming from all of this.

Fantasies of New Cities: Andric’s Marina, an older Skopje and other etno-dreams

Ever since the mayor of Trebinje Božidar Vučurević announced during the siege of Dubrovnik that “we will build an older and nicer Dubrovnik” (Sagradit ćemo još stariji i ljepši Dubrovnik), the destruction of cities and towns has been matched with fantasies of new cities and towns which would reflect the respective nationalist fantasies. The engineers of destruction were so successful in their destruction of cities that even 20 years since the beginning of the wars, these fantasies remained largely unrealized (if one excludes the successful elimination of reminders of the other). Right after the war, there were plans about transforming the Eastern suburbs of Sarajevo and the mountain resort/war-time “capital” of the Bosnian Serb leadership Pale into a Serbian Sarajevo metropolis. After 15 years, little of what has been planed was ever built.  Most post-conflict states were busy with reconstruction and short in cash to engage in grandiose building plans. In recent years, there has been movement. There is no Astana on the horizon, but rather a number of smaller projects which are telling about today’s nationalist fantasies.

Andrićgrad. This project by director Nemanja Emir Kusturica to build a city/tribute to Ivo Andric/stage for his film of Andric’s novel The Bridge on the Drina. Ground breaking ceremony was held on 28 June (Vidovdan) with heavy machinery, Carmina Burana and the President of the Serb Republic and Government.  A large-scale project, co-founded by the RS government and Kusturica has an estimated cost of about 12 million euros (although the costs seems little considering the ambition of the project), includes 50 stone houses as well as a church, hotels, theatre, and shops. The project has been controversial for ignoring the context of the recent war–one of the worst war criminals Milan Lukic lived close by. Furthermore the project seems problematic due to its proximity to the UNESCO world heritage protected bridge, the hero of Andric’ novel. The plans suggest that the new ‘town’ is more a Disneyland for Andric (The New Yorker even picked up the story and suggested the establishment of a string of similar towns in the US, including Rothlandia in Newark, New Jersey), focusing on tourism (including a marina?!). The goal of this plan is not to re-create Ottoman Visegrad, as Andric describes it in his novel, but a parallel history, a Balkan renaissance city which never could happen due to the “Turkish occupation”.

Küstendorf-Drvengrad. This little fake Serbian village was a by-product of Kusturica’s film Life if a Miracle. It  looks like a modest dry-run for Andricgrad. Like Andricgrad, it is not a town or city, but rather the attempt to recreate an idealized village. This vision is rejecting diversity, but rather projects a homogenous idealized Serbian rural village, centred around a church and the anti-globalization film festival.

Etnoselo Stanišići. This little “ethnic village” (ethno selo sounds a lot less conspicuous than an ethnic village). The benefactor of this village, Borisa Stanišić apparantly brought together Serb farm houses from throughout Bosnia to build this idealized village, including a Greek restaurant and a hotel Pirg in a retro-‘Balkan’ style.

Slobomir. This is the only project which is clear modernist in outlook, it plans to be more than just a tourist destination–including the Pavlović Tower, the tallest tower in the Balkans (although the predicted 37 floors seem to be beaten by a number of candidates in the region, the Avaz tower in Sarajevo has 36 floors). However, the plan seems to be older than others (dating back to the late 1990s), but besides the university, bank and television station, not much has been built.

Skopje 2014 differs from the other projects. It does not create a new city, but is transforming an existing city. It does share a number of similarities: It is a project to re-write history to cover up the present. It includes the constructions of buildings which were destroyed by the earthquake in 1963, the recreation of a pseudo-authentic Macedonia architecture, interspersed with a monumental landscape which reminds of a host of national heroes at every corner, but also the old-fashioned style of the sculptures suggests that the monuments are ‘old’ and ‘authentic’ reminders of the heroes, not new creations.

The fantasies of new cities are fantasies of ethnically homogenous towns, often small, lying about their own age, suggesting that they are authentic and old. They are constructing an alternative history, idealizing a past which never existed, from a Balkan renaissance to an neo-classical  Macedonia style. It is no surprise that a project of creating a modern city in the rural countryside a la Slobomir has not fared as well as the creation of ‘new-old’ towns  that are justified as tourist destinations and shed the burden of complexity and diversity which real cities in the region can offer.

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