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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