Skopje is one of the newest capital cities on the European continent. The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) — as it is officially named by the United Nations since 1993 — has been a sovereign state since 1991.
Macedonia's multicultural society, composed of various ethnic groups and languages coexisting on a small landlocked territory, is undergoing a double transformation. On the one hand the country is still in the transition from an authoritarian political culture of elites to a liberal democracy, and from a real-socialist planned economy to a free market. On the other hand, the transitional agenda of Macedonia and its former federal 'brothers' is articulated around the need to differentiate themselves from their neighbours and to attract attention from abroad in order to exist. These issues of identity and image, and their projections into the spatial dimension in areas such as architecture, do not play out without sustaining further conflict, whether domestic or international, harmless or severe.
A patchwork of plans
In this very political act, Skopje's physical and social heritage seems to have been fiercely suppressed from the government's memory. Instead, a fantasised identity is being invented and quickly built, to hide the complex layers of the city's reality and the legacy of its past.
In 1963 Skopje was severely hit by an earthquake that destroyed 80 per cent of its building stock, killed more than a thousand people while injuring three to four thousand, and left about 200,000 homeless. The post-earthquake urban landscape is a sharp patchwork of different architectural styles due to never-fully-realised masterplans — by the Serbian Dimitrije Leko in 1914; Josif Mihailović in 1929; the Czechoslovakian Luděk Kubeš in 1948; Constantinos Doxiadis, Adolf Ciborowski and Kenzo Tange in 1965; and Miroslav Grčev, Vlatko Korobar and Mirjana Penčić in 1997 — which taken together passed down a city without continuity. Or, as even Lonely Planet describes it, a 'superb period ensemble of concrete apartment towers, vast avenues suitable for tank parades and weird space age public buildings', side by side with Ottoman remains treated as tourist attractions, widespread real estate development of cheap quality, and densely populated slums.
While being perhaps less brutal, man-made disasters are no less long-lasting. Skopje's development policies since the 1990s desperately lack coherence and intelligibility. While the urban core is being chaotically repopulated with infill buildings, informal sprawl and suburbanisation are steadily expanding the edges of the metropolis. The current 'service-driven' local politics of Skopje gives precedence to private interests and seems to ignore major collective issues which would need stronger policies and investments like employment, public transport, and the preservation of Skopje's complex heritage, expression of Macedonia's plurality.
The city's legacy ignored
The French philosopher Henri Lefebvre showed that the space of the city is a product of social processes, the frequent clashes of politics and values. Skopje 2014, the current large-scale project to redevelop the city centre is a clear empirical example of this thesis. The project was officially launched in 2010 and driven by the national government under the leadership of Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski, and so named so that it should be completed ahead of the 2015 general elections. It consists of reurbanising and redefining Skopje's centre by constructing iconic and monumental public buildings and erecting dozens of statues meant to represent both the Macedonian nation and the people of Skopje.
In this very political act, Skopje's physical and social heritage seems to have been fiercely suppressed from the government's memory. Instead, a fantasised identity is being invented and quickly built, to hide the complex layers of the city's reality and the legacy of its past. The central area has become a place where architectural forms, besides being of dubious taste, betray the extent to which the ruling powers have presented their idea of Macedonia in an abstruse and arbitrary manner, right in the territorial and symbolic epicentre of the country as it enters the 21st century. Since 2009, this has led to vivid mobilisations pitting Skopje's architecture and urban design students against members of Macedonia's ruling party.
Skopje Architecture Week: opening up the debate?
This week, from the 8th to the 14th of October, sees the second edition of the Skopje Architecture Week, an intiative established by the international collaboration of Forum Skopje, the Austrian, Japanese and Greek embassies in the city, the Technical University of Vienna, and the Faculty of Architecture and Design of the Saints Cyril and Methodius University, as well as various architecture and design offices in town.
In the context of city's dreadful urban planning practice, the Skopje Architecture Week is a salutary initiative. Yet a real civil education in spatial matters would enable other Balkan cities and towns to avoid a repeat of Skopje 2014.
The organiser — Forum Skopje — associates different trendy but vague concepts such as 'Supercity', 'European City', '2.0' to thematise this year's edition. And the event's manifesto, entitled 'The citizens of Skopje owe the world', explains that 'knowledge is inseparable from action' and calls for a 'quest for knowledge' operated by 'future urban planners' that should help 'the citizens themselves whose line of spatial perception went berserk'.
In the context of city's dreadful urban planning practice, the Skopje Architecture Week is a salutary initiative. Yet a real civil education in spatial matters would enable other Balkan cities and towns to avoid a repeat of Skopje 2014. For instance, centres like The Building Centre in London with its New London Architecture programme, the Pavillon de l'Arsenal in Paris, or the Wiener Planungswerkstatt in Vienna provide exhibition, information and discussion facilities all year long, open to the public, and could be replicated in Skopje. A temporary centre was created with great success to showcase Kenzo Tange's masterplan after the 1963 earthquake, but the opening of a permanent arena for presenting and discussing urban alternatives would surely represent a mature democratic act in the Balkans.