Skopje, the capital city of Macedonia, is an open-air architecture museum. One can experience exceptional examples of Modern, Metabolist and Brutalist architecture from the 1960s and 1970s in close proximity. Infrastructural, cultural, and educational buildings speak of an era characterized by a belief in progress and shaped in collaboration with an international group of experts, under the lead of the United Nations. Yet current remodeling of the city, a project called Skopje 2014, and the neglect of existing architectural knowledge endangers this valuable legacy. We traveled to Skopje with a group of architecture students to revisit the architectural history of the city and witness its current transformation. Our aim is to open a discussion on methodologies of work that allow us to learn from and act upon the city. This travel resulted in a series of projects that renegotiate activism and citizenship through artistic and educational research. What had started as academic research ultimately resulted in the creation of an NGO collective called City Creative Network Skopje.
In March 2015, with a group of architecture students from ETH Zurich, and the Chair for the History of Art and Architecture of Prof. Philip Ursprung, we embarked on a seminar trip titled Debalkanize! A Journey to Macedonia & Kosovo. We intended to demystify stereotypes of the Balkans by revisiting Skopje’s forgotten international spirit. If »balkanization« has been a synonym of »chaos» since the early twentieth century, it was time to revise the concept and make it fruitful again.  We visited two successor states of the dissolved Yugoslavia, both of them problematic in terms of international recognition, sovereignty, and identity.
This essay focuses on Skopje and its architectural legacy, through which I will address a broader geopolitical context, then and now. Why is this exemplary architectural legacy barely known to the European architecture community? Can we learn from Skopje about postwar international development policies led by intergovernmental organizations like the UN? How could we compare them with the current neoliberal trends of urban development? In order to answer these questions, let us first go briefly to the context of Yugoslavia, the devastating Skopje earthquake of 1963, and the United Nations-sponsored mission to rebuild it.
Skopje Earthquake 1963: Beyond The Cold War
The earthquake of 1963 destroyed 80 percent of the building stock and left more than 1,000 casualties. What followed is one of the most systematic examples of postwar planning and rebuilding after a disaster. The UN and Yugoslavia recognized an opportunity in Skopje to affirm their global influence, while the position of Yugoslavia as a founding member of the Non-Aligned Movement in 1961 enabled countries from the both sides of the Iron Curtain to collaborate. The once marginal Balkan city suddenly became a world affair. In the midst of the Cuban Missile Crisis and an impending nuclear war, Skopje became a showcase city for the world solidarity. An international group of experts traveled to Skopje and worked under adverse conditions. Urban planning and architecture have been widely used by the UN international development missions throughout the world as primary instruments for modernization and pacification. The UN sponsored and mediated the city’s reconstruction, as help was flowing in from almost every corner of the world. The Yugoslav leader Josip Broz Tito addressed the general assembly of UN in 1963 following the quake: »Yugoslavia, with world help, would build a more beautiful and joyful Skopje as a symbol of the fraternity and equality of world nations. This broad display of international solidarity reflected the desire of the overwhelming majority of people throughout the world to prevent a far greater catastrophe, which a nuclear war would bring upon mankind.«  The chief of the Centre for Housing Building and Planning at the UN, Ernest Weissmann, led the mission in Skopje. He created an International Board of Consultants and commissioned famous architects like Constantinos Doxiadis, Kenzo Tange, Jackob Bakema, and Adolf Ciborowski. If we could consider Skopje’s rebuilding a testing ground for post–Cold War city planning, our journey was a trip into the past as well as into the future. What follows is our encounter with the built fragments of the master plan, among others, the new train station (City Gate) by Kenzo Tange and URTEC (Japan), 1968-81; University Campus St. Cyril and Methodius by Marko Mušić (Slovenia), 1974 and the Museum of Contemporary Art Skopje by architects’ group from (Poland), 1970.
Rebuilding Skopje 1963-1980: A World Affair
Suddenly we were standing on the large elevated platform of the new train station. Raised on hundreds of seismically isolated concrete pillars, the large concrete platform to this day is only partially used and stands as a functioning symbol from the reconstruction of Skopje. The train station is part of a master plan for the central area of Skopje that was based on international urban design competition launched in 1965 by the UN, which Kenzo Tange and his team won.   The exuberant Metabolic  master plan proposed two symbolic urban devices that formed the city center. The City Wall, consisted of a joint-core housing chain, circumscribing the old city core, and the City Gate, a traffic interchange forming the new administrative and economic center and the entrance to the city that included the new train station. The two elements were connected in a large Megastructure built on layers of artificial ground. Besides the plan’s boldness, the final version was a product of collaboration and compromise between the many international and local architects and planners, and the complex bureaucratic process installed by the UN turned the visionary plan into a pragmatic one, attuned to the local technological and financial possibilities. This project however had an unequivocal influence over the city’s further development in the years following the disaster. It raised the planning standards, enabled incredible international expert exchange to materialize, and turned Skopje into a model city of the future.
The train station is the only project that Tange’s team designed from initial concept to realization. The rest of the City Wall was turned into a series of housing blocks and towers designed and built by local architects, while the rest of the City Gate never materialized. The new train station, because of its large scale, can accommodate almost any future expansion. Just recently, a new intercity bus terminal has been added underneath the elevated platform. Since the main platform is lifted from the ground, this enabled the traffic to flow unobstructed underneath and the city to develop on both sides – east and west. Tange’s project for the city center has been described as a structuring system that bridges the ever-progressing civilization development while taking into account the constant factor of humanity.  It became a tangible symbol of the world solidarity and enabled him to apply his metabolic approaches in symbolic planning and monumentality which he previously developed in the Plan for Tokyo in 1960. 
Next we visited the University Complex St. Cyril and Methodius. Its expression is in dominant Brutalist concrete and fragmented wings that house the different faculties, centered on a generous public plaza. We met the student group Studentski Plenum, who were rising against the government’s newly introduced centralized grading system that is about to take away the university’s autonomy and muffle its voice. Demanding high standards in education, the students’ movement proclaimed an autonomous zone at the heart of the university complex. The university’s spatial disposition enabled student comfort while the large entrance hall equipped with built-in podiums, stepped auditoriums, and places to meet easily accommodated their movement. The students from Zurich were inspired by the ability of Studentski Plenum to transform the university space into a symbol of resistance and develop their own curriculum during the occupation of the common spaces of the faculties.
Most of the buildings mentioned above are positioned along the river, forming a prominent axis of public programs in the city center. Infrastructure, culture, and education buildings and structures have been built in the following years. Most of them were designed through international architecture competitions or direct donations from many countries. The spirit of internationalism was present on both cultural and institutional levels.
Despite its relatively small size of around 500,000 inhabitants, Skopje even today houses one of the largest contemporary art museums in the Balkans, located on top of the Kale Fortress Hill overlooking the city. The building project was donated by the Polish government, which selected the project through a national competition. The Polish architects J. Mokrzynski, E. Wierzbicki and W. Klyzewski won the competition. Its permanent collection of modern art consists of donations from hundreds of individual artists, galleries, and art institutions that include works from Pablo Picasso, Alexander Calder, Jasper Jones, Meret Oppenheim, and many others. While we were standing in front of the museum on the plateau overlooking the city, the students vigorously discussed the parameters and importance of the cultural institutions in Socialist and post–socialist societies, in relation to the neoliberal cities of today.
Skopje 2014: Rising Nationalism Rising Citizenship
Today’s grotesque revamping of the city, called Skopje 2014, was announced in 2009 via YouTube video. It is aimed to give Skopje a European look and connect it to its ancient mythical roots and the figure of Alexander the Great. What follows is a remodeling of the city center by erecting hundreds of statues and more than 20 new buildings in neoclassical style. This project was characterized by the high price tag of around 750 million Euro, and a highly corrupt and opaque process of execution and planning. Beyond the political scandals, Skopje 2014 was also condemned by the local architectural community for being in opposition to all prior structures by literally erasing or covering them. If the students found the architecture of the post-disaster reconstruction to be relevant knowledge, how could it be that Skopje’s politicians and citizens did not? Could it be the doubt in our ability to create something valuable, the lack of discussion and recognition of the city’s own recent history, or is it the political aspiration of the current government to erase the Yugoslavian legacy? Moreover, how can we react to this situation? Our NGO City Creative Network Skopje works as a collective that discusses and acts on topics revolving around notions of citizenship and activism. Our projects include educational, activist, and policy initiatives. We believe that Skopje needs to revisit the concept of international creative collaboration that promotes critical thinking and encourages a wider dialogue about urban development.
Our curatorial project Skopje Creative Hub (SCH) 2014: new content in public space took the form of an international ten-day initiative consisted of workshops, discussions, and a public program, hosted at the Youth Cultural Centre (MKC). One of the projects that went beyond the context of SCH was the project for building an open stage that was realized in 2015. For this project we invited numerous architects, carpenters, builders, and craftsmen, and a group of 20 students from Switzerland and Macedonia to realize the project with us. The stage is located in front of the Youth Cultural Centre MKC, along the Vardar riverfront, and offers new cultural activity to enfold at the river, accessible to all citizens. In light of the recent censorship from the populist government, the opening of the stage has been curated as a zone of free speech and expression. These projects expand the possibility for young people to challenge mainstream developments with creative and artistic means, to think critically and engage with the city’s history.
Looking at Skopje’s urban history, one can learn a great deal about international planning processes, the current neoliberal trends, and the neglect of the valuable architectural history from the 1960s and 1970s. The methods of collaboration as tools for international aided development installed by the UN stand as a valuable case study in light of the recent planning practices of the global-neoliberal city. Our projects tap into the knowledge that Skopje embedded in its urban fabric and use it as inspiration for our current engagement. We have to engage the cities of today and remind ourselves that the culture is everyone’s right, while the notion of citizenship means to actively participate in the processes of shaping our cities. Perhaps by going to Skopje with the students we encountered our own mirror image, which might make us rethink our own position as citizens.
I would like to thank all members of the chair as well as the students who participated in the seminar week Debalkanize! for the challenging discussions. The trip was organized with Milan Dinevski – the co-founder of City Creative Network, Kosovo Architecture Foundation KAF, and Dubravka Sekulic. www.citycreative.net
- Philip Ursprung, Debalkanize! A Journey to Macedonia & Kosovo, Zürich: ETH Zurich, 2015, 5.
- United Nations Development Programme., Skopje Resurgent: The Story of a United Nations Special Fund Town Planning Project. New York: United Nations, 1970, 52.
- The others were Luigi Piccinato, Italy; Jo van den Broek & Bakema, Netherlands; Maurice Rotival, USA; and Aleksandar Djordjević, Serbia; Slavko Brezovski, Macedonia; Edvard Ravnikar, Slovenia; and Radovan Miščević and Fedor Wenzler, Croatia, United Nations Development Programme, New York 1970, p. 301
- The prise was shared 60% Kenzo Tange, Japan; and 40% Radovan Miščević and Fedor Wenzler, Croatia
- For more information on the Metabolist movement see: Zhongjie Lin, \Kenzo Tange and the Metabolist Movement: Urban Utopias of Modern Japan, London: Routledge, 2010.
- Architekt Arata Isozaki, Arata Isozaki Unbuilt = Hankenchikushi, Tokyo: Toto, 2001, 60.
- Hajime Yatsuka, メタボリズム・ネクサス = Metabolism Nexus, 東京: オーム社, 2011.