In this week’s contribution, Verica Stojanovich Fox writes about the legacy of brutalism in Macedonia’s capital, exploring how the city’s post-war landscape has been shaped by international architectural influences and how the modernist heritage is seen today.
Architecture became a matter of pressing importance in Skopje after the city’s liberation in 1944. The immediate post-war period would witness a huge boom in residential and industrial construction; governmental bureaus were formed to oversee the city’s development and the first generation of ‘Macedonian’ architects emerged.
After the devastating earthquake of 1963, when almost half of Skopje laid in ruins, the task of redevelopment became even more pressing. The process would involve experts from all over the world. It was as part of this reconstruction plan, headed by the world famous, Japanese architect Kenzo Tange, that raw concrete (‘béton brut’) was first introduced to Skopje’s skyline. This plan, which was financially underwritten by the United Nations, brought a new lease of life to the socioeconomic and cultural development of Macedonia’s capital. The city received a new face: the first skyscrapers were constructed and a wholly new suburban landscape was created, built of mass housing to resettle those whose homes had been destroyed. The city centre was an object of special attention, with new shops and restaurants, and new administrative, cultural, scientific and educational facilities opened.
In 1967, construction began on the first large-scale brutalist project, Pestaloci secondary school, designed by the Swiss architect Alfred Roth. This was the first building in Skopje built to withstand earthquakes as well as ‘patient zero’ for the epidemic which was to become ‘brutalism’. Other buildings shortly followed; the city archive, for example, and the student dormitory Goce Delcev designed by the Macedonian, Yale-educated architect Georgi Konstantinovski. In 1967, the famous Skopje Shopping Centre (GTC), designed by Macedonian architect Zivko Popovksi, was constructed – a multifunctional, extraordinary, elongated and transparent building. It was followed by the 1974 construction of the University St. Ciril and Metodius and the new Macedonian opera and ballet was, finished in 1979.
These brutalist forms were largely consistent with local aesthetics and contemporary, popular architectural styles. However, in recent years, a new regeneration project has been unveiled, aiming to lend a more ‘classical’ appearance to the capital. ‘Skopje 2014’ – a project which involves the adornment of modernist buildings with baroque ornamentation and bright ‘fauvist’ colours – represents a violation of Kenzo Tange’s vision for Skopje, and the city’s wider modernist heritage. Perhaps the most notorious example is the iconic Gradski Trgovski Centar, Skopje’s oldest shopping centre, whose planned ‘facelift’ has been vehemently opposed by local residents and architects alike. It is unlikely, however, that their numerous petitions or letters will change the local authority’s position. Many young people, like myself, feel this to be the final straw; if ‘Skopje 2014’ proceeds, I would not think twice to leave the city I have called home. With this project, Skopje is no longer my home.
The whole affair brings to mind the words of the renowned art critic, Louis Vauxcelles, who on discovering an Italineate bust surrounded by the works of Henri Matisse and his colleague, at a 1905 Parisian exhibition, cried out ‘Donatello chez les fauves!’ (‘Donatello among the wild beasts!’). Now, however, it is brutalism which stands as the ‘Donatello’ in Skopje’s landscape.