Grey is back!

In Skopje, Macedonia a new trend has emerged for all things grey. Rachel Ling explores why architects are returning to a colour long-associated with the socialist city.

Skopje is undergoing an intriguing transformation, and no, I don’t mean ‘Skopje 2014’. A trend has swept the capital – a trend for all things grey. From large shopping malls to private houses, facades to sofas, grey seems to be the ‘in’ colour with private developers, architects and interior designers.

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Grey apartments near the architecture faculty in Skopje. Photo: Rachel Ling

For many years the colour grey has been associated with the socialist city, evoking images of prefab concrete housing blocks and a thick layer of pollution that covered any colour in a matter of years. The ‘grey socialist city’ has become a derogatory term, something to be overcome, eradicated or covered up. The post-socialist city, on the other hand, is associated with an infusion of colour and light brought by advertisement hoardings, shop displays and consumer goods. But it appears grey is having a comeback!

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Grey apartment block featuring exposed concrete balconies. Photo: Rachel Ling

The elephant in the room is ‘Skopje 2014’. The Macedonian Prime Minister’s pet project has seen the city centre turned into a massive construction site, spawning neoclassical buildings, huge monuments and baroque facades, at a scale and speed that is almost unbelievable. The project has been widely criticised, not only on the grounds of taste, but also for its incredible cost, dubious legal status, for antagonising the dispute with Greece and being ethnically divisive. The expressed intention of the right-wing government is to attract tourists and foreign investors to the city with a more aesthetically pleasing, European appearance. However on the flip side of this desire for a more aesthetically pleasing city, is the desire to eradicate the apparently unappealing grey socialist city.

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The neoclassical and baroque architecture of Skopje 2014. Photo: Rachel Ling

This desire to eradicate the grey socialist city can be seen in the renovation of the facades of many socialist era buildings in the city centre in baroque and neoclassical styles, most noticeably the award winning government building and the city shopping centre GTC. It appears that the Ministry of Culture even went so far as to temporarily lift the heritage protection on some buildings to allow for their transformation. This transformation is, however, only skin deep. Internally, the wiring and plumbing from the Yugoslav era often remain and the lives of most ordinary citizens continue to be framed by the architecture and planning of the socialist era. Indeed many local people have expressed the sense of being a tourist in their own city – the city centre, transformed by Skopje 2014, no longer belongs to the people of Skopje.

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New buildings, only one room deep, appear as mere facade – hiding the Yugoslav era, modernist Macedonian Opera and Ballet and Music School behind. Photo: Rachel Ling

Artists, architects and activists have raced to save, document and commemorate socialist era architecture, urban design and sculpture, holding protests and exhibitions and writing articles and books. It seems that, in reaction to Skopje 2014, there has been a re-evaluation of the material qualities of the Yugoslav-era city. Counter to the official discourse of eradicating the grey socialist city, many locals now celebrate the architectural legacy of Yugoslavia. This is evident not only in the trend for all things grey, but can also be seen in the use of elements of brutalist architecture which is so prevalent in the city. A trendy bike shop (below) features window details echoing those of the telecommunications building in the city centre and a villa just outside the city exhibits the exposed concrete synonymous with Skopje’s brutalist legacy.

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A bicycle shop features exposed concrete and window details that echo those of the 1970s Telecommunications Centre. Photo: Rachel Ling

Skopje 2014 has therefore divided the city into two: those who reject the ‘grey socialist city’ as unappealing and wish to replace it with the image of a neoclassical, European city; and those celebrating the amazing architectural legacy of the socialist era, finding inspiration in the brutalism and wishing to appropriate the colour grey.

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