Wednesday, May 31, 2017

1987 European Summer: "Skopje, capital city of Macedonia, is a dream world for lovers of cosmic concrete communist-era architecture."


Thirty years ago today, I was concluding my first and only visit to Skopje, then located in the country called Yugoslavia, now independent Macedonia.

It's a story I've never gotten around to retelling, and won't try today, but the short version is that with absolutely no warning, I arrived one morning at the workplace in Skopje of an earthquake engineer and seismologist who'd chatted with me on a train earlier in the trip, given me his business card, and told me to look him up if my travels brought me to Skopje.


No doubt the late Radojko Petkovski expected me to call first, but he merely shrugged, smiled, made coffee and later that afternoon, opened his apartment to a complete stranger from America, exhausting his limited English, awarding me his couch for sleeping, showcasing the local sights during the scant free time he had, putting me on a roundtrip bus to Lake Ohrid or a daytrip, and finally driving me back to the bus depot very early in the morning for my getaway to Bulgaria.

I bought the beers. It was the least I could do.

A few days ago, when at long last the slides of Skopje were scanned and digitalized, the only one that really grabbed me (apart from the two of us toasting) was the massive building seen above, snapped as I was walking on the other side of the Vardar River.

Surely it was among those early experiences marking the beginning of a long, continuing fascination with the architectural choices pursued in the East Bloc after the war, albeit it with a twist: Skopje's disastrous 1963 earthquake, which Rade explained to me, and which formed the impetus for his choice of career.

It turns out that the building I photographed in 1987 was, and remains, the post office complex.

It turns out that there's a whole back story to Skopje's brutalist architecture, one with parallels to the Bloc's cement fixation, but from a different conceptual origin in the earthquake's aftermath.

And, it turns out that the Internet source of this information, Yomadic, is drop-dead amazing web site. Readers with any interest at all in modern architecture are encouraged to click through and view the photos, if nothing else.

COMMUNIST ARCHITECTURE OF SKOPJE, MACEDONIA – A BRUTAL, MODERN, COSMIC, ERA, by Nate (Yomadic)

Skopje, capital city of Macedonia, is a dream world for lovers of cosmic concrete communist-era architecture. There is a reason that no other city on Earth has as many examples of brutalist architecture. There’s no tactful way to say this – the abundance of magnificent structures, is all due to a catastrophic earthquake that killed over 2000 people, and destroyed more than half of the buildings in this ancient city. In 1963, Skopje was flattened. In 1965, Japanese architect Kenzo Tange was selected as the winner of an international competition to redesign, and rebuild the city centre.


Napier – the small New Zealand city where my travelling partner Phillipa was born, suffered a similar fate. The great quake of Napier in 1931 occurred right at the peak of the Art Deco movement. Napier was destroyed, and then rebuilt, all in the early 1930’s. As a result, the city can rightfully claim the title of “art deco capital of the world”. Back in Skopje, 1963, the architectural trend wasn’t art-deco, it was modernist, with a particular focus on concrete brutalism. Unlike Napier, Skopje has yet to capitalise on its architectural heritage. I would suggest a new tourist slogan – “Skopje – Brutalist Capital of the World”. Perhaps it’s not as catchy.

Examples of brutalist architecture – a style typified by geometric themes and raw concrete – occur all over the formerly communist area of Yugoslavia.

Of all the places I visited back in 1987, Skopje probably has changed the most. The author explains.

Unfortunately, the Macedonian authorities do not share the same love of this contemporary architectural heritage. Many of the brutal and modern buildings of the communist era remain in government hands, and yet many are being allowed to decay. It won’t be long before some are past the point of no return. In a country that is suffering horrendous unemployment, you could be excused for thinking that the not-exactly-wealthy Macedonian government simply doesn’t have the time, resources, or money to maintain these buildings. However, this is not the case.

Skopje is currently in the thick of a construction boom. Museums, upgrades to Parliament House, decorative bridges, and more are being constructed everywhere. There are hundreds of bronze statues being erected all over the city center. I have never seen so many statues in one city. This initiative is all about Macedonian identity. The issues are deep, and the history is complex, but essentially the government has decided to prioritise, create, and invest in the ancient/historical Macedonian identity – at the expense of maintaining the absolutely unique and contemporary stock of buildings that were created in the second half of the 20th century.

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