Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
An earthquake hit the city in July 1963, killing over 1,000 people and leaving 200,000 homeless. The inventive, vernacular-influenced designs behind the rebuild are worth celebrating.
Skopje, one of Europe’s lesser known capitals, is an unlikely battleground for an internationally debated architectural clash. In recent years, the capital of what is still (but may not for long be) called the Republic of Macedonia has developed some notoriety as the location of a new set of extremely bombastic, neo-historicist buildings and monuments that supposedly pay tribute to a hazy and heavily contested regional past. As a new publication points out, however, this steroidal historicism is only part of the city’s architectural story.
A new map guide from Blue Crow Media, Modernist Skopje, highlights the city’s avant-garde architecture from the 1960s and ‘70s—buildings that were mostly born in tragedy. In July 1963, an earthquake hit the city, killing over 1,000 people and leaving 200,000 homeless. The shock destroyed 80 percent of the city’s buildings, leveling many neighborhoods. The knot of old lanes at Skopje’s heart was one of the few to survive.
Bucking the usual narratives about the Cold War period, the international response to this disaster was surprisingly swift and bipartisan. It brought together countries from both of the world’s two major power blocs: first to clear up and provide emergency shelter, and then to rebuild the city.
The earthquake was taken as an opportunity to bring the city back to life and replace its destroyed structures with a better way of organizing urban life. Following a master plan by the Japanese architect Kenzo Tange, an international team worked to create a modern city that functioned well and overcame the divisions inherent in Skopje’s historic layout. As Owen Hatherley notes, a major, only partly realized part of this was an attempt to create a more integrated relationship between the left and right banks of the river Vardar, which had historically separated Skopje’s Muslim and Christian communities.
The resulting buildings that stem from this master plan remain divisive. Many of the major edifices will never win over anyone who is convinced concrete is an abomination, but the best of them challenge many assumptions about Modernist architecture.
Rather than being boxy and lumpen, landmark buildings such as the Orce Nikolov Secondary School (designed by Nikolai Bogachev and Alexandar Smilevski) are in fact delicate and intricate in their silhouette, with its triple tier of lancet windows and shady arcade. And while Modernist buildings are frequently accused of looking like they could have been built anywhere, there’s a clear vernacular influence to Boris Chipan’s Macedonian Academy of Sciences, whose ribbed roof, overhanging eaves, and canopied, veranda-like façade show clear echoes of traditional houses in the region.
Contrast this to the new buildings put up as part of the astronomically expensive Skopje 2014 project. Intended to create a grander face for the city’s center, the glossy and self-consciously butch results aspire to recreate a fantastical vision of the country’s past. But their architectural vocabulary in fact bears little resemblance to anything already built in the republic.
These new buildings seem less inspired by architecture than set design, an aspiration underlined by the government’s yen for recladding many modernist survivals with neoclassical details so that they look like housing projects dressed up as Mussolini-era stations for Halloween. Understandably, this doesn’t sit well with the designers behind Skopje’s 20th-century rebuild—a period that should be remembered for its inventive, vernacular-influenced designs. As architect Slavko Brezoski told the publication Balkan Insight just months before his death in 2017: “It hurts when I see how the life’s work of many architects of my generation has disappeared under a Styrofoam tent.”