January 19, 2014 1 Comment
When the short video of Skopje 2014 was released around four years ago, I was among the many viewers who saw this plan as either a joke or a grandiose plan that would not (or at least not fully) see the light of day. Now, the year is here and Skopje is transformed. Not all the buildings are completed, but Skopje has been transformed in the past years: more monuments and buildings have been either built or have progressed to a stage that they are likely to be completed this year than the original video suggested. Over the past days, I had the pleasure to participate in a number of discussions on the project in Skopje, giving me the opportunity to reflect on the project. A recent survey suggests that Macedonians are divided over the project. However, it is probably too early to judge whether the project will be successful in remolding nationalist narratives. If the reconstruction–in combination with new historical narratives promoted in the media, text books and museums–is able to survive in the years to come, it is likely to take root.
One of the striking features of the project is the speed. I have witnessed few building projects pursued with such determination and speed. This is a government in a hurry: no doubt elections play a role. The quicker the project is completed, the more it presents itself as a fait accompli any subsequent government will have a hard time to reverse. In addition, there is something else at work. When building modern architecture, the process of building is an acceptable part of the process. In fact, often the building process itself is a source of reflecting on modernity, materials, techniques, etc. However, this process is about suggesting that the new cityscape is actually not new. There is something nearly shameful about the building process. The Porta Makedonija—Skopje’s arc de triomphe was a large concrete cube during its construction, in need to be covered up as quickly as possible (I was told that for the anniversary of Macedonian independence a few years back, the top portion was not yet covered so the arc was provisionally covered with a printed version of the stone ornaments). Once complete, the effect is to seem like the new is the old, and the older socialist modern architecture is the new, intruding the in the space.
The project is also mostly about the façade. The buildings on the northern bank of the Vardar are grotesquely narrow. The large façade has just as much building behind it to not seem like only a façade. However, reports suggest that the internal spaces are dysfunctional, with balconies not accessible, office spaces inadequate for use. However, criticizing the buildings for this is to misunderstand their purpose. If their goal is to cover up what is behind them, the internal function is just a tool to justify the façade, not a purpose itself. In this sense, the façades fulfill their intended goal. They hide the Čaršija the old center of Skopje, making it invisible from the new center, they block the view of the minarets and they hide the modern architecture of the opera or are given as a make-over to the government complex and other socialist era buildings.
One aspect critics of the project have to contend with is the blank canvas the government found when it started the project. The center of Skopje had been neglected in the post-Socialist period; this neglect provides probably the most potent justification for the project: ‘at least something is finally being done.’ This sheds light on broader social dilemma: what is the urban and also social project in post-Socialism that can structure public spaces other than nation-building. The main other project is that of an uncontrolled market economy and the privatization of the public space into malls and shopping centers, devoid of any local meaning and shaped the reproduction of an outside commercial aesthetic. Thus, the inability to provide for an alternative urban project to shape the public space (such as the one Skopje had after the earthquake), made the current urban plan possible.
A final feature that was striking during the discussions was the fear factor many noted. Besides a few protests that mobilized not many citizens and the installation of a golden toilet bowl as a protest monument in the early phases of Skopje 2014, there has been little open resistance to the project, despite its massive intrusion in the public space. Organizations critical of the project have been subject to low-level harassment by the government and its crack-down on independent media and aggressive constant campaigning have led to a serious deterioration of democracy. The center is monitored with cameras and many activists fear engaging in a public and visible critique of the project, i.e. through graffiti, such as in Bulgaria, or ‘guerrilla’ action to erect alternative monuments (with the exception of the appearance of a Tito statue, which was localized away from the official monuments and in front of a school named after Tito and home to several early commemorations of Tito). The project is thus representing coercive imposition of the government’s narrative of the past and on the urban landscape that because of its visibility requires a level of control that further undermines democracy. As such, Skopje 2014 as a project is not just an imposed, kitschy and often grotesque reconfiguration of public space, it also has large detrimental consequences for society and democracy.