Beauty, brutalism, and unpopular propaganda in Skopje, Macedonia
You can’t come to Skopje and not talk about the monuments. Everyone in the city has an opinion. And I mean that literally, an opinion. The same one. Not a single Macedonian I talked to disagreed about the massive urban development, er, beautification? Statue-ization? Neo-classical building barrage? Not sure what to call the $80-500 million project that’s been renovating downtown Skopje since 2010, but they all hate it. Or rather, in keeping with the Macedonian character, it’s more of a bemused ridicule mixed with an acidic disgust in their government.
For starters, how about that price tag? Quite a tally, especially for a country with high levels of poverty and about 30% unemployment. And how about that range? Hard to pin down numbers, especially when no one quite knows what they are and the opposition says it’s ten times what it needed to be.
So…why? Why is Skopje doing this?
Friday morning at 5:17 AM, exactly 53 years ago today, a magnitude 6.1 earthquake in Skopje killed over a thousand people, injured upwards of three thousand, left 200,000 people homeless, and destroyed about 80% of the city.
80% of your city destroyed in 20 seconds. Can’t begin to imagine. One local I talked to said “We were just glad it happened during summer when many people were on vacation. If it had been in October or something, it would have been worse.” Now that’s dedication to the silver lining. Nazdravje! (Yes, they say that here too.)
Kennedy and Kruschev both sent help, and in the demolished streets of Skopje, Soviet and American troops could shake hands for the first time since 1945. Maybe they should have stayed.
Downtown Skopje was gradually rebuilt under a plan that was half Japanese architect Kenzo Tange and half Yugoslavia. The aesthetic bummer (if you ask me) was that Tange offered neo-brutalism, and Yugoslavia added the sort of concrete blast-wall atmosphere that we associate with Communism during the Soviet age. A tad bit bleak. Who do you know who raves about Macedonia? (Unless you’re Dutch or Australian, in which case y’all’re so well traveled you’re exempted from rhetorical questions like that. Sorry.)
So why not pep it up? Except there are those pesky issues of funding. And then there’s the style. Oh mama, the style. Ancient Rome meets the Hollywood Walk of Fame. A heroic guy who is officially not Alexander the Great because of the ongoing dispute with Greece (but totally is) looms over the main square, anchoring a lattice of marble-columned buildings for such exalted institutions as the Agency of Electronic Communications, whose temple reminded me of Ephesus.
It’s quite a spectacle. Rather…monumental, you might say. And to be honest? I loved it. It’s ridiculous, yes. Perhaps obscenely expensive and criminally irresponsible. But in a day and age when so many places seem to not give the slightest thought to how they look (Athens isn’t standing behind me, is it?) it’s nice to see a city giving it a go. A bizarre festival of propaganda and thinly veiled ethnic discrimination, but still, a go.
In fact? I’m going to rave about Macedonia. Back me up, Aussies and Nederlanders.