Skopje, Macedonia’s capital was never really on my bucket list. The little I knew about it didn’t attract me that much. I knew there was a very Old bridge, an interesting Old town, a fortress and a couple of late 20th Century buildings. But I still wasn’t convinced until I saw a video showcasing the massive new governmental projects aimed at ‘beautifying’ the city. The video was so bizarre I couldn’t believe they were actually going to do it.
Skopje’s history is a tragic one. It was the battlefield where Serbia, Bulgaria and Greece fought against the Ottoman Empire and between each other in order to control it. After centuries of decline it finally flourished in post war Yugoslavia under the communist rule. It was the renaissance of the Macedonian culture, with the opening of important institutions like the University or the National Library. And just when things seemed to get better a terrible earthquake destroyed 80% of the city in 1963.
It seems that unlike Yugoslavia, which encouraged the formation of a modern Macedonian culture, the new Independent state, the Republic of Macedonia, was searching for a national identity. A somewhat difficult task since the country has been under different foreign rulers for centuries. So they reached for Ancient Macedonia, and started a new massive project called Skopje 2014 with the idea of redesigning the city in line with the new national identity.
To get some perspective, let’s remember that after the quake of 1963 the city rapidly recovered with the help of the entire world. Renowned Japanese architect Kenzo Tange authored the city’s new master plan, which laid the foundations for modern Skopje. So the progressive architecture of the communist state was subsequently replaced by the folkloric style of the new national agenda.
Skopje 2014 is a large-scale project that envisages a new future for Macedonia’s capital. It includes the construction of many governmental buildings, museums, the National Theatre and numerous sculptures. Quite many minor interventions include new fountains, bridges and even a Triumphal Arch. But the project doesn’t stop there. Near the city’s main square Makedonija several communist style buildings were refurbished adding classical elements to façades like friezes and pillars with capitols.
Not only has architecture failed to bring back an old identity the city never really had, but the design is simply bad. Fine, we could argue about the National Theatre. After all, the new building supposedly copies the old one destroyed by the earthquake. But what about the rest? Dozens of neo-greek and neo-roman temple alike monumental structures combined with new materials like glass and steel don’t seem to fit anywhere.
A case in point: the sculptures built all over the place. Several dozens of them made in a typical neo realistic style decorate streets, squares, and parks. Two bizarre bridges, the Art Bridge and the Bridge of Civilizations, are home to more than 50 sculptures. While most of the sculptures depict important historical figures there are even sculptures dedicated to lions and bulls.
I was lucky to visit Skopje during extreme foggy weather. Mountains surround the city so smog apparently stays down there quite often. The weird sculptures slowly appearing looked just like the ancient soldiers from the famous Carpenter’s movie ‘The Fog’ coming for their vengeance. Luckily it wasn’t the case, I am still alive, but let’s hope future generations of young Macedonians find their own way to avenge their city for the massacre suffered.
That said, we had a great time. The city has a nice Old Town with great food and bars. There is a hill, easily accessible by cable car or treks, which offers great views. Our friends Iko and Dragana were the best. They took us out for dinner, up the hill and was a pleasure to talk to; it seems Macedonians are pretty cultured. Balkan hospitality is for real!