Sunday, April 17, 2011

Skopje 2014

Skopje 2014 is the work of Nikola Gruevski, Macedonia's prime minister. It is a way of giving the center of the city a horrendous face lift with the goal of defining Macedonia. To me it seems that all the countries of Ex-Yugoslavia are so similar (because they were one giant nation just a few decades ago) that each goes to extremes trying to distinguish their country from its neighbors. But this project seems to push the limit past reason.

It entails building museums, domes, a new theatre, a new courthouse, a new foreign ministry, a new bridge, a triumphal arch, and countless bizarre statues throughout Skopje but focused on the city center/pedestrian zone. A couple buildings didn't stand out too much, but take a look at this Corinthian-columned courthouse built right on the river:

Simply why?

The pedestrian square used to have an array of short buildings with a nice view across the river to stari grad (old city). Now there's a massive plinth soon-to-be topped with a 30-foot statue of Alexander the Great and three other smaller statues of "important Macedonian figures." The locals that I met 1. don't feel pride for Alexander the Great and 2. believe (and I think are right in believing) that this idolized throne will be used by Greece as evidence for their claim that Macedonian is trying to steal their culture and history. Surely this will not help their EU and NATO accession.

This is already bulky and removed from its surroundings, now imagine a giant Alexander

And I don't think the Greeks are wrong in using it against Macedonia. It and most of the other structures of this project look like they belong in ancient Greece. Nowhere else did I see any pre-existing building with a similar design so it's as if Gruevski is now deciding that this is Macedonian even though it just looks wildly out of place.

Our local guide described Gruevski as an emperor of populist nationalism building his empire through this project. And that's exactly what it appears to be: one man's vision to bring Skopje's history forward like no other city I've seen. It all feels very ancient-timesy, one man forcing society to pay tariffs to build a new city by his measure. This is slightly exaggerated but there was project construction everywhere during our 6 days in Skopje so it felt like the rebuilding of a city.

And of course Skopje 2014 has ruffled feathers on the religious front. Muslim Albanians have requested that a mosque must be made for every church built or rebuilt, usually within the same few meters since the land selected has historic and religious significance for both. Now there are mosques and churches literally neighboring each other which I doubt will help the tensions subside.

No one we talked to was in favor of this project, however our guide said that the biggest critics of this project are not attacking with an ethnic or political focus but merely bringing to light the 1963 earthquake that shook and destroyed Skopje. We were in Skopje during the first tragic Japanese earthquake and that brought back the locals' fears of their city in '63. When this project was being mapped out a couple of years ago, architecture students launched a peaceful protest saying that it is not well-planned and that the structures would not be stable enough to survive a natural disaster. To think that all of these structures would collapse if Skopje is shaken again makes it seem like such a waste.

A deeply moving video of what Skopje should look like in 2014. This digitalized version looks far more attractive than what we saw –– the new structures look way less like aberrations and the whole city looks a lot cleaner.

On top of the major buildings highlighted in the video, here's a look at some of the almost comical statues designed and placed through the city without any apparent reason.




Most have some sort of bronze base and there are dozens throughout the city. When passing each we took a second to fathom the purpose/origin/design/crazed creator and when asking our guide he responded, "It's Skopje, don't question it, you'll never find a pleasing answer."

Honestly this project seems like such a poor allocation of funds. Macedonia as a whole is not thriving or even stable, so why pour all this money into a project that isn't helping their 30% unemployment rate, that isn't benefiting 20% of their population living on less than $1 a day, that isn't building proper streets, schools, or hospitals in Skopje's dilapidated suburbs?

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