News from the Former Yugoslav Republic of Nowhere
They stare out at you from coffee tables and gallery gift shops, grey and square, with carefully textured covers: This Brutal World, Raw Concrete, Concrete Concept, Brutal London, Space, Hope, and Brutalism: skyline-stealers like the Barbican and Trellick Tower in London, meanwhile, or Paul Rudolph’s careful assemblages of glass and concrete in college campuses around America, are all over Instagram and Tumblr. Brutalism—the post-war architectural movement for stark, forceful buildings in naked concrete—is, we are regularly informed, back, after spending half a century as an aesthetic and political punching bag, blamed almost from its inception for the social ills of council estates and the bad optics of university libraries that supposedly look like prisons.
In Oxford itself, where some decent Brutalism can be found, colleges tend to work hard to hide it: the Hilda Besse building in St Anthony’s, by the brilliant firm of Howell, Killick, Partridge and Amis, is now partially hidden by the charmingly gloopy new Zaha Hadid-designed ‘Investcorp Building’. Good too—and slightly better treated—are the latticed Vaughan & Fry Building in Somerville and the Physics Department with its witty concrete fan.
So yes, Brutalism has its fans; mostly, it seems, among the architectural press, art publishers and sundry other young Western hipsters (including this writer), but this list does not include the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization—Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity (VMRO-DPMNE). And why should it? Well, the VMRO—presently the governing party of the nation known officially as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM), the poorest and most southerly fragment of the Yugoslav collapse, generally (but not uncomplicatedly) referred to as Macedonia—is the steward of a large collection of noted Brutalist architecture in its capital of Skopje, as well as of FYROM’s 2 million people. It is not clear which of these stewardships it is worse at.
Skopje—formerly a small, Roman-founded town that had for a millennium or so been passed between Turks, Serbs and Bulgarians depending on who was in the ascendancy, and which was eventually incorporated into a Yugoslavia determined to prove it was not simply a new form of Greater Serbia—had its urban fabric utterly transformed in 1963, when an earthquake demolished almost the entire city. The clock of the old train station remains stuck at 5.17, the time the earthquake struck, though the remnants of the building are now the City Museum, in a bit of architectural reinvention more subtle than that on show in the rest of the city.
As often happens in the wake of disasters, many saw an ideological opportunity in the rubble, both for individual architects to display their ideas about urbanism on a newly blank slate, and for nations to conduct some Cold War showcasing in a country that was part of the Non-Aligned Movement and ideologically happy to receive help from anybody. Contributions—often in the form of entire buildings—flowed in, and ultimately a master plan for the new city was chosen, overseen collectively by a group of Yugoslav and Japanese architects. Used, of course, to designing with earthquakes in mind, the latter group was led by Kenzo Tange, the greatest figure of post-war Japanese architecture, then at the height of his powers: in the next few years he would create the immensely influential parabolic concrete forms of St Mary’s Cathedral and Yoyogi stadium in Tokyo.
The work of Tange and his group in Skopje is less famous, but then Skopje has never had the same stature as Tokyo as an international city. Amazing things were done there in the years after the earthquake, throwing up a city of curling, sculptural concrete forms and spaces, many of them with a Space Age, futurist feel—bubbly windows, arcing fins—that is rarely found in European architecture of the era. The train station is a drawn-out concrete tube wrapped around the elevated tracks, porthole windows and all, resembling an Elon Musk hyperloop fantasy brought into tactile existence. It all has something in common with Tange’s aesthetic of twisted planes and with modern Japanese architecture’s joy in the geometric and the modular; but the whole array of the city is a unique architectural experience, full of odd echoes of 50s Googie futurism and odder previews of 80s postmodernism. Or at least, it was.
Technically, many of the buildings from the great reconstruction of the city centre are still there, somewhere. But in the past few years most of those which have not been torn down have instead been made invisible where they stand, encased in pristine, texture-less white faux-marble by the VMRO as part of ‘Skopje 2014’, an urban renewal project-cum-nationalist statement of intent that has to be seen to be believed.
The idea is to remake Skopje as it never was: a shining city of classicism, all columns and pediments and heroic statues of Macedonian national heroes. Foremost among them is Alexander the Great, namesake of Skopje’s airport and much else there besides, whose likeness sits atop a column akin to the Column of Trajan and an all-singing (literally), all-spurting fountain in Macedonia Square, the centre of downtown Skopje. Facing him from the other side of the Ottoman Stone Bridge, one of the handful of genuine and mostly unretouched historical monuments in the city, is an equally monumental statue of Philip the Great, Alexander’s father. Strewn around them are many more faux-bronze statues and reliefs of Macedonian heroes—broadly interpreted to include many historical figures also claimed by Serbia, Bulgaria and Greece, because herein lies the real problem: ‘Macedonia’ in the modern sense is a nation younger than most of its citizens, seeking an identity that will set it aside from its parent state of Yugoslavia and give it the things any state wants: stability, cohesion, and interest to tourists.
The VMRO, the dominant party since the country’s birth and the power behind Skopje 2014, has lighted on a partially imaginary glorious past that takes in, for instance, Tsar Simeon of Bulgaria (whose territory did include most of what is now Macedonia) as well as Cyril and Methodius, Greek-speaking apostles to the Slavs whose national identity, if they had one at all, doesn’t map onto a modern one. Most controversial, however, is the embrace of the world-bestriding Alexander and Philip, who are seen by Greece as indisputably Greek, as are several other aspects of the modern Macedonian state and, ultimately, the entire concept of ‘Macedonia’, which in the Greek version of history is the northern part of Greece and free of Slavs. It is the Greek government’s refusal to recognise the idea of an independent state called Macedonia that has produced the clumsy FYROM compromise and a still-ongoing series of mind-bendingly petty negotiations on the subject, and it is hard not to see the Macedonian embrace of cultural nationalism as a response to Greece’s: certainly they fuel each other to this day (check the comment section on any article about Macedonia for proof of astonishingly dedicated troll armies dedicated to endlessly relitigating this issue).
Around this dubious bronze-effect pantheon, in the city’s compact centre is an array of cultural venues, propagandistic museums and breathtakingly pompous government ministries, all in the exact same idiom of steroidal, superficial classicism: pure white panels badly approximating marble, massive columns three storeys high, and chunky cupolas, all of it strangely proportioned and awkwardly shaped. After a little while, you realise why: under most of these Potemkin ministries is a real one, built of concrete and glass in the 60s, and now haphazardly papered over with inauthentic monumental classicism. In places where the work has stalled, you can actually see warm, textured concrete vanishing behind huge, flimsy panels of cheap stucco. The VMRO’s own headquarters—notably grander than the squat, run-down parliament building—were still unfinished in the summer of 2016: the back of the building showed a skeleton of bare grey concrete while the front was a stack of marzipan detailing that faced a fountain emitting periodic, ejaculatory slugs of water that strike the surface of the pool below like the sound of one hand clapping itself.
Where brilliant 60s work persists, it often seems to be because it was built in a way so odd and inventive that it cannot be easily shrouded in a conventional shape: this is most obviously true of the riotous flying saucer of Skopje’s main post office (designed by Janko Konstantinov), a fantasia of brackets and buttresses like a UFO bred with an outlandish clam. The post office building, like the grooved, modular turrets of the telecoms tower next to it, is evidently being neglected as an embarrassment: the pavements around them are cracked and potholed, the surrounding flowerbeds are littered with yellowing vegetation, while two minutes’ walk away the wedding cake-style rotunda of the Water Ministry is surrounded by careful, lifeless paving.
Also apparently embarrassing to the regime is the campus of the Cyril and Methodius University, the nation’s leading educational institution and another endangered survivor of the Tange programme (Brutalism has often, especially in the USA, found a home on campuses). Conceived by architect Marko Music (then Yugoslav, now Slovene), Cyril and Methodius is a village-like complex of sandy concrete angles and slim, vertical windows. Where it faces the street, the buildings are edged with outward-facing half-cylinders two or three storeys high: the ivory towers of academia broken open into intimate theatres of discussion and encounter. But when I visited it on a quiet summer Sunday (outside term time), it was deserted. On a patch of wasteland next to it, construction hoarding showed the plan for a new university building: inevitably a flat, classicist concoction, all pediment and no trousers. Walking past to take more pictures of the ebb and flow of Music’s facades, we ran into a bored security guard—the first person we’d seen on campus—who strolled towards us to make clear that the university was closed, that we should get out at once, and that we should delete the pictures we had just been taking, which we made a show of doing without actually doing.
Anyone with a hipster enthusiasm about ‘underappreciated’ architecture has probably had the experience of visiting some chunky landmark and having somebody who lives with the thing on a daily basis ask why on earth you would come all this way to see it: but to be actually escorted from the premises and be told to delete the evidence of our visit was unsettling and hard to explain. Was the existence of the building really that inconvenient to the VMRO vision of the new-ancient Skopje?
Sort of, it turned out. The day after, passing near the university on a bus, we witnessed something else, the traces of which we’d already spotted all over the city’s gleaming white triumphal arches and finance ministries. A crowd had gathered just outside the university, opposite yet another pompous government edifice, waving the red sunburst of the Macedonian flag (changed to its current design after a year-long Greek economic blockade, purportedly because the original design used a culturally Greek symbol) and evidently preparing to do what they had now been doing all summer: cover another new building with brightly coloured paint.
‘Skopje 2014’, it turns out, is not popular with Skopjans (I should be careful with this word: it is sometimes used to refer to any inhabitant of any part of FYROM by nationalist ethnic Greeks who construe ‘Macedonians’ to refer exclusively to ethnic Greeks living in Northern Greece), who over the course of 2016 devised one of the more brilliant protest tactics of recent times, gathering with balloons and water pistols filled with bright paint to cheerfully deface the pristine facades of buildings they consider to be a wasteful abuse of public funds, and which they suspect of costing a great deal less than their official price tags (approaching half a billion euros, though the regime is extremely reticent about the costs), with government officials pocketing the difference. For the protestors the great white elephants are also symbolic of the regime’s wider corruption and of abuses that include longstanding neglect and demonisation of the country’s large Muslim Albanian minority, an enormous wiretapping scandal and a series of clumsily authoritarian manoeuvres to try and insulate the VMRO from prosecution for it.
All week we had been seeing these blatant edifices not as their political creators had intended them to be seen but cheerfully defaced with splats of orange and lime green: a pop art protest that was renewed quicker than it could be cleaned away. A couple of nights later we ran into another such protest, gathering outside the stick-on Vegas baroque of the Ministry of Justice to sing the national anthem and then pump Rage Against the Machine off the back of a pick-up as they marched, flares held high, the short distance towards the parliament. Despite the soundtrack, it was a mixed crowd, as much middle-aged families with small children as it was gangly students. Taking a different tack through the centre of town (which is tiny, despite the scale of the new buildings) to avoid the stream of people, we got turned around and found ourselves, after a few dark corners, immediately behind the parliament building. The scruffy, pine needle-strewn lawn there was crawling with waiting riot police dressed in black and padded with jointed, exoskeletal kneepads and armguards. Behind them, like so many mother cockroaches watching over their hundreds of children, were fat, angled armoured personnel carriers.
The stark fascism of the optics was nauseating: the black-clad, baton-waving arm of the state deployed to defend its white-clad facades against the technicolour revolution. The entire experience of the city, in fact, was a crash course in the raw politics of architecture, an exposure to the daily and duelling realities of occupation and defiance, restoration and neglect (and not just of Modernism: Skopje’s small old town, pretty and unprettified and largely Muslim-Albanian, contains among other worthwhile things the Kursumli An, a beautiful Ottoman caravanserai in firm arches of fanned brick, but when we visited it was not signposted, empty, locked up). It is impossible, after going to today’s Skopje, to experience architecture as theoretical: it is suddenly, urgently possible, if you have come there from one of the vast, exhausted metropolises of the present-day West, to understand the tireless ferment of Jane Jacobs, the oracularly sober proclamations of Le Corbusier (‘architecture or revolution’), the literal hair-tearing rages and enthusiasms of William Morris (whose first venture into politics of any kind, as it happens, was as an activist member of the Eastern Question Association, supporting the Bulgarian-Macedonian rebellion against Ottoman Turkey).
The Balkans have always been an easy mirror for European idealists and iconoclasts, placed at a flattering, useful angle to everything else: Rebecca West, in her massive travel chronicle of 1930s Yugoslavia Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, found Skopje a useful study in contrasts, a data set for her essentialism: ‘Skopje reveals a difference between the Slav and the Turk, the European and the Asiatic, at every turn of the street’. Owen Hatherley, who has written powerfully about modern Skopje and about the debatable ruins of the Communist built environment, notes that Yugoslavia was ‘one of the most admired countries in the world, in its heyday’—surely at least in part because, just as everyone could safely donate buildings to it, everyone could safely admire it without seeming to swear fealty to any wider, more dubious implications (though, of course, there was repression in Yugoslavia too, as the VMRO works hard to point out all over town). But the fight in Skopje, instructive as it is, is not for or by or of external ideologues, and nor is it just about corruption. It’s not about Brutalism either: it’s a national uprising against nationalism, which it exposes as always false and fabricated; a celebration of the irreducibility of history, and in that irreducibility is the demand for the strange, colourful, organic totality of the city and its life.
We backed away from the riot police blathering the word ‘tourist’ as loudly as possible and found another route to our destination: which was, as it happened, the proto-hyperloop train station, by night drenched in fluorescence and mostly inhabited by stray cats. There we bought tickets that would take us, the next day, away from Skopje and on to other ex-Yugoslav sights, among them Sarajevo and its noticeably better treatment of an even more difficult recent history. Crossing the series of borders to get there—Kosovo went by in a couple of hours—we were quickly distinguishable from the passengers local to one or another Balkan country, their passports only glanced at. The only other travellers aboard not from one of the ex-Yugoslav countries were a quiet, middle-aged Japanese couple, gilded chrysanthemums on their passports. Had they come to see what their countrymen had done with this city on the other side of the world? They had almost been too late.
Ben Brock read Modern Languages at Jesus College, Oxford. He now lives in London and works in publishing. He is on twitter @cinemashoebox.