Monuments, tanks and ghost towns.
The first time I visited Skopje, the Macedonian capital, was in autumn 2013. Even back then it was an overwhelming experience… the city was filled with a bizarre juxtaposition of architectural styles, each one competing for attention and each style completely out of place against its neighbours. Ottoman-era minarets rose up in the space between plastic-panelled postmodernist palaces; while brutalist towers with their portholes and concrete walkways gazed down on the central plaza like a vision out of some would-be socialist utopia.
It felt to me like each set of buildings told one complete story – formed the basis of a coherent city – but here they sat like broken temporal strata, a mismatch of styles and time periods all bursting through into the present day.
Needless to say I took a lot of photos, and I wanted to write an article about it too; I was planning to call it: ‘Byzantine, Brutal, Baroque.’ Somehow though the story seemed incomplete. There was no narrative, no logic, just a series of striking architectural photos that looked as if plucked from different cities, continents apart.
But then something happened.
I was back in Macedonia just a few weeks ago, and when I checked in on Skopje it was in the middle of a revolution. All those brand new buildings meanwhile – the faux-baroque palaces and museums, the pseudo-classical fountains and monuments – appeared to have taken a starring role in this theatre of political unrest. Each night, protesters armed with paintball guns were roaming Skopje to take potshots at the city’s modern architecture. Already people were calling it the ‘Colourful Revolution.’
Before we get to the politics and paint splatters of contemporary Skopje however, making sense of this technicolour mess requires that we look back to 2010: and the start of a redevelopment project that would change the face of the Macedonian capital.
Walking around the centre of Skopje is a very strange experience. I can show you photos – but what I can’t show you in pictures is how all these places join up, one after another, in an unending parade of fake-old architecture. Museums shaped like Greek palaces, four fountains to a single plaza, and bridges stacked with so many statues that I barely dared cross them for fear of the whole thing collapsing under the weight; if you asked the designers of Disneyland to build an open-air historical museum, this is probably what it would look like.
Back in 1963, Skopje was levelled by an earthquake that destroyed roughly 80% of the city. It was rebuilt, but those new buildings drew heavily on the socialist-modernist style then popular across Yugoslavia: there was a lot of bare concrete on display. The decades passed, and in 1991 the Republic of Macedonia declared its independence from Yugoslavia. Even as the country attempted to redefine itself for a post-Yugoslav Europe however, those gloomy Tito-era towers still cast their shadows across Skopje.
It was in 2010 that the Macedonian government announced the ‘Skopje 2014’ project – a four-year plan to update the city’s image and attract new visitors, while also reasserting Skopje’s role in the history of the region.
And so began a long campaign of nationalist historicism and cultural appropriation. Borrowing visual cues from Vienna, Paris, Athens and Rome, the Macedonian government proceeded to erect extraordinary mash-ups of world architecture styles. The characters that inhabit this magical kingdom, meanwhile, include amongst their ranks a long list of historical figures not universally acknowledged as Macedonian: the Albanian nun Mother Teresa (born in Skopje); the Bulgarian Tsar Samuil (born in the city of Prilep, then Bulgaria but now the Republic of Macedonia); the Serbian Tsar Dusan (one-time occupier of these lands); and the Albanian national hero Skanderbeg, who once rode through this way while leading a campaign against the Ottomans.
I crossed the newly-built ‘Bridge of the Arts’ with a Bulgarian, and I must admit to enjoying a certain gleeful schadenfreude at watching the sheer disbelief creep over her face; as one figure after another from the Bulgarian history books appeared here in the Macedonian pantheon. The playwright Voydan Chernodrinski, the Bulgarian revolutionary poet Nikola Vaptsarov, the writer Grigor Parlichev and the Miladinov brothers: self-identified Bulgarians and authors of a famous collection titled Bulgarian Folk Songs, yet celebrated here as pillars of Macedonian literature.
The final straw came when we reached the monument to Saints Cyril and Methodius: regarded by many as the first champions of Slavic culture, and celebrated by Bulgarians as two of their most beloved national heroes. The Macedonians, however, tell a different story.
But if Bulgarians find Skopje a challenging and disorientating place, then that’s nothing compared to the Greek reaction. Because for Greece, even the country’s name is a problem. It originates with the ancient Kingdom of Macedon, which now largely corresponds to the region of Greek Macedonia – and for the last 24 years Athens has been insisting that their Slavic neighbours clear up any potential confusion by adopting the rather ugly moniker, ‘FYROM’: the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.
It almost seems like a deliberate act of revenge that Skopje subsequently named its main airport ‘Alexander the Great,’ after the ancient Macedon king. Then in 2011, a 22-metre statue appeared in Skopje’s Macedonia Square simply titled ‘Equestrian Warrior.’ It bore an uncanny resemblance to Alexander the Great. Across the water meanwhile, it’s faced by the 15-metre ‘Warrior’ monument: modelled on Alexander’s father, King Philip II.
Athens was displeased.
Asked about the cultural conflict with Greece in an interview with The Guardian, Macedonia’s former foreign minister, Antonio Milososki, commented: “This is our way of saying [up yours] to them.”
Well, that message seems to have been received.
In defence of Skopje however, perhaps it’s fair to note that the country makes no (official) claim to sharing ethnic ties with all of the historical figures celebrated here. A plaque on the renovated Eye Bridge (formerly the ‘Bridge of Civilisations’) explains that these statues commemorate the great leaders and philosophers “of this land” – there’s no mention of race, nation nor culture, it merely cites a geographical colocation.
What’s more, there seems to be a reasonable argument connecting each of the contested figures to Macedonia: either they were born here, or perhaps one parent was; some of them lived here, some of them died here, and in more abstract cases, some were born in towns that later became a part of Macedonia.
While a minority of Macedonians do nevertheless claim a direct descendence from Alexander the Great (they’re sometimes called the Macedonists), the vast majority seem happy to acknowledge a Slavic genealogy: giving them closer ethnic ties to the Kievan Rus’ than to the Kingdom of Macedon.
Rather, for the most part these people are simply proud of the ancient stories attached to the land on which their ancestors have been living since sometime around the 5th century AD… and I think that’s probably fair enough.
I don’t believe Greece has any legitimate quarrel with regular, rational Macedonians, but only with a small minority… and of course, with the politicians responsible for Skopje 2014. Because it’s difficult to see the current project as anything other than a nationalist statement. Propaganda. An Up Yours to Athens.
But that’s not even the worst thing about Skopje 2014.
The Macedonian Disneyland
The problem is, Skopje 2014 is just too… kitsch. It’s trying too hard. These new buildings still look cheap, no matter how many fluted pillars or sculpted warriors the architects slap on top. They’ve opted for quantity over quality – I mean, how many decorative fountains do you really need in one city square?
Here’s the weird thing though: I actually rather enjoyed it. Exploring Skopje feels like walking around an amusement park, or some kind of bizarre roadside attraction. There’s nothing inherently wrong with building a quirky, festival city…
But it just becomes difficult to take a country seriously when the capital feels like a low-budget version of Disneyland. And I say ‘low-budget,’ because you can already see the cracks beginning to show in Skopje 2014: here and there you’ll spot missing ornamental panels, nothing but splotchy glue stains to prove they were ever there. The Eye Bridge meanwhile began showing cracks in its marble railings only two years after it opened. Consider too, the extensive cleaning, lighting and maintenance costs necessitated by such a lavish city centre – and it doesn’t seem as though this stuff is going to age very well at all.
More than that though, it saddens me to consider the buildings that Skopje is losing in the process. In case you hadn’t realised already, I’ve got a bit of a thing for concrete… and Skopje, the post-1963 Yugoslav version of the city, happened to feature some of the finest brutalist architecture in the world.
The project to rebuild Skopje in the 1960s was headed by the award-winning Japanese architect Kenzo Tange: designer of the Tokyo Olympic Arena, the Hiroshima Peace Memorial, the Presidential Palace in Damascus and the American Medical Association Headquarters in Chicago. Tange presented Skopje with a master plan in 1965 and while it was never fully realised, local architects had managed to complete many of the key elements by 1980.
The first time I visited Skopje, I was only really there to see Tange’s Macedonian Post building. I was disappointed to find it partially obscured behind billboards – but it was a kind fate compared to that facing many of its siblings. In other places this unloved architecture has been pulled down in favour of neoclassical palaces; or coated in stucco, buried beneath an antique-styled façade.
Maybe brutalism isn’t for everyone, but it’s important to understand that Skopje ’65 was more than just grey communist-era concrete – it was world-class concrete, structures that had internationally-recognised artistic value. Since then Skopje has traded originality for clichés.
And still they keep on building.
The original plan was for 40 new structures in four years – but now, two years past the deadline, that’s risen to more than 130 new structures according to a report by the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN). Skopje 2014 has gifted the city with 27 new buildings, 5 public squares, 4 bridges, 34 monuments, 39 smaller sculptures, a triumphal arch and a soon-to-be-completed Ferris wheel.
Predictably, it hasn’t been cheap. The plan announced in 2010 came with a price tag of €80 million; but BIRN shows the actual figure to be somewhere in the region of €560 million. Macedonia has a population of 2.1 million people – but with 25% unemployment and a labour force of less than a million, Skopje 2014 is set to have cost the average Macedonian taxpayer roughly €580 each. National minimum wage, in comparison, is just €210 per month.
But that’s where the ‘Colourful Revolution’ comes in: because it seems like the Macedonian people have finally had enough of their government’s excesses, and now the monuments of Skopje 2014 have assumed the role of a political punchbag.
The Colourful Revolution
The Colourful Revolution (or ‘Sharenata Revolucija’) is about more than just the architecture of the Macedonian capital; it is an expression of desperation, a vote of no-confidence in a regime accused of building a security state, spying on its citizens, covering up its own crimes and spending a fortune on ridiculous buildings that nobody asked for.
Former Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski is amongst the chief causes of that dissatisfaction; and so the Skopje 2014 project, as his initiative and serving as a physical manifestation of Gruevski’s campaign of nationalism, oppression and excess, has provided the demonstrators with the perfect target for their anger.
I was first made aware of Macedonia’s political unrest while I was down in Ohrid – a lakeside tourist haven in the south of the country. Heading out into the streets of Ohrid’s Old Town one evening, we found the square blocked by demonstrators; while fully-armed riot police hovered at a respectful distance beyond. They marched through the streets that night, chanting and carrying banners until the early hours.
The next day we took a boat ride on the lake, and I quizzed our captain about the problems.
“It’s not easy being a Macedonian,” he told us, before explaining how he – and many others – had applied for Bulgarian passports, sacrificing their national identity for the sake of EU recognition and the ability to travel freely.
I asked him about the statues in Skopje, and he answered carefully: “Well, I like them,” he said, “it’s our history, and I’m proud of that. I understand why they’re doing it, but it all looks so new and artificial. I guess it doesn’t really feel authentic.”
Arriving back into Skopje late at night, our taxi passed the Triumphal Arch; where several dozen riot police, with shields and guns, gathered as if in readiness for war. Behind them, the clean white arch was splattered with colourful explosions in pastel greens and pinks and blues.
Last year Macedonia was shocked to discover the full extent of the surveillance being conducted by Gruevski’s government – according to the opposition, more than 20,000 citizens had had their phones tapped. But Gruevski is also accused of fixing election results: it has been suggested that as many as 500,000 entries on the electoral register were invalid names, belonging to émigrés or the deceased; while some of the leaked tapes imply that Gruevski’s employees had gone so far as disabling elevators in housing blocks, to prevent older citizens from getting to the polling booths.
According to wiretapped conversations leaked last year, his party had also attempted to cover up an incident in 2011 when a young Macedonian was killed in a fatal police beating.
There were protests in late 2015, which died off after Gruevski stood down on 18th January 2016. This spring though, Macedonian president Gjorge Ivanov called off the investigation into the wiretapping scandal – letting Gruevski and 56 of his cohorts off the hook. When Ivanov himself was later implicated in the Panama Papers, the situation only got messier… and on 12th April the protests resumed, with tens of thousands of angry Macedonians hitting the streets to march against the crimes of the regime.
Several days into the April protest some activists began pelting Skopje’s Triumphal Arch with paint – and the idea quickly caught on. The architecture of the Skopje 2014 project formed an obvious target: oppressive and insincere, a grandiose delusion that many believe was intended to distract citizens from the very real problems in the country. There are also those who believe these monuments and palaces cost far, far less to build than their official, declared prices – with Gruevski’s party profiting from the difference.
[It’s interesting to note too, than Skopje 2014 followed in the wake of another Gruevski initiative, which critics viewed as yet another method the PM used to line his own pockets: in 2007 he pledged to provide schools with a computer for every child, yet some of the schools listed on the resulting invoice had allegedly been closed down many years before.]
Walking around the centre of Skopje now, there are only a few buildings or monuments not marked with colourful stains and graffiti. As for Gruevski, the disgraced former PM still claims the wiretapping scandal was fabricated by foreign intelligence agencies in an effort to destabilise Macedonia. The pro-Gruevski media supports his story, though EU representatives are now calling for the investigation to be resumed.
The marchers meanwhile, are demanding that President Ivanov resign; and carrying banners with slogans such as “No Justice, No Peace,” or “Jail for Gruevski.” They’ve also been calling for a delay to the upcoming election, originally set for 5th June. These people want free and fair polls: and right now, nobody seems to have any confidence that the current government will deliver a democratic election in June.
But will the alternative be any better? Some analysts have speculated that the entire Colourful Revolution has been a political coup, arranged from the top down, and funded by opposition parties. The protest organisers deny it, of course, though there seem to be compelling links between some of Macedonia’s leading anti-establishmentarians and the international businessman and financier George Soros. To put it simply, this whole thing is one gigantic political mess.
Yet even amidst the turmoil, work continues on Skopje’s new architecture. It seems like everywhere you look there are gaudy palaces under construction; and before this thing is done the government plan to deliver the world’s largest statue of Mother Teresa, while billing the taxpayers €5.6 million for the privilege.
Most of the places I write about on this site have already passed into history, but Macedonia’s Colourful Revolution is happening right now – so it will be interesting to watch the news these following weeks, and find out what happens on 5th June.
As for the paint, personally I think it should stay. As far as revolutions go, this one is incredibly photogenic – and these colourful stains have brought life to a project that otherwise offered nothing but bland imitation and historicist propaganda. It’s a creative, non-violent response to oppression, and one that seems to say more about contemporary Macedonia than a million new-old monuments ever could.
At last, Skopje’s architecture has begun to incorporate the voices of its citizens… and if the Skopje 2014 project was begun as a search for national identity, then perhaps the Colourful Revolution has provided an answer: the Macedonians are a people who fight tyranny with street art. And that’s a pretty strong place to start.
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