Apr 4, 2009

Where is Skopje going? The incident in context

Architect Blaz Kriznik and Anthropologist Goran Janev have kindly allowed us to here post the text of a presentation they gave last year at the workshop Remapping Skopje (October, 2008, in Skopje). "Mapping the symbolic reconstruction of Skopje", they trace the reformulation of the city from an "Open City" to a "Grand National Capital", intending to "uncover the excessive, organized and aggressive drives, aimed at reconstructing Skopje from the position of political power and to understand the everyday consequences of such reconstruction." Download the PDF here (Google members, alternatively: here) or view a TXT-version (without images) here. Below: an artwork by the authors, summarizing the problematic, tongue-in-cheek.


  1. The TXT/HTML version of the text:

    Mapping the symbolic reconstruction of Skopje

    Goran Janev, Blaž Križnik

    Many important European cities have historically developed from monumental national capitals, constructed during the period of national emancipation in the nineteenth or early twentieth century, and have been recently transformed into globally integrated open cities, where transnational flows of people, goods, capital and cultures shape their present development.[1] While the construction of national capitals has mainly coincided with historic processes of industrialization, early accumulation of capital in cities and resulting large-scale urbanization, the transformation towards open cities has been mostly a result of intensive globalization and informatization and their subsequent impacts on social, economic and urban structure of each particular city. In this sense, cities have become increasingly embedded in transnational networked structures like the global economy, international political institutions, technological and media spaces or global civic society. As much as the early industrialization and urbanization have been instrumental for the construction of grand national capitals, the globalization of cities is an important base for their ongoing social change, economic prosperity and urban development. At the same time globalization is also an important source of symbolic reconstruction in many cities, which are trying to replace their industrial imagery with a new post-industrial one.[2]

    Barcelona, the capital of Catalonia, is a case, which clearly illustrates this historic transition from an industrial to a post-industrial city and shows the role of symbolic reconstruction in the process. Reconstructed at the beginning of the twentieth century as the monumental Catalan capital, under a strong influence of a growing Catalan nationalism and aspirations for a higher autonomy within Spain, Barcelona has more than two decades ago successfully opened up to the world and changed her former image of a provincial industrial centre into that of an attractive and bustling world city. Architecture directly expresses changes in the symbolic order of cities and has been pivotal to the transition of Barcelona from a grand national capital towards a globally integrated open city. The will to construct the new Catalan capital has resulted in an extensive architectural renewal of the old historic city centre and in the construction of new monumental buildings and urban spaces, seen as an expression of the heroic Catalan past and the much desired bright future. When Barcelona has finally secured her regional position in Spain and subsequently entered the world stage during the Olympic Games in the early nineties, yet again large numbers of new monumental buildings have been constructed, with many prominent international architects involved. The so-called "strategic projects" were used to strengthen the new collective imagery of democratic and prosperous Barcelona and to symbolize her new position within the global arena.[3]

    Yet the transformation of a particular city depends not only on the construction of new monumental architecture and urban spaces but also on different discourses, which give meaning to those changes and which directly influence the understanding and the relationship citizens develop with new spaces in their everyday life. Discourses, which try to legitimize the reconstruction of cities, often use a language of normalization, where undesired social and spatial outcomes of large-scale urban developments are presented as their "normal and unavoidable price." In this sense the reconstruction of a particular city can be understood as an instrument of social and political control and as an attempt to homogenize society. Citizens, who question or even act against such urban developments are often accused of threatening the progress of the entire city and become subsequently excluded from the common discourses about the future of a city.[4] The relation between the transformation of a particular city and legitimizing discourses should be seen as an attempt to symbolically reconstruct capitalist post-industrial cities and as a new form of social and political exclusion. Symbolic reconstruction, which always goes together with large-scale urban developments, is frequently instrumentalized by economic and political elites against the actual needs of citizens and thus accentuates existing social and spatial divides and prevents the development of more inclusive forms of local governance.

    Skopje, on contrary, has a rather different history. It seems that in comparison to other European capitals, which have developed from grand national capitals into transnational open cities, Skopje has actually taken almost an opposite path. Already proclaimed and developed as an open city in the recent past, the city is now more firmly than ever on its way to finally become the grand national capital of Macedonia – a position that Skopje has never fully experienced in history. The reasons for this, at the first glance contradictory development, are hidden in Macedonia’s history full of frequent social changes and tense political conflicts, which caused strong discontinuities in the modern urban history of Skopje. The city’s development has frequently been subject to the colonial interests of Ottomans, Serbs and Bulgarians, and as a result the social, economic and urban structure of the city changed accordingly and her symbolic order was trapped in a state of confusion. Although Skopje and Macedonia have gained more autonomy within the socialist Yugoslavia, the process of urban development and symbolic formation of the national capital has once again taken a different course after the devastating earthquake hit the city in 1963. In order to deal with the tragedy, Skopje has been proclaimed an open city. Following prevailing doctrines of Yugoslavian etatist socialism and international urban planning and architecture of that time a new city started to emerge. Although several monumental buildings and urban spaces were build as a part of the reconstruction, these did not represent national sentiments, but have instead been seen as symbols of the transnational and open character of the new Skopje.[5] Yet the recent transition of Skopje is not only a consequence of this unique history, but also an outcome of more recent changes in Macedonia’s social and political system. The interests of economic and political elites, hidden behind nationalistic discourses, directly influence present-day urban development and symbolic reconstruction of the city. After the period of heroic post-earthquake reconstruction, Skopje seems to have got an apparently long awaited opportunity to finally become the grand national capital of Macedonia.

    At a defining moment in her contemporary history, just few steps before a full integration into Western world (EU and NATO membership), challenged by the old Balkan geostrategic games, Macedonia turns towards reinventing and reaffirming its separate, undeniable and glorified identity. The national government seems determined to exhibit the unique, particular and splendid Macedonian history and to show it to the world. It has started to install antique Hellenistic sculptures and stone inscriptions in front of the government offices and to rename Macedonian airports. The Skopje International airport is now called "Alexander the Great" while Ohrid airport has become "St Apostle Paul". The installation of giant sculptures at the busiest central parts of the capital will transform Skopje into a history textbook. The central Macedonia square, formerly known as "Marshal Tito", will be dominated by a colossal 15-meter high sculpture of Alexander the Great. Behind him Tsar Samuil seated on a throne will provide continuity through the middle ages. At the other end of the old Stone bridge Karposh, a fighter against the Turks, will get a monument and the continuous rebellion against the Ottomans will be further marked with the sculptures of the Macedonian Revolutionary Organization leaders riding on horses. The renaming of places and the erecting of monuments is accompanied by the construction of new buildings. Oddly enough, many of the proposed new buildings will resemble old ones, or will even be direct replicas of buildings that collapsed in the tragic earthquake. Even more curiously for this grandiose nationalist projects of symbolic reconstruction, some of the planned buildings actually represent the Serbian colonization. Projects in preparation or under construction to rebuild monuments from the past include the Yugoslavian Kingdom Army Officer’s House and the National Bank from that period.[6] To firmly imprint the national identity over the center of the capital, a new church is also planned in another corner of the same square. On the other side of the bridge, the Macedonian National Theatre will be build, based on an enlarged replica of the "Peoples Theatre of King Alexander Karadjordjevich." Next to it two new museums will be opened in a new, neoclassical building. – the Museum of the victims of communism and the Museum of VMRO, the Macedonian Revolutionary Organization. Such stylistic and aesthetic jumble is aimed to represent Skopje as a grand national capital with a long historic tradition, where new eclectic buildings and strategically located monuments are supposed to provide and demonstrate historicity of the Macedonian nation to the world. Skopje’s cacophony of symbols is further exacerbated in the “Albanian” part of the city. The recently formed municipality of Cair encompasses the Old Bazaar in Skopje, one of the largest and best preserved traditional Ottoman bazaars in the Balkans. Acting frivolously and in neglect of the regulations, the municipality erected a bronze horse riding sculpture of the Albanian national hero Skenderbeg. Next on schedule is the opening of the Museum of Freedom that will show the period from the Prizren league, the first organized attempt to carve a national state from the Ottoman Empire, to the 2001 armed conflict with the Macedonian governmental forces. These symbolically loaded "beautifying" activities, which are now inscribed into the body of the city, are at the core of the new symbolic reconstruction of Skopje and represent two separate political, historical and identity agendas.

    The list of announced monuments, buildings and institutions could be easily deciphered and rightfully described as nationalistic interventions in the public space. We might say that it is a direct outcome of the political system in Macedonia, an ethnopolitical order established after the armed conflict in 2001. The military confrontation in 2001 was stopped by a political arrangement that supposedly brought greater rights to the Albanians in Macedonia, while maintaining the territorial integrity of the state. In effect, as the present symbolic reconstruction of Skopje also shows, an irreconcilably divided society has been created. In the debates that followed the announcement of the new reconstruction projects people reacted in various ways, but not against the openly promoted nationalistic discourse. Objections and criticism span from the questionable rationality of investing in infrastructure instead of building monuments, intransparency of the decision making processes, urbanism, aesthetics, and so on. Yet there are no voices that would question the narrative told by this new symbolic order. Certainly, in Macedonian language media there are frequent reactions against the Albanian nationalism. This incapacity to see the Macedonian nationalism compared to immediately recognizable manifestations of the Albanian variant speaks clearly of a closed, xenophobic mindset. Hence, the forceful imposition of the new symbolic order is probably largely reflecting the general understanding of the need to fight for the endangered national identity.

    The historic reversal in the transformation of Skopje from an open city into grand national capital requires attention for reasons that surpass mere idiosyncrasy. It is curious that the process of representing national identity is over one century late. It is also curious that while decentralisation on local level is emphasised, the central government makes top-down decisions and implements them at their own liking. On the other hand, disregarding the legal regulations and central administration’s directives, a municipality of Cair is free to implement the Albanian nationalist agenda. All of this is happening before the eyes of Macedonian citizens, who are neither only ethnic Macedonian or Albanian, nor are all of them nationalistic, and here curiosity turns into danger. The late explosion of nationalism, or rather the late demonstration of latent nationalism, is about to turn Skopje from an open city into claustrophobic city with excluded spaces.[7] The ethnic boundaries in the highly mixed cultural environment of the capital city are difficult to establish and maintain in a country, which is otherwise renowned for its ethnic diversity. The new monuments, buildings and institutions try to build ethnic boundaries through symbolic power. The nationalist historical totems erected at strategic points over Skopje are confronting each other and contribute towards further division of the Macedonian society along ethnic lines.

    Our contribution intends to uncover the excessive, organized and aggressive drives, aimed at reconstructing Skopje from the position of political power and to understand the everyday consequences of such reconstruction. Yet at the moment it remains unclear whether a resistance against privatization of public space and growing ethnic divisions, as the most visible outcomes of attempts to build the grand national capital of Macedonia, will continue or not. Will citizens accept such symbolic reconstruction? Will they resist it, ignore it, destroy it? Or simply deny it?


    [1] Our perspective covers a relatively short period of development, which corresponds to the rapid industrialization and urbanization of cities. In terms of long-term cycles in the capitalist economy (longue durée), Braudel shows us a rather different picture, where historic development of cities is far more complex and less linear, as the last two centuries show. See Braudel, F. (1992): The Perspective of the World: Civilization and Capitalism 15th-18th Century. Berkeley: University of California Press.

    [2] Short, J.R. (2004): Global Metropolitan, Globalizing cities in a capitalist world. London: Routledge.

    [3] We use the example of Barcelona to talk about Skopje on purpose. In the last century the development of Barcelona was often influenced by explicit nationalist agendas and ideological divides. Yet the city managed to overcome them, reinforced its multicultural character and successfully developed into globally integrated open city. For a detailed account on the historic transformation and symbolic reconstruction of Barcelona see Amelang, J. (2007): Comparing cities: a Barcelona Model? Urban History, no. 34 (2/2007), p. 173-189 and Monclús, J.F. (2000): Barcelona’s planning strategies: from 'Paris of the South' to the 'Capital of West Mediterranean'. GeoJournal, no. 51 (4/2000), p. 57-63.

    [4] Križnik, B. (2005): Ideological Effects of Urban Rehabilitation. Urbani izziv, no. 16 (1/2005), p. 29-35.

    [5] The post-earthquake reconstruction of Skopje was explicitly transnational by its symbolic meaning from the beginning onwards. Arriving to Skopje a day after the earthquake, President Tito promised to rebuild the city as a symbol of brotherhood and unity of the Yugoslav people. See UN Development Programme (1970): Skopje Resurgent, New York: UN, p. 31. At the same time the new Skopje was also to demonstrate solidarity of the international community, which managed to overcome its explicit ideological and political divisions and helped to rebuild the city. A Monument to International Solidarity or the World Youth Centre for instance were part of the original reconstruction plan.

    [6] In 1930s Skopje's central square was built to represent the Serbian national identity and colonial power. All buildings planned for reconstruction originate from that period.

    [7] For the concept of excluded spaces, spaces that are avoided for their dangerous, spiritual connotation see N. Munn (1996) Excluded Spaces: The figure in the Australian Aboriginal Landscape, Critical Inquiry, 22, 446-465. We borrow here the concept in terms of dangerous spaces that belong to the Other.

  2. For those without google account (if any), here is a browsable pdf: