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Skopje’s 1963 Quake: From Ruins to Modernist Resurrection

Updated: Jul 21, 2022

On July 26th, 1963, a massive earthquake struck the city of Skopje in the Socialist Republic of Macedonia in Yugoslavia at 5:17 in the morning. In an instant, roughly 80% of the city was destroyed and 1,070 people were killed (with over 3,000 injured and 150,00 left homeless). Just one day after the earthquake, Yugoslav president Josip Broz Tito made his now famous statement in regards to the tragedy: “Skopje was struck by an unseen catastrophe but we will rebuild it again. With the help of our entire community, it will become our pride and a symbol of fraternity and unity, of Yugoslav and of global solidarity.” Just as Tito had said, an immediate global aid response began in the quake’s aftermath, all aimed at leading the city of Skopje towards recovery and eventual reconstruction. Coordinated by the United Nations, this global initiative towards helping this devastated city was the first major unified collaboration of the international East and West since the end of WWII, making this whole project a notably historic endeavor. Furthermore, the UN’s Special Fund raised millions of dollars towards the city’s reconstruction, which was, as one source puts it, “the first time that the Special Fund had ever provided such a large sum for the urbanization of any city in the world.” This global collaboration is all the more remarkable taking into account, as another source notes, that just a few months earlier the world was gripped by the drama of the Cuban Missile Crisis and the US and USSR were on the brink of nuclear war.

A view of the collaposed Officer's Hall in the city center of Skopje, 1963. Credit: Life Magazine

As reconstruction efforts in Skopje began to be coordinated in the months after the disaster, an international partnership was organized by the UN for coordinating the general Master Plan for the city’s reconstruction. This partnership consisted of, firstly, the local offices of the “Skopje Institute of Town Planning and Architecture”, who collaborated initially with the Greek urban planning firm of famous architect Constantinos Doxiadis, then soon after were given further assistance by the Polish trade agency Polservice and the Warsaw Town Planning oFfice. This entire complex group of international organizations were all overseen by the Project Manager: Warsaw architect Adolf Ciborowski. While this group was to manage the reconstruction of the overall city itself in a grand Master Plan, they decided that a special group should be brought in to develop a special City Center Plan that would formulate a showpiece and modern world-class downtown district for the city. Thus, in December of 1964, eight architect teams (4 Yugoslav & 4 international) were invited to participate in a competition for formulating this new plan. When the results of this City Center Master Plan competition were finalized in July of 1965, it was announced that the first prize would be split between two groups, with 60% of the award being given to the team of Japanese architect Kenzō Tange (creator of the famous Hiroshima “Peace Memorial Hall”), while the remaining 40% went to the Zagreb team of Radovan Miščević and Fedor Wenzler. So, while Tange's team and the team of Miščević & Wenzler worked together collaboratively to formulate the best plan for Skopje's city center, they also worked closely with Cibrowski and the Town Planning Instititue, while, even further, borrowing successful elements from the other non-winining proposals.

Competition model of the winning proposal by Japanese architect Kenzo Tange and his team. 1965, Photo Credit: Osamu Murai

In itself, Tange’s City Center Plan was a stunningly ambitious and inspiring concept for a futuristic Skopje that aimed to use optimistic forward-thinking architecture, paired with holistic infrastructural planning, to build, from the ground up, a modern 20th century city, akin to the hyper-planned modernist cities of Brasilia and Chandigarh. In a complete reorganization of the city center, Tange’s concept is typified by two major elements: its “City Gate”, a series of vast geometric towers meant as the new entrance portal and transportation hub of the city, and its “City Wall”, a series of imposingly tall residential blocks snaking along the perimeter of the city center. However, with all of the optimism and utopian ideals contained within Tange’s City Center Plan, as codified with Miščević & Wenzler, only small parts of it were ever realized in full, not only as a result of lack of funds but also as a result of the lack of Skopje’s enthusiasm to demolish further parts of the city in order to satisfy the plan completely. As a result, Tange’s concept was not used so much as a strict plan but was, instead, used as more of a broad inspirational teaching tool that the dozens of architects and engineers who took part in Skopje’s on-the-ground reconstruction could use for guidance. In this way, as Skopje’s reconstruction proceeded through the subsequent decades after the 1963 earthquake, it took on a whole host of fascinating and innovative forms, some of which fell in line very closely with Tange’s vision, while others took unique directions that Tange never could have imagined.

In this article, we will examine fourteen of the most remarkable and significant examples of the pioneering architecture that came out of Skopje’s post-earthquake reconstruction during the 1960s, 70s and 80s. For each of these fourteen sites examined, we will look at the location’s history and heritage in an effort to develop a clearer understanding of both the existing buildings as well as an understanding of what existed at each spot before the earthquake occurred. Furthermore, this article will also examine the current condition in addition to the future outlook of each site, something all the more critical in recent years as the result of not only some of these sites facing potential demolition but also as the result of massive alterations to some of these buildings from the Skopje 2014 redevelopment project (a government project that masked numerous Yugoslav-era buildings in neo-Classical/Baroque faux-facades). Through this examination, I hope that readers take away a greater appreciation of the vast scale of the work and the level of international solidarity that went into Skopje’s post-earthquake reconstruction, while also gaining a greater clarity towards the army of architects, artists and engineers involved, and the valuable historical and cultural legacy of unique modernist buildings created as a result. Keep in mind that these are not the only works of post-earthquake reconstruction in Skopje, as there were dozens of structures built across the city. This article is merely a small overview of some of the most notable examples and I hope to include more sites in a future article.


1.) Telecommunications Center

A recent photo of the Telecommunications Center in Skopje. Photo credit: Max Beauchez

Name: Telecommunications Center & Post Office HQ (PTT Center)

Author: Janko Konstantinov (with Dušanka Balabanovska, Lenka Janeva, Kostadinka Pemova and Mimora Kapsarova)

Years: 1972-1989

Coordinates: 41°59'52.4"N, 21°25'48.4"E

In 1936, the “Post-Telephone-Telegraph" Complex (or “PPT” for short) was constructed just a block from what is today called “Macedonian Square” right in the center of the city of Skopje, a stone’s throw from the Vardar River. Designed in the early modernist style by architect Jovan Ranković, this was Skopje’s first major centralized post office and center for the city's telecommunications. However, the PPT complex was completely demolished during the 1963 earthquake. In the post-earthquake reconstruction City Center Master Plan devised by Japanese architect Kenzō Tange in 1965, significant space was set aside for the recreation of the PPT complex in the same location in the city center that the original 1936 complex was situated. A design competition for selecting a form for the new complex was initiated in 1968. One of the designers to submit a proposal for this competition was architect Janko Konstantinov.

Born in Bitola in 1926, Konstantinov graduated with an architecture degree in Belgrade in 1952 and proceeded to travel to study in Denmark and then in the US. In the years leading up to Skopje's 1963 quake, he had been working in Los Angeles under famous American modernist architect Victor Gruen. Upon hearing the news of that devastating disaster, he immediately came back to his home country to aid in that city’s reconstruction effort. Compared to many of the younger Yugoslav architects who participated in Skopje’s reconstruction, Konstantinov was a seasoned professional who had, at that point, worked with numerous world renowned architects and constructed buildings around the globe. Konstantinov initially submitted a proposal for Skopje’s City Center Master Plan, which did not win. At that point, he started working with Skopje’s UN relief project, however, he soon left the UN after being hired as one of the main architects for the Skopje construction firm “Beton”. In this role, he began winning a number of notable tenders for reconstruction projects, with his earliest being the "Nikola Karev" High school, completed in 1968. However, compared to the PPT Center, his previous Skopje projects were mostly smaller in scale. When the jury did their final deliberations for the PPT Center competition, they awarded first prize to the proposal submitted by Konstantinov (along with his architect team at “Beton” construction).

This initial concept Konstantinov proposed was a series of concrete cylinders connected by bridges, having stylings clearly borrowed from the Japanese “Metabolism” movement (such as Arata Isozaki’s “City in the Air” and Kenzo Tange’s “Yamanashi Press & Broadcasting Center”). However, as Konstantinov’s winning design began to be further scrutinized by Skopje’s authorities and the curious public (largely on the basis of feasibility and cost), the city’s reconstruction coordinators thus felt that his concept was not practical and needed to be overhauled. As a result, over the next two years Konstantinov devised a new architectural concept for the PPT Center which borrowed certain elements from his original design but this time integrated elements of his architectural experience working in America, while also breaking up the whole facility into three distinct building projects that would be realized in three separate phases. Construction work on the first phase of this project, undertaken by “Beton”, began on October 19th, 1972 and was completed two years later in 1974.

This first phase of the PPT Complex consisted of a 54m tall tower connected to a 29m tall horizontal block, both of which contained a total floor space amounting to roughly 12,000 square meters. In a similar fashion to his first concept, Konstantinov composed the tower of prefabricated concrete panels formed into an assemblage of cylindrical towers and boxes. The only adornment of the raw concrete facade is its bush-hammered vertical lines, while its primary windows take the shape of circles and half-circles (a standard “Brutalist” motif). These circles are most accentuated in the tower’s recessed courtyard entryway, which contains three imposing 4m tall portholes overlooking the main entrance, itself flanked by four enigmatic oversized half-circle concrete benches. Meanwhile, the horizontal block component is similar in style and material composition to the tower (also containing portholes and a cylindrical tower at its northwest end), yet, in addition, it also contains a much more elaborate grid facade of bulging square windows on its broad sides, as well as series of arcades along its upper/lower levels and distinct curved awnings protruding from its cornices. This tower facility of the PPT Complex operated as a hub of the primary communication relays for Skopje, such as a telephone exchange, communication services, and other intercity/international relays. For his work designing this first phase of the PPT Complex, Konstantinov was bestowed with numerous accolades, most notably the coveted “Borba Award” for excellence in architecture in 1974, which was the highest such professional recognition attainable in Yugoslavia.

A photo of the Counter Hall complex of the Telecommunications Center in Skopje. Credit: Pavle Miljovski

Five years after the unveiling of the tower facility in 1979, construction began on Phase 2 of the PPT Complex, which consisted of a large circular building that would come to be referred to as the “Counter Hall” (as it contained a large counter for postal services). After two years of construction, also undertaken by “Beton”, the Counter Hall was unveiled to the public in December of 1981. Originally operating as the main postal headquarters for the city center of Skopje, the Counter Hall was a structure composed of eight individual concrete wedges that united to form a circle. While very different in its design approach, the Counter Hall maintained a stylistic unity with the Phase 1 complex through its cylindrical features, porthole windows and bush-hammered concrete facade. However, one of the most distinct features of the Counter Hall’s exterior are the wedge’s support columns, which are designed in a highly sculptural style similar to that of an elegant swan's neck stretching up and outwards, a feature that gives the complex a playfully decorative ambience. These wedges then unite at their center into a dome which is adorned with additional radiating concrete fingers, while the perimeter cornices of the wedges curve back gracefully and then descended to the ground with a curtain of glass. In addition to the illumination given through the glass dome and walls, the thin gaps between the wedges allow light to penetrate down into the interior of the Counter Hall, which itself was originally a grand circular atrium of white marble floors and white concrete walls. Spanning around much of the perimeter of this circular hall was a massive arcing service counter that, when paired with the upwardly radiating skylights, gave the space an almost sacred atmosphere. This sacredness was further amplified with five large fresco murals [5m x 5m] located behind the counter which were painted by famous Macedonian artist Borko Lazeski [profile page], all of which depicted energetic scenes of the pain and suffering of the region’s population and their fight for freedom against this oppression.

A 2011 photo of the interior of the Counter Hall post offices in the Telecommunications Center.

After the 2nd Phase was completed in 1981, work subsequently stalled on constructing Konstantinov’s “Administrative Building” 3rd Phase of the PPT Complex as he had originally envisioned it. Imagined as a square structure with floating offices suspended from protruding concrete triangles, Skopje’s authorities quickly realized that the concept would be too costly and complicated to construct. With this breakdown between Konstantinov and the government on how his concept could be realized, city authorities thereafter handed over the design for the 3rd Phase Administrative Building to Macedonian architect Zoran Štaklev. Work on Štaklev’s design began in 1987 and was completed in 1989. Though the 3rd Phase of the PPT Complex was designed by Štaklev instead of Konstantinov, Štaklev still largely adhered to Konstantinov’s architectural style and vision, ensuring that the whole complex still gave the appearance of a unified whole. Laid out across an L-shaped footprint, Zoran Štaklev’s Administration Building resembled a ancient Greek temple, with its soaring curved cornices (akin to the Counter Hall’s) suspended by rows of concrete columns. Meanwhile, the facade set back behind the columns consisted of sheer curtains of glass that reached from the ground up to the top of the structure. In its original state, it operated as a communications dispatch center as well as offices for the state-run “Electricity of Macedonia” (ESM), which is today known as MEPSO.

A before (right) and after (left) comparison of the results of the MEPSO Building gettings its faux facade.

The PPT Complex stood as distinct and recognizable landmark in Skopje’s center for many years, with the Phase 1 & 2 sections of the facility acting as Konstantinov’s most famous work and existing as one of the most ambitious and innovative architectural exhibits of the whole Skopje post-earthquake reconstruction project. However, with the change in politics that came in the post-Yugoslav era and the development of the Skopje 2014 project in the early 2010s, many significant changes and tragedies befell the PPT Complex. Firstly, in January of 2013, a major fire struck the Counter Hall, leaving the building largely gutted and destroyed. All of Lazeski’s murals within the main hall were completely destroyed, standing as a significant loss for the country’s artistic heritage. Images of the complex just after the fire can be seen in THIS news video. In 2021, the Counter Hall was included on the list of “Europe’s 7 Most Endangered Heritage Sites” by the heritage group “Europa Nostra”. Sources indicate that numerous organizations in Skopje are petitioning to restore and rehabilitate the Counter Hall, but as of 2021, no such efforts have yet begun. Meanwhile, the Skopje 2014 project has resulted in a myriad of massive changes, the most dramatic being Štaklev’s Administration Building being completely covered in a white Baroque-style faux-facade. Sources relate that over 11 million euros were spent on this facade installation. Further inclusions consist of a 7 million euro multi-story parking garage named “Thessaloniki Congress” which was built between the Administration Building and the Counter Hall (which effectively blocks views of the PPT Complex Tower from the riverfront). Despite the marginalization the PPT Complex has undergone in recent decades, its architectural heritage and legacy have received renewed attention and appreciation in recent years, with large scale models of the complex exhibited at such venues as the Skopje City Museum in 2016 as part of a retrospective on the PPT Complex, as well as at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City in 2018 as part of an exhibition on Yugoslav architecture.


2.) “Cyril & Methodius” University of Skopje

A vintage postcard view of the “Cyril & Methodius” University of Skopje.

Name: “Cyril & Methodius” University of Skopje (UKIM)

Author(s): Marko Mušič [profile page] (with Meta Hočevar, Jernej Krajger, Borut Bučar, Marjan Mušič and Katja Repič)

Years: 1970-1974

Coordinates: 42°00'00.8"N, 21°26'35.8"E

The first major university campus complex constructed in Skopje was in 1949, as efforts after WWII were beginning to form a cohesive higher learning institution for the SR of Macedonia. Named the University of “Cyril & Methodius” (UKIM), this original campus complex was designed in the early modernist architectural style (by an architect I was not able to establish) and consisted of only four departments. This original UKIM campus was located along the Vardar River at the site currently occupied by the large parking lot for the Holiday Inn. This original UKIM operated for about 15 years until it was devastated by the 1963 earthquake, during which time large portions of the university completely collapsed. In the post-earthquake reconstruction process, establishing a new world-class university campus complex was one of the top points put forward to the participants submitting proposals in the competition for Skopje’s new City Center Master Plan. The subsequent winner of the competition in 1965, Japanese architect Kenzō Tange, made broad outlines for an expansive university complex that would relocate the institution across the Vardar River to a new setting just east of the Bazaar. Tange’s concept proposed an idea for three long complexes arranged in the Structuralist style laid out in a radiating orientation. However, as these were just Master Plan recommendations, much still was up for interpretation for the final architect commissioned to build the university.

A vintage photo of the 1949 UKIM campus showing destruction from the earthquake.

In February of 1967, an anonymous design competition for choosing a form for the university was announced which was organized by the university’s rectorate and the Association of Architects of Macedonia. Of the 13 proposals submitted to the competition by the October 1967 deadline, the one chosen by the selection jury as the first prize winner was a concept put forward by a Slovenian team led by architect Marko Mušič. At only 26 years of age and having graduated architecture school just the year before at the time of winning the competition, Mušič’s ambitious proposal was squaring up to be one of the most formative projects of his career and for the city of Skopje. After a planning phase of two years, construction began on Mušič’s UKIM campus in October of 1970, undertaken by the Skopje contractor “Makedonija-projekt”. Work was initially scheduled to only last two years but construction took much longer than expected, taking roughly double the expected time. The new university campus was unveiled during a ceremony on June 7th, 1974, with classes finally commencing in February of 1975. Despite the longevity of the project, many planned elements were omitted due to budgetary constraints, such as the sports center, indoor swimming hall, among other facilities.

A vintage aerial photo of Mušič’s completed UKIM campus in Skopje. Credit: jugoegzotika@Instagram

The UKIM complex which Mušič designed differed greatly from the broad plan which Tange outlined in his City Center Plan, with Mušič changing the format of the university campus from being three long radiating structures to, instead, three branching complexes oriented around a central square. The network of buildings which Mušič created are composed of prefabricated unadorned concrete panels constructed into an array of boxes, triangles and cylinders that appear as a geometric playground of dynamic shapes merging and interacting together to form a harmonious union. Avoiding the cold repetition often seen in concrete buildings of the era, it takes on a monumental atmosphere and scale, as its series of circular towers and intricately arranged facades come across as a daunting mountain monastery, imposing yet deeply inviting. It is this stylistic synthesis of Tange-inspired modernist forms mixed with traditional Macedonian architecture where Mušič shines in his creativity, taking the familiar tiered organic assemblages, architectural overhangs and wide processional stairways one might see at ancient monasteries like Saint Jovan Bigorski and reinterpreting them with new materials and new architectural perspectives. As the final product, instead of a space of religious sacredness, Mušič gives us a space of educational sacredness… austere in its unadorned concrete facades, yet complex and visionary in a way that inspires the mind. While many sources describe Mušič’s style here at the UKIM center as “brutalist” in its architectural stylings, the buildings themselves are not the cold or dark edifices one might expect from such an abundance of concrete… in fact, their interiors radiate with light which pours in through hundreds of skylights that adorn every corner of the complex, from its atriums, to its classrooms, to its presentation halls — all further evidence of Mušič’s synthesis of sacred and institutional architecture.

The great Macedonian architect Georgi Kostantinovski, who himself created numerous works for Skopje’s post-earthquake reconstruction, is quoted in a 2013 essay making the following remarks about Mušič’s efforts here designing the UKIM campus:

The drama of spatial volumes created by the three faculties does not leave the human spirit indifferent… here one feels as if one were in a world where something beyond one’s conscience is happening/occuring. Who is capable of enticing such an intense emotion as one finds oneself within such an unusual, and highly exciting environment? It is an object that belongs to education. And perhaps rightly so! In this way, Macedonia with full dignity has honoured the holy brothers, Cyril and Methodius - whose name the University Centre bears with dignity and pride.

Over the decades, the UKIM campus which Mušič created has been a cherished and integral component of Skopje’s educational landscape and a substantial symbol for the city’s post-earthquake reconstruction. While some repairs and modest changes have been made to the campus’ structure over the more than 45 years since its unveiling (such as a bronze statue of Cyril & Methodius by Boro Mitrekeski being added to the central square in 1990), it still exists largely with its original appearance and arrangement intact. Mušič’s architectural concept for UKIM has been widely praised and awarded, being showcased as part of the 2018 exhibit on Yugoslav architecture at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. However, one significant alteration to the environment of the university that is worth mentioning is a project that was put forward as part of the Skopje 2014 redevelopment project to build two new buildings within the university complex that would house the Faculty of Information Sciences & Computer Engineering and the Faculty of Physical Education. Both buildings were slated to be designed in a Neo-Baroque architectural style and were to be located in an undeveloped greenspace at the southwest corner of the university campus. The announcement of this project resulted in outcry and criticism by numerous student groups and architectural bodies. Despite these protests, construction work began in December of 2015 by contractor “Beton-Štip”, however, by July of 2019, all work on these new faculty buildings stopped as “Beton-Štip” filed for bankruptcy with less than half the project completed. Recent news articles on this controversy as of 2020 and 2021 relate that the future of these buildings is unknown, leaving the empty unfinished husks of these two projects looming over the UKIM campus with great uncertainty.

There is one final postscripts I’d mention on the architectural history of UKIM. Firstly, it is interesting to note that after the initial UKIM campus was built in Skopje in 1949, a second campus was completed two years later in 1951 for the Faculty of Natural Sciences & Mathematics, located on the southern slopes of Gazi Baba Hill. Also built in a similar early modernist style, it was created by another Slovene architect, Edvard Ravnikar, who was unquestio