Skopje’s 1963 Quake: From Ruins to Modernist Resurrection

Updated: Jul 7

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.