Skopje’s 1963 Quake: From Ruins to Modernist Resurrection

Updated: Jul 7, 2021

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 three large fresco murals located behind the counter which were painted by famous Macedonian artist Borko Lazeski, 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, 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 unquestionably among the most famous architects in all Yugoslavia. Ravnikar’s 1951 UKIM building survived the 1963 quake and continues to operate up to the present day. More can be learned about this institution at THIS link [page 107].

 

3.) “Goce Delčev” Student Dormitory

A vintage postcard view of the “Goce Delčev” Student Dormitory in Skopje.

Name: “Goce Delčev” Student Dormitory

Author(s): Georgi Konstantinovski

Years: 1969-1973

Coordinates: 41°59'57.2"N 21°23'24.2"E


As part of the post-earthquake reconstruction of the “Cyril & Methodius” University in Skopje, city planners also made arrangements for the creation of a massive complex that would accommodate thousands of the city’s university students, a type of expansive accommodation that never existed before the earthquake. In the late 1960s, a competition was organized by Skopje authorities for determining what shape this dormitory would take. Architects from across Yugoslavia submitted proposals for this project and, like many such architects, significant numbers of them were so emotionally moved by this cause that they came back from studying abroad to take part in this endeavor. Among those in such a situation was Macedonian architect Georgi Konstantinovski, who was studying in the USA at the time with famous American modernist architect Paul Rudolph. After all submissions were evaluated by a selection jury, it was Konstantinovski’s concept which was awarded first prize in the competition. On the 25th anniversary of Skopje’s WWII Liberation Day, November 13th, 1969, ground was broken on this construction project and was completed four years later in 1973. The official name given to the dormitory was the “Goce Delčev” Student Dormitory, named after the famous Macedonian revolutionary. The complex went on to win many architectural awards and was highly praised by critics and government authorities during the time it was unveiled.


The student dormitory which Konstantinovski constructed is a dauntingly expansive complex that consists of four main towers nestled in the western suburbs of Skopje in the neighborhood of Taftalidže. Each of the four towers stands 55m tall and consists of 18 levels, with the capacity to accommodate approximately 1,200 students across 20,000 square meters of floor space. The facade of the complex is relatively simple, composed of unadorned concrete assembled in prefabricated sections. The form of each of the towers is identical, characterized by its rectangular footprint that soars at its short edges in dramatically angular spires that are punctuated by long cantilever balconies. Meanwhile, the broad facade bears deep recessed furrows that accentuate the tower’s strong vertical visuals. Konstantinovski put considerable effort into cultivating connectivity and student comfort in his design of this complex, making sure that the living space was vast, yet intimate, connected, yet private and welcoming, yet functional. Part of this connectivity was cultivated through not only shared common areas, but also through the creation of sky bridges between the dorm towers, which facilitated an ease of travel for students from dorm to dorm. Furthermore, all four of the towers are constructed around a central courtyard that provides ample space for social interaction and extracurricular activity. Original intentions for the complex planned for additional facilities to be constructed as part of this project, such as a sports facility, theater and cultural center, but these were never realized. Finally, it is also of note to point out that Konstantinovski’s “Goce Delčev” dorm bears numerous similarities to the famous “Tracey Towers” in Bronx neighborhood of New York City, which was created by his former teacher Paul Rudolph during the same exact time frame that Konstantinovski was creating his dorm complex here in Skopje.

A vintage image of students in a common area of the dorms.

Many interviews with Konstantinovski reveal that the “Goce Delčev” Student Dormitory was among the most beloved creations of his career. He kept offices at the architecture faculty of the University of Skopje until his final years, where he made regular visits to the dorms, constantly interacting with students and sometimes even making presentations there. In an interview that journalist Emilija Petreska conducted with Konstantinovski in 2013, she makes the following observations (her words here translated into English):

He ended the conversation by saying that he was glad that "Goce" was not seen only as a place to live. Konstantinovski was never more happy than when a student who was living in the dormitory came to his office and showed him pictures of his room. He says that "Goce" is a kind of architectural sculpture that should inspire students to create.

However, while many students who have spent time here relate fond memories of their years living in this dormitory, with many students even working on revitalization projects to enrich the space, many students found the accommodations falling into a state of neglect and deterioration in the post-Yugoslav era. A lack of regular maintenance over the 1990s and early 2000s led to many of the facilities within the dorms descending into a sub-standard state. This situation came to a head in March of 2014, when a post on the social media website Reddit showing a gallery of images of the decaying condition of the dorm went viral. These images had originated from a blog post by a student group at the University of Skopje called “Operacija studentski/Operation Dorm”, who were protesting the living conditions of the dorm. While some critics of this student group called their actions “unpatriotic”, news of the poor conditions at the dorm spread to news outlets around the world. However, despite the scandal,, one news article claims that the Macedonian Ministry of Education did not take action on fixing the situation until an incendiary feature piece was published in the British newspaper “The Independent”, which compared the dorm to a “horror film” location. Work began on renovating the dorm units in 2015, with some photos showing progress made available at THIS article, however, work is ongoing up to the present-day and much more is expected to be done. In 2016, student filmmaker Sandra Gjorgieva made a short film titled “Green Walls, Black Food” about the poor condition of the “Goce Delčev” dorms, interviewing not only students who live there, but also talking with the architect Georgi Konstantinovski. During Gjorgieva discussions with Konstantinovski in the film, he makes the following statements about the situation (translated here into English):

A mother takes care of her child, we, the architects, take care of our works and our arts. When I saw my child in that state, and I know exactly how it was, can you imagine how I felt. Terrible. There wasn’t a single square meter in the building that wasn’t thought out well. The students used to love living there, and the first generations have the most beautiful memories from the dormitory.
 

4.) Opera & Ballet House

A vintage Yugoslav-era image of the Skopje Opera & Ballet House.

Name: Macedonian Opera & Ballet

Author: Biro 71 (Štefan Kacin, Jurij Princes, Bogdan Splinder & Marjan Uršič)

Years: 1973-1981

Coordinates: 41°59'48.5"N, 21°26'09.9"E


The first major theater in Skopje was constructed in its city center on the north banks of the Vardar River in 1906 during the Ottoman era, commonly known as “The Turkish Theater”. It was a wood structure of a rectangular shape accentuated by an impressive multi-tiered hip roof. However, sources report that the theater burned down just ten years later in a fire during WWI in 1916. A second opera house was constructed on the same site during the Kingdom of Yugoslavia era in 1927 by architect Josip Bukovac. Inaugurated in person by King Alexander I Karađorđević (and named after him in the process), his new theater was fashioned in the Beaux Arts style, comprised of a highly ornate facade characterized by square domed towers, Neoclassical statues and abundant roof balustrades. After WWII, ASNOM declared that the King Alexander I Theater would be renamed the “Macedonian National Theater” (MNT). The first opera to be performed here under this new name was the Italian opera “Cavalleria Rusticana” on May 9th, 1947. The MNT operated successfully for more than 15 years, putting on dozens of operas, up until the Skopje earthquake struck on July 26th, 1963. After the quake, the MNT was left in such a tattered and unusable state that it was necessary that the complex be demolished.


The 1927 MNT building.

When it came to reconstructing the city of Skopje after the earthquake of 1963, including an expansive performing arts center for the city was a top priority for Skopje officials. In the 1965 City Center Master Plan for Skopje designed by architect Kenzō Tange, the location for the theater complex was moved from the site of the old MNT at the base of Kale Fortress to a more significant central space within the city center, with Tange’s plan even suggesting a broadly conceived architectural concept for the complex. A design competition for the new performing arts complex was initiated in 1967 (for Yugoslav participants only), with 40 architectural teams from across the country submitting concepts. Sources relate that the competition guidelines set no rules for submissions other than they be of a “contemporary architectural expression”. When the competition’s jury evaluated all of these entries the following year in 1968, they chose the proposal put forward by Ljubljana-based design firm “Biro 71” as the first place winner. The Biro 71 team was composed of the Slovene architects Štefan Kacin, Jurij Princes, Bogdan Splinder & Marjan Uršič, with this being the first significant commission in their careers. The winning concept put forward by Biro 71 for a performing arts complex, which was dubbed simply the “Cultural Center”, consisted of an opera/ballet theater, a philharmonic, a cinema, a music/ballet school, a Stopanska Banka building, in addition to shops and parking structures. Tange’s original planned layout for the complex envisioned buildings around a closed square, however, Biro 71 altered this configuration and instead oriented the buildings around an open plaza flowing down towards the Vardar River. This new orientation not only allowed an interface between its visitors and the river, but it also visually opened the plaza and its buildings as a new urban skyline to the pedestrians of the bustling promenade of “November 13th Quay” on the south side of the river. After three years of pre-planning, construction on the complex began in 1973 (undertaken by the companies “Beton” and “Makedonija-projekt”), however, due to budgetary constraints, only the opera/ballet theater and the Stopanska Banka were fully realized. After nearly seven years of work, construction on the complex was finished in 1980. After three more years of interior preparations and installations, the first show within the Opera & Ballet Theater was “That is a Man” (тоа е човек) by composer Ljubomir Branđolica on February 10th, 1983.


Originally designated as the “Macedonian National Theater” - MNT (but later known as the “Macedonia Opera & Ballet” - MOB), the complex created by Biro 71 consists of a massive performing arts theater that houses over 16,000 square meters of space. The exterior of the MOB is primarily characterized by its white stone surface, which takes the form of a dynamic collection of sharply geometric planes that rise gradually from the ground upwards away from the Vardar River. As this jagged arrangement of planes slopes down towards the river, it opens up into a large plaza of broadly descending stairs that echoes the fractal geometric patterns of the MOB. This mass of soaring white shards of fractured planes created by Biro 71 is noted by numerous sources to be highly reminiscent of the 1824 Casper David Friedrich painting “The Sea of Ice”, which depicts a dramatic scene of sharp piled Arctic sea ice tearing a large wooden ship apart. This painting, which is also said to have been the inspiration for Jørn Utzon’s Sydney Opera House in Australia, conveys a particularly poignant symbolism in the case of Skopje — as the wooden ship in Friedrich’s painting is torn apart by the churning movement of ice beneath it, so too was Skopje torn apart by the moving earth beneath it on that fateful day in 1963. A further explanation for the distinct sloping character of the MOB complex is that in the original brief for the design competition, the description asked participating architects to have the buildings in their design get shorter the closer they were to the river, in order to increase airflow along the river corridor. With this in mind, Biro 71’s solution was an altogether innovative solution to this challenge.

A contemporary aerial view of the Skopje Opera & Ballet House. Credit: International Cultural Centre
A vintage Yugoslav-era image of Biro 71's Stopanska Banka wing of the performing arts center. Credit: jugoegzotika@Instagram

The interior of the MOB is accessed via a broad main entrance corridor that leads in from the direction of the riverfront, opening up like a funnel out onto the plaza. Once inside the MOB, the fractal geometry seen on the exterior continues within the interior space as well. Dark red carpets and marble floors usher theater-goers through crystalline hallways, swooping internal verandas and angular passageways, all of which is given further dimension as it is dramatically illuminated by spears of light which penetrate into the building through unexpected windows. The walls of the interior are of a pure white, emphasized by playful profile lighting as well as by large-scale modernist paintings by some of Macedonia’s most famous mid-century artists. The MOB houses two theaters, one which holds roughly 800, in addition to an experimental theater which holds about 200. The space of the main theater is particularly unique, with its streamlined folding sky-blue seats arranged in several rows of fragmented angles that rise up in an unusually steep manner to look out upon pure white walls and ceilings. Sources attest that this unconventional configuration of the main theater was an effort by the architects to achieve optimal acoustics for patrons seated in any position. The main stage itself is impressively wide and deep, offering maximal viewing and excellent scenography. Finally, recessed beneath the stage is an orchestra pit which can accommodate over 80 musicians.

Over the decades, the MOB became a central symbol and iconic landmark for the city of Skopje, with its distinctive roof shape acting as a singular part of the skyline along the river. However, while many residents of Skopje appreciated the building, it must be said that the MOB was among the most controversial of the post-earthquake reconstruction projects, with many feeling that its large imposing presence right in the center did not conform to the city’s flow or aesthetics. However, at the same time, there are other contemporary critics which call the MOB one of the greatest architectural achievements of Skopje’s reconstruction. The end of the Yugoslav-era saw a de-emphasis of the MOB, with a lack of regular maintenance leading to numerous elements of the complex slowly deteriorating, most notably the plaza and many exterior elements. As such, rumors began to swirl around about the future of the site, with some saying that it could be demolished, while others said that it was going to be given a Baroque facade as part of the Skopje 2014 redevelopment project. However, at the end of the day, neither of these things occurred (with courts blocking the potential for faux-facade installations), but, instead, two new Baroque buildings were strategically constructed in 2015 along the river within the plaza in front of the MOB, a move which essentially blocked the MOB’s visibility from the touristic November 13th Quay area across the river. The importance of the MOB was further de-emphasized by the government authorities when a replica of the 1927 Macedonian National Theater was built at its original location as part of the Skopje 2014 project, as the country’s opera and ballet companies began to transition to that new complex. Yet, despite this decreasing visibility and prominence of the MOB within the cultural cityscape of Skopje itself, the images and blueprints of the complex were showcased as part of the 2018 exhibition on the history of Yugoslav architecture at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, something that gave the structure renewed international recognition.


A final note on the opera & ballet theater complex is that with the signing of the Prespa Agreement in 2019, a document which officially changed the country’s name to “North Macedonia”, the word “Macedonian” was subsequently removed from the name of the theater (the word itself being torn from the marquee at the front entrance), with the new name of the theater changed to the “National Opera & Ballet” (NOB). The official website for the NOB can be found at THIS link.

 

5.) The Museum of Contemporary Art

A vintage Yugoslav-era view of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Skopje.

Name: Museum of Contemporary Art

Author(s): Wacław Kłyszewski, Jerzy Mokrzyński & Eugeniusz Wierzbicki (aka: Warsaw Tigers)

Years: 1968-1970

Coordinates: 42°00'14.7"N 21°25'60.0"E


In the aftermath of Skopje’s 1963 earthquake, there was an outpouring of support and assistance from nations and organizations around the world which came in a variety of forms, such as supplies, building material, food aid, professional assistance, etc etc. One of the unique forms of support the global community offered to Skopje was a wealth of artwork. In fact, the International Art Association (based out of Paris) encouraged artists around the world to contribute to Skopje works of art as a charitable gesture. As these donated paintings, sculptures and other art pieces began to accumulate, a decision was made in 1964 that it was necessary to establish a brand new institution in order to accommodate this massive collection, which would come to be known as the “Museum of Contemporary Art” (aka ‘MoCA’). However, with MoCA’s collection continuing to increase through the mid-60s, the small exhibition spaces being used around the city to display the works were deemed insufficient and it was decided that a brand new museum was needed. Sources relate that MoCA’s first director, Dr. Boris Petkovski, offered the opportunity to design the new museum of famous French architect Le Corbusier, however, he turned down the offer. It was at this point in 1965 that the government of Poland stepped in to donate to the city of Skopje a new art museum to hold their MoCA collection.


To select an appropriate form for this art museum, the Association of Polish Architects in Warsaw organized a design competition in January of 1966 that was to last four months, with the competition’s criteria for the museum’s necessities outlined by Petkovski. Of the 89 proposals that were ultimately submitted, the concept proposal that was awarded first prize for this competition was a submission put forward by an architect team known as the “Warsaw Tigers”, made up of Wacław Kłyszewski, Jerzy Mokrzyński & Eugeniusz Wierzbicki, who were some of the most ambitious and innovative architects in Poland. The location chosen to construct the MoCA complex was selected by the Project Manager of Skopje's reconstruction, Adolf Ciborowski, and was on the highest point of the Kale hilltop overlooking the Vardar River just north of the fortress, thus making it an extremely visible and conspicuous object and increasing the pressure on the architects to produce a magnificent object that the public could appreciate and enjoy. Construction work on the art museum began in April of 1969 and was finally completed roughly a year and a half later, being unveiled to the public on November 13th, 1970, a day which marked the 26th anniversary since Skopje’s WWII liberation from Axis occupation. Sources relate that during the opening ceremony, Macedonian poet and linguistic scholar Blaže Koneski gave a speech and made the following remarks:

This kind of building makes you communicate with the world. It is not hidden in some Balkan alley, it instead stands upright to perceive the old and the new town of Skopje and the widespread areas surrounding it, all in just one glance. Let this building stand as a white swan opening its wings over the tranquil banks of the town of Skopje.
A vintage Yugoslav-era view of the Museum of Contemporary Art. Credit: MoCA Archive