Skopje’s 1963 Quake: From Ruins to Modernist Resurrection
Updated: Apr 4
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.
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.
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
Name: Telecommunications Center & Post Office HQ (PTT Center)
Author: Janko Konstantinov (with Dušanka Balabanovska, Lenka Janeva, Kostadinka Pemova and Mimora Kapsarova)
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.
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 [