Mapping Skopje’s modernism inadvertently leads to a valuable lesson about New Albanian “set design.”


Regular readers are familiar with my offbeat obsessions, among them the pros and cons of Modernist architecture. In this article, the architectural intersects with the European … the Balkan, no less.

Big time sweet spot. Here’s the link, followed by some background.

Mapping Skopje’s Modernism, by Feargus O’Sullivan (CityLab)

An earthquake hit the city in July 1963, killing over 1,000 people and leaving 200,000 homeless. The inventive, vernacular-influenced designs behind the rebuild are worth celebrating.

Skopje, one of Europe’s lesser known capitals, is an unlikely battleground for an internationally debated architectural clash. In recent years, the capital of what is still (but may not for long be) called the Republic of Macedonia has developed some notoriety as the location of a new set of extremely bombastic, neo-historicist buildings and monuments that supposedly pay tribute to a hazy and heavily contested regional past. As a new publication points out, however, this steroidal historicism is only part of the city’s architectural story.

It wasn’t until the summer of 2017, when viewing my long-lost slides from 1987, that I finally fathomed the intended pattern of those buildings I saw in Skopje. 

1987 European Summer: “Skopje, capital city of Macedonia, is a dream world for lovers of cosmic concrete communist-era architecture.”

My visit to Skopje in 1987 was purely accidental, but it made a deep impression.

30 years ago today (May, 1987): Five days in Skopje with the greatest seismologist of them all.

Returning to O’Sullivan’s essay, he references a phenomenon I’ve written about on a regular basis, wherein local governments eager to coordinate all aspects of construction and “beautification” projects in which they’ve chosen to initiate and/or partner (using public money), invariably prefer artificial design templates of dubious aesthetic value, ones more appropriate to the plasticity of Disney theme parks than varied urban settings.

Precisely, writes O’Sullivan; this same impulse has impelled Skopje’s city fathers to construct grandiose replicas of buildings that never existed rather than honor their specific cultural legacy — which even the detested Brutalists managed to do amid Communism after the earthquake.

Consequently, I’ve seldom seen it expressed better than O’Sullivan does in this passage. Replace his “Mussolini-era” with my “Disneyesque,” and voila — all my critiques of New Albanian government-imposed design flaws in a nutshell.

These new buildings seem less inspired by architecture than set design, an aspiration underlined by the government’s yen for recladding many modernist survivals with neoclassical details so that they look like housing projects dressed up as Mussolini-era stations for Halloween.

“Set design.”

That’s it.