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The building of the “Macedonian Opera and Ballet” from 1979, photo © Peter Sägesser
Kenzo Tange and Socialism
by Sägesser Peter
2/20/2013

A whole 20 seconds: That was the duration of the earthquake that destroyed the city of Skopje almost 50 years ago on July 26, 1963. More than 1,000 lost their lives and three quarters of the city was reduced to rubble. The Ottoman old town north of the Vardar River was the only part to emerge from the quake mostly unscathed. Barely had the last aftershocks subsided and authorities were already set on the city’s reconstruction. Skopje would become an experimental laboratory for a 1970s utopian socialist vision of urban development.

Skopje’s fate became the subject of worldwide interest, receiving offers of support and aid from across the globe. Neither a part of the Eastern bloc nor a member of NATO, Yugoslavia had been pursuing its own political path during the Cold War. As a result Skopje provided the backdrop for the first meeting between US and Soviet soldiers since World War II deployed to assist with the city’s reconstruction. Understandably the undertaking assumed huge symbolic importance for the United Nations who two years after the earthquake announced an urban planning competition for the city in a bid to demonstrate that solidarity was in fact possible under their guidance. Eight architectural firms were invited to take part. Four from Yugoslavia, four from other countries. The list of those invited boasted the leading urban planners of the time: Bakema and Van den Broek from Holland, Kenzo Tange from Japan and Aleksandar Đorđević, Radovan Miščević, Fedor Wenzler and Edvard Ravnikar from Yugoslavia. Projects by Miščević/Wenzler and Kenzo Tange came out on top with first prize. The fact that Kenoz Tange’s project was ultimately chosen for implementation was closely related to the radical vision and the greater propagandistic potential it brought with it, for the United Nations as much as for Yugoslavia and Japan.

In the same year, Kenzo Tange made a guest appearance at the CIAM X Congress in Dubrovnik. Impressed by the city’s lucid urban layout, Dubrovnik became the paragon for Skopje’s redevelopment. As in Dubrovnik, plans foresaw a “city wall” formed of residential buildings encircling the city, while a monumental central access route would symbolize a “city gate” – a linear axis conceived as a multi-level link between the train station and city center and flanked by office high-rises and malls.

Tange was one of key members of the Japanese “Metabolists”. Having proposed an urban macrostructure for Tokyo as early as 1960, he now had the chance to realize his ideas in Skopje; though it must be said that Tange did see an advantage in the fact that Yugoslavia was a Socialist country. “Yugoslavia is a socialist country in which land is not privately held, the city government had sufficient power to make it possible to introduce our total plan.” (Lin Zhongjie: Kenzo Tange and the Metabolist Movement, Urban Utopias of Modern Japan, New York, 2010)

This top-down approach may have been in touch with the zeitgeist but not with the reality on the ground. While they had their heads down working on the master plan, the city had moved on in its development. In the end only a part of Tange’s plan was realized. Today, the “city wall” is around a third of the size originally planned, whereas the train station and the commercial bank tower were the only elements of the “city gate” to become a reality. The 1973 City Shopping Center provides a mere inkling of how this “city gate” axis might look today.

Although Tange’s master plan was only realized in rather fragmentary fashion, it certainly paved the way for other visionary projects, such as the Goce Delčev Student Complex and the Georgi Konstantinovski City Archive. Macedonian architect Janko Konstantinov also created an organic concrete sculpture as the Central Skopje Post Office, while fellow native Marko Musić concentrated on the old town’s labyrinth of little lanes and squares in his design for the university building. But the most impressive of all is the Macedonian Opera and Ballet built in 1979. It looks less like a building, more like a mountain range whose slopes cascade down to the Vardar River, reminiscent of the Oslo Opera House by Snøhetta or modern-day buildings by Zaha Hadid.

Today the government shows little sympathy towards these ailing architectural relics from the 1960s and 1970s. The buildings are barely even maintained. Some of the rooms on the Goce Delčev complex have been declared inhabitable by dint of water leaks and across the city large-scale demolition greets you whichever way you turn. The governing Conservatives are now planning to erect a plethora of monuments, buildings and memorials as part of their “Skopje 2014” initiative – a task seen as formative for this small country’s identity. The architects on board have been instructed to stick to a pseudo-classical style in their designs. Whereby the aim of “Skopje 2014” manifests itself as nothing less than a rewriting of history; the buildings that bear witness to the period of Socialism are a naturally rather troublesome for such an undertaking. Since the new builds will primarily house government ministries, they will not yield any kind of return and will certainly prove a burden for the state in the future. I guess that the funds so desperately needed for the maintenance of such wonderful buildings as the Opera or the student complex will remain consistent in their absence.

Portrait of Kenzo Tange in the train station of Skopje, photo © Peter Sägesser
Architect Janko Konstantinov built the Post and Telecommunication Center in 1974, photo © Peter Sägesser
The 22-meter-high equestrian statue of Alexander the Great on the Plostad central square, photo © Peter Sägesser
A light show on the façades of the Supreme Court and the Archaeological Museum, photo © Peter Sägesser
Between 1966 and 1972 these residential buildings were built at the “city wall”, photo © Peter Sägesser
More residential buildings form part of the “city wall” devised by Kenzo Tange, photo © Peter Sägesser
Building regardless of the past: The Music Academy (right) hidden behind new builds, photo © Peter Sägesser
New classical façades for existing buildings from the 1960s, photo © Peter Sägesser
The City Shopping Center from 1973, photo © Peter Sägesser