It has been one of those years in which, if I didn't have any photographs,…
(Editor’s note: My apologies for the crazy layout of the photographs in this story. I shot these images on slide film and then scanned them to place them into this post. For some reason, WordPress is not happy with them and no matter what I try I cannot get them to line up nicely. Please scroll to the bottom to see all the images I’ve put in here. Again, apologies.)
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“He killed himself” Thats what the brusk elf of a guard at the Skopje Macedonia central post office said to me.
I hadn’t even asked. “He was so humiliated by the finished product he couldn’t take it and he stabbed himself with a samurai sword. Can you blame him?” The little little man waved his arm around the building.
Just how bad does it have to be for an architect to commit suicide upon seeing the completion of their design?
An architectural tour of Skopje Macedonia might answer that question for you. Or, like me, you might just fall in love with some of the oddest example of “brutalist” architecture anywhere.
Earthquakes for Opportunity
In the early morning hours of July 16, 1963, a 6.9 earthquake walloped the ancient city (then part of Yugoslavia) for around 20 seconds. When it was over, more than 1,000 people were dead and 80% of the city was destroyed. Over 100,000 were homeless. Skopje had been a beautiful, old-style European city. The quake end
Almost immediately, the international community pulled together and, under the guidence of the United Nations, poured relief and aid into the city. 78 countries either send aid or began working on rebuilding particular institutions. Simultaneously, the idea arose for an international competition to redesign the city and ed that. The National Bank, the train station, the Army House and National Theatre all collapsed. Administrativebuildings, mosques, hans, mammams as well as the old walls and towers of the fortress were destroyed. The old neighborhoods of the city center simply ceased to exist.
It was an opportunity to completely redesign a city.
Bring in the Architects!
In 1965, Japanese architect Kenzo Tange won the UN competition for the re-planning of Skopje.
Tange envisioned a city wall of high-rise apartement blocks surrounding the city center. These were to be a mirror of the fortress walls. Other architects were to submit design proposals for particular public buildings. Tange’s vision was dominated by the extreme use of unfinished, unpainted concrete slabs and an amazing disregard for human-scale.
The first thing that struck me about Skopje was the large amount of open space in the city center. This was also Tenge’s idea.
The intention was to create large areas of mass culture meeting space. What he ended up with were great holes in the heart of the city that simply filled with blowing bits of trash. I walked in circles in these great fields then found myself in awe at the absolutely otherworldly buildings that the re-development created.
Skopje is a complicated, multi-layered reality distinctly lacking in the east European charm of places like Pristina. The redesign
attempted to turn the city into a machine as opposed to a place for humans to live. And yet, the vitality of the cafe and public park culture and its ‘resistance to corporatism’ as some planners claim lends this city a different kind of charm that made it among the best of urban centers in the Balkans to visit. Skopje is a complicated place.
Janko Konstantinov’s Post Office
The landmark of it all though is the central post office by the Macedonian architect Janko Konstantinov, a student of the legendary Finnish architect Alvar Aalto. The first phase of the building was completed in 1974. The spider-spaceship looking thingy was completed in 1982. A completely abstract creation of re-inforced concrete…..well, you’ve got to go inside to appreciate it. Borko Zazeski’s interior murals are fantastic but photographing them will get you a tongue-lashing by the guards.
Konstantinov also designed the Medical University and the Nikola Karev High School. A few others to note are the Historical Archives building, the National Bank and the student dorms by Gorgi Konstantinovski. Of course the best one is the State Hydrometeorological Institute building by Krsto Todorovski on the road to old Skupi. Wow.
So did Konstantinov kill himself for the post office? No. But it maakes for a
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