Ten years on, is ‘Skopje 2014’ a sign of the future?

North Macedonia’s right-nationalist VMRO-DPMNE won a landslide electoral victory this week, retaking power with almost three times the votes of their rival, pro-European Social Democrats. VMRO-DPMNE’s 2014 redevelopment of capital Skopje rapidly passed into regional legend, with the Eurosceptic party replacing Modernist architecture with gleaming neo-classical facades and a vast array of statuary depicting Macedonian heroes.

The ‘Skopje 2014’ project was widely understood as goading regional rivals and EU members Bulgaria and Greece by claiming aspects of their heritage. Both states have since issued multiple demands to the landlocked country in exchange for accepting their accession to NATO and the EU, culminating in the country’s name change to ‘North’ Macedonia.

With VMRO-DPMNE’s ascendancy marking a pivot away from the EU, the deeper political implications of a project often dismissed as mere nationalist window-dressing are worth considering. Ivan Mirkovski, a Skopje-based architect and professor of urban design at UACS who has worked to consider alternatives to the project, spoke to Masina to share his perspective on the project’s implications for the ‘intersection of national identity and urban planning’.

What was VMRO-DPMNE’s intention with the Skopje 2014 project, and why has or hasn’t this project been successful?

When the Millennium Cross was erected atop Mount Vodno [overlooking Skopje] in the early 2000s, we feared it was the architectural apocalypse. As a friend once remarked, it would be “the death of architecture.” Yet, following the unveiling of the ‘Skopje 2014’ project, we began to reconsider—perhaps the Cross wasn’t such a bad idea after all.

The Skopje 2014 project, aimed at revamping the Macedonian capital with neoclassical facades and grand monuments, has often been criticized as architectural pastiche. A stark transformation, which we critically termed “Disneyfication”. Skopje 2014 was quickly identified as part of a larger political agenda. I wouldn’t go further [by] repeat[ing] any of the texts that showed up everywhere around the intellectual world, profiting out of the situation by [terming Skopje’s architecture] bastard, kitsch or turbo-folk, creating a sensationalistic aura while fast-track producing fancy books.

The debate was all about aesthetics, about the political games against our southern neighbor [Greece], the political corruption and uneducated architects and planner. But it should have been more of a political discourse on scale, visibility and strategy, extending beyond aesthetics to consider the strategic, visible scale of the project.

[The project’s] expansive reach parallels historical international endeavors, such as Hansen’s 19th-century Parliament building in Vienna and urban projects in [Uzbekistan’s capital] Ashgabat, suggesting that Skopje’s approach is not unique but part of a broader architectural and political phenomenon.

The motivations of the political body at the time remain ambiguous—were they addressing a national inferiority complex or seeking to forge a national identity?  What lessons might Skopje 2014 offer for future projects at the intersection of national identity and urban planning is yet to be seen.

Do different political actors in the country have other perspectives on how the city should continue to be developed?

Different political actors have indeed proposed varied strategies (a term I prefer over “perspectives”) for the city’s growth. These range from planned, politically neutral approaches to those that are purely aesthetic. The energy and force behind Skopje 2014, however, overshadowed all prior initiatives, setting a precedent in our nation’s recent history. It’s important to note that there was never a unified stance against the project’s direction, especially concerning our identity and architectural legacy.

From my own experience, having been deeply involved in crafting alternative visions to these so-called “antiquization” tactics, I’ve struggled to reconnect Skopje with its post-earthquake identity as a City of Solidarity [when the city was reconstructed with joint assistance from Washington and Moscow following a devastating 1963 earthquake].

Viewing these efforts from today’s standpoint might suggest a lost cause, especially when considering the political and other perspectives that continue to shape our city’s development narrative. Nonetheless, these experiences underline the ongoing struggle to define and redefine the architectural and cultural identity of Skopje within the modern geopolitical context.

What changes in the urban landscape and development of Skopje would be most beneficial for locals, and how can they be achieved?

It’s clear that the city’s critical weakness lies in its inadequate infrastructure. From public transportation to reliable utilities and accessible green spaces, these foundational aspects require urgent attention. Previous efforts have been sporadic and often more about serving political narratives than effecting real change.

A successful strategy would involve detailed urban planning that prioritizes both immediate relief and long-term sustainability. For instance, enhancing and developing public transport is of an utmost priority, while upgrading utility networks could improve quality of life and economic efficiency.  The challenge, however, is the pervasive influence of political agendas that often prioritize short-term gains over comprehensive development. Breaking this cycle requires transparent processes and accountability mechanisms to ensure that projects align with the community’s best interests.

Would EU accession create benefits for people living in Skopje (particularly in terms of urban development), or could it also present problems?

I am confident that EU accession would significantly benefit Skopje, particularly in terms of urban development. Joining the EU would provide collaboration and the exchange of resources and know-how, which are crucial for modernizing our urban infrastructure. Skopje could tap into EU structural funds, which would provide financial support for major projects such as public transportation upgrades, energy efficiency improvements, and the development of public spaces [and] also engage in more structured urban planning processes.

However, EU accession is not without its challenges. The adaptation to EU norms and regulations may require significant adjustments in local governance structures and could impose financial strains, particularly in the short term. Additionally, the pressures of aligning with EU standards might lead to increased costs of living and construction, potentially impacting housing affordability for local residents.

VMRO-DPMNE’s vision of the Macedonian past is clear enough. Are there any other narratives of Macedonian or regional history which could help to animate an alternative future politics?

Other narratives would be difficult to comprehend as the history of our identity is strongly embedded in the socio-anthropological landscape. So all alternative politics would definitely fish in the same pond, but using a different kind of bait.


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