I know I’ve seen the Master Plan
—Drugstore feat. Thom Yorke, El President (1998)
The fascination exerted by post-communist places never seems to wear off. In the perspective of recently published photographic works such as Frédéric Chaubin’s Cosmic Communist Constructions Photographed, Roman Bezjak’s Socialist Modernism and Jan Kempenaers‘s Spomeniks, or the latest collaborative book of Armin Linke and Srdjan Jovanovic Weiss Socialist Architecture: The Vanishing Act, the photographic work of Lorenz Bürgi on Skopje could, at first glance, illustrate further and not more than- the romantic attraction of decaying post-communist concrete architecture. But Skopje, capital of the Former Yugoslavian Republic of Macedonia, bears a different past than other cities behind the Iron Gate and a particular relation to architectural and urban utopias.
On a summer morning in 1963, it was reduced to rubble by a 6.1-level earthquake. In the dead of the Cold War, this disastrous event took a significant political turn as Marshall Tito-led Yugoslavian Federation was courted by the USSR -willing to warm up relations after the break-up with Stalin and by Western powers alike. Visiting the city in ruins, Tito told its citizens: “Skopje has endured a terrible catastrophe, but Skopje will be rebuilt with the help of the whole society, it will become a symbol of brotherhood and unity, of Yugoslav and world-wide solidarity.” Indeed, 78 countries gave assistance in several ways: money, expertise, supplies of all sorts, and even in the architectural form. Buildings were offered, not only the Swedish shelters or the Bulgarian-donated Concert Hall, but also a whole new city.
In fact, the UN stepped in and organized an international urban planning competition won by the young Japanese architect Kenzo Tange in 1964. “Skopje’s symbolic significance, for Macedonia, for Yugoslavia and for a troubled world, had become so great that the basic decision to rebuild it as a model of all that city planning could be was a foregone conclusion”1 reads the United Nation book publishing the results. Skopje was to become a Masterpiece of Master planning. According to the jury report on Tange’s entry, “the main conception … is based upon a contrast between the inner city and the rest of the city center, … [with] a strong framing by large residential buildings which form [the] City Wall …, an imposing building group with [a] transportation loop symbolizing the main City Gate.”2 The visionary Japanese had drafted a Metabolist city. What was actually built consistently differs from his concept. There are many reasons on why it so,3 but what has been built nevertheless left a distinctive mark on Skopje’s urban environment. Visibility of the Master Plan is not to be denied, as the Metabolist hallucination materializes in the public buildings commissioned resulting Tange’s project. Marko Musić’s University (1974), Biro77 National Ballet (1979) or Konstantinov’s Post Office (1974) all followed the guidelines, the programmatic frame, the zoning, the esthetics established by the Master Plan. Even Konstantinovski’s City Archive (1968) and the Student Complex (1969) with its Blade Runner-like towers, both built out of the plan perimeter, cannot be denied legacy to the raw-concrete, massive volumes and visionary design of Tange’s. Nothing illustrates it better than the Transportation Center (1968), which preliminary design has been done by Tange himself and where the decaying state of platforms cannot conceal the powerful gestures of the visionary architect. But while parts of Skopje’s urban fabric is still composed of dense areas of low self-built constructions in local and cheap materials or as the ancient city center constituted with antique ottoman constructions, mosques, minarets and one-floor tiny shops, the Metabolist vision turns to delusion: “Skopje is like a metabolists graveyard full with skeletons of long forgotten dinosaurs, too large for the present, too small for the past.”4
Nearly 50 years after the rebuilding efforts, this photographic essay attempts to identify the traces of the 1963 Master Plan, observing decay, documenting scale clashes but also how the city and its inhabitants have absorbed through daily use and appropriation this somehow distant architectural fantasy, attempting to make it their own.