Slavko Brezoski was already an established architect when the city around him was reduced to rubble one July morning in 1963, an event that would dominate the rest of his working life.
The earthquake that struck the Macedonian capital Skopje, then part of the former Yugoslavia, just over half a century ago killed more than 1,000 people and wiped out around three quarters of its buildings.
One of the few left standing was a department store that shared its name with the city, designed by Brezoski in 1956 and built in 1960 on the central square.
A five-storey creation of white marble and glass, it is one of Brezoski’s best-known works, part of a wave of modernism that swept socialist former Yugoslavia and which would see post-earthquake Skopje rebuilt in a futuristic style unrivalled in the region.
Today, however, the building – which later became the City Gallery – is unrecognisable.
It is one of dozens of buildings hidden or about to be hidden behind neo-classical facades and hollow colonnades in a radical makeover of the city called Skopje 2014, designed to resurrect antiquity and burnish a sense of national identity based on Macedonia’s claim to Alexander the Great.
Now 94 years old, it pains Brezoski to see what has become of his work, worse still, he says, because he never gave his consent.
|A Skopje tower block with a new neo-classical facade on one side. The back of the building is untouched. Photo: Bojan Blazhevski|
Thin and frail but of firm voice, Brezoski told BIRN he met the mayor of Skopje, Koce Trajanovski, and an aide in 2013 and was given a statement to sign saying he had no objection to the change of facade.
Brezoski refused, and wrote on the paper in an unsteady hand: “Planted for signature. I did not sign.”
He recalled telling Trajanovski: “This isn’t for me. I told you that I don’t agree for it to be touched.”
But touched it was, along with more than 20 other modernist buildings in downtown Skopje, including the seat of the government, now a shining white imitation of the White House.
“It hurts when I see how the life’s work of many architects of my generation has disappeared under a Styrofoam tent,” Brezoski said.
“With great love and enthusiasm we rebuilt Skopje after the war and the earthquake, only to now see it ruthlessly destroyed.”
BIRN has tracked down many of the surviving members of Brezoski’s generation of Yugoslav-era architects, an avant-garde class that worked side-by-side with a host of foreign architects after the earthquake to turn Skopje into one of the most architecturally progressive cities in Southeast Europe, only to see that vision now erased.
Some, like Brezoski, said they refused consent for the neo-classical facelift of the buildings they designed.
Others told BIRN they were not even asked, in apparent violation of Macedonian copyright law.
BIRN on three occasions asked for an interview with Skopje mayor Trajanovski for this story, but was told he was not available. BIRN also sent detailed questions to the City of Skopje asking for confirmation of Trajanovski’s meeting with Brezoski, and about his complaints and those of other specific architects regarding copyright.
On August 11, the public relations department replied: “The authors of conceptual works are always selected in a design competition. We emphasize that the City of Skopje has always been open to authors of previous designs of facades, held meetings with some of the architects, and took into consideration some of their solutions.”
It added: “The City of Skopje issues permission for the facade in accordance with the law on construction, not by copyright law. According to the law on construction, the City council determines the look of the facade and the building permit is issued based on this decision.”
Croatian architecture critic Maroje Mrduljas described the process as “urbanicide”.
“I really don’t understand how this is possible. What kind of laws are applicable and which are not?”
Mrduljas, who lectures at the architecture faculty of the University of Zagreb, said Skopje after the earthquake was a “melting pot” of architectural experiments, bringing together architects from across Europe and the former Yugoslavia around a cutting-edge vision for the city centre drawn up by Japan’s Kenzo Tange.
Though Tange’s plan was only partially realised, “Skopje at that time was really an urban and architectural experiment, a progressive one of course,” he said. “Nowadays, we are facing a new type of experiment, but a bizarre one, and I have never seen something comparable anywhere.”
Skopje 2014 is the signature project of former conservative Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski, who critics say ruled with an increasingly authoritarian bent during his decade in power between 2006 and early 2016.
He stepped down in January to make way for an early election brokered by the European Union, forced aside by months of political crisis over a slew of damaging wiretaps that appeared to expose widespread abuse of office by his government, something Gruevski has vehemently denied. The election is due on December 11.
Gruevski’s makeover of Skopje has already won its fair share of headlines, few of them flattering. The scale is staggering.
According to a database compiled by BIRN, authorities have so far spent more than 669 million euros erecting 27 neo-classical and baroque buildings, five squares featuring dancing fountains, dozens of monuments and sculptures and one Triumphal Arch, à la Paris. The Balkan country’s total budget is roughly three billion euros.
The government says it is making the city European, after centuries of Ottoman rule and decades of communism.
Critics, however, say it is nationalist folly, a clumsy attempt to draw a line linking the glorious age of Alexander the Great to modern-day Macedonia, a link fiercely disputed by neighbouring Greece. The new-look Skopje has been called “beyond kitsch” and likened to a “mini-Las Vegas”.
“The world really started to look at this architecture…and now we are destroying it”
|– Ljubljana architecture professor Marusa Zorec|
One result of the makeover has been to obscure from view the sharp white angles of the Macedonian Opera and Ballet, a renowned example of Yugoslav modernism designed by the Slovenian architectural group Biro 71.
Envisaged as part of a cultural complex descending to the Vardar river, the project was left unfinished, and now the Opera and Ballet have been blocked from the river by a row of neo-classical buildings, a Roman portico and mock candelabras.
Under current plans, it will eventually be hemmed in from all sides, yet none of the architects behind the building was consulted on the changes to the original plans and the Opera and Ballet’s immediate surroundings.
“Not one institution from either the City of Skopje or the Republic of Macedonia has contacted us or sought our opinion as the authors, nor included us in the jury commission at the outset of construction of the new buildings,” Biro 71 architects Stevan Kacin and Jurij Princes, two of the original four designers, told BIRN by email.
“It is understandable that the investor would want to complete the complex, but we consider it would have been necessary to include in the new solution the Opera and Ballet and the square, to complete their descent to the Vardar,” wrote the architects, born in 1939 and 1933 respectively.
“Unfortunately, the new ‘eclectic’ buildings on the bank of the Vardar have destroyed that idea and cut the opera and square off from the city goings-on on the promenade.”
Maja Ivanic, head of the Architects’ Society of Ljubljana, said she was “overwhelmed” by the design of the Opera house when she first saw it.
“It is beautiful, complex, pure, and clear at the same time, and for that reason a very strong architectural monument,” Ivanic told BIRN.
“Skopje has had this innovative architecture long before Zaha Hadid appeared in the architectural world,” she said in English, referring to the ground-breaking Iraqi-born British architect who died in March 2016.
“I am really very sorry the government of Macedonia is not capable of seeing it that way.”
Besides Brezoski, Kacin and Princes, at least five other architects of the post-earthquake era have said they either refused consent to or were not even informed of plans to change their designs.
Article 10 of Macedonia’s law on copyright states that the original author of an architectural structure should have first right of refusal to carry out any intended changes. If the author “unjustifiably” refuses, the owner of the building can move ahead with the works, “but he shall be obliged to respect the author’s moral rights”.
Article 24 goes on to state: “The author shall have the right to object to any modification, distortion, or mutilation of the work, which would be prejudicial to his personality, honour and reputation, as well as to object to the destruction of the work.”
Legal cases in Europe over architectural copyright, however, are notoriously long and complex. Even if the architect wins, victory can come too late to save the original design.
Skopje 2014’s path was smoothed by a decision on March 23, 2012 by Macedonia’s Cultural Heritage Protection Office to lift the protected status of the main pedestrian zone in central Skopje known as Central City Area II, comprising more than 130 individual structures.
The decision was obtained and published by a Macedonian civil society group called the Centre of Cultural Heritage. The reason given for the move was that the area had become “degraded” by poor urban planning.
This reporter submitted a list of questions in person to the director of the Cultural Heritage Protection Office, Viktor Lilcic Adams, but he declined to comment for this story.
BIRN also sent detailed questions regarding the complaints against Skopje 2014 to the Ministry of Culture but received no reply.
Macedonia’s Association of Architects, which has several times spoken out against the project, also did not respond to questions.
The irony of the assault on architecture in Macedonia is that the rest of the world is just waking up to the value of Yugoslav-era modernism, said Marusa Zorec, an architecture professor at the University of Ljubljana and a founding member of evidenca.org, an archive of modernist architecture in Slovenia.
“The world really started to look at this architecture, to really appreciate its architectural qualities,” said Zorec. “And now we are destroying it.”
New York’s Museum of Modern Art, MoMA, will pay homage to Yugoslav modernism in an exhibition in 2018.
Co-curator Vladimir Kulic said it would feature the post-earthquake reconstruction of Skopje “as one of the great moments of internationalisation of architecture during the Cold War”.
The exhibits, he said, will include the Opera and Ballet and the original drawings and model of Tange’s plan for the city centre, which was never fully realised.
Some of the buildings to be featured have so far survived the facelift, “but other important examples have been changed beyond recognition,” Kulic, an associate professor at the School of Architecture of the Florida Atlantic University, told BIRN by email.
They include the government building, originally the seat of the Central Committee of Communists. Built in the 1970s, architect Petar Mulickovski drew on elements of traditional Macedonian architecture. He publicly opposed the makeover.
Kulic called the original building “a really important example of modernist regionalism”.
“It is deeply ironic that a building that articulated a modern Macedonian identity through inspiration from local vernacular architecture was dressed up in a laughably illiterate version of international classicism precisely in an attempt to forge an alleged ‘Macedonianness’,” he said.
BIRN contacted the architect behind the new facade of the government building, Zarko Causevski, but he said by phone that he had “no desire for interviews”.
The Arhitektonika company, of which he is director and which his brother, Nikola, owns, has left the biggest mark on the facades. A BIRN investigation published in July 2015 revealed the brothers have been paid more than half a million euros.
In a September 2014 interview with the Macedonian-language website Faktor, Causevski explained the preoccupation with neo-classicism.
“Why do so many Macedonians on their Facebook profiles put background pictures of buildings from European capitals? Does it come from a need to show that we are part of those cultural values? For me, a large part of the citizens have a need for a clear positioning that … we are part of the European cultural values.”
|Skopje’s Paloma Bianca office block before work began on a new neo-classical façade. The 86-year-old architect said he was never consulted. Photo: Bojan Blazhevski|
Lazar Dimov, the architect who designed the facade for Brezoski’s City Gallery on Skopje’s central square, also declined by phone to answer any questions when contacted by BIRN.
Dimov also took part in designing the new facade on a section of the Paloma Bianca building, a modernist office block a stone’s throw from the shiny white neo-classical headquarters of the ruling VMRO-DPMNE party.
The original architect of the Paloma Bianca building, Trajko Dimitrov, said the authorities never approached him regarding the makeover.
“It hurts, the knowledge that as a person born in Skopje and the author of a well-known building in the downtown area, that your building … will become part of a grey, faceless group portrait,” Dimitrov, a leading member of Macedonia’s post-World War II generation of architects, told BIRN.
Now 86 years old, Dimitrov was left in the dark, finding out about the plans for his building from journalists. In June, during reporting for this story, scaffolding was erected around the Paloma Bianca, marking the first phase of construction of a new facade.
“Even the most valued monument of the Byzantine kingdom – the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul – was decorated in Islamic symbols but its architectural sanctity was respected, then and now,” he said.
People must understand, he said, “that these are not objects in which only copyrights are disputed, but the identity of my country is disputed.”
|Trajko Dimitrov, 86, said authorities never approached him regarding a new facade for the Paloma Bianca office building he designed. Photo: Bojan Blazhevski|
It is not just in Macedonia that modernism has come under attack, though nowhere else to such a degree.
“One of the reasons is that this period is not yet recognised as cultural heritage as it does not have enough time distance,” said Maja Ivanic, head of the Architects’ Society of Ljubljana.
“The other reason is that many people, and even architects and art historians, are connecting modern architecture with the political situation of that period: it reminds them of the negative parts of socialism, so they try to repaint or redo it.”
Neither part of the Soviet bloc nor the capitalist West, the Yugoslavia of leader Josip Broz Tito forged its own brand of socialism that gave Yugoslavs a degree of freedom and prosperity denied to their neighbours behind the Iron Curtain. Many in the poor states spawned by its collapse look back on the period with some nostalgia.
But for the likes of Poland, for example, communist-era architecture is a hangover of Soviet dominance, an era many Poles would rather forget. The debate over its fate has raged for years.
“Now, we are at a halfway [point],” said Polish architect Lukasz Galusek, editor of the Herito quarterly on Central European architectural heritage. “We know that there is a value; we managed to convince many people. But still there are some who are not convinced.”
In the southern Polish city of Katowice, where communist authorities constructed an entire new city centre, some residents came out in protest in 2010 against plans to redesign the central railway station, to many a brutal concrete eyesore.
They ultimately failed, but decades after the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, much of central Katowice still stands as a shining example of communist urban planning, home to the UFO-like Spodek arena that was opened in 1971 on the 10th anniversary of the flight that made Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin the first human in outer space.
Rather than level the city centre or cover it up, local authorities have planted palm trees and laid out deckchairs on the central square, as if to say ‘welcome to utopia’.
|The communist-built city centre of Katowice in southern Poland, largely intact but decorated with deckchairs and palm trees. Photo: Bojan Blazhevski|
Galusek was familiar with developments in Skopje, and put them in the context of identity-building in the wake of communism’s collapse.
“This was our case as well,” he said. “It was important to show that national cultures have some deep roots, and I realise that falsification plays an extremely important role in this process.”
“We Macedonians,” he said, speaking as if he were a Macedonian, “were occupied by Turks, so we did not take part in the Époque, but if we did we would also have baroque and classicism as any other nation.”
In Slovenia, Zorec of evidenca.org said modernist architecture was under threat from the poor condition of buildings and changes in ownership and purpose over time.
But, she said, the threat is not on the scale of Skopje.
“I don’t know a city in the world that transformed buildings from one period back to the period of the past,” she said.
Mrduljas, the Croatian architecture critic, said it was far easier to mobilise a defence of individual modernist structures.
“When you have the whole city frontally attacked, then it becomes harder,” he said. “Where is the frontline?”
Recent developments since Gruevski stepped aside have given the likes Brezoski some degree of hope.
In October, the office Macedonia’s special prosecutor announced an investigation into the construction of a museum as part of Skopje 2014. It said several senior officials at the Ministry of Culture were suspected of wrongdoing but did not name them. The ministry, in response, said the construction was carried out in line with the law.
The fate of the project, however, rests on the result of the December 11 election and whether Gruevski’s VRMO-DPMNE retains power.
None of the post-World War II architects interviewed by BIRN said they were considering taking their complaints to court. Brezoski said he had another plan, if given the chance.
“I would make them again, correct them,” he said of the concealed modernist structures. “We had an earthquake, but we fixed it. There is no other option.”
Skopje, Lubiana, Katowice