s k o p j e

[ 12:07 sunday 29 november 2015 – gradski trgovski centar, skopje, macedonia ]

this is simultaneously my first visit to the balkans and my first despatch written from a shopping centre.

here i am in skopje, capital city of the republic of macedonia, nestled in the southern balkans with serbia and kosovo to the north, greece to the south, bulgaria to the east and albania to the west. the british council flew me over to give a speech at a summit about supporting entrepreneurs across the region. they were kind enough to let me stay for a couple of days extra so i could explore the city.

over the last few days i’ve met a lot of people involved in technology and the creative industries. but in parallel with this the trip has become an impromptu pilgrimage for brutalist architecture and urban planning.

it was in my early teens, living in cornwall, that i first started taking an interest in contemporary architecture. during my time at truro school a new crown court was constructed the city. it was unlike anything else in truro, designed in a modernist style with geometric massing, undecorated white surfaces and a circular tower at its centre. it’s the first building i ever remember catching my interest architecturally. around this time i started sketching imaginary structures, exploring the relationship between different spaces and functions.

by the age of fifteen i was thinking seriously about a career in architecture. with my parents’ encouragement i arranged a visit to the father of one of my classmates who ran a small architecture practice in cornwall. i spent an evening with him looking through plans he was working on, listening to him explain the logic behind each element and hearing how he designed buildings to reduce energy use by harnessing heat from the sun. i was transfixed. it felt like i’d found my calling.

all too soon mum arrived to collect me and it was time to go. as i was saying goodbye my friend’s father hesitated for a moment then took me to one side. he looked me in the eye and said “listen, you go into architecture thinking you’re going to change the world but you end up designing petrol stations and supermarkets. don’t do it charles, find something different.”

i’ve never forgotten those words. i was devastated. i don’t think i said a single word on the journey home in the car. mum must have thought something awful had happened. in that moment my friend’s father changed the path of my life.  all thought of becoming a professional architect was abandoned and my life developed in a different direction. my passion for architecture, however, remained undimmed.

arriving at cambridge in the 1990s architectural discussion was polarised into two camps: proponents of modern architecture and those who advocated a return to traditional forms and styles. this seemed like a totally bizarre dichotomy to me. it had never occurred to me there might be a serious body of architectural opinion that set itself against new ideas. i found myself cast as an arch-modernist and forced for the first time to justify my beliefs.  it was a valuable experience and helped to clarify my thinking. it was during these years i realised that many of the buildings which excited me the most were lumped together under the term “brutalist”. generally these were large-scale projects with experimental geometric forms and undecorated concrete surfaces.

this is where the story returns to skopje. in july 1963 a huge earthquake levelled eighty percent of the city and killed more than a thousand people. the yugoslav government called in the united nations to run an international architectural competition to rebuild the city. the winning entry came from kenzo tange, a young japanese architect with a penchant for avant garde brutalist design. tange proposed a bold masterplan for skopje structured around a semi-circular “city wall” of tall housing units with a “city gate” axis running from a new railway station through a business district to the city centre. the genius of tange’s plan was taking familiar mediaeval models and translating them into a futuristic vocabulary.

only about half of tange’s plan was actually implemented, but the city government continued to commission extremely abstract brutalist designs for new construction projects until the mid 1980s. as a result  skpoje has a higher concentration of full-blooded brutalist experiments than anywhere else on earth that i’ve seen. for someone like me it’s like arriving in the promised land. a lot of the buildings are now run-down but they’re still being used as they were intended. indeed the biggest threat they face is the current regime’s desire to turn skopje into a surreal theme park of las vegas baroque.

i spent yesterday exploring by foot with my trusty rolleiflex, visiting a dozen sites. the highlight was the university of saints cyril and methodius, a jaw-droppingly complex ensemble built around a central courtyard with beams and towers sticking out in all directions. today one of the british council officials (a fellow brutalism fan) was kind enough to drive me to some of the more inaccessible sites, including the beautiful but decrepit goce delcev student accommodation complex, and tell me about their history. i’ll put up the photographs once they’re developed and scanned.

for many people buildings like these are hideous and misguided failures.  i’m often asked disbelievingly why i like them. part of the answer is aesthetic. at their best these buildings represent the freest use of architecture as a sculptural medium. they seek to deploy materials in new ways that are expressive as well as functional. but more important to me is the deep sense of social purpose they embody. most brutalist buildings i’ve encountered were created by architects who sincerely believed in their duty to lay foundations for a better society. this sense is absent from most large buildings constructed since the 1980s and i believe that is an important loss.

the shopping mall where i’m currently seated is a fine piece of work in its own right. we’re so used to the american template of the mall as huge sealed bubble with just a few entrances and exits, like a fortress for retail, we assume that’s the only possibility. this place is certainly huge, occupying several city blocks and spread over three levels, but in every other respect it defies the familiar model. most radically this mall is completely porous. a series of side streets connect it to the city grid enabling pedestrians to criss-cross it twenty-four hours a day. sections of it are also open to the sky so rain and light can enter small courtyards. the impression is of a modern reinvention of the labyrinthine mediaeval bazaar just across the river in skopje’s old town.

it’s ironic that having decided against a career in architecture i’ve ended up designing buildings anyway. when i founded the trampery in 2009 it was an experiment in fusing architecture with sociology, entrepreneurship and community development. six years later i find myself working on projects that apply this recipe to startup workspaces, corporate offices, housing and whole city districts. life is full of surprises.

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