In-depth | region

A Reminder of Solidarity

International solidarity rebuilt Skopje and Banja Luka.

Ten years ago, at the Faculty of Architecture in Skopje, Ana Ivanovska Deskova defended her master thesis on the methods and procedures for the protection of modernist buildings in North Macedonia. The Skopje-based “Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi” elementary school was used as an example of a modernist building.

However, 10 years have passed and this building has still not been inscribed into the National Register for the Protection of Cultural Heritage, nor has anything been done in regard to its protection or restoration.

The school’s building was designed by Alfred Roth, one of the most famous representatives of modernist architecture. The Swiss government donated this building to Skopje after the city was devastated by a major earthquake in 1963, in the name of its citizens and wishing to express solidarity with the then Socialist Republic of Macedonia.

The “Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi” elementary school in Skopje was designed by the famous Swiss architect Alfred Roth. Photo: Bojan Blaževski.

“I don’t get the impression that special treatment is being provided to facilities donated during the reconstruction of the city after the earthquake, nor towards Modernism,” says Ana Ivanovska Deskova, now an assistant professor at the Skopje Faculty of Architecture, who is still tirelessly fighting for the protection of modernist heritage in the Macedonian capital, including this school.

Forgotten solidarity

Ivanovska Deskova was involved with the curatorial advisory body for the exhibition called “Towards a Concrete Utopia: Architecture in Yugoslavia, 1948-1980,” which has been presented at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York. In partnership with her colleagues Vladimir Deskov and Jovan Ivanovski, she took part in organizing an exhibition on Skopje’s post-earthquake architecture in Vienna in 2017, and one at the Benaki Museum in Athens in 2018. 

However, international interest in modernist architecture in the Balkans does not translate to attention to post-Yugoslav countries. The story about the international solidarity that helped build some of the buildings from that period has been forgotten by almost everybody.

The school building in Skopje is only one example of the attitude towards the heritage from Skopje’s post-earthquake period. The earthquake, which had a magnitude of 6.1, struck the city on July 26, 1963, and left a total of 1,070 people dead, around 4,000 wounded and more than 200,000 roofless. Almost 80% of the city was devastated. In the aftermath came the restoration process and the calls for solidarity throughout the world. The response was impressive.

Those are only some of the facilities that were donated in a show of solidarity with Yugoslavia, which is why Skopje bore the name of “the city of international solidarity.”

The book titled “Skopje Resurgent: The Story of a United Nations Special Fund Town Planning Project,” published by the United Nations Development Program in 1970, mentions how 87 countries participated in sending different types of aid to Skopje after the earthquake. Out of this number, 25 countries were directly engaged in the restoration of the city, in addition to the help arriving from other Yugoslav republics. 

Beyond Switzerland, Poland donated a project to the Museum of Contemporary Art and one school building; the United Kingdom donated the Drama Theater facility; France and Greece donated sports halls; the Youth Cultural Center was erected with funds from the Soviet Union and Algeria, whereas Norway and Sweden constructed a new children’s hospital.

In the “Čair” neighborhood, the then Czechoslovakian trade unions donated funds for the construction of a gynecology facility, while Romania built a new polyclinic and Bulgaria a secondary school.

Until this day, the Universal Hall is the building that attracts the most attention among all facilities built with the help of donations. It is a concert hall constructed with the joint funds from 35 countries. And those are only some of the facilities that were donated in a show of solidarity with Yugoslavia, which is why Skopje was dubbed “the city of international solidarity.”

However, five decades later, the donated facilities find themselves in a sad state.

The Universal Hall has been closed for visitors for four years now, while the Ministry of Culture and the City of Skopje transfer responsibility back and forth between each other with regard to a project that could serve as a basis for reinvesting in this facility, or whether the old hall should be renovated or demolished.

The “Partizan” Sports Hall has been completely devastated by vandalism, and the “Kale” hall has been requiring total reconstruction for a long time. A new theater building is scheduled to be constructed to replace the Drama Theater, and a few donated facilities have been demolished, such as the “Čair” gynecology facility and the “Kozle” Institute for Pulmonary Diseases of Children.

Along with the demolitions and neglect of the donated facilities, Skopje has forgotten the discourse of international solidarity.

The suppression of this heritage was particularly salient during the rule of Nikola Gruevski, who was focused on building and promoting the Skopje 2014 project. The funds invested into the construction of dozens of neoclassical- and baroque-style buildings, in combination with hundreds of monuments and sculptures, were intended to foster a new, “Macedonian” national identity. 

A lack of literature

Professor Ana Ivanovska Deskova claims that interest in Skopje’s modernist architecture is on the rise, but also that the actualization of this topic has not been sufficiently taken advantage of in North Macedonia itself.

“This interest won’t last for long, a few years will pass and the focus will be shifted to other topics,” professor Ivanovska Deskova warns.

North Macedonian architect Pavel Veljanoski agrees with this conclusion; he is a professional associate at the Faculty of Architecture and Design at the University American College Skopje.

“This is a period in which people from all regions are coming and asking about the post-earthquake restoration of Skopje,” he says.

The “Warsaw Tigers” architectural team (Wacław Kłyszewski, Jerzy Mokrzyński, and Eugeniusz Wierzbicki) designed the Modern Art Museum in Skopje, a present from Poland. Photo: Bojan Blaževski.

Toward the end of 2018, Pavel enrolled in a study visit to Krakow, Poland, as part of the “Thesaurus Poloniae” fellowship at the International Cultural Center there. This very first cultural institution established after the fall of the Iron Curtain in Poland will open an exhibition titled “Skopje — City of Solidarity” on July 10 this year.

During his study visit, Pavel explored the role of Polish experts in the urban renovation of Skopje. The reconstruction, or rather the implementation of the Skopje Urban Plan, was supervised by the famous Polish urbanist Adolf Ciborovski, while the Warsaw Urbanistic Studio (Bureau) took part in designing the plan.

However, 50 years later, it proves very difficult to find literature from that period of reconstruction and solidarity. Pavel recalls how he was forced to collect materials from multiple sources, including from the private archives of his older colleagues. 

“Publications, and written sources, which should serve as a basis for education and information on urbanism and architecture, cannot be found in one single place in Skopje,” Pavel Veljanoski says.

New initiatives

Recently, there have been signs of a possible shift in attitudes toward this issue in Skopje. 

Lately, an initiative for the reconstruction of the “Partizan” sports hall was started. Namely, the Karpoš Municipality and its mayor, Stefan Bogoev, initiated talks with the government and other state institutions, as well as with the French ambassador, Christian Timonier, and representatives of the “Cultural Echo” international non-governmental organization.

This organization, in cooperation with several architects, including Ivona Krsteska, Marija Gelmanovska, Ana Grkovska and Aleksandar Kochovski from North Macedonia, as well as Tomás Romero Talley from Spain and Mateus Sartori from Brazil, is already working on a conceptual design that will be the basis for the sports hall reconstruction.

“We expect the facility to soon be in our possession, after which we can start to rehabilitate and reconstruct it,” Mayor Stefan Bogoev says. Several years ago, the state donated this hall under concession to a private owner who used it, but who completely neglected its maintenance.

Besides sports-related content, the idea is for this facility to include a French cultural corner in the future. Bogoev hopes his initiative may serve as an example for other donated buildings, but also as a reminder of the importance of solidarity.

The state of the “Partizan” sports hall in Skopje; a present from the French government. Photo: Bojan Blaževski.

“It is good that new generations know that solidarity is the basic value of a society, Skopje and Karpoš having been built on this worldwide solidarity,” Mayor Stefan Bogoev insists.

Architect Pavel Veljanoski points out that the renovation of facilities is only one of the steps that must be undertaken. He believes that institutions that use donated facilities must work on creating a more substantial, inclusive program that will revive and bring people back to these buildings.

“Multiple contents and activities should be designed and presented to people in order to familiarize them with the project,” Veljanoski emphasizes. 

"These buildings shouldn't be looked at as frozen pictures, but we should never forget international solidarity when we speak of them."

Architect Pavel Veljanoski

However, according to him, the most important thing is to continue the development of these facilities, even if this means conducting an experiment or significantly altering their basic function. 

“These buildings shouldn’t be looked at as frozen pictures,” he emphasizes, adding that buildings should not be neglected and that “we should never forget international solidarity when we speak of them.”

Professor Ana Ivanovska Deskova adds that modernist buildings in Skopje, including those donated by foreign countries, are key to defining the architectural identity of the city. “In the past decade, while seeking some different values, we have lost — and we are still losing — a part that may be the most authentic and specific thing to Skopje,” she asserts.

The story of Banja Luka

North-west of Skopje, some 500 kilometers away, a similar destiny struck Banja Luka in 1969, a city in Bosnia and Herzegovina. As with the North Macedonian metropolis, this city suffered a devastating earthquake, after which the Yugoslav and international community again showed their solidary nature.

According to the book titled “Banja Luka — Five Years After the Earthquake,” published during the 1970s, workers from throughout Yugoslavia gathered funds for the construction of the Solidarity Home; the City of Zagreb built the Higher Economic and Commercial School; Bulgaria and Skopje built the school building.

The Economic Faculty of Banja Luka is today located in a facility donated by the City of Zagreb after the earthquake. Photo: Milica Pralica.

Five decades later, the former Solidarity Home was remodeled into the Museum of Republika Srpska, the college donated by Zagreb has turned into the Economic Faculty and the former “Skopje school,” as Banja Luka citizens remember it, has recently been partially renovated with funds from international donations this time on a project basis, not out of solidarity. 

The building was restored, since it is one of the largest schools in Banja Luka, while to this day a memorial plaque is displayed inside the building commemorating the 1970 construction of the school, thanks to the solidarity of Skopje.

“Since its inception to this day, the school facility didn’t change its purpose, nor has it stopped working,” says school director Tatjana Vilendečić, adding that despite the building being renovated on the outside, the interior is still neglected.

“Skopje” Elementary School during the 1980s. Photo: Private archive of Dražan Crnomat.

As in the case of Skopje, Banja Luka also lost the documentation surrounding the construction of these facilities that were built on the basis of solidarity. The documentation was lacking during the reconstruction of the school, even the blueprints of the project implementation, and the only document in possession of the school is the building layout plan, which is in a very bad shape — the drawings are faded, it has been damaged by folding and the paper has turned yellow

It is believed that the remaining documentation is located in Skopje. The director mentions that she has been trying to reach representatives of North Macedonia in Bosnia and Herzegovina, so that they could jointly restore the interior of the school, but with no tangible results so far. She wishes for Skopje representatives to be present at the 50th anniversary of the school’s establishment. 

The school plans to celebrate this anniversary, but so far nobody knows whether the city will schedule a celebration.

“Since we are living in times of new histories and historical revisionism, I hope that Banja Luka won’t forget the solidarity demonstrated back then by Yugoslav republics, as well as by the rest of the world,” Tatjana Vilendečić concludes.

However, memories of solidarity have long been fading, both in Skopje and Banja Luka.K

Feature image: Bojan Blaževski

Journalist Milica Pralica from Banja Luka, Bosnia and Herzegovina participated in research for the purposes of this text.