Public Space

Let it be chaotic

By - 03.06.2013

The best plan for Prishtina is one of a city's city: Seemingly unplanned.

Prishtina is not a particularly striking city. It is neither monumental, nor imposing, and its urban form betrays no hint of a great plan. Its vast public spaces are few, and its landmarks are small and scattered. Its streets are narrow and its neighborhoods are cluttered. Taken as a whole, the Kosovar capital is chaotic. This is its great strength.

The 20th century was not a good time for cities, and Prishtina — which grew from a town of maybe 20,000 to a capital of nearly a half-million inhabitants in that time — is almost entirely a city of the 20th century. Though it was neglected by a series of distant governments and then marginalized by its relative poverty, the town that ultimately came to serve as the capital of an independent Kosovo shows few of the scars (oceanic parking lots; giant, empty squares; crazed, concrete, mega-structures) that otherwise define cities of its era. Though the circumstances behind this oversight were not happy, they were fortuitous. Prishtina dodged a bullet — metaphorically, anyway.

Urban planning in the 20th century was a paradoxical discipline. The planning that occurred often seemed motivated by a hatred of all things urban: hatred of crowds, of density, of cities themselves. The signature urban creations of the period — places like Canberra, Brasilia, and even much of Podgorica (or, OK, “Titograd,” I guess) — seem determined to masquerade as parks or as sculpture gardens. Nowhere can one find the jumbled, layered intensity that characterizes more traditional capitals like Istanbul or Paris. In fact, in 1925, Swiss architect and modernist pioneer Le Corbusier suggested that Paris be “brought up to speed” by having its entire historic center replaced with a grid of high-rises, each standing in grassy isolation, like gravestones in a cemetery. As an artifact of industrial-era despair, this vision rivals “The Scream.”

In Prishtina, the streets of districts like Vellusha, Dodona and Normale may be lined with concrete-and-stucco buildings no older than your favorite pair of Chucks, but their layouts are medieval. They follow former riverbeds, customary shortcuts and old walking paths. The areas around Bajram Kelmendi Street, architecture excepted, could be in an Italian hill town. The roads bend, stray and wander in that same ancient way. It’s chaotic. It’s organic.

It’s also quite rare.

Prishtina’s neighboring capitals, though perhaps wealthier and less troubled, are not as fortunate, and from an urban point of view, are less “intact.” In Skopje, for example, the 1963 earthquake may have robbed the city of its historic grandeur, but it is the — award-winning, UNESCO-supported, Kenzo Tange-designed — rebuilding plan that has ensured that resplendence will never return.

It is hard for a person who loves cities to look at this rebuilding plan. It includes old black-and-white photos of the Skopje that was — the elegant townhouses, the shades of Vienna and St. Germain-des-Pres — and then more recent photos reveal, in their place, a series of long, low, connected, barracks-like buildings. Viewing first the older photos and then the newer provides a vista of missed opportunities: an area that might have contained three or four traditional districts, each with its own character and institutions. Instead, in the more recent photos, the viewer sees a strange, giant field through which the secretive buildings wind like snakes.

These illustrations come with phrases like “internationally acclaimed” and “model city,” and it makes one gasp. The transport links may have been improved, and the “new industrial areas” (to use the sort of neighborhood names that were popular in that era) may have proved productive, but the sense of place in “model” areas, like the one around Boulevard Jane Sandanski, has vanished entirely.

When a people loses a part of its history — in this case, the built history — society tries to compensate. This begins to explain Skopje’s current crop of casino-like, mock-classical public buildings along the Vardar River, complete with oversize statues of fist-raised Iron-Age heroes. But a city lost to master planning will not re-emerge with the application of yet more master planning. Maybe it’s unfair to cities that have endured disasters, but the world’s most renowned and appealing urban areas are those constructed one building at a time.

Even in New York, that signature city of the 20th century, whose gridded streets and avenues bear numbers for names, the finest areas — as measured by rent per square foot, as befits capitalism’s great stronghold — are the winding lanes below 14th Street: the cobblestones of TriBeCa; cast-iron SoHo; the meandering streets of the West Village, converging in an asterisk on Sheridan Square. In old New York, unplanned New York, people pay top dollar for the eccentric little nooks and crannies that show up when a city just happens.

Yugoslav-era city planning, and 20th-century city planning in general, did not allow many things to just happen. After Podgorica was nearly leveled in World War II, the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia erected vast rows of orthogonally aligned residential blocks on the right bank of the Moraca River. Though older areas like Stara Varos were not replaced, post-war planners did not incorporate any urban norms of those older quarters into the rebuilt city. It just wasn’t done. And it must be said, the organic, incremental, building-by-building typology that people find so charming — again, as measured by rent, tourist visits and other appreciations — was not a Socialist practice.

As anyone who lives in the capital city knows, Prishtina is far from perfect, and chaos alone does not a functioning capital make. But it can put the buildings in the right places.

Had Prishtina been unfortunate enough to be destroyed or important enough to be re-planned, it would have been rebuilt in this fashion. Prishtina’s organic urban form is the result of chance; it has not endured because the ruling class values this type of thing. Had it been profitable, necessary or expedient to level the streets of Vellusha, they would have been replaced by something like Ulpiana. But they weren’t, and like so many things in this city, this presents an opportunity, albeit a very fragile one.

Once a tangled, unplanned street network is removed from a city, it doesn’t come back. Such tangles are hard to navigate, and important vehicles like fire engines have trouble making U-turns on them. They do not accommodate modern building types; they don’t allow for vast floor plates, or for convenient parking. They don’t invite skyscrapers. They don’t offer access to expressways.

On the institutional level, they don’t make much sense, and so we don’t generally build them anymore. But we visit them. And because they are becoming scarce, we compete, economically speaking, for the privilege of living in them. It must be difficult, for example, to navigate a delivery truck through Paris’s Latin Quarter, or to set up a large call center in the Marais. Mais bof — so what? Who wants to live in the easily accessible La Defense or any business district? A great city is its own reward.

As Prishtina continues to grow from regional town to national capital, the demand for improved infrastructure and enlarged institutions will strain its urban form. To the credit of the municipality, its leaders seem to have determined the largest projects will go in the “Lakrishte” industrial area, where they will hopefully add to the vibrancy of nearby Pejton. Concerning the (understandable, if grandiloquent) desire for monumental gestures in the city center, Prishtina has shown admirable restraint. Its tasteful expansion of Mother Theresa Boulevard comprises two new, spacious, bustling public squares at either end of the promenade, while remaining more Zurich than Dubai — restrained rather than monumental — in terms of spatial form.

New capitals are not always so modest. In places like Abuja, Astana and Putrajaya, institutional versions of the Las Vegas Strip are constructed without regard for history, context or the pedestrian experience, and they always appear a bit ludicrous. If there is anything that can be said for Prishtina’s vague condominium of a parliament building, it is that it is not one of these.

As anyone who lives in the capital city knows, Prishtina is far from perfect, and chaos alone does not a functioning capital make. But it can put the buildings in the right places. It would be an improvement, for instance, to see sidewalks and traffic signals on Bajram Kelmendi Street; it would be wise to install a tram line on Agim Ramadani Street; it would be astonishing were the owner of the Kosova Petrol station in Qafa to recognize the unique nature of his lot, and construct a Balkan take on New York’s famous Flatiron Building. But these are just sketches: clouds and visions.

More important is for Prishtinali to balance their excitement for the future with an appreciation of what they already have. It’s not perfect, and it is often inconvenient, but Prishtina is a city person’s city. It is demanding, and it is chaotic, an assault on the senses. And that’s a real start. That’s something you can build on.

Photos: Majlinda Hoxha

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