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.