In-depth | Culture

Who owns the city?

By - 28.09.2020

The city of Prishtina has expanded, but expanded into what?

Prishtina is a city where Yugoslav-Brutalism meets Ottoman legacy and capitalist kitsch. An assemblage of architectural improvisation, misfits and do-it-yourself endeavors. Over the past few years tourists from all across the world are becoming increasingly attentive to the wild mise-en-scène of buildings and streets, as they speak of ideological currents shifting from former colonization toward neoliberalism. As much as one romanticizes the one-of-a-kind city of Prishtina, for the citizens there is a lot of room for improvement that could enhance their quality of life in the long run. 

Not only tourists but also experts in the field of urban planning and architecture are curious about the capital of the youngest country in Europe. Against the backdrop of the potentiality of a transformative force, Prishtina is an interesting case study for those who have read, developed and refined their methodologies and tools for capturing the relationship between citizens and spaces, says Bekim Ramku, Kosovo Architecture Festival director, founding member of the Kosovo Architecture Foundation (KAF), founding chair of the DoCoMoMo National Chapter in Kosovo, founding member of the Future Architecture Platform. 

Under his direction, the 8th edition of the Kosovo’s Architecture Festival has begun taking place online from September 15 and runs until October 15.

International and local guest speakers and experts have been invited to share their knowledge and engage in the process of the transformation of Kosovo’s urban landscape. Ramku describes Prishtina as a mix of “an Asian part of Istanbul and an Eastern block city.” As an architect he is amazed by the eclectic and diverse urban landscape of Prishtina. Yet he is frustrated with a lot of what happened in the city during the 90s and after the war where urban design had high potential but was hampered by politics. 

The Kosovo Architecture Festival is currently in its 8th year and still hopes to inspire change in Prishtina and Kosovo.

This year’s festival theme,“Publicness” goes to the core of the development of the Prishtinalis first hand experience, those who witnessed the ideological change from socialism, occupation, and yet-to-be neoliberal democracy. 

Raveling and unraveling the concept of Publicness, the festival is dedicated toward putting into dispute the increasingly blurry and ambiguous boundaries between the public and private. 

Departing from the idea that architecture should serve the public good, publicness touches into the core of current developments critically examining who has the means to access spaces and use them for their benefit. 

Inspired by the battle local initiatives have with government officials and privatization agencies over the past years, Ramku and his team tackle disputed cases on socialist buildings in the heart of the city. 

“Out of many issues that we could have turned into an overarching theme, we decided to focus on “Publicness” inspired by the “Archipelago of the City,” comprising the socialist buildings at the heart of the city center, namely the Grand Hotel, Boro Ramiz, Armata, Rilindja and Germia, that we treat as a historical public “island” and discuss in light of their mis- and reappropriation by public and cultural initiatives that have been taken,” said Ramku who points out a study on this issue for this year’s Venice Architecture biennale that has been postponed for next year. 

“Considering that at one point these spaces were built to serve the public, after the war the worst thing that could have happened occurred, the aggressive privatization of these spaces, marking a radical misuse by turning them into private enterprises serving individual profit-makers,” Ramku says, for whom the persistent effort of local cultural initiatives is a “a positive development of these spaces in the face of misuse.”

This year features 36 lecturers from across the world coming from multiple disciplines ranging from technical backgrounds such as engineering to art and anthropology.

This year the festival goes entirely online due to the COVID-measures. The edition features 36 lecturers, eight of which are part of the Future Architecture 2020 Selected Creatives section. Over four weeks, a lecture will be streamed from 6:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. from Tuesday to Friday. The program can be followed online and revisited at any time on the Facebook page of the Architecture Festival. 

On September 25, Italian architect Alessio Rosati looked into rethinking the concept of public space as radical transformation away from buying public space to claiming it for encounters, exchange and democracy. 

Dr. Boštjan Bugarič, an architect, researcher and editor, gave a lecture on September 24, on the historical city of Koper, composed of diverse historical landscapes that has been subject to commercialization and protected by a social movement introducing public space productions as a common ground for encounters.

The beginnings

Ramku decided to launch the festival because of the gap of knowledge between Prishtina University, where he obtained his bachelor degree at the  Architecture Engineering faculty, and the Architectural Association in London, where he obtained his masters of arts in Housing and Urbanism. 

Concerned over his hometown Prishtina, Ramku was eager to implement his knowledge and practice-based ideas into the public realm in Kosovo, but his enthusiasm was swept away when his efforts were met with distrust and ignorance by government officials and delegations at the ministerial level, according to him. 

The battle of public and private spaces, is the fight between the people and those in power.

The festival began in 2012 and hundreds of guests from Prishtina but also the wider region such as Skopje came and appreciated Ramku’s endeavor. Because of the high demand, the number of lecturers grew annually, with this year featuring 36 lecturers from across the world coming from multiple disciplines ranging from technical backgrounds such as engineering to art and anthropology. 

Supporting the Commons 

The festival is more than just a series of lectures though. It intends to also be an activist space and highlight the lived-in issues of Kosovo’s architecture studies. Instead of art simply inspiring or expressing, the festival uses art as an activist tool and highlights the ongoing struggles in Kosovo, especially Prishtina.

The battle of public and private spaces, is the fight between the people and those in power. The relationship between the citizens, the city and public space has undergone many transformations and challenges in Kosovo. After the war public property was either commodified or left into oblivion, abandoned and falling apart. 

Positive developments as touched upon by Ramku, are only marked by the persistent resistance toward the privatization of these buildings initiated by civil society organizations. Collectives and citizens organize themselves to end apathy and inaction, by fighting for permanent spaces where socio cultural activities regenerate the society. Yet, successful action is to be viewed as an ongoing case-to-case struggle, as public spaces are vulnerable to political changes. 

A case study: NGO Hapësira

When discussing publicness, one comes to the inevitable point to reflect on who the public in Kosovo is? The youngest population in Europe faces massive unemployment and little freedom of travel, NGO Hapësira responds to this public, by giving hope through offering alternative spaces and events of mutual interest. Principles of accessibility and solidarity with those less fortunate are at the core of their events, by keeping the entry price low while the revenue made goes mostly to families in need through the NGO’s “Social Responsibility Fund.” 

Hapësira has been fighting over the use of Rilindja Warehouse, a former printing press warehouse of an iconic, liberationist Albanian publication house, for more than four years and by “nailing the techno scene” with their electronic music events, it has been applauded by those in Kosovo and abroad. From a distance it appears as a fight between club entertainment and the state over an industrial space. 

Hapësira,” in Albanian comes with two meanings: Freedom and space, which fits the endeavor to reactivate the spirit of renaissance right within the walls where it once took root and flight.

The NGO summarizes its intention in one phrase “While most events that have taken the stage in Kosovo in recent years seek to maximize material profit, events held by Hapësira aim to maximize human capital.” 

“A population that does not know its history cannot create future visions for itself."

Arbnor Dragaj, Founding Member Hapësira

Human capital is the keyword here for founding member Arbnor Dragaj who describes Hapësira as a team of individuals from all kinds of disciplines, whose commonality is the belief that art, culture music and education can foster a positive change within the contemporary Kosovar society, a change toward mutual cultural values rooted in collaboration, conversation and collectivism through cultural practices.

Hapësira creates space for an alternative lifestyle where youth would otherwise be confined by spatial as well as socio-economic borders. Along with clubbing nights, Dragaj and his team also offer workshops and music education in the Rilindja space but due to being barred from renting it full-time they could not fully develop their program. “I’d say we could implement only 20-30 percent of our ideas, and it has been and still is an ongoing struggle to get the space even just for a day.” 

Hapësira’s battle with the government to keep the Rilindja Warehouse as their space continues. It remains under the management of the Kosovo Privatisation Agency (AKP). according to Dragaj, who has to ask permission to use the space for each event. The AKP would not comment on this article.

Apathy and ideological fights

“Narratives of Self are created within spaces of cultural heritage … but our heritage is buried so we have to seek for visions beyond,” Dragaj said. For him preserving the Rilindja building in its original shape and keeping the spirit of renaissance within the same walls marks a step toward self-consolidation and societal healing that has to be yet reborn by working with and changing the ruins upon which the erasure of history from architecture to archaeology is lying. 

“A population that does not know its history cannot create future visions for itself,” says Dragaj.

Hapesira were not taken seriously according to Ramku, “Prishtina is owned by its citizens but when we speak of prime spaces located in the city center that could be utilized for the larger social good (the good of the society), those spaces are reserved for the corrupt elites.” 

The commodification of former socialist public buildings has sparked controversy over years.

Art historian Vesa Sahatiçiu says, “If the old Prishtina is pretty much gone, it is extremely important to preserve the newer Prishtina and not to try to change it, mutate it, into the unrecognizable” warns Sahatçiu. Ramku, meanwhile, sees discussions over urban development linked to an ideology that only thinks in a Western tradition. 

Sahatçiu also says that the one of the ways the elites took over the city was by grabbing its buildings and space.

“Increasingly, I find that the antagonism toward the modernist architecture by these elites, is not ideological, nor aesthetic, but more an issue of enterprise; that is, how much a certain area, or building, is financially viable and how lucrative it may be.” Sahatçiu says.

Many activists today have ended up losing their will to fight against these interests. With the institutional will firmly against them, the act of trying to save these modernist structures becomes a desperate romantic act leading nowhere.

Workshopping Prishtina

As dramatic and severe as developments in Prishtina are, the public space in cities have gone private all across the world. Metropolises, such as London, Paris or New York have decreased access to public space, where even parks and open-air squares are in private hands and not accessible to the public. Many of those lecturers invited to participate in the festival had on-site research experience but have also worked in similar contexts. 

A highlight of this year’s festival, is urban designer and executive director of the New York City Public Design Commission, Justin Garrett Moore. His way of approaching urban planning and design is closely intertwined with arts initiatives and community-based planning and bears the potential to be truly transformative in communicating how the public sphere can benefit in quality of life when fostering accessibility, diversity and inclusion through arts and culture. 

Another speaker, Raza Ali Dada is a managing partner at Nayyar Ali Dada & Associates, a leading architectural firm in Pakistan and recipient of numerous awards including the Aga Khan Award for Architecture and the Arcasia Gold Medal. 

In his lecture he discusses reverse-invasion strategies to form and identify networks comprising the government, activists and experts who will come together to create or claim spaces for the public. This is further strengthened in the philosophical sense by adding intellectual programming through the arts to prompt engagement for the public/s in a space that is their own to claim.

While theories and methodologies are surely tools to access the world, the festival stands out by inviting guest speakers, who have something to offer, either in a similar context to Kosovo or by researching local particularities at stake. “In each edition we invited acclaimed world-known architects who are simply inspiring to listen to due to their outstanding inventions and analyses. But we also pay close attention to select those whose field of study experience resonates with one or another aspect of Kosovar legacy and present situation,” says Ramku. 

A yearly open call results in 600 applications to participate as active researchers in the festival’s workshop out of which 10 groups are selected each year. The application question is based on a contextualized problem that KAF defines asking their participants to use their methodologies and expertise for a mapping of the status quo and offering practical solutions. 

One of this year’s workshops is held by the collective “Urban Architettura” and fits into the ideological climate already residing in the politically charged urbanism on-site. They look deeper into those spaces that are designed for regulating the public, through commodification, confinement or domestication. Left in a “a state of controlled decay” that describes the scars of a failed welfare state and localizes these loopholes in its geographical embodiment. 

Cultural initiatives advocating for the right of the public to use spaces for collective purposes, is part of a social movement that comes from bottom-up and is much needed.

From October 3 until October 13, the group will delve into this subject matter in order to make a positive contribution out of the resources for reinventing ways of cohabitation. Engaging in the Prishtina Public Archipelago, a close examination on the Grand Hotel and its paradigm of publicness will be conducted in collaboration with eight participants, who from their own homes will work collaboratively on ways to de-privatize the matrix of the rooms at the Grand Hotel.

Locally renowned architects, urban planners, curators and those culturally engaged, are part of the festivities as in each edition as well. This year the Prishtina Public Archipelago was discussed in a panel with Arber Sadiki, whose study of the Palace for Youth and Sports Boro Ramiz; young architect Donika Luzhnica whose research focused on how to use the Germia Building as a potential site for art & conversations, architect Eliza Hoxha on Grand Hotel, Nol Binajak, on the Brutalist “triangle” and Mayor Shpend Ahmeti on how he envisions the city of Prishtina. The panel discussion can be watched here. 

Making a difference

 Results of the festival discussions have triggered some ideas for larger or minor projects to change the status quo of urban policy but despite small rearrangements and easy non-costly interventions large-scale realizations have not occurred.

In the past editions, 50 percent of the workshops and lectures dealt with public space and bettering it says Ramku, who invited the New York City Urban Planning department to do a mapping on the accessibility of streets in Prishtina for people with disabilities, after which Garibaldi and Deshmoret e Kombit were changed into accessible streets. Yet, despite some low-cost implementations done as an outcome of the festival, officials have not been open toward investment for sustainable planning.

Publicness in Kosovo is a difficult endeavor, with the only groups to count on for welfare change being NGOs, cultural initiatives and artists to regain the city and form a society based on communal values. Publicness elsewhere as well means to re-democratice democracy in a moment of collective crisis. Cultural initiatives advocating for the right of the public to use spaces for collective purposes, is part of a social movement that comes from bottom-up and is much needed. 

As radical as it seems to those in power, it is not a radical act but an act toward active citizenship and democratic participation, accessibility to public space, affordable housing, justice and sustainability. Yet with organizing the largest architectural festival in the region and inviting international researchers, Ramku hopes to bring these issues to the fore and inspire young architects in Kosovo toward holding on to their dream and attention to improve public life. 

Even if results do not show immediate effects, advocating for rights, sparking debates and sharing knowledge, grounds the path to heal the wounded relationship between citizens and the city of Prishtina. As Hapësira founder Dragaj puts it, “We are used to calling our city “Prishtina” that means “ You are destroying,” literally. But we should start to call it “Pristine,” which stands for uncorrupted, original and pure. 

Although many have tried to change Prishtina, failed and given up, some like Hapësira and Kosovo Architecture Festival continue on.K

Feature image: Kosovo Architecture Festival.