On the dawn of 26th July 1963, a disastrous earthquake wiped away almost everything in Skopje, Macedonia, at the time part of Yugoslavia. The epicenter of the quake was in the city. Thus some 75% of the city’s infrastructure was destroyed, the lives of more than 1,000 people taken, and 3,000 more were injured.
On the next day, Marshal Tito, the leader of Yugoslavia, would state that Skopje will resurrect again, with the help of the whole community. That the city will rise stronger after such disaster, and as a symbol of brotherhood, unity, and solidarity. That was the story indeed.
After the earthquake, the “resurrection” of Skopje from the ashes was really in the hands of the international community. Help started arriving from all corners of the world: Baghdad, Bucharest, Algeria, Ankara, Brussels, Volgograd, Ljubljana, Dresden , Moscow, Geneva, London, Sofia, Paris , Warsaw , Zagreb and so forth.
The aid from each of these cities would deploy at distinct districts within the city boundaries. And as new streets were built afterward, they would pick their names after the city which sent the aid. Slowly that’s how the story of solidarity lighted up.
In the wake of the unfortunate events on 26.7.1963, the French existentialist novelist and activist, Jean-Paul Sartre said: “Skopje is not a film, not a thriller where we guess the chief event. It is a concentration of man’s struggle for freedom, with a result which inspires further struggles and no acceptance of defeat.”
Amid the tragedy, the words of Sartre also invited the international community of artists. Names like Pablo Picasso and Alexander Calder would find themselves on the long list of painters and artists (from 61 countries in total) who would participate in an action for Skopje, sending 1,760 works of art to the new Museum of Contemporary Art in Skopje, the building of which was a gift from Poland.
That made The Museum of Contemporary Art in Skopje home of one of the most compelling collections of contemporary art in Southeastern Europe.
The Yugoslavian government did a good job in administrating the ongoing reconstruction efforts in Skopje, but the international actors also played a significant role. First, there was the Greek architectural firm Doxiades Associates, along with the Polish architect Adolf Cibrowski that came up with a regional plan of the city in 1964. However, they left out the central area of the city from this scheme, so that the winner of the adjoining United Nations competition could come up with a matching one.
The United Nations had a separate fund for the contest, which was eventually won by the submission made by Kenzo Tange, one of the most famous figures in the entire story of reconstructing Skopje. The award-winning Japanese architect would deliver a plan that served as “a model case of urban reconstruction.”
Architects and urban planners of the modern movement, like Kenzo Tange himself, were confident in their role of remaking the post-war world. In that sense, the Skopje Master Plan was a civilization achievement of its time.
The team of Kenzo Tange would then work in close collaboration with the runners-up of the United Nations competition, the Yugoslavian architects Radovan Mischevik and Fedor Wenzler. The other architects from the Tange’s office were Sadao Watanabe and Yoshio Taniguchi, and the team also featured Arata Isozaki, who led the Tange’s office.
At a large scale, they all worked closely with the state and would present the plan to the public only when it was finished. It was a good-quality work anyway.
Two central metaphorical concepts were applied to the Skopje master plan – the City Gate and the City Wall. Such plan offered proximity of the residential areas of the new Skopje (the City Wall) and the business realm so that vitality can come back in the central area of the city.
On the other hand, the City Gate meant exactly giving a gate to the city. With a new railway station situated on a gateway-like edifice, allowed a highway entry to the central area of the city and well-planned fluctuation between the regional and central realms of Skopje.
As the City Gate Center was set, a main axis of the city was de facto form. Some of the buildings here would be office towers, a library, banks, exhibition halls and more – all of which connecting to the railway station and the bus terminals at the City Gate. The axis concluded at the Republic Square, an open public space on the Vardar River.
These are of course very quick information on Tange’s master plan and vision. Anyway, the City Wall was a success and became the new best-recognizable feature of the Skopje city center, a sort of central city image and symbol of the Skopje’s “cosmogony process.”
For Kenzo Tange, Skopje indeed was the promised land where he would be able to push the limits of his ideas with his master plan. He would realize that as early as creating the first drafts of the plan back in Tokyo. But here in Skopje, the concepts of the City Gate and City Wall started breathing life.
Despite Tange’s plan was not fully accomplished, he and his team left a true architectural legacy in the Macedonian capital. What was built, managed to persist through a number of decades.
Worth to also mention is one of the most remarkable buildings, the most treasured building that came out of the entire redevelopment plan for Skopje after the earthquake. That was certainly the edifice of the Macedonian Opera and Ballet.
Considered to be the peak of architecture in Skopje, the building once freely overlooked the bank of river Vardar, but today remains hidden under the veil of new administrative buildings that unfortunately erected on the river bank itself.
In fact, the entire architectural legacy of the eminent urban plan is now under the shadow of the new controversial project, Skopje 2014, which was launched by the Macedonian government in 2009.
As Skopje 2014 will be remembered as a political attempt to redefine, reshape and rewrite the urban space, the culture and history of the Macedonian people, the futuristic urbanism of the 1966’s “Master plan for rebuilding of Skopje, Yugoslavia after the 1963 earthquake” will be remembered as the real Skopje story of global unity, brotherhood and solidarity.