Stories from the Disastrous 1963 Earthquake in Skopje , This City Knows

Mom, Dad & 26th of July 1963

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The City of Solidarity - Skopje

July 26, 2016 Comments (0) Views: 2049 Nostalgia, Skopje, Virtual Memoirs

The City of Solidarity – Skopje

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.

GTC Skopje

A city within a city, Skopje’s City Trade Centre

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.

This made The Museum of Contemporary Art in Skopje home of one of the most compelling collections of contemporary art in Southeastern Europe.

The City of Solidarity - Skopje

A photo of Kenzo Tange from 1981

However, one of the most famous figures to play a key role in the reconstruction of Skopje was the award winning Japanese architect, Kenzo Tange. He delivered the winning master plan for the new city centre of Skopje, and won the international planning competition for the reconstruction of the city, launched by the United Nations in 1965.

The reconstruction of Skopje was ongoing and carried out by the Yugoslavian government, with the support of international actors. It was the Greek architectural firm Doxiades Associates, along with the Polish architect Adolf Cibrowski that came up with the regional plan of the city in 1964, but they left out the central area of the city, so that the winner of the United Nations competition could come up with a matching plan. The United Nations had a separate fund for this competition, and Kenzo Tange really recognized the opportunity not only for its international influence, but also that it would serve as “a model case of urban reconstruction”.

The Master Plan was a civilization achievement of its time. Architects and urban planners of the modern movement, like Kenzo Tange himself, were confident in their role of remaking the post-war world.

The City of Solidarity - Skopje

The team of Kenzo Tange presenting the plan for the eastern part of the city centre of Skopje

The team of Kenzo Tange worked closely 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 on 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 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.

The City of Solidarity - Skopje

Back in the day, the building of the Macedonian Opera and Ballet

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.


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