Skopje – the World City

On the morning of July 26, 1963, the Skopje was struck by a devastating earthquake that left more than 80% of buildings in ruins. This unfortunate event was followed by an unprecedented effort by United Nations to reconstruct and redesign the city. City of Skopje was to be considered an international symbol of brotherhood, unity declared and international solidarity as it was rebuilt from the ruins with the aid of almost 90 countries. It was a unique opportunity to demonstrate the ability of the International community led by the United Nations for a much larger endeavor of constructing the role model of the future city.
United Nations have recognized and understand the potential of Skopje’s situation embodied in the figure of Ernest Weissmann, a pioneer of Yugoslav modernism who at the time of the earthquake was holding a position of vice-director of at the United Nation’s Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) and who later become the key figure in the process of reconstruction of Skopje chairing the International Board of Experts. He committed himself to transforming the city into a place where it would be possible to bring together the most successful international experts and that this would show that the only alternative to the destruction was in collaborative planning. In his opinion, a city built on such premises would eventually become the highest expression of world civilization. The main idea was “to modernize” Skopje and to turn it into the “world city” in order to show to the international community how world leaders, architects and planners can achieve a better life for the many .

The Power of Architecture

In the days after the earthquake, Skopje has become a field of coexistence and collaboration that reversed the negative preconception and the confrontation of the Cold War era. Skopje earthquake and following reconstruction struck at the very particular moment in history largely politically and military divided within the Cold War context and led few people to believe that it ultimately played a significant role in preventing a completely different kind of disaster on a global level through promotion of universal solidarity. This message was further elaborated and the city, once rebuilt, was supposed to show the governments worldwide that only through unconditioned collaboration and through the sharing of knowledge would it become possible to create an environment suitable for the entire humankind. The reconstruction of Skopje has become a political project aimed at providing a model of social justice through the process of redesigning the city.
The establishment of a network of international architects through an international invited competition for the reconstruction of the center of the city was an opportunity to transform the process of city reconstruction into the world project; the city became the fertile ground for architecture and urban planning ideas showcasing the power of architecture to transform not just cities but societies, too.

The project for reconstruction of the city of Skopje represented the occasion for world architects and urban planners to accomplish a truly world project, the universal project promoting the universal values of humanity achieved through the tools and instruments of architecture and international collaboration. The Skopje project demonstrated the importance of architecture as a collaborative effort in the divided world promoting the belief that the construction of the human habitat is a humane way to solve socio-political and economic obstacles of the contemporary world.
Following this idea a number of world architects were invited in Skopje, including Kenzo Tange from Japan, Jaap Bakema, and Van den Broek from Holland and Constantin Doxiadis from Greece, to contribute to this effort with their ideas, plans, and designs. The reconstruction of Skopje was a great opportunity to demonstrate the real potential of Tanges’ Metabolist architecture, Bakema’s Open Society, and Doxiadis’s Ekistics theory. They shared the belief that cities and societies can be designed and reconstructed through ideas and concepts that are inherent to architecture and urban design and are deeply humanistic. However, almost fifty-five years after the adoption of Kenzo Tange’s plan for the center of Skopje, the legacy of this international project led by the UN remains relatively unappreciated. It was anticipated that once the reconstruction would be completed, and given the engagement of such eminent designers, the city would provide solutions to the contemporary “urban crisis”, would prescribe a cure for the “sick cities”, and show the way for the “humanization” of the built environment. Even though mostly unattained, these ambitious goals gave life to an international debate about the future of both cities and planning. Revisiting the idea of the power of architecture and urban design as the drivers of reconstruction of the societies and cities and bringing upfront the ideas that are inherently architectural is in the core of the Skopje Project Symposium.

The questions

What if the reconstruction of Skopje happened today? What if, in the aftermath of the catastrophic disaster, the same unilateral call to solidarity occurred and the entire world came together in support of the city? What if leadership insisted on using this catastrophe as an opportunity to find new models for economic, infrastructural, political, and urban reconstruction? If that happened, what would architects, planners, policymakers, economists, sociologists, and other committed participants to reconstruction identify as the most pressing obstacles blocking a city from achieving recovery, unity, equity, and freedom? Based on the assumption that the fundamental ambition of the city is to enable freedom for its citizens, we ask for each writer to submit a statement that defines the contemporary obstacles we must overcome in order to enable freedom for the citizens of a city.