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Solidarity for Skopje Has Been Completely Forgotten 

The Museum of Contemporary Art has been hosting the “Pre/Fabric – The Growing Houses of Skopje” exhibition by Milan Mijalkovic and the Austrian, Katharina Urbanek, a project unveiling a little researched chapter of the history of the capital. The exhibition, which will be opened from March 13 to April 3, was a wonderful topic to explore with one of the authors, the architect Milan Mijalkovic. Architect Milan Mijalkovic, who lived in Skopje until the age of 17, has been living and working in Vienna, Austria, for the last 17 years. The unbreakable bond with his hometown has been shown through the project that uncovers the very core of Skopje - the city of solidarity. “Pre/Fabric – The Growing Houses of Skopje” is a collaboration with Viennese architect Katharina Urbanek, who also has her own architectural studio and teaches at the University of Architecture in Vienna.

What is the story behind the “Pre/Fabric“ exhibition displayed at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Skopje and how many segments does it comprise?

“Pre/Fabric – The Growing Houses of Skopje” was the initial stage of the project, while the exhibition was mounted using information from the book, complemented by the prefab which was deconstructed to its basic elements and displayed at the museum. The title itself (fabricstands for texture, i.e. material) attempts to convey that the prefabs, those 17 quarters, are the fabric or the very core and structure of the city of Skopje. In other words, it was the prefabricated houses that formed the pre-structure (pre/fabric), the original and basic fabric of the city after the 1963 earthquake. What we exhibited at the museum was just one prefab, one tiny molecule.

It is a multilayered exhibition. What are the layers meant to convey?

The exhibition displays the deconstructed prefab, the elements and what they have been through, which stands for the material aspect. Visitors can see the mould, several coats of paint, burns, as well as the notes with schematic drawings made by the installers who would take it apart and reassemble it at a different location.

The next layer consists of photographs taken by local photographer Goran Dimov. We have also set up ten tables that exhibit excerpts from the book providing information about each of the prefabs. All the tables were assembled from elements taken from the prefabs, i.e. their inner and outer walls.

Basically, the book comprises four media: the photographs and six videos of the occupants sharing their experience about life in the prefabs, including any changes the houses underwent throughout the years; architectural drawings made by taking manual measurements of the prefabs to obtain their original dimensions, while learning of the changes through the stories of their occupants; plans which show both the present and original state of the prefabs; archival material taken from the Archives of the City of Skopje, as well as other archives across the world. Finally, the last medium that we added to complement all four was the prefab itself, standing for the factual aspect of the project, that which can be seen, touched or experienced.

By deconstructing the prefab, we tried to get a sense of its weight and size, and by working on it, learn what it was like to build those 14,000 prefabs. It took us three trucks just to transport the prefab into the museum, which speaks of the tremendous amount of effort that went into expanding the city with 17 new quarters, or modular settlements which was how they were called at the time, by erecting this type of prefabricated houses.

On what basis did you choose the six particular stories of the occupants of the six different prefabs which make up one of the segments of the project?

Our idea was to present six different prefabs from the available fifty. We were not interested in doing a comprehensive study, but rather chose the prefabs that we found intriguing from several aspects. We attempted to tell a different story with each of the prefabs: the different economic strength of the occupants, the difference in decisions made by the authorities then and now, the various cultural groups that occupy the prefabs today, as well as contrast the different changes that took place over the years.

For example, the Mexican prefab underwent the least amount of changes that included only the addition of a wall and a staircase. One can see from the interview how much love and commitment went into conserving the prefab. Even the family was planned to agree with the conditions the prefab offered.

Quite unique changes were also made to the Austrian prefab, where the original prefab was preserved and constituted the ground floor, but the roof was removed to build two new houses for the children.

One of our primary goals was to present the different aspects of the prefabs brought about by the difference in their growth: for example, the changes the prefabs in Shuto Orizari underwent compared to the changes made to the prefabs in Kozle. The project uses examples of prefabs originating from Austria, Finland, USA, Mexico, Great Britain and France.

What was your starting point for realizing the project? What were you trying to communicate, especially here, with the exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Skopje?

The most important thing was distracting the attention of the public, especially the expert public, from the representative architecture, particularly the center of Skopje, Kenzo Tange’s master plan, the “Skopje 2014” project, etc. In other words, the idea was shifting the focus onto the everyday life, which seems to have taken second place around here.

After taking a few walks with my partner in the project, Katharina Urbanek, it became clear to us that the prefabs were the atoms of the city. They are what makes up the city, and not the central city area with its representative buildings which are already the focus of attention. The 17 neighborhoods, which the prefabs helped create, are the very fabric of the city.

The modular quarters were created as a gesture of solidarity shown by the world following Skopje earthquake and were intended as a temporary residence. What do you make of the fact that people have been using the prefabricated houses for over 50 years?

Interestingly enough, the entire city became the city of solidarity during the revival period, not just the prefabs. It is hard to believe how all that solidarity has been completely forgotten. The mere topic is rarely brought up, not even by the locals.

With regard to the lifespan of the prefabs, research shows that Finish prefabs, for example, were intended to last for around 50 years. American prefabs, on the other hand, were never planned to be used as permanent residence, but rather for accommodating the American army in the military bases worldwide, and they were indeed designed to provide short-term accommodation.

Even as early as in the post-earthquake period, urban planners realized, or rather predicted, that the temporary prefabs would in time be replaced by larger solid-construction houses, since the prefabricated houses were initially built on plots of around 300 m2, while the houses spanned from 30 to 65 m2 or somewhat more. Unfortunately, I do not think they imagined it would happen the way it does today.

Yes, the prefabs are being replaced by entire buildings…

New buildings are not the problem, but rather the fact that construction does not go hand in hand with the advancement of other facilities and infrastructure, such as kindergartens, schools, streets, sewerage system, etc. The initial design of each of these settlements included local community offices, supermarkets, bus stops, cinemas etc. Today, all of these functions are either stagnant or non-existent.

On a personal level, as someone native to Skopje, what made you undertake the Skopje prefabs project?

As an architect, it was important to me to learn where I came from, find more about my home town, and eventually, about myself. The first book that we did with Katharina Urbanek, “Skopje: The World’s Bastard. Architecture of the Divided City”, published by the Austrian publishing house “Wieser Verlag”, contained a great deal of information and topics that appealed to us, but the prefabricated houses were the subject that we truly wanted to explore.

On our walks around Hrom and Shutka, we came across prefabs that we had no idea they even existed. Moreover, elements of former prefabs started popping up as part of fences or in other places where they would serve other purposes. We realized then that the prefabricated elements that once made up the prefabs were still around. The prefabs were of value and high in demand. People tore them down and turned them into weekend houses all across the country. We would often come upon a Skopje prefab in Dojran or Dolno Dupeni.

Growing up on streets such as Varshavska, Meksichka, Vienska, or Nobelova in Taftalidze, the neighborhood with the largest number of different types of prefabricated houses, I had some background knowledge. The project and our second book attempts to shift the focus from the center of the city and its representative architecture onto the everyday life.

Apart from this project and the two books, what is your personal contribution to the city’s architecture? Which of your works is part of the architectural image of present-day Skopje?

One of the theses in our first book was that architects should be involved in the planning processes so that better designs from the ones that were built would be suggested. This includes the designs that made it into the “Skopje 2014” project, when the majority of the Macedonian architectural community decided to boycott the calls for submissions, a decision which was rather justified since the selection of the designs was made by suspicious commissions and under questionable terms. Nevertheless, I was curious to see the inner workings of the system and try my best. An opportunity presented itself, and in collaboration with the Austrian world-renowned “PPAG Architects” studio, we submitted a design proposal for a parking garage near the post office which we did not win, but came in third. This, however, provided us with the opportunity to construct a facade on a completely different building. Therefore, my contribution to the architecture of Skopje is the facade of the “Macedonian Phalanx” parking garage on Sts. Cyril and Methodius St., as well as the story behind it and all the processes it set in motion. It was published in the media, made its way into publications, even won several prizes.

Another project, one that we did with Sergej Nikoljski, at the invitation of the former president of the Association of Architects of Macedonia, Danica Pavlovska – Cigi, who has always been a great supporter of our work, was a sculpture aimed as a materialized protest against the “Skopje 2014” project, i.e. a two-ton concrete tent set up in the park across the Assembly of the City of Skopje, right in front of the very eyes of those who made the decisions related to the “Skopje 2014” project.

To mark the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Skopje earthquake, but also express our protest against the “Skopje 2014” project, we set up a concrete tent in the park, which ended up symbolizing both things: a post-earthquake Skopje, a time when almost everyone lived in tents and the pitching of tents as a form of protest.

It was very important to us that the prefab which we displayed at the Museum of Contemporary Art continued existing and serving its purpose. The prefab that we bought in Singelich, removed from its original position and exhibited in the Museum of Contemporary Art, was donated to the “SEE” art group so that they could set it up again in some of the suburbs of Skopje and repurpose it as a new space, a new art center. “SEE” is made up of wonderful people who do fine work, which is why I am very happy they reached us. The prefab which was ours, if only very briefly, will become a new meeting point for expressing and sharing opinions, ideas and art.

Interview done by Toni Dimkov
English translation: Milica Gjorchevska

Copyright: Milan Mijalkovic, 2020