The Barracks of Skopje are the Fabric and Structure of This City

Interview with Milan Mijalkovic and Katharina Urbanek


After a seven-year break, Milan Mijalkovic and Katharina Urbanek return to Skopje with their new exhibition and book, PRE/FABRIC”, The Growing Houses of Skopje”. The Macedonian public will learn about the six carefully selected prefabricated houses in Skopje and the life stories of their occupants who have lived in the prefabs for over five decades.

We are complementing the amazing creative work of this Macedonian-Austrian architect couple coming from Vienna with an interview made on the occasion of their latest project and exhibition displayed at the Museum of Contemporary Art.


Seven years ago, you participated in the preparation of the “Skopje – The World’s Bastard: Architecture of the Divided City” monograph. What should we expect from your new book “PRE/FABRIC. The Growing Houses of Skopje”?

M. Mijalkovic: We had a lot of material at our disposal while we were making the first book since it was more or less a study to determine the important issues and topics. There was plenty of available material and we were free to pick from a diversity of interesting topics, but the prefabricated houses made the greatest impression on us. On one of our walks in Hrom, we started taking photographs of the prefabs there. After visiting several different neighborhoods, we came to the conclusion that it was the prefabs that actually shaped the city. They were the city’s fabric or structure, so to speak.

K. Urbanek: It was something that really stayed with us. We could not escape the impressions the different prefabs left on us, especially the ones in Shuto Orizari, where we could easily make out the American type. We saw that the residents of Shutka had fairly customized the prefabs and even used some of the elements to construct new buildings. The materials could be spotted everywhere; they even made up the fences around the houses. Even after five years, this kept resurfacing as something that we could continue researching. It is interesting to note that our first book and the many discussions taking place in Skopje, including the new “Skopje 2014” project, were all centered on the central area of the city and its formal and representative buildings. Our aim was to shift the focus onto the homes, the everyday spaces and the architecture that represents them.

M. Mijalkovic: The new theme was aimed at diverting the attention away from the central city area and its representative architecture and focusing on the everyday life, a subject which we considered far more important than going around in circles, discussing “Skopje 2014” and Kenzo Tange. The barracks are the atoms of the city.

Macedonian authors are almost completely silent when it comes to honouring the international solidarity shown for Skopje after the 1963 earthquake through the creation of new publications and continuous creative work. As authors living outside Macedonia, what drove you to engage in the preparation of this type of work?

K. Urbanek: As I already mentioned, I am interested in the type of urban progress, urban stories and history which reveal a degree of emancipatory activity of the individuals. It is exactly what fascinates me in terms of the prefabs. What happened then was a curious mix of decisions imposed from above and urban planning carried out incredibly fast. If you take a look at the prefabricated houses in the photos from 1963 or 1964, it is as if you were almost seeing a Mars colony.




M. Mijalkovic: The “SEE” Art Group from Skopje asked for the prefab from our exhibition. We are donating it to them so that they could turn it into an art center where they would meet and create art. I agree with Katharina. If the city decides to recognize the value of these prefabs, it should not waste time planning, but rather draw up the budget and call in the town planning offices to start preparing plans and dealing with the matter. On the other hand, I can think of many examples of economically disadvantaged groups occupying spaces that no one used. They would take them over and improve them to the extent that the city or state acknowledges their worth and says, “Obviously, this is good and you should keep your space”. The solution might be in the city taking initiative, but the groups should also be seeking for it self-initiatively. It is up to us to create, claim and free space.

Organizing exhibitions and issuing publications on the post-earthquake revival of Skopje very often comes down to the same number of people from the expert public. What actions would you recommend taking to motivate the general public in Skopje to preserve and put in effort to perpetuate the discourse on “Skopje – the city of international solidarity”?

M. Mijalkovic: Of course, some are nostalgic for the “old Skopje”, and others are longing for a “modern post-earthquake Skopje”. The qualities are different, but the sentiment is quite similar. Solidarity used to be a major theme around here. It seems as the word has now become obsolete. It has lost the strength and value, as well as many other aspects for which it stood. Words change or lose their meaning throughout the years. We should keep exploring this topic, of course. Examining history, tragedy and miracles are crucial to moving forward. I think we lost our chance at preserving solidarity as a defining theme and as the city’s landmark, but the discourse on the topic will always remain. It is our responsibility to maintain it.

With regard to engaging the public, many of my acquaintances in Skopje are not familiar with the location of the Museum of Contemporary Art. In order to explain, you would have to start by saying that is near the Kale Fortress, then proceed by mentioning Esma Redzepova’s home to help them get the idea, as most people would probably know where the house is. You cannot help but wonder, why does everyone know Esma’s home, who is surely a world-famous artist with an impressive background, but no one has the slightest idea where the Museum of Contemporary Art is? Wherein lies the problem? We should really consider this. The Museum of Contemporary Art is among the most representative buildings at one of the most prominent locations in the city, but the home of a famous artist is what the people here locate more easily.

K. Urbanek: This is a matter of education. We have been trying to shift the focus from the representative buildings onto the residential in order to highlight, as I have already mentioned, the value of people’s everyday space. This could be a way to do this, the only question being how many it would reach. We, at least, managed to engage plenty. We interviewed people, took walks around the neighborhoods in Skopje. If nothing else, they were excited that foreigners took interest in the stories of their personal surroundings. I think this goes a long way towards valuing space. However, at the end of the day, it is an issue rooted in education.

It is funny how this issue is not confined to something that happened 55 years ago. It is still very much alive today since Skopje has never lost its international quality. We are familiar with the issue of multiethnicity, and we also heard that many new groups from Turkey have been moving to Skopje. This should be seen from a positive and optimistic perspective. The story and identity of Skopje as the city of international solidarity are among its inherent qualities. This discourse should keep on living and growing.




In April 2017, fire destroyed the barracks of the Skopje Institute for Town Planning and Architecture, along with part of the technical documentation on the post-earthquake revival of Skopje. Some of the documents have been scattered around libraries and the State Archives, but they have not yet been digitalized. Do you think that Skopje needs a new Museum of International Solidarity or another cultural institution that would be responsible for taking care and preserving of the complete written material and memories of the 1963 revival of Skopje?

K. Urbanek: Yes, we think it would be a good idea. However, we hope the city gets an institution focused on architecture and urbanism, which, instead of operating exclusively as an archives or a post-earthquake revival museum, would serve as an architectural center. The Museum of Architecture in Vienna displays a permanent exhibition on the architectural and urban history of the city, integrates a library and hosts many events during the year. This would be perfect for Skopje. There is definitely more than enough material to stage a captivating permanent exhibition, which would also serve as an archives. This would mean knowing exactly where to go when necessary. Your question about the issue of documentation preservation requires a lot of thought. Part of our research, especially the one we did for the book, combines our photographs of the prefabs with archival photographs taken in the last 50 years. Even though these houses are still occupied by the first generation of families that lived there, it would be nice if people could hand down the information they have about their prefabricated houses to a particular institution so that the collective memory of a place would be preserved.

M. Mijalkovic: While doing the research, we visited the Institute for Town Planning and Architecture in order to collect the necessary information. The first thing we noticed was how thoroughly neglected it was. It is such a disgrace. We are facing a complete denial of responsibility towards urbanism and history, towards a mere document. Not a single person assumes any liability for the fact that these documents were not preserved, that the institution was destroyed or for the fact it caught fire. This is not an isolated issue. Literally, in every field of society, from tillers to architects, no one is willing to accept any responsibility. With regard to the building of a future architectural center, I think it is very important for Skopje to have such an institution, and it would bring me great joy to see it happen. Plans, wishes and ideas for creating an architectural center in Skopje where experts and the public would meet, brainstorm, discuss and create already exist; a place to form a critical mass and generate ideas and opinions.

K. Urbanek: This is, of course, a question of resources and political will. In the case of Vienna or Germany, these types of institutions are financed by the state.

M. Mijalkovic: It is really not that complicated. First, a wish for creating such a center must be expressed and politicians must realize that it would serve future generations. It would not be the enemy of a particular political elite, but rather the initiator of a better space. When such a wish is finally communicated, a thought must be given about whom to delegate the responsibility for establishing the center. Whether this is an individual or a group of architects, somebody would have to take on the responsibility and task to create this center. A discussion would be held to allocate the resources. This center may be made up of containers or it may be a skyscraper, a completely new building or a part of an existing building, all depending on the available resources. Things are really not that complicated, but they have to start from somewhere. The political elite with the greatest influence can undertake the initiative the most easily.





With the latest amendments to the Law on Construction, Macedonia allowed its citizens to extend their houses up to 10 meters (33 feet) in height (ground floor, two floors and attic), regardless of whether or not it was envisioned in the Master Plan. From what we have seen on site so far, it seems that mostly hit by this measure are the settlements with prefabricated houses built after the earthquake, such as Kozle and Taftalidze. How do you feel about this decision of the former government and what should the authorities do in the following period?

K. Urbanek: As we mentioned before, the prefabs and the entire urban space in the 17 new settlements had the potential for future expansion since the very beginning. We read in some of the documents that within 10 years of the earthquake, as many as 8 000 prefabs, or more than half of what was built, had been adapted or expanded. In fact, this had been envisioned in the Master Plan all along. The infrastructure and streets were designed to sustain a higher density of population than the one that was present at the time. Of course, this cannot go on indefinitely. At some of the places, for example, when documenting the Mexican prefab in Taftalidze where the 20 houses that Mexico donated were once located, we noticed that some of them had already started disappearing. The one we recorded was in its original form and we found it very beautiful. We also noticed that the Mexican prefabs near the local square in Taftalidze were being replaced with four-story buildings. I am almost positive that this cannot possibly be within the prescribed limits. Naturally, the infrastructure does not have the capacity to sustain all this construction, therefore designing a master plan before drafting such a law is absolutely essential. It is an absurd law which allows the construction of buildings of identical height everywhere in the city, with a complete disregard of the on-site situation. Urban planning should always come first, followed by an intelligently drafted law which would specify what is to be allowed. We are familiar with the issue of the houses in Taftalidze and we read online that the locals organized protests against building intensively, too high and too densely, but to no avail. They received no support. Whenever we go there, we wonder if what we are seeing is in line with any kind of urban planning.

M. Mijalkovic: If there was an architectural center equipped with the appropriate expertise, it would state loud and clear and continuously remind the public that a law allowing an entire neighborhood to grow for up to three stories cannot be adopted without taking into account all possible aspects. Take kindergartens for example; they are overcrowded. If the neighborhood is going to grow, so should the kindergartens, the streets, the sewage system, the water supply system and public transportation. These decisions must be subject to proper analysis. For example, Vienna has been expanding lately, building social housing units, although with a smaller intensity than the last couple of years, and is currently implementing a major project that involves building or extending educational institutions, such as new schools, kindergartens, or expanding existing facilities.

K. Urbanek: Of course, we are considering this from a European perspective. These things require funding. However, this is also an issue that I am having a hard time understanding, in light of all the construction activities taking place in the central area as part of the “Skopje 2014” project. Why did people agree to this? Why were they not mad about it? It is one thing having to live without playgrounds and there are certainly far worse things in life, but it’s another to agree to have millions of euros splurged on unsightly buildings, when things that are far more important to having a normal life have been neglected.

M. Mijalkovic: You simply cannot pass a law and say “Let’s build something”, without taking all aspects into consideration. Besides, this is precisely what we were taught to do. We were taught how to harmonize all these processes and assign them an appropriate time frame. The project attempts to focus the attention on the spaces, which although not representative are crucial to the entire society, spaces far more significant than the issue of whether the archives should be placed in the center of the city or if the columns should be reminiscent of the ancient Greek style. Changing the focus was central to our work.

Your publication shows six prefabricated houses that were donated after the Skopje earthquake. How did people respond when you asked for their cooperation in the preparation of this book?

K. Urbanek: There were a lot of coincidences at play. From a total of 14 000 prefabs, we chose six. There were no parameters for choosing our six houses. We took walks around several locations, looking for something to catch our eye on the basis of what we had previously discussed. We stuck to the houses that looked good on photos, were intriguing from an architectural point of view and where people where friendly and open. Most of them liked talking to us and were very amicable and happy that someone was taking an interest in their past. There were a few occasions when some of them were suspicious and inquiring about us. Nevertheless, these were the exceptions. The majority were really friendly and hospitable. Before the exhibition, we informed them that we were going to publish a book and put on an exhibition to let them know that they would be sharing their personal life with the wider public. They were really welcoming and supportive of our project. I sincerely hope that all of them will come to the exhibition. It has been two and a half years since we started our research, but we have kept in touch and managed to form a sort of a bond. I would really love for them to have the book. Something that we really liked was the coincidence at the very end. The project focused on six different countries, even though I think it was a total of 15 countries that donated the houses. Six different countries were also represented through six different settlements, so it was only natural that our book will also focus on six families that belonged to different social classes, age and ethnicity.

M. Mijalkovic: We chose the families randomly, but the relationship had to work and be based on trust. There were instances when people asked to see identification because they did not feel safe which was only natural. You come into their homes, take pictures of their bedrooms, and ask to see rooms that they do not want others to see. In reality, the chemistry with these six houses was obvious from the very beginning. Mutual trust was built and people opened their homes for us.





Your publication shows six prefabricated houses that were donated after the Skopje earthquake. How did people respond when you asked for their cooperation in the preparation of this book?

K. Urbanek: There were a lot of coincidences at play. From a total of 14 000 prefabs, we chose six. There were no parameters for choosing our six houses. We took walks around several locations, looking for something to catch our eye on the basis of what we had previously discussed. We stuck to the houses that looked good on photos, were intriguing from an architectural point of view and where people where friendly and open. Most of them liked talking to us and were very amicable and happy that someone was taking an interest in their past. There were a few occasions when some of them were suspicious and inquiring about us. Nevertheless, these were the exceptions. The majority were really friendly and hospitable. Before the exhibition, we informed them that we were going to publish a book and put on an exhibition to let them know that they would be sharing their personal life with the wider public. They were really welcoming and supportive of our project. I sincerely hope that all of them will come to the exhibition. It has been two and a half years since we started our research, but we have kept in touch and managed to form a sort of a bond. I would really love for them to have the book. Something that we really liked was the coincidence at the very end. The project focused on six different countries, even though I think it was a total of 15 countries that donated the houses. Six different countries were also represented through six different settlements, so it was only natural that our book will also focus on six families that belonged to different social classes, age and ethnicity.

M. Mijalkovic: We chose the families randomly, but the relationship had to work and be based on trust. There were instances when people asked to see identification because they did not feel safe which was only natural. You come into their homes, take pictures of their bedrooms, and ask to see rooms that they do not want others to see. In reality, the chemistry with these six houses was obvious from the very beginning. Mutual trust was built and people opened their homes for us.

Lastly, is there something that you would like to add with regard to your exhibition and new publication, “PRE/FABRIC. The Growing Houses of Skopje”?

M. Mijalkovic: We would like to thank all of those who helped. This is a massive project. Only when you undertake this kind of project, which requires three trucks to carry one prefab and twenty people just to transport it to the Museum of Contemporary Art and arrange it properly, do you realize one thing. Only when you get an up-close look at the entire process surrounding just one prefab, what it actually takes to transport it, take it apart and arrange as you see fit, do you become aware how difficult it was to erect those 14 000 prefabs in 17 neighborhoods. It demands a tremendous amount of effort. It becomes clear to you that these kinds of projects are only possible if a group of people is seriously committed to helping and contributing actively. Carrying out this project involved an enormous number of people who really put in a lot of effort.

K. Urbanek: In fact, this is a rather small project which could be much bigger. This is an endless project to which you could dedicate your entire life, just documenting the stories of these prefabs.

M. Mijalkovic: We analyzed only six of the fifty different types of prefabs that were donated by fifteen different states.

K. Urbanek: What I am trying to say is that this project required the putting in of a lot of effort by all those who helped. However, after all these conversations, all the reading and writing on this topic, working on this project in Vienna and the preparations for the exhibition, having the chance to be physically entwined with the story has been a sort of an emotional experience for me. This is also something we wished to communicate through the exhibition.

M. Mijalkovic: We discussed whether to rebuild or reconstruct the prefab, but in the end we decided that displaying the elements would be the best way to tell the complete story. In fact, the elements have acted as an archives that recorded the passing of time so that one day we could see how challenging and demanding this process really was.

K. Urbanek: Naturally, a lot of people in Skopje are still living in the prefabs, so this physical bond is present in their everyday life. However, setting up such a house here [Museum of Contemporary Art – Ed.] is a completely different story. No one has attempted it before. It gives the project a new layer of meaning and value.

M. Mijalkovic: This is highly significant to us. Vienna Academy Professor, Elke Krasny, author of one the texts in the book, pointed out that what we were doing was very important. She calls it “academic activism”, i.e. placing or shifting the focus onto a new, significant and specific topic by doing scientific work.


2018
Interview done by Bojan Blazhevski
www.build.mk
English translation: Milica Gjorchevska

Mark


Copyright: Milan Mijalkovic, 2018