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How Architecture Students Became Activists in Macedonia

by Snezhana Domazetovska

Flier for citizen protest to protect a public space in Skopje, Macedonia.

For more than 20 years, since Macedonia became independent from Yugoslavia and replaced a socialist system with a capitalist one, the country has been in a period of seemingly endless transition and privatization. This period has been characterized by extensive building activity, but this has been informal, prioritized private over public interests and had weak regulation. Up to 2009, there were also few investments in public buildings, and these were almost always problematic in terms of location, finances or design competition process (e.g., the competition for Mother Theresa Memorial House).

These controversial developments were usually followed by petitions or similar action from the public, always ignored by officials. With few exceptions, the professional elite have been inert in recent decades — too passive, unorganized and perhaps unprepared for the changes in the society.

What started to happen in 2009 was unprecedented. The government announced large-scale developments for the most valuable empty spaces in the city center, without prior professional debate, a wider analysis or civic inclusion. Because this was the first big investment in public buildings after independence, most people preferred having something built through a non-transparent process rather than having nothing built at all, as before. Another important fact about Macedonian society is the strong party divisions and low democratic awareness among people. Most people would loyally defend the position of their party rather than making demands on those they elected.

One of the new state-supported buildings placed in a problematic location — an area near the river zoned as public space for recreational use and threatened by flooding. 

These government projects continued the “private urbanism” of the past 20 years: changing plans overnight (or having no real plan at all) and using planners to execute the wishes of those in power. There were no higher standards of public participation or respect for the creative freedom of the architect, public space or built heritage, not to mention aesthetic or environmental considerations. Instead, these projects made the city’s malfunctioning “transitional architecture” into official policy. Grand groundbreaking ceremonies for big new buildings in problematic locations and with inauthentic, imported and outdated styles were announced in the media every day before the 2009 presidential elections. This may be a well-known campaign tool, but planning must still be a long-term process. Dissatisfaction, especially among architecture students, was rising. Few professors or architects were criticizing the process publicly, and we, the architecture students, couldn’t stand still.

Anger spread on online forums, on Facebook, at home and in gatherings after classes — but no one was doing anything. We were accumulating energy and not more than a Facebook group was needed to start thinking of some kind of real action. But when things are decided behind closed doors and you find about them after the contracts are signed, probably the only thing left to do is protest. Unusually for architects, we decided to organize a protest.

The core of the group was created after classes at the architecture faculty at the University St. Cyril and Methodius, where people were staying and talking for hours. New individuals were joining all the time, and the informal group was given a name: First Archi Brigade. With support from other youth, cultural activists and groups, we organized the protest “First Architectural Uprising.”

We decided to make a broader manifesto summarizing our demands:

Fellow citizens,

OUR city is rapidly and definitely drowning in kitsch of a previously unseen extent and of yet uncertain consequences. The public space in OUR city is subject to plans and projects of politicians-economists and some of their friends, the villain architects, that would build even the Eiffel Tower if wanted by the client. Independent views raised by art historians or other experts are ignored. Instead of public and professional debates about the development of the city, competitions and plans are made in secret. Instead of solving the needs of the citizens, the intent is to solve the problems of political parties.

Therefore, fellow citizens, it’s time to stop criticizing only on Internet forums; it’s time to stand up from our comfortable TV chairs and to join the INITIATIVE: FIRST ARCHITECTURAL UPRISING, instigated by us, the students of the Faculty of Architecture, for the good of Skopje. These are our demands:

1. We demand an official position of the Faculty of Architecture in Skopje on developments concerning the city’s public spaces in the interest of society.

2. We demand a professional debate before every key venture for building projects.

3. We demand transparent competitions, announcements and urbanistic surveys, as well as commissions with representatives and consultants from Macedonia and abroad,

NON-PARTY bodies that will decide about such buildings. The final decision must be sanctioned through a referendum, as practiced in European cities in such cases. Until then, a moratorium for construction must be in place!

4. We demand of politicians to – instead of investing in kitsch architecture, building artificial villages for developing rural tourism, drawing up new urban plans, building on extremely inappropriate parcels – focus on spending public funding on the maintenance of the authenticity and originality of the old buildings that already exist but are decaying due to neglect.

5. We ask that the citizens wake up and for once think with their own heads, and become actors in the building their city’s future instead of remaining merely passive observers.

We then decided to focus the action in one location: a public space where the government planned to erect a building. The site is one of the liveliest places in Skopje, frequented by pedestrians and small happenings. Here, two pedestrian streets conjoin, creating a kind of piazzeta attached to the south-east side of the main square. The initial idea was to stage an urban performance in which people would come from four different sides like a flash mob, creating a human wall that would show passersby how much public space would be occupied by the building. We strongly believed that this place had to be preserved as public space and did not have the spatial capacity for such a big building.

A graphic of pedestrian movement on the piazza.

The project was also problematic from another perspective. This was not just a government building, but a church built with state support. Although Macedonia is a multicultural society, the government was planning to give the location to the church for free and help build it with state money. Therefore, some people supported our protest in the name of the secular character of the state. Other people joined because the project was not economically justifiable: It was too expensive, and as there are three other churches in walking distance, a developing country has more important things to invest in.

The event was open to all the citizens, so anyone could have joined, officially registered with the police, and publicized in the media. But when we arrived on Saturday morning, March 28, 2009, there was a much bigger group already standing there. Most of them had been brought by bus from different towns and carried religious symbols and good-quality fliers (compared to ours, printed at home) supporting the church. Although they claimed they had gathered spontaneously, they were obviously well-organized.

Their main argument was that each European capital has a church in the main square. They also claimed that a church had existed where the city’s shopping center was today and had been destroyed in the 1963 earthquake. They were calling the process of building a new church with totally different architecture, location and urban context a “reconstruction” of that church.

Protesters and counter-protestors in Skopje.

We were unable to make the human wall in the planned spot, so we made it on another part of the square. Some of the counter-protesters used that moment to attack us by shouting offensive words. We responded by singing a children’s song, “Skopje, you will be a joy.” Police stood still and did not enable us to exercise our democratic right to protest. They didn’t even try to stop the aggressive counter-protesters. We didn’t have any choice except to leave.

When we were making the banners (“Do not rape Skopje”) at the faculty the previous night, we had no idea how big this was going to become. It opened up questions beyond urban planning itself, like the rule of democracy and the right to protest. At first, we prayed for any kind of media attention to our action. Afterwards, it was the main news for some time. If the counter-protesters had not come, the event would not have had as much media attention (if any at all). Unfortunately, we were thrown into a media war, political party war and wars of every kind of polarity you can imagine in a society. Both the governing party and the opposition tried to take advantage of the situation. It was a life lesson for us.

Protestors and counter-protestors.

We were called pro-opposition, Muslims, paid traitors, and so on. In fact, the protesters were architecture students, architects and concerned citizens from various religious, ethnic groups and political backgrounds, and the protest was organized with a total budget of 50 euros for hammers and paint spray. Some experts described it as the first civic protest since Macedonia’s independence.

After the event, legal action was started against the attackers among the counter-protestors as well as against participants of our protest who went to the police as witnesses. In the end, all charges were dropped, but the equal treatment of peaceful protesters and attackers was very disappointing for some people. Others saw it as inspiration to continue being proactive.

In the end, the government decided not to build the church there, but not to preserve public space. There was strong political pressure from the Muslim community, who asked for reconstruction of a mosque destroyed around a century ago on the other side of the same square. More as a joke, a group was also asking for a Jedi temple. Faced with a very complex situation, the government decided to keep the square without any religious buildings. But the possibility that the plot can be activated at any moment for a building with another usage unfortunately still exists. A building in this location would be even more illogical now, after a triumphal gate and a monumental statue of Alexander the Great were built there as part of the Skopje 2014 project, because it would block the view between them.

Since the protest, there has been a lot more discussion about architecture and urbanism, even among non-architects. These issues are slowly becoming important subjects to citizens, artists and the media, as they should be. Architects have seen how much architecture and planning are interconnected with other factors. They have realized that no one will give the profession the place it deserves in society unless they ask for it themselves.

In the three years since the protest, First Archi Brigade has remained an informal group and contributed to the architectural debate through events we organized or joined, locally or internationally. We have demanded an international competition for the city center, written letters to the municipal council, initiated establishment of an architectural centre in Skopje, exhibited students’ projects in public spaces, promoted different approaches and initiated open dialogue between professionals and officials. Despite our professional qualifications, gaining acceptance for anyone who thinks differently is a slow and difficult process.

"Don’t Rape Skopje" poster torn by the counter-protestors.

Meanwhile, Skopje’s center has totally changed its image with new developments as part of the Skopje 2014 project. No one could have predicted such a big transformation. From today’s perspective, everything that has been happening in city planning and architecture in Skopje since independence, especially in the last three years, was the logical consequence of some societal processes or lack of others in the previous years.

The protest was a risk that was worth taking, even though it caused us huge troubles and still does. Slowly, but surely, the energy of architects and activists has started to channel into the processes that precede the built product: education, actions, dialogue, raising awareness. This architecture that is not physical, but equally real and alive — one that affects city life today and what will be built in the future. To what degree depends on all of us.

Snezhana Domazetovska is a student in the Faculty of Architecture at the University St. Cyril and Methodius in Skopje, Macedonia, and a member of the First Archi Brigade.

Credits: Images from First Archi Brigade.

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