Macedonias capital was rebuilt after the 1963 earthquake with a cutting-edge modernist vision. Now, critics say the hollow Doric columns and clumsy statues of antiquitisation are transforming the city into a mini-Las Vegas

Changes like this usually happen through wars and natural disasters.

The academic and activist Iskra Geshoska is describing a project called Skopje 2014, a comprehensive plan to beautify the city centre of Macedonias capital.

It is seen at its most extreme along the river Vardar, where construction work is intense on a new, instant city centre replete with more heroic statues than youd find in cities 10 times Skopjes size. With astonishing speed, a modernist city has been transformed into a mini-Las Vegas.

Along the river are two very approximate reconstructions of historic buildings, and several oversized government headquarters, all within an idiom of Corinthian columns and mirror glass that has been absent from most European cities since the late 1980s; they are linked by bridges lined with golden candelabras and yet more statues. Behind them stands a 1960s city of brutalist high-rises and office blocks, but many of these are undergoing an extraordinary redesign with hollow Doric columns being affixed to slender concrete pillars.

For the government of the former Yugoslav republic, this project is making their capital truly European. It is linking it, through a process of antiquitisation which involved decorating the city with ancient-looking monuments to the glorious past of Alexander the Great, which the Greeks would deny them. (Absurdly, Greece has regularly blocked Macedonias accession to Nato or the EU for its use of the name.)

Soldiers dig for bodies in the ruins of the 1963 earthquake. Photograph: Keystone/Getty

For government opponents such as Geshoska, of the Skopje NGO Kontrapunkt, it is a catastrophe, not least because the Skopje 2014 plan aims at erasing an earlier plan altogether one which was as futuristic as the current plan is retrograde: the 1965 Skopje City Centre Plan, by Japanese architect Kenzo Tange.

These two plans are totally opposed in their ideas about what a city is, and what it is for; two extreme examples of modernism and postmodernism, violently forced into the same space.

The 1965 plan was the result of a natural disaster two years earlier. The Skopje earthquake destroyed around 70% of the city and buried thousands of people under the rubble.

As reflecting the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavias non-aligned geopolitical status communist, but outside of the Soviet Bloc the relief and reconstruction efforts crossed the borders of the cold war. Temporary, prefabricated housing estates were designed and donated by the US, Denmark, Britain and Bulgaria. Polish planners applied their expertise in reconstructing destroyed cities. Switzerland contributed schools, the USSR a concrete panel factory, Poland the Museum of Modern Art. American universities offered scholarships to Macedonian architects, while a plan by the Greek firm Doxiadis Associates plotted the citys infrastructure and future growth.

Video: Macedonia, a timeless capital

But the competition for the city centre was won by the Tokyo office of Kenzo Tange, who was then much feted for his Hiroshima Peace Museum and a wildly ambitious plan for Tokyo Bay. Tanges planning was influenced by metabolism, a Japanese movement for a form of architecture that would be adaptable, fast, ultra-modern and ultra-urban. In the 1960s, Japan had the highest growth rates in the world but Yugoslavia had the second highest, so it wasnt such a stretch to imagine that the futures of Tokyo and Skopje might not be too far apart.

Gazing out over the city centre and the remnants of Tanges plan from the Polish-designed Museum of Modern Art, a concrete-and-marble gallery placed at the top of the 15th-century Ottoman Fortress, architect Vladimir Deskov tells me: The plan was a hundred years in advance of the city.

The old Skopje is centred around the Old Bazaar, a series of winding, cobbled streets with a skyline of domes and minarets. By the 1960s, a modern city had sprung up around this, mostly on the other side of the Vardar, which marked an informal divide between the Christian and Muslim parts of the city.

Recognising this, Tange intended to bridge the two parts of the city through what he called a city wall of apartment blocks, modelled partly on the curved walls of the fortress. Surrounding the centre like a modernised version of Viennas Ringstrasse, the wall consists of interlinked blocks that provide a strong, defining, monumental presence.

The clustered, sculptural forms of the Cyril and Methodius University campus. Photograph: Owen Hatherley

The UNs seismic experts warned that the area around the river was the most vulnerable to another earthquake, so Tange planned the embankment as a green, open space for cultural centres, concert halls and the like, which would help bring the two halves together. The city wall was largely completed (by Croatian architects rather than Tange himself), but it never actually crossed the river.

Various of the planned central buildings were realised on both sides: the clustered, sculptural forms of theCyril and Methodius University and the extraordinary Opera and Ballet Theatre, both designed by Slovenian architects, and from Macedonian designers, theTelecommunications Centre a strange, individualistic example of organic brutalism and the Trade Centre: a long, low shopping centre of overlapping terraces stepping subtly down to the river, its combination of enclosure and openness inspired by the structure of the bazaar.

The result was a city where the monumental wall, which had gardens and squares behind it, enclosed a loose, green centre. It had no historical reminisces in its details or imagery, but modelled its spaces on particular historical structures it found nearby, such as the bazaar and the fortress.

If the city wall was largely executed as planned, Tanges more ambitious city gate was a failure from the start. This was to be arranged around a railway station which opened in 1980: a long, sleek, steel-and-concrete tube on a high viaduct. However, the complex system of towers and walkways that was supposed to lead through it to the Trade Centre, and from there to the river, was never realised.

An image from Kenzo Tanges Skopje City Centre Plan. Photograph: Mondadori Portfolio/Getty Images

Today this area consists of wasteland, informal housing, big box malls and new/old churches under reconstruction. In the 1980s, just as the reconstructed city had been mostly completed, the Yugoslav economic miracle faltered, with mass unemployment and a huge national debt. That exacerbated massively in the 1990s as the pan-Yugoslav economy collapsed into war. Macedonia stayed out of that, but hundreds of thousands of workers, mostly recent incomers from the countryside, lost their jobs.

Yet this alone does not explain the extreme nature of Skopje 2014.

The contrast between the two plans is best witnessed from the small park between the Trade Centre and the 1930s National Assembly, one of the few survivors of the earthquake. A flood of statuary has flowed messily into the space between the two, mostly celebrating Ancient Macedonia and the early 20th-century anti-Ottoman nationalist insurgents of the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organisation (the current ruling party considers itself their successor), as well as sundry medieval kings and folk heroes. There is a rotunda decorated with Third Reich-esque golden statues; a monument to wartime partisans at a table on a plinth; and, of course, a Triumphal Arch, which the government listed as a national treasure as soon as it was constructed all crammed into a space the size of one city square.

There is no classical or baroque symmetry in any of this; the sculptures have been scattered randomly. Theyre the result of one of the central parts of Skopje 2014: an open call for amateur sculptors.

Populism is central to the plan, deliberately bypassing any notion of professionalism and expertise in favour of a heavily mediated peoples choice though the prime minister Nikolai Gruevski has proudly proclaimed himself the plans author. Almost all the buildings surrounding these have been antiquitised to cement the connection to ancient Macedonia, with thin classical dressings affixed to the concrete, glass and tile underneath.

Many landmarks of Skopjes Old Bazaar area have been blocked out by the antiquitisation efforts. Photograph: JTB Photo/UIG via Getty Images

There is nothing like this in any other democratic country it is the sort of authoritarian, wildly kitsch assemblage usually seen in autocracies and despotisms. It gives the effect of North Korea without the planning; the projects 200m (156m) (or more, depending on who you talk to) cost borne by the state, albeit via massive borrowing.

Everything about Skopje 2014 is about facades; its actual historical legacy covered with a new narrative that concentrates on Greek-speaking warlords of the fourth century BC or Bulgarian revolutionaries of the 1900s.

The minarets of the Old Bazaar are screened off by ludicrously tall monuments; the international, modern buildings of the socialist era are given mock-classical dressings. The Opera and Ballet Theatre a staggering work of architecture whose irregular, angled forms flowing down to the river could have been built yesterday is now screened from view by structures that try (with impressive ineptitude) to look like they were built 2,000 years ago, with mock-19th century candelabras and a Roman portico with allegorical figures in what looks like gold lame.

I ask a member of staff at the theatre who is paying for all this, in one of the poorest countries in Europe? Well, Ive not been paid in nine months, he replies. So I guess I am.

Protesters outside Skopjes Architecture Museum earlier this year. Photograph: Robert Atanasovski/AFP/Getty

But how did the international project of 1965 which saw the UN and the worlds finest planners and architects reconstructing a city on the most advanced lines fail to leave a legacy?

Goran Janev, an anthropologist at Cyril and Methodius University, puts it down to the way the links created in the 1960s were forcibly closed off as former Yugoslav citizens who could travel without visas to both sides of divided Europe before 1989 were suddenly pushed into isolation, their new passports worthless. I had five passports at one point in the 1990s, he recalls.

Skopje 2014 has not passed without protest. The former head of the Macedonian Architects Association, Cigi Danica Pavlovska who trained with Alfred Roth, a Swiss designer who is one of the many major international figures to have work in the reconstructed city tells me with some pride how a referendum managed to stop the Trade Centre being antiquitised.

However, it has all happened at breathtaking pace. While Tanges plan took 20 years to reach (partial) completion, Skopje 2014 has transformed the citys look beyond recognition within just four years. Janev suggests this speed is part of the point, creating facts on the ground before municipalities or locals have the chance to react; a sort of urban shock doctrine (and shock is very much the effect). All the nationalism and symbolism is just dust in our eyes, he adds. The point is profit.

It easy to laugh at some of the creations, and some will surely travel to the city just to see the hilariously clumsy statues of painters wielding paintbrushes, large-breasted maidens, and the dozens of rugged warriors on horseback. A city which appears as if redesigned by the furnishers ofMTV Cribs will appeal to those with a cruel sense of humour.

Yet the differences between the two plans represent a stark vision of contemporary priorities: equality replaced with populism, futurism with antiquitisation, spaces by facades, the sublime by the pretty, internationalism by provincialism, architecture as function by architecture as language.

Eccentric as it may look, the ideas behind Skopje 2014 are mainstream today, while those of Skopje 1965 are usually summarised as the mistakes of the 60s. The city centre of today is the terrifying end result. Anyone who thinks theyd like a city where the traditionalists triumph over the modernists should visit Skopje, and see what they think.

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