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Baroque Fever

20 February 2017


Melbourne’s own Federation Square has been labelled an eyesore, had calls for its demolition, and been named one of the world’s ugliest buildings – however, casting an eye over to Skopje’s latest major project reveals that the Macedonian capital may yet offer some serious competition for this rather dishonourable honour.

The ruling Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization – Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity (VMRO-DPMNE) party is seeking to transform Skopje into a capital of culture with a project as extensive as their party name is long. One hundred and twenty buildings and monuments, costing somewhere in the vicinity of half a billion euros, are under construction, but the project is mired in controversy. Questionable taste, spiralling costs and historical inaccuracies have led to a less prestigious rebranding of Skopje. The city has been dubbed the capital of kitsch by bemused visitors and the capital of cringe by exasperated residents.  

Of course, most large scale construction projects earmarked for public spaces attract their fair share of detractors – the various elements of buildings and monuments, such as their design, colour scheme and placement are scrutinised, criticised and then built regardless. However, the Macedonian government has taken this ‘you can’t please everyone’ attitude to the extreme with a development project that has attracted ridicule and caused offence in equal measure.

To say that the aesthetic of Skopje is eclectic is to be too kind. In truth, it’s shambolic. The old town is a stronghold for Ottoman era, market-place charm, but elsewhere the city is a battleground of conflicting architecture and history. Byzantine, Ottoman and Yugoslavian influences are all evident, but the recent advance of neo-classicism is proving irresistible – to the government, at least. The city centre is crowded with huge statues and the banks of the Vardar River are lined with ostentatious museums, theatres and government departments. Faux-baroque fever is spreading quickly through the capital and it demands attention.

The centrepiece of Skopje 2014 – a dazzling likeness of Alexander the Great – is a big bronze metonym for the project at large. Alexander is literally on his high horse, riding a fifteen metre stallion atop a ten-metre-tall base that lights up in neon tones after dark. The issues with aesthetic and expense are self evident, but it is the statue’s historical foundation that is proving to be most problematic. Macedonia, it seems, is intent on provoking its neighbour to the south, Greece.

Alexander was born in Pella, a city within the borders of modern Greece. Ancient Macedonia included this region but modern Macedonia shares only the name and a fraction of the territory the empire covered. A lot has changed in the 2300 years that have elapsed between Alexander-in-the-flesh and Alexander-in-Bronze. In this time, Macedonia has been assimilated into the Roman empire, invaded and settled by Southern Slavs, absorbed by the Ottoman empire, incorporated into the Kingdom of Serbia and later, into both the communist and socialist manifestations of Yugoslavia. This historical and cultural rollercoaster has ensured that modern Macedonia bears no ethnic or linguistic resemblance to the empire Alexander built. Despite this disconnect and the offence to Greece, the Macedonian government appears to be forcing its own historical narrative and prescribing national unity. Unfortunately, neither are grounded in reality.

The Skopje 2014 project is no less contentious at home. For many Macedonians, the buildings and statues are an apt symbol of the failures of their government. What better way to convey the economic mismanagement of a country than with a building project that has tripled in scope and multiplied many times over in expense? What better place to house government officials completely out of touch with their constituents than in palatial, faux-baroque buildings? What better sign of rampant corruption than labyrinthine paper trails, ’lost’ construction tenders and kickbacks commensurate with the buildings and statues themselves.

The upside, for now, is the increased revenue from tourists who are coming, perhaps more than anything, to witness the absurdity of the whole project. Government statistics show that visitors to April last year were up 8.7 per cent from the same period in 2014; a continuation of a general upwards trend. With state corruption rife, however, and unemployment consistently hovering around 30 per cent, it is unclear just who takes home the tourist dollars. There is also a sense that the ‘so bad it’s good’ approach to tourism can only sustain itself for so long. When the novelty wears off, the stream of tourists may run dry and the citizens of Skopje will be left with a succession of faux-Baroque faux pas.