Essay by Antonio Petrov
“Some company recently was interested in buying my aura. They didn’t want my product. They kept saying, ‘We want your aura.’ I never figured out what they wanted. But they were willing to pay a lot for it. So I thought if somebody was willing to pay that much for it, I should try to figure out what it is.”
The figurative transformations of the past decade leave no doubt that architecture is yet in another crisis. The ongoing perceptual alternations of the city continue to mainly respond to stimuli of finance, politics, and speculation. We are still obsessed with [generic] objects that symbolize an era of (Wall Street) speculation. This will not change with Wolf Prix’s Venice Biennale faux pas, or the equally hypocritical responses leaving architecture more and more indifferent. It seems as if the popularity of architecture still is in disproportion of what architects believe should be the influence of architecture. Despite the attempts of a new generation architecture still is disenchanted and politically powerless to effectively contributions to the cultural geography of cities across the globe. Sometimes I wonder why we wallow in nostalgia and wonder what happened to the mystical and indescribable qualities of our cities that no ‘second hand’ version will ever be able to replace. Disillusioned by our own inability to ‘effectively’ contribute to the built environment we only serve with an architectural aesthetic no one understands ourselves. Paradoxically, these misconceptions of our cities and the production of more and more objects, for better or worse, leave us with the question what significance can architecture aspire to in a world that is no longer constituted by ideas and motivations of the city?
For that purpose Skopje, 1963 and 2014, perfectly embodies what I believe to be artificially constructed architectural schemes that are based on the disillusions of architects and planners operating in a cultural vacuum.1 The architectural discourse is shifting its emphasis from production into re-production of formal systems that are purely based on (imaginary) ideological characteristics manifested in the history of someone’s future (1963), and the future of someone’s history (2014). For Skopje there is more at stake than just a re-imagined history, or future. The question is: Is it possible to experience cultural identity through the “migration”2 of a replicated aura? And, can, or should, history, absorbed by the fabric of the city be replicated? I argue that 1963 and 2014 do not avail themselves as “valid terms of the city,”3 and that their visibility symbolizes the disengagement from the contingencies of culture, place, and time.
In 1963, a strong earthquake turned Skopje’s rich history into rubble. Skopians did not only loose their “social existence,”4 the quake also evaporated the cities memory of intellectual spatiality. In dire need of house and home, Skopje embraced the world’s solidarity (The City of Solidarity) but also had to realize that its own destiny was sliding out of its hands. Parenthesized between the political powers of East and West, the natural catastrophe provided politicians and architects of the 1960s generation the anticipated big-blast scenario necessary to implement the ultimate urban design utopia: a city for the future hovering above terra firma overwriting the factual city.5 The elevated ground gesture of the Skopje-metabolism was Kenzo Tange’s winning design for a new city invention. Eager to form an organic body Tange’s fusion of man and machine proposed a megastructure that reorganized Skopje and formed a parallel habitat lifted above the ground leaving the culturally rich Skopian as an “unemployed citizen” floating over the remnants of a now non-existent past.
In 2014, it seems as if the past that was buried deep underground resurrected into a future of history. Based on the new plan, Skopje 2014 distinguishes itself by an invasion of countless sculptures, churches, and a number of re-historicized buildings, including a copy of an Arc de Triomphe, Porta Makedonija. Like in a Roland Emmerich movie alien objects invade the city in the mist of nebulous political action. Inspired by grand metropolises the planners of the city’s future imagine a habitat for the Skopians filled with monuments and sculptures.
Instead of utilizing Tange’s existing city in the sky, they dug deep down into the ground to build the new foundation of Skopje on remnants of a questionable past. The political cognizance and the untraceable mishmash of General Urbanistic Plans (GUP) and Detail Urbanistic Plans (DUP) produced a master-matrix, and a not so surgical implementation that will leave the people of Macedonia with a 200-million Euro price tag.
One might wonder what this means for the future of a city that historically saw its social existence by-passed by “the good will and good intentions”6 of modern, and now ultra-neo-whatever-classical ideologues. Is this a city––with an existence perceived as nothing but a shallow reflection of an original that never existed––in search of identity under the scrutiny of agglomerated architectural “fields-of-meaning?”7
In the process of creating (and reproducing) new terms for a city, the idea of the ‘original’ in Skopje only seems to exist in imaginary realms. The original is what Skopje remembers as the past, and the factual city as heterotopic. This is a quite fascinating point of reference for a city that can claim to be the only implemented metabolist plan in the world. But what is this worth when the role of the citizens to form their own city collapses into a passive spectatorship with a population standing on the sidelines watching their urbs dissolve its essence into a state of no longer being. The “being-only-once”8 city and its vitality no longer belong to anyone, its history evaporated into utopia, and its future is an abortion. The de- and re-historization of 1963 and 2014 imposes itself between symbolism, reality and the imaginary, leaving the city with a mish-mash of symbolic gestures superimposed over one another in space and time. The 1963 signification of “meaning and representation”9 elicited the 2014 reaction to “disappearance of meaning and representation.”10 This fatal process with no immanence of images and transcending meanings distorts the dialectic of history, and our present perception of the city. Architecture demands presence, and while it is possible to challenge the presence of objects, the presence of architecture, even in virtual terms, is concerned with the metaphysics of being.11
Skopje stands at a crucial intersection examining the temptations of both “pasts” as a means to visibly diagnose the future. Will the city withstand its search for identity with its head in the ground, or up in the sky, or will it be able to develop a critical relationship toward its own self, liberated from the contingencies of a revived history to activate potentials for contemporary questions?
It is evident that the new images present the disappearance of Skopje’s authenticity; they signify a city struggling mainly with its own identity, and the cultural forces producing it. Every society needs to form its own city in which aspirations of “social existence” are constituted in presentness determined by relationships between object and subject, real and imaginary, and history and future.12 The city, once again, is in dire need of a house and a home founded on a material presence that relies on cultural, socio-economic, and political processes as a reflection of basic realities to establish relationships between culture and values, embodied in architecture that reconfirms the hegemony of culture that can help assure its continuity.13
The following examples exemplify the processes of cultural production, and illustrate how appearance and reality are informed by instances of (replicated) presence in various contexts.14
1. Jacques-Louis David’s presentation at the Salon in Paris exhibited his historic paintings in a showcase placed opposite a “psyche mirror.” His installation with a mirror as a medium of self-reflection gave the ordinary citizen on the street the opportunity to participate in history and art at the same time. David placed the viewer between the mirror and the painting, and allowed the reciprocity to unfold history, and give it in the present a meaning.15 The mirror-reflection positioned the spectator within the painting, and displayed a reorientation of self-definition of the subject toward a history depicted by the artist. David’s concept absorbed the viewer within the painting and the “psyche mirror’ mobilized active participation in the production of meaning.”
2. The German architects von Gerkan, Marg and Partners conceptualized the role of history and meaning embodied in appearance and reality in the Janus Schloss design. In 2000, the architects proposed a fusion of history and future in a contemporary skin on the site of the former Berlin Stadtschloss. Throughout modern history this site in the heart of Berlin changed its identity from an eighteenth century baroque City Palace to a twentieth century Palace of the Republic, until its still unresolved presence today. After the fall of the Berlin Wall an intensive public discussions evolved around this symbolically important site. Many voices wanted to demolish the symbol of communist power and replace it with a replica of the historic Stadtschloss. Others suggested to renovate the asbestos contaminated structure and open it to the public and the arts as a forum for democracy.
Von Gerkan’s unrealized design, a synthesis of reconstruction and new building imagined an impression of the old Stadtschloss in its original urban volume in which the shape of the castle appears as a virtual image on the façade. Inspired by Janus, a guardian from the Roman mythology, the architecture of the Schloss had the ability to look simultaneously into the history and the future, and break with the figuration between object, subject, spatial, and temporal proximities. The perception of the historic volume and the materialization of the silhouette of the old Stadtschloss emerged like a Mirage and changed its appearance with the distance of the viewer to the object. The Schloss perceptible from the distance changes into a “tinted high-tech façade” in close proximity gives the viewer the opportunity to experience history through space and time. The expansion of appearance and reality into a presence with an imaginary history produces an effect that is a historic relic and a contemporary document at the same time.
These instances between object and subject, and history and future require different frameworks to analyze antithetic conditions that negate each other, or provoke uncertainties in the object by removing both the architect and the user from any necessary control of the subject. David’s psyche mirror gave the beholder a moment between the imaginary and the real; an instant in which one could make sense of location, subject and object, whether imaginary, symbolic, or real. Whereas, the sophistication of the Janus Schloss project allows all of those conditions to take place in instances of which one has the choice between history and future as an active experience through space and time. The injection of illusion makes a new reality possible, and the pastiche of the past, or the future, allows a new sense for individually inscribed authenticity re-inflating the collapsed unreal providing us new aesthetics of reality.
Tange’s weakness during the development of the design for Skopje became fifty years later the strength of his proposal. His design set rules in which the relationship of the referent- (meaning) to production, and the larger system to the individual determined a monospheric framework in which the Macedonian ought to be New Babylonian, liberated himself from a “nomadic art-colony”16 to own spaces Tange didn’t consider in his design. The hybridization between the ultra-material and the abstract became the characteristic expression in the representation of sensations and movements. Both, the 1963 and the 2014 schemes make clear that “materiality like almost every feature of our environment is to a large extent a cultural construction”17 inscribed in current cultural and economic trends.
That the city is out of breath is not the fault of people trying to make a living below the gesture of a city. Skopje is not a “life-conditioned”18 Gesamtkunstwerk, nor is it the backyard of a polarizing sculpture garden. Skopje metabolism became Skopje, and its weakness provided a platform that made it a fantastic scheme allowing Skopians to own utopia. 2014 is not utopia, nor is it a vision, but it’s a voice that needs to be heard. The current city is neither an abortion nor a project. The citizens need to resist the intellectualist vanity that acts out the arrogance of the Gesamtkuenstler, or the indifference of the life-conditioner. Architecture must address the city even when the city has no goal for architecture. In this sense, the city is ultimately the only object and method of architectural investigation that serves the culture it is part of.
Skopje is the host and needs to realize that the city is the place it was born into. The people of Skopje own this newly invented city in transition from the past into the future.19 And at this point who cares that Skopje started as a city of the future? On one hand, the city is a ghost that only exists as being-only-once in our imagination. On the other hand, its presence is sensuous and concrete, living and vital, taking on forms and shapes in all its expressions and embodiments. In this sense, 2014 is a product of a society that gave birth to it. Maybe the discussion about 2014 should not be about the fact that parts of the population (symbolically) living in the 1963 part of the city want to rebuild memories from the past that exist in the quarter across the river. Instead of creating images of the past in an unprecedented manner, we should start thinking about how the city of 1963, and the city of 2014, finally can become one city for everyone: celebrating an order that is mystical, imaginary, utopian and real as the ideal form of representation. Whether we like it or not, maybe 2014 is the aura Skopje never had, it’s own-own expression, and it’s social code in which it isn’t even produced by nature, but immediately reproduced. And maybe if we keep pushing the copy of a copy, we will eventually catch up with the present and ask ourselves: is the image of myself in the mirror who I want to be?
1. Alexander, C. (1965). “A City is not a Tree.” ↵
2. Bruno Latour, The Migration of the aura, or how to explore the original through its facsimiles. Switching Codes. T. Bartscherer. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005). ↵
3. Sloterdijk, P., “Foam City: About Urban Multitudes,” New Geographies (0): (2007), 151. ↵
4. Lefebvre, H., The Production of Space (Oxford, OX, UK ; Cambridge, Mass., USA, Blackwell, 1991). ↵
5. Sloterdijk, P., “Foam City: About Urban Multitudes,” New Geographies (0): (2007), 151. ↵
6. Rowe, C. and F. Koetter, Collage city (Cambridge, Mass., MIT Press, 2001). ↵
7. Alexander, C. (1965). “A City is not a Tree.” ↵
8. Latour Ibid. ↵
9. Baudrillard, J. (1993). The Evil Demon of Images and the Precession of Simulacra. Postmodernism : a reader. T. Docherty. New York, Columbia University Press: 194-199. ↵
10. Ibid. ↵
11. Baudrillard, J., Iibid. Architecture, or its simulacrum, resists false pretentions, and communicates and distinguishes between reflections of “basic reality, the perversion of basic reality (the image is an evil appearance, inaugurating an age of simulation, when the real is no longer what it used to be nostalgia assumes its real meaning), masking the absence of basic reality (plays at being an appearance), and the image bears no relation to any reality whatsoever, the image is its own pure simulacrum (no longer in order of appearance but of simulation).” Baudrillard ↵
12. Rosalind Krauss and Michael Fried’s: presentness was a moment, which collapsed time into the inexorable present, where there was no difference between thinking and experience. ↵
13. Hays, K. M., “Critical Architecture: Between Culture and Form.” Perspecta 21 (1984), 15-29. ↵
14. A detailed description of these precedents is of limited interest, but to be comprehensive I will outline their main ideas. ↵
15. Lajer-Burcharth, E. (1999). Necklines : : the art of Jacques-Louis David after the Terror. New Haven [Conn.], Yale University Press. ↵
16. Sloterdijk, P., “Foam City: About Urban Multitudes,” New Geographies (0): (2007), 151. ↵
17. Picon, A., “Architecture and the Virtual: Towards a New Materiality.” Praxis 6(6). ↵
18. Baird, G. (1998). La Dimension Amoureuse in Architecture. Architecture theory since 1968. K. M. Hays. Cambridge, Mass, MIT Press: 36-55. ↵
19. Doxiadis, K. o. A., J. G. Papaioannou, et al. (1975). Ecumenopolis : the inevitable city of the future. New York, Norton. ↵
Antonio Petrov received his doctoral degree in the history and theory of architecture, urbanism and cultural studies from Harvard University. He is the director of WAS, a think tank located in Chicago, the co-founder and current editor-in-chief of New Geographies, a Harvard University journal, and the founder and editor-in-chief of DOMA, a bilingual magazine published in Macedonia. He currently teaches at the University of Texas at San Antonio.