Cities between dream and reality

On 1 October, a group of twenty artists, architects, designers and observers embarked on the airplane to Skopje. The capital of the Republic of Macedonia was to be the first of the nine cities visited during the 17-day study trip ‘What’s Up, What’s Down. Cultural Catalysts in Urban Spaces’ organised by the Netherlands Foundation for Visual Arts, Design and Architecture. All cities on the itinerary are – for various reasons – reinventing themselves. Here is the first part of my travelogue: about how authorities acquire a new (cultural) image for their city.

Back in 1963, then still a part of Tito’s Yugoslavia, Skopje was hit by a severe earthquake, and as a result twenty percent of all buildings were reduced to rubble. The international community rushed to the rescue and Japanese architect Kenzo Tange designed a master plan for the rebuilding of the city. The futurist plan of Tange, filled with robust buildings such as the post office by architect Janko Konstantinov, has to a great extent determined the appearance of the city – although it was never wholly completed. But not for much longer, if it is up to the current policy makers, as the centre of town is rapidly undergoing a new ‘classical’ makeover. In the central square, a giant equestrian statue of Alexander the Great is being erected, and on the riverbank the city is building a National History Museum with a plethora of columns. The city seems to be industriously removing all visible traces of the communist regime. Macedonia is obviously longing for grandeur and is seeking it in its distant and ancient history.

On top of a hill, meanwhile, lies the Skopje Museum of Modern Art, making a slightly forlorn impression. This gift from Poland, built in 1970, houses a collection that includes donated artworks of international artists, with some big names like Picasso and Calder. The building is a modernist dream with beautiful exhibition halls and a majestic view of the city. But the museum is not engaged. It took a pass on the White Nights event and merely sits quietly on its hilltop, waiting for the rare visitor who can find the way up there.

Tirana, the capital of Albania, where we arrive after a short visit to Prishtina (Kosovo), is developing in an entirely different direction. This is largely due to the efforts of the charismatic Edi Rama who has been mayor of this city since 2000. When he took his position, he decided to use a simple approach to cheer up the grey, stagnant city. He does not call it art, but his own background as an artist undoubtedly played a role in his decision to give the city a bright lick of paint. And it works, if you like it or not, the city looks lively and cheeky. After demolishing more than a few illegal buildings from the public spaces, Rama chose to invest in modern architecture. For the new buildings in the centre of town international architecture competitions were issued. This led to the tower being built by the young Belgian bureau 51N4E – almost completed – and MVRDV designed the Tirana Rocks project (a pompous project that hopefully will never reach completion). 51N4E also won the competition for the redesign of the central Skanderbegplein, which is well underway in front of the city hall. The transformation has not been lacking for opposition, Rama tells us, as not everyone is thrilled with his methods. The mayor is also leader of the second (socialist) party of the country, so his ambitions stretch beyond city borders.

In Marseille, where we spend day 6 of our trip, we are informed of the ambitious projects, such as Euroméditerranée and Centre Ville, that are intended to transform the rugged port town into the ultimate business centre for the Mediterranean region. But they still have a ways to go. Unlike most French cities, the banlieue of Marseilles not only lies on the periphery, but also in the centre of town, with a high concentration of poorly educated immigrants and the usual associated problems. One prime example of the challenge faced here is the Rue de la République. This avenue with Parisian airs was built around 1850, like a sword cutting a swathe through the existing city and the rock face along the sea. The street, however, never lived up to its promise, and the higher incomes continued to gravitate towards the more attractive southern parts of the city. Besides the small set of middle class residents, the houses above the shops were primarily inhabited by the recently arrived, poor immigrants, which led to considerable deterioration.

But once again a bright new future is projected. A number of years ago American investors bought large parts of the street. Small shop owners and low-income residents were urged to try their luck elsewhere. The buildings were taken in hand and cleaned up nicely, but there is only one problem: many of the residences and shops now remain unoccupied, the prices are high and the folk who can afford them are not making their way here. It looks likely that the sensible thing for Marseille to do is learn to accept the demographics of its population and devote its efforts to realising a more realistic version of itself.

In England the cities of Manchester, Leeds and Liverpool seem to have succeeded in perking up their city centres after the decline and depression of the 1980s. The large new shopping centres are gleaming proudly and the industrial heritage of old factory buildings and warehouses has been converted into monumental living and working spaces. At the same time the region has recently suffered more setbacks and unemployment rates are still high among parts of the population. Moreover, the recent recession has left its mark and enormous budget cuts are imminent in England. It makes you wonder what this new future the region so brightly touts will actually look like.

For local authorities in the Basque country, meanwhile, the arrival of the Guggenheim museum in Bilbao provided a welcome distraction from the bloody activities of the ETA Basque secession movement. The museum has been more successful than anyone had dare dream. It still attracts almost one million visitors per year, and according to a spokeswoman, the Gehry building is the main draw. Meanwhile, the city hasn’t been sitting still, major investments have been made in infrastructure and public space: a rapid tram system, a sunken road and a boulevard along the river. The former harbour areas of the city have been tackled rigorously, or will be by means of a master plan by Zaha Hadid. What was most striking in these developments is that very little of the robust harbour industry character remains – but maybe the recession will have a silver lining and delay construction to such an extent that advancing insights will have a chance to do their magic.

Throughout the trip, my thoughts kept returning to Skopje. It has all the essential ingredients: seeking new identity (albeit possibly imaginary), the use of architecture and culture, the tendency to rub out or camouflage any undesirable aspects of the past, and the political machinations in the background which are not always easy for outsiders to grasp. In Skopje it was all a bit more extreme and over the top, but these are the basic ingredients that are present everywhere.