Anderson’s Modularity in Skopje 2014?
This past Sunday Florian Bieber, fresh of a visit to Skopje, offered his take (which is well worth a read) on the city’s Skopje 2014 project. I had the pleasure (if you can call it that) of seeing it in person this summer and it really is a shocking piece of nationalist urbanism.* The scale of much of it is quite literally inhuman (the statue of Alexander the Great, for example), and the frenzied clustering of government and national-level institutions and buildings along the same stretch of the Vardar is transparently designed to physically communicate the rootedness of the modern Macedonian state.** This is done both with the aesthetics (all the buildings are designed to look like they were built in the 1800s) and, as Bieber very interestingly notes, in the actual construction itself:
However, this process is about suggesting that the new cityscape is actually not new. There is something nearly shameful about the building process. The Porta Makedonija—Skopje’s arc de triomphe – was a large concrete cube during its construction, in need to be covered up as quickly as possible (I was told that for the anniversary of Macedonian independence a few years back, the top portion was not yet covered so the arc was provisionally covered with a printed version of the stone ornaments). Once complete, the effect is to seem like the new is the old, and the older socialist modern architecture is the new, intruding the in the space.
But I wonder if there’s not an additional phenomenon at play; if this isn’t a prefect example of Benedict Anderson’s modularity in practice. Anderson’s suggestion in Imagined Communities, is that 20th century nationalisms, “have…a profoundly modular character.” That is, once the nationalist blueprint had been established (the French and German experiences being potentially paradigmatic ones), subsequent states could, and did, draw directly from it to guide their creation of a nation-state. The structure of the nation-state did not need to be reimagined with each iteration.
Skopje 2014 seems like this phenomenon instantiated. To the visitor it looks like Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski woke up one day, asked himself, “what are some things that long-lasting nation-states appear to have?” and came up with something like the following: all legitimate European nation-states have city centers riddled with statues? Great, we’ll put thirty of them on one bridge. France is the archetypal European nation-state and its capital has a ceremonial arch? Great, we’ll build one, too. Many states have districts in their capital cities full of government offices (D.C., or perhaps Whitehall in London)? Sure, we’ll put up dozens of new (and, according to Bieber’s post, non-functional) government buildings all in the same place. It’s almost like the Macedonian government thinks it can, as the steward of one of Europe’s younger nation-states, garner greater legitimacy (though it’s not clear where – it doesn’t seem popular at home, and it’s hard to imagine it changing many minds abroad) by recreating the physical experience associated with the capitals of some of Europe’s oldest ones.
*I suppose probably that’s not actually a phrase
**Sorry, FYROM-ian state. My grandmother would be very upset if she knew I’d called it Macedonia. Macedonia, you see, is part of Greece, and by calling themselves Macedonia, FYROM is in fact indicating territorial…zzzzz