In Summer 1963, a massive earthquake struck the ancient city of Skopje. Skopje is in the Republic of Macedonia/FYROM and has been in the news because of demonstrations in May 2015 against Prime Minister Gruevski and his government. These demonstrations have been dramatic but peaceful. The 1963 earthquake was anything but peaceful. It lasted less than a minute but killed well over 1000 people, made 100 000 people homeless and destroyed about 80% of the city.
The world came to Skopje’s aid and 78 countries offered relief funds. With so much of the city destroyed, an idea emerged to hold an international urban planning competition for its redesign.
In 1964, Japanese architect Kenzo Tange won the competition. His plan for the city involved brutalist city planning on a gigantic scale. Prominent individual buildings were to be designed by famous architects from around the world.
Skopje Central Post Office was the brainchild of Macedonian architect Janko Konstantinov. Phase One of this ambitious, brutalist monster was ready in 1974; Phase two in the early 1980s. For years, the wacky design garnered a mix of love, hate, embarrassment, and most of all, curiosity. Who would come up with such a building?
And although not many Westerners came to Skopje, the Skopje Central Post Office did send a siren song to Western architecture geeks. The types who get off on Albanian concrete bunkers, abandoned holiday resorts, and utopian planned communities. I may include myself in that gang but I am a lightweight and I accept that. Case in point, I had not heard about the Skopje Central Post Office. To my credit, I recognized right off that this was El Primo Structure in a city of unbelievable structures and made it my solemn mission to check it out.
Puzzlingly, when I turned up at the post office to check it out, I was stopped at the front door by a receptionist. She told me the post office was closed. Permanently. Then she told me where the nearest post office was.
She had been chatting with a guy and he asked me what I wanted. I told him that I had a degree in Heritage Conservation and that the building fascinated me. He told me that it had suffered extensive damage in a fire a year ago. He told me that the fire was still under investigation and that no one was allowed in. We chatted for a few minutes about the truly insane new architecture that was going up in Skopje: “Baroque Shit” as he called it. Then he said, “Okay, let’s go in but NO PHOTOS!!!”
Wow. Once we were in, I was so excited by my first foray into ruin porn, that he said, “Okay, take some pictures, but MAKE SURE I AM NOT IN ANY PHOTOS!!!” Architecture was a serious hobby of this postal worker and we had a great visit of the site. He told me all about the former famous murals and funky decor. Because so much had been made of plastic, the fire had gone wild in mere minutes.
He had been working when the fire started and he said that staff believed that the fire was ignited by the Director of the Post Office. That guy always smoked in his office even though it was strictly forbidden. Luckily no one was injured. Unluckily, an amazing structure was severely damaged. Say one thing about Brutalist Architecture: it can withstand a massive fire and still look untouched from the exterior!
NOTE: It can be hard getting factual information about the Balkans in English. My new favourite source is Balkanist, a bilingual (Yugoslavian and English) site with excellent news coverage.
DISCLAIMER: What I present here is what I understand to have happened based on first hand research. That is, visits to the site and interviews with local people. If you find any errors in the above or if you have any photos or information to add, please let me know!