Dan Grossman – Architecture and the Past in Uzice and Skopje
1. There is no forgetting the past in Uzice, Serbia. Not in textbooks and not on street corners. In 1941, Josip Broz Tito’s Partisan resistance movement liberated Uzice from the Nazis and made it the center of an independent socialist state. Though the Republic of Uzice lasted only a few months, Tito remembered Uzice and, after becoming ruler of Yugoslavia, he poured in money for construction and industry. For decades Tito’s 4.5 meter statue stood at the top of Partisan Square in the city center. Not anymore. In 1991 the statue was moved to the backyard of the city museum, not because of the fall of socialism but because Tito was Croatian, and Serbia was at war with Croatia.
Other figments of the past can’t be stashed behind a city museum. At the bottom of Partisan Square, obscuring a lovely view of hills and trees, looms the gargantuan Zlatibor Hotel, built in the early 1960s as part of the central government project to transform and develop Uzice. The hotel is quite possibly the ugliest building I have seen in my life. It looks like a rocket that will never take off. It looks like the statue of Tito in industrial form. The locals even have a nickname for it that, apparently, translates to “The Gray Bullshit.” Marko, the owner of Eco Hostel Republik (where I stayed for a week), studied it for a hotel organization class, and the desk clerks couldn’t even tell him how many beds it contained, with guesses that ranged from 170 to 220. After the fall of socialism, the Zlatibor Hotel was auctioned off a private owner and it fell into disrepair. Rarely are more than three windows lit up in the evening. One night, while drinking beers at a café along the Detinja River and looking out at The Gray Bullshit, I asked Marko if they’d ever knock it down, and he said, “You could drop a nuke on that thing and maybe the glass would break. There’s so much concrete.”
Surprisingly (or unsurprisingly), Tito’s reputation has not followed the hotel’s. Despite centrally planned disasters like Hotel Zlatibor and an undemocratic rule that left the country with few free institutions after his death, Tito is quite popular in Serbia, with a pervasive sense that the economy was better, life more peaceful and the region more powerful. “To our parents Tito wasn’t a dictator,” Marko said that night at the bar, “he was a god.” During Tito’s rule from 1953-1980, Yugoslavia never aligned with the USA or with the USSR, and in Tito’s strange, greenhouse-style, god-like mausoleum in Belgrade there are pictures of world leaders paying respect at his funeral. There’s even a guestbook where visitors praise and mourn the dead leader as if they knew him personally. When I went to the Uzice city museum to look at the statue, in which it looks like Tito is wearing a thousand-pound cloak, yellow flowers rested on his boots.
What do you do with such history? What sorts of creative energy flow through a city with The Gray Bullshit at its center and a statue of a beloved autocrat in its backyard? The hostel that Marko owns, Eco Hostel Republik, adopts a curious midway, a socialist chic. Stylish, comfortable and nostalgic. The bedframes are recycled euro pallets formerly used for railway transport. The drinking cups are metal. The trash bags are stored in Yugoslav ammo cases. There’s a mural of the World War II partisans on the wall, and the wifi password is Tito1941. On my first night, as I sat at a plywood table in the large common room, Marko invited me to admire his latest innovation: a lamp on the Area Info board with the hostel’s symbol on the back—the red star of the Republic of Uzice. It was past midnight and everyone else was asleep in the dorms, but Marko still had energy to make and gloat over an improvement. And that’s the hostel’s great irony: it’s a nostalgic recreation of a short-lived socialist state, now run by an ambitious entrepreneur.
2. Skopje, the capital of Macedonia, was also rebuilt during the socialist era, not because Tito remembered it fondly but because an earthquake destroyed it in 1963. Only a few buildings and neighborhoods remained, and the central government transformed the ancient city with geometric blocks and brutalist cubes. Today Skopje must have one of the highest raw concrete-per-capita rates in the world. But pure functionality is no longer functional, especially when it comes to modern tourism, and in 2010 the government began a project, Skopje 2014, to modernize and re-transform the city with new buildings, bridges, museums, monuments and sculptures. In Skopje, new replays old, with peculiar results. The main square features a brand-new white triumphal arch and haphazardly-placed statues of national heroes, with a monument of Alexander the Great on horseback that looks more Hollywood than Ancient Greece. Water spurts up and water rains down and water sprays out of the mouths of lions around the perimeter of the fountain, and at the base, frozen warriors wave swords and shields, as if protecting themselves and their king from an onslaught of fluids. In the evening there are light shows.
Everyone in Skopje has an opinion of Skopje 2014. Government officials claim that the project has increased tourism and livened up the city, and it’s true that when I visited the main square, families milled about and couples snapped pictures with Alexander the Great in the background. Years ago, supporters say, the main square resembled a parking lot, now at least there’s something. They also argue that Macedonia is a new nation, and asserting its cultural identity is a national priority, especially since many of the neighboring countries don’t accept—or accept in practice but not in principle—its right to exist. Greece, Bulgaria and Serbia ruled it at various times, and have made claims on it. Greece, which has its own region called Central Macedonia, even refused to allow the Republic of Macedonia to enter the UN with that name, forcing it to be called The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM).
But many other Macedonians, especially the younger generation, think Skopje 2014 is a monumental waste of money and energy. During my short visit to Skopje, I met up with Kate, a local college student, who took me on what she called her Angry Walking Tour of Skopje. Within two-minutes of shaking hands and setting off, she was ranting eloquently about the statues that are already falling apart, at the corruption that she thinks brought the buildings into existence and at the waste of water. Her favorite spot is the Old Town, one of the few areas to survive the earthquake, and we sat and drank Fanta at a cozy bar in the narrow streets, among the young and old, with the Muslim call to prayer competing with pop music from restaurant speakers.
Kate studies Roman history at college, and for a while we talked about all the pagan elements that linger in modern society, from sports to celebrity to theater to hunting. She was also interested in the pagan traditions that persist in Macedonian society, like how her grandmother will pour out a pot of water as she leaves the house for an exam, a sacrifice for good luck. Kate also loves the Beat poets, Allen Ginsberg in particular, and with her stylish black hat and black-framed glasses, Kate wouldn’t have been out of place in beatnik New York—or she wouldn’t be out of place in a modern New York speakeasy meant to evoke in wood paneling and dim lighting the faded energy of the Beat Generation. Kate’s family is conservative and big fans of Vladimir Putin, and when I asked what they thought of her interests and life choices, she said, “They think I’m a freak.” And it’s no surprise that, blocked on one side by giant Alexander the Great and on the other by her parents, she might reach into the past and pull out the bendy, jazzy, freaky voice of Allen Ginsberg.
Next, Kate took me to a faux-baroque government building to see the rows of protest signs and tents. At the beginning of 2015, protests in the tens of thousands sprung up in response to allegations of wiretapping and cover-ups. The police responded with violent force, and these protesters refused to leave until the government called for election (which, on the day I left, they agreed to do). We strolled through their makeshift village, and though Kate had criticized the older generation for their inaction and for their senseless Tito nostalgia, I was surprised by the number of old people, drinking Coca Cola and chatting as if on their own porch. Two college-aged guys played backgammon. And beyond: the government, sugar-white and glowing.
On my last night in Skopje, Kate, her college friend Demeter and myself went to a movie night at a bar called Kids on the Block. Last year the bar was called Manhattan, but since then it’d changed owners or names. Two dozen umbrellas hung over the outdoor seats, and inside stood a bookshelf with a small library. The bar was pleasant but the movie, an adaption of A Picture of Dorian Gray (subtitled in Serbo-Croatian) was lousy, since instead of recreating Victorian England, the directors relied on conventional fantasies and lightweight nostalgias. Afterwards, we sat by the Vardar River and talked about their futures. Demeter works at an NGO and is involved with several nonprofit organizations. Kate said she has trouble imagining a future for herself in Macedonia; she dreams of England. Across from us, on the other bank, a horse roamed and sniffed the grass, but I focused on the water, the way it flowed across the orange streaks of light from the lampposts, and I thought of sitting at the Broad Ripple Bridge with my friend Meredith in high school and watching the same effect. It felt peaceful. It felt timeless.
3. Before leaving Uzice, I made up my mind to go inside Hotel Zlatibor. Jeanne, a volunteer at Eco Hostel Republik, agreed to join me on the quest, and after an afternoon of sunbathing along the banks of the Detinja River, we approached the mammoth hotel. It was hard to know where to enter, since its huge legs and fins concealed the doors, but eventually we found them, excited and a little nervous. But we’d made it. We were inside The Gray Bullshit.
It was dim inside The Gray Bullshit, and gray. It seemed as if there were innumerable nooks that’d been shut down, deactivated years ago. Whenever I enter a Roman amphitheater or an old synagogue, I can’t help but imagine the sounds that people made, chairs scraping or prayers declaimed, and the emotions that once swelled and thickened the air, but here only silence. Silent the vast dim emptiness of the dining room where no one sat and talked. Silent the potted plants, poorly watered and frail, and silent the row of red-cushioned chairs covered by dusty plastic. Silent the empty concrete staircase leading to the empty mezzanine with a dim pink light in the restaurant (next to which sat a MARLBORO trash can) and silent the dim room of arcade games and the plastic dolphin ride.
The receptionist flinched when we arrived, and rose jerkily off her seat. Behind her on a small square TV played a Serbian show in which a young man had just discovered a body of someone who’d been hung—or that’s what I thought I saw. I explained at unnecessary length that our bags were in the car and we just wanted to check out a room before making a decision now or maybe later, and after taking my passport, she skeptically handed me a room key on the eleventh floor. What would she have said if I’d explained that, for us, this was an adventure?
The elevators looked like upright coffins: small, very bright and awaiting us. The doors croaked shut, showing us the blue scars on their back and graffiti on the white walls. I tried to scratch our names with the key while the elevator rose up and up, as if holding its breath, with no indication that it wasn’t going to malfunction and crash down to the basement. Finally it exhaled us onto the eleventh floor, empty and silent except the hum of machinery.
Jeanne readied her camera and we strode down the hallway to our room. The key worked. We were here. We were inside a room inside The Gray Bullshit. At first what we saw disappointed me. No giant blocks of concrete, no pictures of Tito on the wall, no dead bodies. It was tidy, if spare, with a circular mirror and an abstract daub the only things on the wall. But as my eyes adjusted, I was struck not so much its blankness or its boxiness or even by the metal bed frame, but by the color scheme: pale yellow on the walls, bureaucratic brown on the blanket, and goofy 1960s orange on the chair and the rotary phone. It was less a snapshot of life in the 1960s than a designer from the 1960s trying to imagine the future.
I joined Jeanne at the window, which had no screen, just a straight downward plunge to the asphalt below. For a moment I couldn’t understand why the view of Uzice seemed so fresh and unimpeded, and then I realized the obvious: the most beautiful view of Uzice is from Hotel Zlatibor because it’s the only place in Uzice that you can’t see Hotel Zlatibor. To conquer an ugliness, we went inside it.