Macedonian artist and architect Nikola Uzunovski led one of this year’s Sonica Festival workshops, where the collaborative sculpture The Alien was made. Together with a group of students, he built a replica of Skopje’s Opera and Ballet building, a 1981 brutalist landmark by Slovenian studio Biro 71. Made from styrofoam and measuring 4 metres in length, this collaborative sculpture took a week to build and was exhibited at the Sonic Pavillion exhibition. We talked to Nikola about the idea behind The Alien and the fate of Skopje’s modernist architecture.
Erasing Skopje Modernism
One of the largest and oldest cities in Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, Skopje was hit by a devastating earthquake in 1963. The UN published an open call for the new urban plan, which was won by the Japanese architect Kenzo Tange and his team. Tange designed the train station and set up a modernistic plan for the city with concrete buildings and scattered green spaces. One of the most beautiful buildings from the period of reconstruction is the brutalist Opera and Ballet building by Biro 71. Planned as a larger cultural complex, only a third was built due to cutbacks in budget. Its asymmetrical structure gives it a unique look and is probably the main reason why the building survived the Macedonian government’s interventions in modernist buildings in Skopje.
The widely criticized government’s project Skopje 2014 set out to make the modernist city centre more “attractive” by building fountains, monuments and new façades for “grey, boring” modern architecture. The initiative gained harsh criticism for its historical revisionism and lack of aesthetic value. While most of the buildings from the socialist era were covered with classical columns and ornaments made from expanded polystyrene to hide their original form, the Opera and Ballet building probably presented too big of a challenge. For Nikola Uzunovski, it became a kind of a symbol. Seeing Skopje change “from a city which was a symbol of progress and international solidarity, to a symbol of regress and narrow-mindedness” with “extreme nationalist policies destructing all traces of modernism, progress and rationalism to replace them with kitsch and pseudo-antique architecture,” he decided to fight back with his art.
Nikola Uzunovski: The Alien
Nikola Uzunovski’s work focuses on the conceptual and empirical analysis of natural and perceptible phenomena, paying great attention to the relationship established between subjects and their environment. He uses aggressive conceptual language to investigate intimate topics and believes that we need to explore abstract ideas in order to convey a message that will remain within observers.
As he saw the quality of public space and architecture in his city degrade, he got an idea to build The Alien. In Skopje, he made a 6-metre long helium-filled replica of the Opera and Ballet building, which is one of the few modernist buildings that remained intact after the ambitious government’s project. Flying as a spaceship in the sky, The Alien represents a symbol of freedom and progress in a society that became blinded by populism.
At this year’s Sonica Festival in Ljubljana, Uzunovski recreated The Alien from styrofoam, a lightweight and cheap material. It was a collaborative effort: Uzunovski led a replica building workshop for students, who helped him build the sculpture. The Alien was presented at the Sonic Pavillion exhibition, floating over the visitors in the space between the two structuralist pavillions. Watch the Artist Talk video below to learn more about The Alien, Skopje modernism and the Sonica workshop!
All photos by: Katja Goljat