Sleepy Architectural Treasures as the Potential of City Revival

Youth Center Building “Boro & Ramiz”, Prishtina

Text by Arber Sadiki

Cities, since their origin, have been shaped and developed according to the essential needs of living in accordance with certain common rules. They have always been closely related to general social and historical circumstances. Despite the fact that cities have their boundaries in a physical sense, their development has never been dependent only by the circumstances within these boundaries. This, as a consequence of the permanent mobility of human nature and the consequences that this phenomenon brings. This has always happened throughout the history of civilization, even in the period of time when the mobility and transferability of information were much lower. In the age of globalization, the hyper-speed of information transfer, extraordinary movement of people for business needs but also mass populations as a result of crises around the globe, it is impossible to plan anything and anywhere without taking into account global developments. Nowadays, a citizen who has spent all his life in an eastern oriental city where spontaneity is the basic rule of development and functioning, within a few hours he can be found in a western city where the pre-contract of rules of collective living and it’s monotonous observance is the essence of everyday living style. This movement, for many reasons, naturally happens in the opposite direction, too. In this regard, rightly, this year’s curator of the Venice Biennale, architect Hashim Sarkis points out that architecture puts forward another request that we must reconsider the collective contract for a city that represents all of us. We definitely should answer  the question“How will we live together?”, as he has named this year’s biennale of architecture. Since such a question would hardly be answered by anyone alone, the Venice Biennale platform as one of the most important world events in the field of architecture is the best place to give a joint attempt to respond to it. 

The Greek architect and planner Constantinos Doxiadis in his attempt to articulate rules that would allow for the scientific study of settlements within a particular science, which he called Ekistics, insisted that in order to know them all settlements should be studied, whether old or contemporary, small or large, bad or good, because this avoids the risk of subjective elimination (Doksijadis, 1982:34).

Buildings, as an integral part of the city, cannot be avoided from the risk of being subjectivity eliminated as a result of not knowing their values. Especially, when they represent landmarks of a particular era they are always at risk of being equated with the ideology of the time have been built, and consequently not treated properly at a later period of time which ideologically may not agree with the former one. Such approaches very often caused complete eradication of certain historical layers of the cities. Oriental Pristina almost disappeared after WWII in the name of emancipation and modernization, labeling the oriental as backwardness. The very first interventions were focused on the historical part of the city, where consequently, within a few years the Old Town Bazaar, the Llukaq Mosque, the Stakaj Catholic Church and the only Synagogue in the city, disappeared. All this was happened to make provid the space  of the Executive Council  building, as the supreme body of the new social order and the Brotherhood Square(Sheshi  Bashkim-Vllazerimi) as a symbol of the coming era. 

Unfortunately, the same approach that post-WWII communist regime had toward pre-war architectural heritage, continued the new authorities that came after the war of 1999 toward the architectural heritage of Yugoslavian period. All buildings that have been built between the years 1945-1990 were equated with the communist ideology of the former Yugoslavia and as such categorized as undesirable for the city. As a result of this approach, a large number of them were completely disfigured with unprofessional interventions, while the rest were left at the mercy of time to degrade on their own.

The Youth Center Building “Boro and Ramizi” belongs to the second category. Left without any professional care, the building experienced accidental burns (at least by the official version) as a result half of the building has been burned and is out of function even a decade after the incident.

Built during the years 1976-1982, the building was dedicated to sport and recreation. But beyond utilitarian need, above all the building has been seen as an opportunity of the authorities to pay attention to the citizens, where over 50% of them were under the age of 25, and as such represented the city with the highest percentage of youth at the level of the former Yugoslav federation.

In fact, the idea for a building of this category had begun earlier. In 1970, at a location very close to the building that exists today, with the same architectural program, a Yugoslav Open Competition was organized. Competition entries were so extraordinary that it happened for the first time a building designed for Pristina to be found on the cover page of one of the most prestigious architecture magazines of former Yugoslavia, “Arhitektura” from Zagreb. 

Perspective of the winning project on the cover page of the magazine “Arhitektura” from Zagreb (Source: Arhitektura (Zagreb), nr.106 /1970/, cover page).

Although the winners of the competition were announced, the group of architects from Zagreb, consisting of: Ljerka Lulić, Jasna Nosso, Dinko Zlatarić,[1] no further action was taken in the following years. Despite the reaction of the winning team in many architectural magazines of the time for ignorance of their project proposal,[2] however, in 1974 in a closed competition with prequalified architectural studios the project of Sarajevo architects was selected. As a result, the project designed by architects: Živorad Janković, Halid Muhasilović, Sretko Ešpek, the building was completed during 1976-82, a few meters from the initial location where the first opened competition was organized. The project was designed by a group of architects who were already established at the former Yugoslavia architectural scene. However, the name of the professor Živorad Janković, stands out relating to the buildings of this category as he had already realized several such buildings all over the territory of the former federation. His name relates to the Cultural-Sports Center “Skenderija”, in Sarajevo, 1969 (co-author Halid Muhasilović). This building brought him the “April Six Award” (“Šestoaprilska nagrada“) awarded by the city of Sarajevo as well as the “Borba Award”, which represented one of the most important architecture awards in former Yugoslavia.[3]  

Youth Center Building “Boro & Ramiz”, Pristina. Site plan (Source: Arhitektura i urbanizam, Belgrade, nr. 88-89 (1981), p. 12);

Building of similar category built based on design signed by Professor Janković is the Universal Hall “Gripe” with the shopping center “Koteks” in city of Split, 1979 (co-author S. Ražić). Also the Vojvodina Sports Center building built between years 1979-1981 in the city of Novi Sad is the work of Professor Janković (co-author B. Bulić).

Youth Center Building “Boro & Ramiz”, Pristina. Architectural model of the center (Source: Arhitektura i urbanizam, Belgrade, nr. 88-89 /1981/, p.11)

Project design proposed by the team from Sarajevo, in 60.000 square meters of total surface, includes large universal hall, small hall, 4 training halls, bowling, youth house, shopping center, indoor pool, outdoor pool, skating and open spaces for other sports.

Such multifunctional facilities with a huge amount of square meters, it could not be organized properly without a wider urban approach of all location. The proposal of Professor Janković has not overlooked this important component. The proposed design offered an extraordinary fusion with existing urban elements adding to this part of the city an extraordinary quality with impact throughout the city. Through the flying pedestrian platforms connecting the building of Youth Center to the existing Grand Hotel on the east, and to the train station on the west, the recreational-sports complex was meant to function completely detached from the automobile circulation beneath it. Unfortunately, the indoor swimming pool and flying pedestrian platforms which supposed to connect Youth Center with the hotel and train station were never realized, significantly diminished the overall value of the complex. However, being the first building of this category in the city, not only in the first few years after its opening but also for many years after, the building represented one of the city’s recreational, sports, and cultural highlights, where the most important social events took place.

Rapidly, besides the services it provided in accordance with its primary function, the building became a meeting place for Pristina youth, the urban reference that dominated the city. Everything that could happen around this part of the city referred to this building, becoming even the symbol of the whole city. The relation building – place – man was merged into one where the building is not anymore just a building but a place where everyone wanted to be.

Unfortunately, this glowing would not last very long. Since the early ‘90s, with the overthrow of Kosovo’s autonomy by the Milosevic regime, by which consequence Albanians were excluded from institutional life, the building lost its luster. During all those years, only its trading part of the building was accessible for citizens of Albanian nationality, but not the sports halls, once filled in support of the team of their heart. This gave the building a shadow of ethnic segregation, nothing in common with the urban values.

Unfortunately, no better treatment was given to the building even after the 1999 war. Having a vague ownership status following the radical change of post-99 social order, it has been misused for decades, losing its luster day by day. 

Seeing the entire journey of the building from the planning phase, realization, brightness, and its decline, it presents the typical case of mistreating an extraordinary architectural treasure by ideologizing it. So, it is initially labeled as an ideological symbol of the time it represents, to pave the way for its destruction without any civic resistance. Such a scenario, even worse than this building, has been experienced by some of Pristina’s architectural icons of the period of time 1945-1990, which no longer exist. 

The Youth Center building, though in serious condition, still has a chance. Last year, its ownership finally was defined and now it officially belongs to the Municipality of Pristina. I want to believe that the municipality will treat it as a dormant treasure of the city which with a small amount of investment can restore its former splendor over the city. The building’s energy and urban potential is still there, inside, quietly waiting for the eyes that know how to see it. The revival of this building would serve as a model of how we can use the tremendous potential of buildings once represented as city landmarks by relating them to contemporary life. Despite being built decades ago, they always have something new to show. All those events that have happened indoors and around them during the decades of their existence, we must allow to be transmitted to coming generations. This is the only way to build a city in which we know each other, of whom we are not afraid and who is not afraid of us, in which we project the future without cutting off the roots of the past. A city we love and who loves us back.  

The answer of  “How we will live together?” that this year’s Venice Biennale has laid, except that we must explore at the global level of the functioning of common urban principles, we should also explore inside the local diversity that each city, settlement, neighborhood, building offers. If the essence of urbanity is diversity, then we cannot pretend to build cities that represents all of us by exclusionary methods. 

Treasures, like the Palace of Youth, are all around us, closed in their silence but full of stories waiting to be told. It is up to us if we want to enrich our lives with the colors they offer.

[1] Grujo Golijanin, „Natječaj za idejno rešenje Omladinskog spomen dom ’Boro i Rami’ u Prištini“, Arhitektura (Zagreb), nr.106 (1970), p .54-62.

[2] Ljerka Ljulić, Jasna Nosso, Dinko Zlatarić,„Nagrađeni projekt Omladinskog doma ’Boro i Ramiz’ u Prištini“, Arhitektura, (Zagreb), nr.151 (1974), p. 68.

[3] Arber Sadiki, Arhitektura javnih objekata Prištine u razdoblju od 1945. do 1990. godine: Društveni i oblikovni faktori (PhD Thesis). Belgrade, Faculty of Architecture, University of Belgrade, 2019, p. 65.