The New Capital in the Block

Text by Yll Rugova

“Everything not saved will be lost.”

—Nintendo Quit Screen

In Paris, the Eiffel Tower, together with several other important monuments were built for the 1889 Universal Expo. The Atomium of Brussels was built in 1958 for the World Expo held there in the same year. The Space Needle was built for the 1962 World Fair in Seattle.  While serving as the Director for Culture at the Municipality of Prishtina in 2018—feeling a bit like Baron de Haussmann—I was looking for a good excuse for investing in new landmarks for the capital city of my freshly declared independent country.

In 2022, Prishtina will host the European nomadic arts Biennial Manifesta, as did many other important cities of Europe like Marseille in 2020, Palermo in 2018, Zurich in 2016, etc. But Prishtina is a capital city unlike other capital cities in Europe.

It does have some interesting buildings and monuments, the main one is the National Library of Kosovo. Designed by Croatian architect Andrija Mutnjakovic, it is one of those exemplary samples of modernist architecture characteristics of ex-Yugoslavia. It was recently displayed as a project in an architecture exhibition in MOMA in New York. Except for the National Library, there is little monumentality and very few landmarks in the city. It is the lack of such places and constructions and the total lack of this ‘capital city’ feeling that makes Prishtina special. Very different kinds of buildings and monuments are somehow equal, there is no hierarchy between them and no logical chronology catching your attention. Even though it is difficult to notice traces of architecture older than 1920, the current snapshot of the city signifies 700 years of history.

It can be said that Prishtina had three big development waves since it was first mentioned in 1342. The first wave occurred during the Ottoman period, when it was on and off the main administrative city of the Sanjak (administrative unit during the Ottoman Empire). The second wave was after 1947, when Prishtina became the capital of Kosovo then an autonomous region, with the biggest expansion during the implementation of Bashkim Fehmiu’s plans in the 70s and 80s. The third wave is happening now: Prishtina under towering development as the capital city of the freshly declared and recognized the Republic of Kosovo.

All three waves have left their marks in architecture, and are visible in Prishtina today, albeit some of these marks are being destroyed or transformed.

The oldest building that we have any record of in Prishtina is the Stone Mosque located close to the Museum of Kosova building, in the entrance of the “old town”. According to historical sources, its foundations were laid by Sultan Bajazit in 1391, just two years after the Battle of Kosova as a clear sign by the Sultan that the Ottomans were here to stay. There are other public and religious buildings from this period that can be still seen inside what is known as the Old Town of Prishtina — though this old town does not have clear borders. In the same complex there are other old bits: The fountain close to the Stone Mosque is from the 15th century; the Grand Hamam as well; while the Grand Mosque that stand next to the hammam, was built by Sultan Fatih II, the same one that conquered Constantinople (you might have seen him in the new popular series of Netflix called the Ottomans).

Other buildings built during the long reign of the Ottoman empire that are still standing are the Museum of Kosova, The Archive of Prishtina, the Train Station, the Clocktower, and several private houses in the same area. The most interesting of these houses can be considered The Emingjiku House, once owned by the local reigning Albanian family of Gjinolli’s. The house also served as the first museum of Prishtina back in the 19th century, where a private collection of the Gjinolli family was exhibited. After World War II, the house was transformed into a Museum of Natural History, where a small zoo was also improvised in the gardens until 2001. This house is now the Ethnological Museum of Kosovo. But this layer of Ottoman architecture would soon meet its demise.

Although there are some examples of the Ottoman wave of urbanism, most of the Old Town, including the Old Market are destroyed. And most of the destruction happened after Prishtina became the capital of the autonomous province of Kosovo under the Yugoslav Socialist Republic in 1947.  On top of a huge part of the Ottoman city center, the new Yugoslav administration started building a new socialist utilitarian town. 

The utilitarian architecture of early days was not very different from other socialits, and soviet countries. The best example of this intervention can be seen in the Mother Theresa pedestrian street together with the surrounding buildings that comprise the new centre of the city. Most of the buildings there are from the 50s and 60s. Though, there are some examples also from an older or later period, like The Union Hotel (1927) or the modernist Germia Department Store (1972). 

But the most interesting urbanistic expansion started at a later period, during the 70s and 80s. A new urban plan was envisioned by Bashkim Fehmiu, one of the first architects stemming from a new post-Ottoman Kosovo elites. The campus of the newly opened University of Prishtina was designed by him, together with a vision for expanding the city further; which meant the development of new neighbourhoods of Dardania, Ulpiana, and Bregu i Diellit. Several new modernist buildings emerged, including The Palace of Youth and Sports, The Rilindja Tower, The KEK Tower, The Radio Tower, The Albanological Institute, to name a few. It was during this wave that also the National Library of Kosovo was built. 

But these new developments did not mean only buildings: A new public transportation network based on buses was introduced in the 70s; several lines were linking different new neighbourhoods in the city. The population grew from around 40,000 in 1950 to more than 200,000 in 1980. It was a golden age for Kosovo’s urbanism.

The growth was dwarfed during the 90s, because of the political turmoil. The new Serbian political elite excluded Albanians from all official political, social, cultural, sportive activities resulting in what is known as a parallel system of Governance. Albanians in Kosovo had to form parallel institutions that were organised from diaspora. Instead of using all of the public buildings that the renewed Prishtina just built, parallel institutions had to make do with private houses, bars, and cafes. Everything was improvised. Albanians used private houses for schools, bars for cultural activities, arable land for sports activities. (There is an ongoing project to turn the private house in Kodra e Trimave neighbourhood where a high school was operating into a museum.) This was a decade of resistance.

The tough parallel decade terminated with a war in 1999, and then finally liberation. This was an opportunity for a fresh start for Prishtina. Of course, the first few years saw complete lawlessness. New buildings would spring where a paved street once stood. New apartments on top of older apartment blocks. Shops and kiosks instead of already few green areas. The urbanist Kai Vöckler called this turbo urbanism, he even wrote a book about it. Examples from this kind of architecture can be noticed all over the city, this was the third layer that the city has now. 

But, things are coming back on track now, and order is being restored. New constructions are happening in Prishtina, following a new city plan from 2013. The quality of the buildings is getting better in terms of design and materials. According to data given by the Municipality, around 350,000 residents live in Prishtina today (the new census will take place in 2021), and this number is foreseen to grow even further in the decades to come. The broader metropolitan region of Prishtina has around 600,000 inhabitants. With data from 2011, 62% of the population of Kosovo lives in rural areas. But there is tremendous migration towards cities, with Prishtina being the champion of this internal migration.

So there is hope!

But, where does this leave Manifesta, and are we finally going to build our own Eiffel Tower* or Atomium? Well, for Manifesta, we will have to wait and see, as per Kosovo’s Eiffel Tower, the city might not need it after all. Prishtina is keen on finding ways to use the current snapshot of the urban locus, as a foundation for a new and contemporary capital. Manifesta might prove instrumental to this. Several buildings of the city that are currently underutilised, abandoned, could very well be reinvented as public spaces. On the other hand, the idea of having continuity with the 90s parallel system of improvising cultural spaces could be another interesting feature to consider. Using and transforming buildings from old factories, or defunct socialist institutions into cultural venues could be considered the next level of the cultural resistance. Manifesta in Palermo cooperated with Rem Koolhaas and OMA to develop ideas for the further development of the city. This year in Marseille it is Winy Maas and MVRDV that are involved with the same responsibility. Manifesta will choose an urbanist for Prishtina in 2021.

The modernist ex-Gërmia Department Store is one of the buildings considered to be turned into a public space. Through Manifesta, there is a common goal with the cultural community to turn this building into an International Institution of Art and Culture. There are 1000+ pieces of modern art from the collection of the National Gallery of Kosovo that are hidden in a basement somewhere, waiting to be displayed as part of a permanent collection.

The Palace of Youth and Sport, the ex-Rilindja Building, the ex-Bricks Factory, and several other buildings could be transformed through Manifesta. A new Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, an Architecture Institute (similar to the one in Palermo), and why not to bring back the Museum of Natural History — artist Petrit Halilaj did an exhibition at the National Gallery of Kosovo based on the shrouded collection of the now-closed Museum of Natural History.

Prishtina has a chance to use the creative momentum that Manifesta might bring; it will have to utilise the international attention as a tool to strengthen the cultural and social communities and make them thrive. The city has to recall its own methods of creating cultural and social spaces through improvisation. This improvisation was the backbone of the resistance in the 90s.

In fact, this might be Prishtina’s own ‘Eiffel Tower’. Instead of having a structure made of steel that dominates the urban landscape of the city, it could have a structure made of humans that animate the urban and cultural life of its citizens. 

* Kosovo already has its very own Eiffel Tower as documented in this video