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Regular assembly: Urbanisation and the right to the city

On the eve of the first local referendum in Macedonia to preserve the original look of GTC (City Trade Centre), we address the significance of the present moment in which the citizens will be directly shaping their city. Over 43.000 citizens residing in the Centar municipality will be voting in favour of or against the preservation of the original modernist look of GTC. A referendum campaign held in April and a recent publication familiarised the citizens with the significance of preserving the building’s original architectural style.

Arguments in favour or against the referendum question revolve around the function and the significance of GTC. On one hand, supporters of the planned makeover suggest that GTC, fenced off with walls and secured from bad weather conditions, will become a more pleasant space for shoppers. In contrast, various citizen initiatives and the Association of Architects argue that the proposed changes will transform GTC from a space open to diverse – not consumer-only – experiences to a big-box mall.

We here build on existing arguments around the planned makeover, expanding the debate towards the wider concepts of urbanisation, and the possibility and/or necessity for citizens to directly shape their cities. The local referendum is an alternative to public consultations, a mode of participation that is common for urban planning in Macedonia, and is for most part either symbolic or it disenfranchises citizens. Deciding directly about the processes of urbanisation, citizens claim their right to the city— the right to remake collectively the environment that they inhabit. What possibilities, spaces and relations, then, emerge when citizens make direct decisions about the processes of urbanisation? How is this achieved through urban planning and architecture? Can architects, urban planners and institutions in Macedonia support the planning of a city of all and for all its citizens?

Five contributors responded to these questions:

 

Assembly co-ordinators: Mila Shopova and Leonora Grcheva

Photo credits: Leonora Grcheva

Open versus closed society

Part of the regular assembly “Urbanisation and the right to the city”. Author: Dijana Omeragic Apostolski

Affected by the current events regarding GTC (the City Trade Centre , the central mall), I found myself strongly inspired to write, as this building is not only the work of one of the most significant Macedonian architects, Zivko Popovski, but also a certain (allegorical) thread connecting and uniting the centre of Skopje. As these events delegate serious responsibility to the citizens of the Municipality Centar, it seems appropriate to discuss the meaning of this building for the Municipality Centar, and for Skopje. Thus, the focus of this article will be but one of the qualities of this building, or (should we say) of this work of art, a somewhat discrete and sensitive quality – the meaning of its current open versus the meaning of the proposed closed space.

If we employ an etymological approach, we will find the word open (adjective) enfolds ten basic definitions (interpretations) and some of them are: “[space] which is not fence, through which one can freely pass”, then “that works, that functions”, “accessible, free”, “honest, unhidden, public”, etc. As expected, its antonym – the word closed, includes the following definitions: “[space] which is limited, fenced from all sides”, “which is put in jail”, “for color – one which is not bright, which is dark”, “for person – one which is withdrawn, quiet”. This approach insinuates no further demand of supports and claims for the choice of an open mall (typologically), as opposed to the proposed closed mall. However, the difference between these two types of malls, and their meanings for and in urban tissues, becomes ever-vibrant if one takes a look at some influential global trends in spatial planning and architecture.

Specifically, the current trends in architecture today revolve around the opening of the malls, mostly due to the importance of integrating the urban tissue in cities. Cities with a longstanding experience with closed malls have already concluded that the insertion of edifices of mass consumption mostly results in the development of segmented city cores. Standing opposite the closed malls – the open city malls have proven to be spaces of complex heterogeneity and movement, and according to John Montgomery, these are the preconditions for the creation of long-term vital urban spaces. This process of integrating the city cells, that seemingly function separately, has been explicitly called: “de-malling the world”. The practice of building monumental shrines of consumerism, closed and isolated from the outside world, that exist for the mere purpose of stimulating consumption (as a concept), is rapidly becoming outdated in the cities that care for their citizens. What is certain is that the open urban spaces and public buildings stimulate interaction between the visitors, nurture community interaction, and propose opportunities for contact and proximity. Shortly, open urban spaces focus on involvement and inclusion instead of segmentation and exclusion.

Buket Kocaili in her study “Evolution of the Shopping Malls”, concludes that today the city malls are spontaneously and/or intentionally being “again transformed into public spaces”. In the case of Skopje’s GTC, we already ‘own’ a public space. Its passages and pedestrian streets offer more than simple connections, they deliver spatial integration, vistas towards the park and the river, and they most importantly provide honest, unhidden, accessible, free spaces that function! What is presently missing is a single legitimate reason to transmogrify its current state and seal GTC for his city.