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Plan to embellish Kosovo’s capital with a sequence of squares is getting a hostile reception from the art crowd, though locals are a lot less skeptical.
Pristina’s lack of an obvious focal point often leaves unsuspecting foreigners scratching their heads over the exact location of the “centre”. A plan to revamp a series of rundown squares and landmark buildings, linking them up, aims to solve this problem, and improve the environment for all citizens of the capital.
Zahir Pajaziti, Ibrahim Rugova and the soon-to-be-named Adem Jashari Square will receive multi-million makeovers under the investments and will be linked along Pristina’s central axis.
But some architects and artists question whether the changes will make much of a major difference to a city that has been scarred by years of Communist planning and then unfettered development.
After Pristina municipality last year signed deals with two building firms for the reconstruction of Zahir Pajaziti and Ibrahim Rugova squares, work started last month, while a decision on who will build the Adem Jashari square has yet to be revealed.
The projects were first mooted in 2008 but it was not until 2010 that the municipality allocated a budget for the schemes, when it set aside 1.6 million euro for the work – 1 million of which was supposed to come from donations.
Only a year later the estimated cost had rocketed to 4.4 million euro for Ibrahim Rugova Square alone and another 4.6 million for Zahir Pajaziti Square, all of which is being paid for directly by the municipality.
This February, the municipality together with architects Smart Project unveiled proposals for the 13,000sq-metre Ibrahim Rugova Square, which is about the size of two football pitches.
As part of the plan, the statue of Albania’s warrior hero Skanderbeg will be raised up and a new sculpture of Kosovo’s independence leader Ibrahim Rugova will be installed. Three fountains will be also built, the largest outside the National Theatre.
Work on the old Union Hotel, badly damaged in 2009 by a blaze and which forms part of the square, has also started.
Benetton, which had purchased the building with Kosovo firm QMI in 2007 for 3.2 million euro, is to plough 10 million euro into the building to retain its “architectural value”.
Work on the 15,000sq-metre Zahir Pajaziti Square is also due to start imminently. This project consists of three sub-squares; the first section near the “Zahir Pajaziti” monument to the fallen KLA soldier, the second part comprises the auditorium, near the Grand Hotel, and the third part includes the space which stretches down Luan Haradinaj road.
These three sub squares will include fountains, a playground and covered stores for booksellers who ply their trade today on makeshift tables. According to the plans, 25 to 30 per cent of the space will be green. Public toilets will also be built.
Work is also scheduled to begin on Adem Jashari square, currently home to the Yugoslav-era monument to Brotherhood and Unity. Proposals for this square include the creation of an underground car park and replacing the monument with that of a KLA hero.
“Four companies have applied and now we are in the process of selecting the company that will start the work,” said Muhamet Gashi from the municipality, who issued the same statement in August 2011.
Regarding the statue of Brotherhood and Unity, he says: “It has neither cultural, political or historical value.”
Gashi apologised for all the delays but said the wait would be worthwhile. “I know that this whole process of squares took a long time but the happy ending is that Ibrahim Rugova Square has started and Zahir Pajaziti will start in the next few days,” he said.
“We are trying to do something similar to our neighbouring countries and although doubts have been expressed about the municipality's and the company’s work, when the process is finished you will see a great area of town,” he added.
“Pristina has needed this for years and the new generation will be the one to enjoy the benefits,” he continued.
But some NGOs have doubts. INPO, the Initiative for Progress, which monitors the work of Pristina Municipality, said a delay of nearly four years for such an important project was inexplicable.
“It is unacceptable that with such a lack of vision and professionalism more than 8 million euro are going to be invested into two squares,” researcher Edmir Sejdiu said.
The best solution, he argued, would be to bring all three projects together, bringing about benefits of scale and resulting in better designs.
INPO noted that for the four years that the plan has been on table, the municipality has never engaged the public on what they want.
Sadri Ramabaja, a Vetevendosje member of the municipal assembly, meanwhile, has questioned the use of public money.
The municipality “is playing with historical figures represented in the squares,” he complained. “We have often critised it but it [the project] doesn’t depend on us.”
Arbnor Murati, a well known Kosovo architect who works out of a Swiss office, says the current plans are a waste of a good opportunity to rework the city centre.
He said that while many European cities cannot make radical changes because of the need to protect their heritage, Pristina does not face such a problem. “Pristina has what other European cities don’t have,” he said. “Here is a space that can be multiplied, while other cities cannot afford to turn back and create spaces that could be changed greatly.”
A group of architects had been assembled by the municipality to discuss the future of the squares but, according to sources close to the process, it disbanded. Plans to bring a group of experts from London to Pristina to help with the design also fell through.
Sali Shoshi, director of Kosovo’s office of Cultural Heritage without Borders, complains that the municipality has shown little transparency during the whole process.
“There has also to be an interaction between these squares, which I don’t see,” he said. He also said the process ought to have involved discussions between “interest groups, artists, architects and citizens”.
Fisnik Ismaili, creator of the “New Born” monument, arguably Pristina’s best known landmark, says the Korzo – the evening stroll – was a tradition his parents followed almost every evening and needed to be revived.
The new squares will be placed at either end of the current pedestrian area, extending the possibilities of the evening Korzo, but Ismaili says more facilities need to be provided if this is to work.
“In the Nineties things changed, as cafes, clubs and bars became the meeting points for the youth because boulevards failed to offer any entertainment for urban youth,” he said.
“I believe that boulevards should be dramatically changed, bringing in some entertainment and interactivity. For example, a beautiful boulevard should have cafe bars all around it with plenty of chairs outdoors for people to stop for a drink and meet friends.
“I would like to see a small skateboard arena with a small basketball court where sportsmen could play and providing entertainment for onlookers. It should all be surrounded with plenty of vegetation, with benches for the elderly, chessboards and other entertainment,” he added.
A meaningless labyrinth?
Jeton Neziraj, former artistic director of the National Theatre of Kosovo, and a playwright, says Pristina today has become an ugly city of cement, without warmth.
“First of all there is the lack of squares, parks and other spaces,” he said. “It terrifies me that every corner of Pristina is being sold to construction companies, and, as far as I know, the appearance of the new squares will create a meaningless labyrinth,” he said.
Gezim Aliu, a writer, also has little faith in the municipality’s ability to re-civilize the city by building new squares.
“A square is not just a space to pass through, it’s a living environment, with culture and art. Pristina hasn’t such squares. Those that are called as such should be regarded as distressed areas, occurring between buildings and the noise of traffic,” he said.
“The lack of conceptual art can be seen also in these current plans,” Aliu added.
Film director Bekim Lumi, also thinks that Pristina is far from shaking off its Communist heritage. “With the way it has was built through the years of Communism, Pristina does not create opportunities for urban free breathing.
“The sites which are called squares do not resemble real ones. The squares that will be built don’t have proper plans or architectural analysis, so they will fail again,” he said.
Support on the street:
But while the art crowd is full of grumbles, ordinary people on the street are a whole lot less skeptical. Ismail Avdiu, a resident of Pristina, says the new squares are a positive sign of change.
"We townies are always complaining, but we rarely see the good side of things,” he said, looking over the building site where the squares will emerge.
“These squares will have parks where our children can play, and I think that this important,” he added.
His friend, Abdurrahman Maxhuni, agrees. “We have been waiting for years, so now we have these squares,” he said. “With what I`ve seen on billboards, the urban plan looks good, with spaces for children and booksellers.”
This article is funded under the BICCED project, supported by the Swiss Cultural Programme.
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