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Bos/Hrv/SrpМакедонски 22 Feb 12

Hilltop University Threatens Ohrid’s UNESCO Status

Prominent architects say plan to build a university in the heart of the town, called Plaosnik 2014, could jeopardise Ohrid’s place on UNESCO’s list of world heritage sites. 

Aneta Risteska
BIRN Skopje
Plaosnik - an archaeological site and holy place in Ohrid | Photo by Wikimedia/Raso

Time may be running out for the lakeside city of Ohrid to start taking due care of its outstanding cultural heritage, which contains traces of early and Medieval Christianity at every step. 

The Association of Macedonian Architects warns that if a change of heart does not happen soon, the picturesque city of Byzantine churches and basilicas could risk deletion from the prestigious list of UNESCO world heritage sites. 

Architects say a compromise needs to be reached concerning the conflicting demands to preserve Ohrid’s authentic heritage as well as allow for its growth as a tourist resort and as a modern town. 

The latest construction plan worrying them is the project dubbed Plaosnik 2014, which envisages the construction of a university complex on the hill above the old core of the city.

The university is designed to symbolise the resurrection of the old centre of Slavic literacy that once existed there in the 9th and 10th century. 

The government-funded plan envisages the erection of faculties for theology and social sciences, museums, galleries, a conservation school, monuments and conference halls. 

A so-called St Clement Garden, named after the Byzantine-era scholar and missionary who 11 centuries ago established the first university in this area, is to be planted in the pine forest on Plaosnik hill.  

The problem is that all this is supposed to be built on top of a valuable archeological dig. 

The plan is for the project, covering 7,800 m2 of land, with an initial financial input of 9 million euros, to be finished by 2014. 

Architects say the grand project is not aiming to reconstruct authentic buildings from the past. They say its style strays far from the town’s traditional architecture and from the old Slavic church building tradition. 

They say it is also unacceptable to slap futuristic structures on top of one of the country’s most valued archeological sites. 

Members of the association have complained before that Ohrid is being urbanized irrationally and without due consultation with architects.

In this case they argue that a location such as Plaosnik does not allow for any such urban expansion, adding that UNESCO can hardly be expected to turn a blind eye to such an intrusion.

The protesters say the authentic architecture of Ohrid will be virtually eclipsed by an estimated 20 new erections. 

Church of St Panteleimon monastery in Ohridsituated on Plaosnik, is in most immediate danger | Photo by Wikimedia/Raso

One prominent medieval building, the church of St Panteleimon, is in most immediate danger, they say, as according to the plans it will be surrounded by tall new buildings. 

Some earlier project versions even included ultra-modern constructions built of glass and metal. However, the authorities have since opted for plans whose facades at least match Ohrid’s traditional architecture. 

UNESCO is already on the alert. During her visit to Macedonia last summer, General Director Irina Bоkova warned that any dramatic and exaggerated alterations to the skyline could result in Ohrid’s deletion from the UNESCO list.  

“We should be very careful when it comes to the protection of heritage and its conservation, which is something we should work on, and maintain authenticity,” she said at the time.

The head of the Cultural Heritage Protection Office, Donka Bardzieva Trajkovska, says the location should not be treated as a free building site but as an archaeological locality, protected by law.

“We suspect that behind the ‘systematic archaeological research’ that is preceding construction, the terrain is being ‘swept’, so that room for new buildings can be created,” she said.

“If electric and telecommunication installations are included, as well as the construction of additional underground structures, the collateral damage [to the site] will be irreparable,” she warned.

UNESCO added Ohrid town and Lake Ohrid as cultural and then natural World Heritage Sites in 1979 and in 1980.  

Ohrid by night | Photo by Wikimedia/Shermozle

Ohrid is one of only 28 UNESCO World Heritage sites that are listed as both cultural and natural rarities at the same time. The list contains 936 sites in total.

Milan Gjurcinov, a member of the Macedonian Academy for Sciences and Arts, MANU, who was born in Ohrid, says the government project is an enormous mistake. 

“Ohrid has been gradually losing its recognizable spirit, which affects me as a citizen of Ohrid,” he said. “No one consults scientific institutions for advice, nor can they influence the actions of the authorities,” he added. 

But Pasko Kuzman, head of the Bureau for Protection of Cultural Heritage [under the culture ministry], and one of the designers of the project, disagrees.

He told the OhridNews news portal in August 2011 that the critics had not seen the real project plans but only “its interpreted false depictions”. 

He says none of the planned buildings is higher than two storeys and academicians, architects, art historians and other experts have taken proper care of the design. 

“The selected project envisages construction of buildings that completely fit into the architecture of Ohrid and the Ohrid Archbishopric in the context of sacral edifices from the 11th to 14th century, including the old city architecture still present in Ohrid,” Kuzman told OhridNews. 

“It all represents a symbiosis that won’t disturb the ambience,” he added. 

He concedes that the project is not flawless but says its construction respects Macedonian and overall Slavic culture, adding that and only time will tell whether this project is justified or not. 

It is also maintained that all archaeological relics uncovered during the digging at Plaosnik will be properly preserved and presented. 

For now, activities are at a standstill during the harsh winter but excavation will continue afresh in spring, Tanja Paskaleva Buntasevska, director of the Office for Protection of Cultural Monuments at the Ohrid Museum, says. 

Also one of the creators of the Plaosnik 2014 project, she insists that the project won’t endanger Ohrid’s UNESCO status. 

“The constructions aren’t tall and also aren’t very near the church of St Panteleimon,” she noted.  

She also suspects that many of the critics have not seen the original project but only some inaccurate depictions in the media. 

“We are putting maximum effort into protecting the terrain and more and more citizens are joining our cause,” she said.

“Given that we will abide by the law, there is no danger that any excavated remains will stay unprotected,” Buntasevska added. 

Plaosnik | Photo by Wikimedia/Raso

The head of the National Commission of UNESCO in Macedonia, Lidija Topuzovska, maintains that following adoption in 2010 of a special law on management of the Ohrid Region as a world cultural and natural heritage site, and another such law in 2011, Ohrid’s position on the UNESCO list should be safe. 

She admits not having seen the exact architectural project for Plaosnik 2014 but believes everything will match regulations. 

“In case there is any oversight we would have no excuse because we have laws in place,” she said.

She suggests that what the project needs now is strong supervision and strict adherence to the law.

“It is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain standards and the supervision,” Topuzovska told Balkan Insight. 

The last time that UNESCO deleted a city from its list was in 2009. when Dresden was crossed off after a bridge with four lanes was built through the city’s protected core. 

This article is funded under the BICCED project, supported by the Swiss Cultural Programme.

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