This summer, residents and cultural groups in Skopje welcomed an open structure built with the intention of hosting events, talks and gatherings at the banks of the city’s Vardar River. The event space was conceived and realized by a group of architects from the association TEN and a local NGO City Creative Network (CCN).
The intervention is placed on the edge of the riverfront close to the city centre, facing the Youth Cultural Center Skopje and Academy of Arts and Sciences. As a piece of urban infrastructure, Nautilus offers a pedestrian connection from the higher street level to the water’s edge, acting as a threshold between road and recreational space with a bicycle lane; and creating new spatial possibilities for facilitating and encouraging cultural events and gatherings on this previously underutilized site.
Nautilus is a thoroughfare; a passage to the river; a place to sit alone and read; a playground for children; a platform for talks and readings; and a stage for performances, concerts, shows and happenings of various sizes. The structure is built to accommodate a singular user, or hundreds at a time. It invites appropriation by any group wishing to stage an event in the city of Skopje.
Nautilus has no client and no owner. It was initiated, conceived of and made by the people who built it as a gift to the city; but it belongs to everyone. It is a collaborative work of young architects, artists, builders and craftsmen. Its presence raises daily curiosity among the people of Skopje, because it acts as a mirror for the city; allowing its inhabitants to re-see ad reuse the site in new and unexpected ways.
The primary project idea grew out of a conversation with two local independent theatres (Wonderland and Theatra), who were lamenting the lack of public space in the city for staging cultural events and performances. The stage realised by TEN and CCN is therefore a reaction to the lack of public space initiatives in Skopje, and gives local groups a stage where freedom of expression is imperative. The area where these events are taking place will soon experience major developments orchestrated by the city of Skopje, however the aim of Nautilus is to mark out a new cultural area that connects the two riverbanks, acting as a ‘room on the water’.
On July 26th in 1963 a strong earthquake devastated the entire city of Skopje. In response, an international group of architects, planners and experts from various fields summoned by the United Nations UN gathered in the city to formulate a new master plan for the reconstruction. Some aspects of this plan - including aspects of the traffic and embankment infrastructure in the area where Nautilus has been built, along with a New Train Station (City Gate) built by Kenzo Tange and URTEC - were realized; but the majority of the masterplan was never executed. This particular historical context provided the inspiration for our international collaboration and knowledge exchange. Therefore, Nautlius is a continuation of a series of initiatives that are not only government led, but are also a result of the participation of the citizens in the creation of their public spaces.
Over the last 50 years, Skopje has become a place where many ideologies and political transformations collide, resulting in a built fabric that transmits explicit ideological messages without providing any opportunity for real public engagement. In the past few years, the Vardar Riverfront has seen rapid development due to a project initiated by the government of Macedonia. A new set of public buildings constructed in a neo-Baroque style has been built along the embankments of the river in a bid to instill a revived sense of national identity. These are offset and surrounded by several classics of post-war modernist Yugoslavian architecture, all within a short walking distance from Nautilus.
The intention of the authors of Nautilus was not to engage in the ongoing litany of development that has overtaken the city, but instead to attempt to see the unseen; to re-animate an overlooked and neglected part of Skopje and endow it not with explicit codes and meanings, but rather, with the much-needed possibility for people to gather in public space. In that sense, unlike the other structures in the area, Nautilus does not transmit concrete messages: it is an open question. Moreover, the methodology of the project encompasses far more than just its construction; as it includes conversations with locals, production teams, workers and manufacturers both local and international, group of swiss and macedonian students, and the Swiss photographer Joël Tettamanti who produced a series of city photographs in conjunction with the construction process.
The 20 meter long primary structure of Nautilus is constructed over and around the stone embankment wall, but does not touch it. It is built entirely out of steel and clad in strategic locations with a woven and painted textile developed especially for the project. The textile is used as a frame for the site, a projection surface and a delineator of different spaces of transition within the otherwise rigid repeated steel structure. On the riverside, it rises 6 meters above the bicycle path, presenting a tall screen to the water upon which images
can be projected; but on the road side its height remains modest and unimposing, inviting discovery and inhabitation.
The narrow timber stair set within the primary structure negotiates the 5 meter level change between river and road, acting as the only connective tissue across four different ground levels along the 200 meter long stretch of stone embankment walling. The public stair is enclosed by a canopy which creates a series of spatial experiences within the structure, offering framed views of the river during ascent and descent, and protecting visitors from the hot sun. The stairway passage can act as an interior, yet in fact, there is never a clear division between inside and outside. The stair width ranges from 2 meters on the lower ground level (wide enough to sit), to 20 centimeters at roof level (the height at which only animals can perch).
Following the realization of Nautilus, the City of Skopje, with help from its residents, have begun to take care of the vegetation and maintain the site, which is now witnessing more frequent use. Setting the precedent for these developments, an important aspect of the project has involved activating the latent as-found site conditions as an act of design in itself; one which is remains ongoing even after the completion of the primary structure. The display of care for the ground, site cleaning and maintenance are all considered as part of the design method, and part of the ongoing conversation between the initiators of the project and its local participants.
Forming part of a knowledge exchange within the project, a group of 10 architecture students from Switzerland together with another 15 students from Skopje helped to realize and construct the structure in August 2015, in conjunction with the core project team.
The project was jointly funded by TEN and CCN, ETH Zurich, the Ministry for Culture of Macedonia, the Prince Claus Fund for Culture and Development from Netherlands, Skopje Fair and supported by many other groups and individuals to whom we owe our immense gratitude.
A series of events for Opening of Nautilus over the months of September and October 2015 have been organized by a local NGO City Creative Network CCN a group active in Skopje.