Johannes Ebert am 07. Dezember 2018
Eröffnung des „Freiraum“-Projekts in Skopje

Keynote von Johannes Ebert anlässlich der Eröffnung des „Freiraum“-Projekts in Skopje

Dear Mrs Geshoska, Ms Spasovska, Ms Veljanovska, Ms Michau, Ms Frau Boggild, dear Mr Jovanovik, Mr Jankovski, dear members of the audience!
In the middle of the last century, there was an architectural movement originating in Great Britain, which then spread worldwide: to Tbilisi and Boston, to Buenos Aires and Kyoto, to Caracas and to Giessen, and into the then Yugoslavia in particular, and as you know better than I do, to Skopje. The location we find ourselves in today was inspired by this movement, and so are, or were, many other buildings in the city.
This trend is known as “Brutalism”. The term was coined in 1953 in an article by the British architect duo Alison Smithson and Peter Smithson. Many people believe that the word “brutalism” comes from the word “brutal”. But it actually comes from the French word brut: direct, raw, austere. Concrete is the material that characterises this architectural movement, and unlike in other building styles, it is not concealed. On the contrary, it is on display, and as concrete is an extraordinarily sculptural building material, it gives great design freedom: huge cubes, bold, jagged roof designs, abstract shapes, elegant sweeping ramps.
After an earthquake destroyed Skopje in 1963, Brutalism played a crucial role in the rebuilding of the city. Everybody from Skopje is aware of this. Anyone who doesn’t know Skopje quite so well can get a feel for it in the film we have just seen: a city made of concrete, which keeps surprising you with architectural daring, buildings which pick up on the shapes of the special topography, the River Vardar and the mountains in the distance. A city with generous open spaces, which simply invite the locals to stay for a while. A city with buildings which aim to give as many people as possible a comfortable home. For Brutalism doesn’t just mean concrete, Brutalism also involves aesthetics, which means the desire to deliver light, functional, modern living spaces, using cost-effective, easy-to-work materials. It is an architectural movement which combines the promises of the very modern with progress, light, freedom, participation in society and cultural life, access to public spaces and dignified living conditions.
Yet Brutalism is also controversial, as it opposes conventional concepts of beauty, comfort and homeliness so radically. Many people do not find the buildings beautiful, but forbidding. Not brave, but cold, grey and drab. This is one reason why brutalist buildings are under threat in so many locations around the world.

When the ravages of time take their toll, they’re more likely to be pulled down than renovated. The German Architecture Museum in Frankfurt devoted an exhibition to Brutalism last year, and also launched an initiative: “SOS BRUTALISM”, a database listing brutalist buildings. Those which are particularly threatened are listed separately, and anyone who wishes to contribute to their preservation is invited to do so. I must mention particularly that Skopje plays a very special role in this database, with its unique brutalist architectural inheritance. For as part of a city redesign going by the name “Skopje 2014, this inheritance has not been completely destroyed, as we have seen in the film, just kept in its place.
I believe the Opera House is a particularly expressive example in this regard. Without a single construction measure being taken on the building itself, the overall impression has completely changed, as so many new buildings and monuments have sprung up around the Opera House, that the wide, open space has been restricted today. You can no longer see anything of the former relationship with the riverbank in the ensemble, the historicising, eclectic new buildings are too overpowering. With a little imagination, you can see a greater fault in this: On one side stand the ideals of the very modern, and the promises attached to this, on the other side the restoration projects of our past, namely the return to the nation, to the people, to a past which only exists in romantic glorification. You might be asking yourself why I have talked about Brutalism so much? The last sentence hints at the answer. The Freiraum Project, which the Goethe-Institute launched in 2017, and which it is my pleasure to present today, has a great deal to do with the tension created recently. I refer to the tension between societal ideals, freedom, participation, peaceful co-existence among different groups in society and the absence of material need, and a present day which tramples all over these ideas, by demanding isolation and restoration. If you allow me, I would like to use the lost space around the Opera House in Skopje as a symbol of all the questions raised as part of the Freiraum project: What does freedom mean in today’s Europe? Where is it coming under pressure? What can we do to create and protect free spaces? The Goethe-Institut is well aware that Europe is perceived almost everywhere as being in crisis. Stubbornly clinging to the narrative of a united Europe can easily seem like a denial of reality. Just as Europe must face the challenge of the present-day situation, we must put more clear-cut markers down to show our commitment to Europe. We must set our course not by naïve enthusiasm, but by a willingness to engage in dialogue in order to stand for our core values such as openness, freedom of movement, justice and the integration of all members of society. Europe faces challenges at many levels and is looking for answers, which we are exploring within the Freiraum project.
More than 40 European Goethe-Institutes and their partner institutes took part in this project. Together, they looked for productive ways to counter the current crises and tensions in Europa - not as a naive glorification of past ideals, but as a willingness to take part in self-reflection.
My impression is that The Skopje-Copenhagen pairing was particularly successful, as all the participants involved brought their different approaches and interests to the table. The partner organisations “Kontrapunkt” with a societal-theoretical background and the “Copenhagen Architecture Festival” with its architectural orientation, engaged with each other, visited each other and got to know the conditions in Copenhagen and Skopje. These two films are the result of this, highlighting so much about the two cities and also merging the approaches: the architectural town planning approach from Denmark and the societal-theoretical approach from Skopje.
For that, I would like to say a very sincere “thank you” to the partners who collaborated with the Goethe-Institute in Skopje and Copenhagen, to “Kontrapunkt” and the “Copenhagen Architecture Festival”. My thanks also to the organisers of the KRIK Festival, which this evening is part of, and of course, all my colleagues at the Goethe-Institute.
I am looking forward to an informative, exciting discussion!

Es gilt das gesprochene Wort.