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Letters from Macedonia
January 22, 2012 - 11:10pm

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When an old friend told me that he and his family would be in Macedonia on a Fulbright, I asked if he’d think about writing something here on the experience, and he kindly agreed.

Charlie Hailey teaches design, theory, and history at the University of Florida. His research explores relationships among vernacular architecture, cultural landscapes, and experiences of home. His books include Campsite: Architectures of Duration and Place (LSU Press, 2008) and Camps: A Guide to 21st Century Space, (MIT Press, 2009).

Below is Charlie’s brief introduction to three posts that will follow this week, what he calls “postcards that I wish I had sent.”

--Churm

***

Letters from Macedonia: Intro
By Charlie Hailey

My students tell me there are 36 letters in the Albanian alphabet. We’ve just left the first session of a design workshop that makes up part of my Fulbright at State University (SUT) in Tetova, a bustling, energetic town at the base of the Shar mountains in northwestern Macedonia, and I’ve complimented them on their English language proficiency, which they attribute to their native tongue’s complexity. In the storefronts, my family and I have seen the colorful wood-block sets of those letters for children, who will learn not only this Albanian alphabet but will also study Cyrillic-based Macedonian and English. Albanian might predate both. Its origins are the subject of linguistic debate, but some contend it is an Indo-European root language.

Tetova is a relatively new town within the river Vardar’s watershed, where some of the Balkans’ earliest archeological evidence of habitation has been found. Very old next to new, certainly, but what’s most fascinating to me are the remarkable juxtapositions of here and now. This is a city that can have a traffic jam of Zastavas, Yugos, Fiats, Citroens, BMWs, Mercedes, and tractors carting loads of fresh cabbage. The cars are from elsewhere, but the cabbages are from long narrowly-platted fields that unfold on the urban edge.

Macedonia’s orthography—both linguistic and urban—is complex; its vernacular is indigenous and foreign. In Tetova, minarets punctuate the mountainous backdrop, while signs advertise McDonald’s. Pedestrians brush elbows with those foreign autos.

Set within this context, the sites for my design studio are two voids in the urban fabric. One had been recently demolished, and the other, twice its size, is used for parking. My SUT colleague and I ask the students to complement the mundane yet inescapable parkim—car park—with similarly fluid uses. Class discussion soon focused on a thin strip of sidewalk linking our project’s two sites. No more than a meter at its widest, it became a contested space, a potential zone of hyphenation or full-stop division, and our hopes for the design project lay with this tenuous space.

One group of students decided to embrace the constraints of this space, another group chose to go underground, and the third to go around the encroaching structure. Student debates over this space taught me about their design assumptions, predilections, and aspirations, but I also learned how little I knew about their architectural background—the signs and syntax of their places, their locales of lived experience. Excursions with SUT colleagues and my family began to provide this vital context, an episodic and inchoate script, but one that I can begin to piece together, like a child learning a new language.

 

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