Switch to the

The Political Church

The Political Church

Heritage as a tool for engagement

By Martin Pohl

The Church of Christ the Saviour in Pristina, was planned as a Serbian Orthodox church during the conflict of the 1990s, when Slobodan Milošević attempted to consolidate Serbian control over the (then) mainly Albanian province of Kosovo.1 By the time of its construction in the mid‑90s, much of this population had been pushed out of the Kosovan capital’s city centre.2 Since then, the church has been neither finished nor destroyed. Its interim state reflects a political condition, symbolising the retreat of the Serbian forces from the city and the fall of the Milošević regime: a temporary state, preserved in architecture. This state, however, can be altered by changing perceptions of the building.

The Political Church

Detail of the Church of Christ the Saviour.
Photo: SCHMOTT

Our ongoing research aims to look beyond the building as an illustration of Serbian nationalism and to instead view it as a readable object in a post-conflict debate about disputed architecture. It asks how we might deal with buildings like this in other post-conflict situations, both locally and globally.

The Political Church

Inside view.
Photo: SCHMOTT

In 1973, the Albanian architect Bashkin Femiu proposed a new open-plan campus for the University of Pristina.3 For Albanians, this represented a site for the dissemination of knowledge, not belief.4 But in 1989 a new masterplan by Serbian architect and urban planner Ljubiša Folić placed a church in a central position, a gesture that opposed the former function of the campus area.5

The church’s final design, by Serbian architect Spasoje Krunić, was the winning entry to a 1991 competition and one of numerous religious buildings initiated under the Milošević regime. If it had been completed, 1,389 golden crosses would have been engraved into its natural stone façade6 – 1389 being the year that the Battle of Kosovo took place, which was much mythologised by Serbian nationalists.

The Political Church

Photo: SCHMOTT

Nearly twenty years after the end of the conflict, the church’s future is still unclear. For several years, a rancorous dispute over its legal affiliation has been conducted between the Serbian Orthodox Church and the University of Pristina. However, instead of offering a resolution for the future, this ongoing debate seems only to cement the structure’s temporary state as permanent. It has in the meantime become a focal point of political demonstrations, a site for critical art installations and even a temporary squat at one point.

The Political Church

The Church and surrounding area.
Photo: SCHMOTT

In 1999, NATO-led Kosovo Force soldiers erected a barbed wire fence around the church.7 A uniform 50 metre radius was drawn around Serbian sites after the end of the war to protect them from revenge attacks.8 In 2016, investigations by forensic experts led them to suspect this contained area to be the site of a mass grave holding missing victims of the war, which has further sensitised the debate about the future of the building.9 To explore this zone, we engaged in a visual conversation with the photographers SCHMOTT, exploring the site’s different spatial manifestations and trying to unravel the multi-layered and conflictual character of the ruin. The resulting 50 Meter photo series does so without necessarily being bound to established methods and tools of the architectural discipline. Within this perimeter we see a speculative arena for a vital critical debate regarding the ruin’s own future as well as the question of collective remembrance.

The Political Church
The Political Church
The Political Church

The 50 Meter photo series. The shards, fragments and passing occupants in and around the ruin, from the pigeons to the scorch marks on the earth, are the disenchanted equivalents of the frescoes and relics of the originally planned architecture. These fragments and imprints could be regard as more important than the actual building itself.
Photos: SCHMOTT

The Political Church

It is important to state that that we do not necessarily try to develop new architectural solutions and transform contested heritage physically. Instead, we focus on a description of the current state. The aim is to approach this case study, which itself lingers between coexistence and conflict, in an unbiased manner and consciously aware of our position as uninvited outsiders.

Our endeavour to understand the forces that led to this ruined shell relies not upon “taking sides” but instead tracing how existing narratives around the political church are used to serve different opinions. Our ultimate aim is to open up a broader debate: how might interaction with an unwanted, politically-charged and contested building enable a shift towards a more active and continuous form of discourse – legal, architectural and political?

1 Interview with Prof. Ass. Dr. Shemsi Krasniqi in Prishtina, February 7, 2014.
2 Denisa Kostovicova, “Kosovo: The Politics of Identity and Space”, Routledge Advances in European Politics 29 (London; New York: Routledge 2005).
3 Interview with Rozafa Basha in Prishtina, February 9, 2014.
4 Interview with Ass. Prof. Dr. Shemsi Krasniqi in Prishtina, February 7, 2014.
5 Ljubiša Folić, Masterplan for campus Prishtina, analiza arhitektonske forme, (Belgrade, 2005).
6 Interview Spasoje Krunić in Belgrade, February 3, 2014.
7 Interview Spasoje Krunić in Belgrade, February 3, 2014.
8 United Nations Security Council, Comprehensive Proposal for the Kosovo Status Settlement, kuvendikosoves.org/common/docs/Comprehensive%20Proposal%20.pdf (accessed October 5, 2018).
9 prishtinainsight.com/search-mass-grave-university-prishtina-campus-begins/ (accessed October 5, 2018).