“Metelkova is different,” says Ilina, a dreadlocked Macedonian art student living in Slovenia. “It’s not just an alternative cultural district in the capital – it’s the capital of alternative culture. Outside of Rome, where else can you find a city inside a city?”
From the first-floor window of the art gallery she works in – the only legally-occupied building in this enormous former military base – it certainly looks like Metelkova Mesto is the answer. Twelve thousand five-hundred square metres of derelict buildings are tucked away behind the train station in the centre of the beautiful Slovenian capital Ljubljana. Over the course of two decades, squatters have converted the former mess hall, stables, sleeping quarters and storage rooms into a colourful array of bars, clubs, studios and art galleries. Enormous broken-tile mosaics tower over courtyards of statues and sculptures that have been crafted out of scrap metal and cracked bricks.
As she pours a generous glass of home-brewed honey schnapps, Ilina explains that the grimy, artistic complex we’re looking at is more than a hipster fad. The thriving cultural community here in Metelkova has grown to house “the largest alternative cultural scene in the Balkans.”
“The first squatters took over in 1993, after the army left,” she recounts. “They fought to prevent the site from being demolished and turned into something horrible like a shopping mall. After that, artists set up studios and starting putting on events for the community – non-commercial, alternative music and art events, for everyone.”
It’s a far cry from the original barracks commissioned by Emperor Franz Josef I in 1881 – when the country was under the harsh rule of the Austro-Hungarian Empire – and the speed of such a community-driven urban regeneration is astonishing. But Ljubljana is the capital of a rapidly-changing, fledgling country. Present-day Slovenia was born out of the bloody breakup of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia just twenty-two years ago. It was during the onset of the Yugoslav Wars in the early '90s that the military base of Metelkova was abandoned.
Now, Metelkova is home to a unique blend of artistic spirit and vibrant counterculture, which is barely tolerated by the authorities. The constant fighting with the government over non-payment of taxes is steadily winding down, as the City of Ljubljana embraces a modern image of tolerance and alternative culture – part of which formed its successful bid to become European Green Capital 2016.
Metelkova was designated a cultural monument by the municipality in 2006 and is the second-largest provider of non-commercial events in the country, attracting visitors from all over the Balkans. From disabled workshops to feminist and LGBT techno raves, Metelkova provides a rare niche for minorities to openly socialise in public.
The irony of such a transformation – from the military centre of a censoring authoritarian regime to a diverse, tolerant artistic haven – is perhaps what makes Metelkova so special. Unlike similar squats in Berlin’s Kreuzberg and Friedrichshain districts, or Copenhagen’s Freetown Christiania which was also built on an abandoned army base, Metelkova has managed to retain its individual identity, free from the taint of gang-violence, drug culture and hipster tourism that have come to characterise its counterparts elsewhere.
Have you visited Ljubljana? Do similar squats exist in your city or have you visited a squatter city before? Share your thoughts and city's stories in the comments below.
Credits: Images by Ajit Niranjan. Data linked to sources.