My Favorite Ugly Building: The National Library of Kosovo

I’ll be honest, we ended up in Kosovo on a technicality.  When I spontaneously switched jobs last fall and decided to take an impromptu trip through the south Balkans, we were thinking primarily of Buzludzha.  We tacked on Macedonia to Bulgaria for Skopje’s space age Brutalist masterpieces and the relatively undiscovered Lake Ohrid.  We only ended up in Kosovo because it was cheaper to fly into Pristina than it was to fly into Skopje.pristina-29

But boy were we glad we did.  We spent three days there, between Pristina, Pec, and Prizren, and while we loved the latter two towns, Pristina (bad weather and all) was the Kosovar city to really win us over.pristina-48 pristina-44 pristina-35

We landed at Pristina’s pristine (hah) new airport mid-morning after connecting in Frankfurt.  We had hired a cab via facebook to take us to our hotel in the old town, and upon our arrival headed out to explore.  With any semblance of a tourist information center shuttered (from lack of demand, I guess?), we were left to our own devices – dead reckoning from landmark to landmark with help from a tattered map lent to us by our hotel proprietress.pristina-40 pristina-47 pristina-36

We hit your basic Pristina hot spots – the Bill Clinton statue, Newborn Monument, and the Ethnological Museum (which was closed, I may add), and had a multi-course meal for two costing under ten Euros.  Pristina had charmed us, and we hadn’t even hit the main even yet.pristina-50 pristina-42 pristina-1 pristina-3

The National Library of Kosovo is broadly considered to be one of the ugliest buildings in the world.  Sure, if you only consider the outside of the building without proper context, it would be easy to jump to that conclusion.  But such would be rather reductive, ignoring the thought that was put into designing it.  Andrija Mutnjakovic, the Croatian architect of the building, aimed to combine both Islamic and Byzantine architectural elements with symbolism representing the Kosovar Albanian population (mainly by including the many domes – reminiscent of Albanian plisi hats).  Kind of like if the National Archives in Washington D.C. were to incorporate powdered wigs as inspiration.

If you ask me, that would be totally rad.pristina-7 pristina-6

The exterior of the building was as expected.  Quite strange, and a contrast to the grey concrete in the surrounding area.  Paths cut through the University of Prishtina amidst untended lawns and a mix of buildings in various states of use.  The Library, the centerpiece of the campus, stands as a grand 80s monument to learning.  The Brutalist cum Modernist style of the building practically screams “Stay in school, lest you be imprisoned here.”

Then you step inside and it feels like you’ve entered an acid trip Argento film circa 1975.pristina-27 pristina-5

Here’s the biggest tip I can offer about visiting the National Library of Kosovo:  don’t neglect the interior!  While the exterior of the building is what it is most famous for, we ended up being more captivated by the interior of the building.  Bursts of color and wacky design abounded.  Geometric shapes seemed to dominate, until you’d turn a corner and be presented with aspects of Socialist realism.  Inside the building is also an American Corner – omnipresent throughout the former Yugoslav republics, usually where there is a sizable American diplomatic presence (whether for postwar peacekeeping or otherwise).

We took our time ambling through the building, taking pictures where allowed and audibly expressing our amazement with the place.  It wasn’t too long before our jet lag hit us, and we high tailed it back to our hotel on the other side of the wonderfully walkable core of Pristina.

pristina-52 pristina-55 pristina-54 pristina-49We were greeted by fresh cheese and vegetables upon returning to our hotel (I am proud to be able to say “I am a vegetarian” in Albanian, thank you very much) before passing out for the next twelve or so hours.  Pristina was a wonderful city with a complex history, and literally no other tourists.  I’m very thankful that the airline pricing algorithms orchestrated the serendipity that landed us in Pristina, despite not originally including it in our plans.  That kind of random luck is one of the most rewarding things about travel – to stumble on a place (for whatever reason) that manages to completely captivate you for a moment in time, before moving on to the next place in your itinerary.


We stayed at the Hotel Prima in Pristina, and it was very affordable at $45 a night.  Despite what you might think, hotels in Pristina are actually rather expensive due to the number of non-profit and government workers in the city.  Hotel Prima is in the Old Town, and a short walk from Bulevardi Nene Tereza, the city’s main pedestrian thoroughfare, and the old Bazaar.  There may not be a ton to see there in the mind of a traditional traveler, but I’d argue that the history and culture of Kosovo alone makes a visit to Pristina fascinating and valuable.  That, in combination with the ridiculous, practically Seussian architecture of the city, make it one we think should be on any intrepid traveler’s bucket list.

PIN ME!pristina-32-683x1024

2 thoughts on “My Favorite Ugly Building: The National Library of Kosovo

  • April 18, 2016, 9:52 am

    My biggest regret abou my last trip through the Balkans is the decision to skip Kosovo. I’m still kicking myself.

    • April 18, 2016, 10:01 am

      There’s always time! Tourism isn’t a big thing in Kosovo yet, and things aren’t changing too rapidly there. 🙂

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