The Unofficial View of Tirana (101)
A caricature of Erion Veliaj produced in the context of the protests against the Lake Park construction work.
by Vincent W.J. van Gerven Oei
During his election campaign in 2015, pathological lier – excuse me, “socialist” crown prince and Mayor of Tirana – Erion Veliaj promised that he would put an end to the “betonization” of Tirana, and specifically the Lake Park, which had been the subject of illegal deforestation during (current opposition “leader”) Basha’s term as mayor in order to make room for construction work opposite to the Faculty of Economics, a “multifunctional complex” designed by German architecture firm Bolles+Wilson (which has recently gotten away with the defacement of Korça’s skyline). Ironically, it is exactly the same company that is responsible for the design of the so-called “children’s corner” in the Lake Park, where it is rapidly becoming obvious that anything except playing will be involved, to wit:
Construction work on the “children’s playground” in the Lake Park
Even though the Ministry of Environment has stated that the Municipality of Tirana does not have an environmental permit to start construction work in the area, destructive building activity in the Lake Park in Tirana continues at a feverish pace, while concerned citizens and environmental activists continue to gather in protest and solidarity. At the same time, a criminal investigation has been opened against the Municipality, as building without the correct permits in what is still a protected national nature park is obviously illegal. But in an absurd turn of events, the municipality is now denying access to public documents pertaining to this possibly illegal activity precisely under the pretext that the municipality of Tirana is currently under criminal investigation for illegal construction work! I quote here a letter from the “Agency of Parks and Recreation,” of the Tirana Municipality, dated March 23, 2016:
These documents [concerning the “children’s corner”] have been sent to the public prosecutor, which has included them in the investigation file. Under these conditions, these data in a juridical sense are treated as proof and as such fall under the secrecy of the investigation, which […] are prohibited from publication, fully or partially, as part of the preliminary investigation until the end of the investigatory process.
Letter from the Agency of Parks and Recreation of the Municipality of Tirana in response to a Freedom of Information request concerning the illegal building activity in the Lake Park
In other words, the municipality is using the protection of evidence during a criminal investigation precisely in order to withhold this evidence from the public, thus adding a new layer of perversity to the entire process. In the meanwhile, truck after truck filled with concrete arrives every night in the park, so that even if the Municipality will be convicted and asked to return the park to its original state, the damage will already have been done.
Obviously the Lake Park construction is a total PR disaster, and future contenders for Veliaj’s position will no doubt use the “restoration of the park” as a rallying cry. Hence, we were recently informed about another ambitious plan, the “return to identity” of Skënderbeg Square. Now that’s a golden oldie! Veliaj wouldn’t be a Real Mayor of Tirana if he wouldn’t waggle his tail over that most coveted piece of public space, where regime after regime has left its droppings for all to smell. Ardian Vehbiu, in a recent post on Peizazhe të fjalës, already made the valid claim that the entire project is a “scenography” rather than a “rehabilitation,” a project that, apart from certain potentially positive aspects such as the attempt to make the square car-free, is mainly programmed and timed to generate positive PR – and to show off a lot, a lot of trees.
Skënderbeg Square rehabilitation project (2016)
Skënderbeg Square project by 51N4E & Anri Sala (2008)
At first sight, the current rehabilitation project launched by Veliaj c.s. looks like the Skënderbeg Square project proposed in 2008 by 51N4E & Anri Sala, during the period current PM Edi Rama was mayor of Tirana. However, none of the official sources mention the original designers of this “vision” (on Facebook, Veliaj only credits Rama). Is this perhaps because 51N4E, designers of Edi Rama’s private bunker and private art gallery, would rather no longer be publicly associated with the project that forced their co-founder Peter Swinnen to resign from his position as chief architect of Flanders, after an audit report revealed corruptive practices and conflicts of interest related to the urban regeneration plan commissioned by Rama?
But let us turn to a detailed reading of the current plan, and the way in which it may deviate from the “original,” as such a reading may give us a clue about the shifting ideological coordinates between 2008 and 2016, implicit or explicit in the approach to urbanism both plans propose. A first novel aspect of the rehashed plan is the rather extravagant description of the building materials and flora that will surround the square:
The natural stones will be in the forms of stone plaques […] which will be taken from all the lands [trojet] of Albania, starting from Tropoja to Kukës, Bilisht, Librazhd, the quarries of Tirana, Korça, Gjirokastër, Saranda, Berat, Vlora, Kruja, Bulqiza, Prizren, Ersekë, Skrapar, etc. […]
What immediately catches the eye is the inclusion here of Prizren, which is not a region of Albania, but rather of the neighboring nation of Kosovo. To include Prizren here as “Albanian region” is not at all an innocent or ideologically neutral choice, but one that recalls and revitalizes the old idea of a reunification between Albania and Kosovo, and, more generally, the ideological project of a “Greater Albania.” This point is emphasized by Veliaj when he speaks of “stone plaques from all Albanian lands [trojet], including here also Kosovo and other zones where Albanians live.” So the first point of distinction between the original 51NE4 & Anri Sala project and its current inflection is a specifically nationalist component that was absent from the first: to walk on the future Skënderbeg Square means to walk “in the heart of Albania, where there is also the heart of the Albanians,” it means to walk on the stones from all the Albanian lands, including Kosovo, and supposedly also parts of Macedonia and Greece. As we move on toward the description of the vegetation on the square, this pan-Albanian vision is reinforced:
As regards the vegetation, the project will bring to the center of Tirana a variety of trees and plants from all over Albania: the green space will be planted with 900 large decorative trees, 520 fruit trees, 954 large shrubs, 4400 small shrubs, and 35,000 flowers.
One wonders what purpose is served by this meticulous and somewhat hilarious enumeration of the types of trees and bushes (my imagination drifts to the Knights Who Say “Ni!”), but apart from the reiteration of the nationalist trope, the idea of “a variety of trees and plants from all over Albania” resonates clearly with the language used in the Faith Park competition brief, where Edi Rama referred to:
a public, green space, planted with all the flowers, plants, and trees which are mentioned in the Qu’ran and the Bible (and other holy scriptures) […with] as its center the “pyramid” and all green spaces where we aim to create a tangible image of our country’s religious harmony, including those whom [sic] do not believe.
Whereas in the case of the Faith Park project, which is included in the larger Tirana Masterplan vision that I extensively discussed in a previous essay, the variety of trees and flowers from all the holy scriptures signifies “religious harmony,” the variety of trees and flowers from all over Albania becomes a signifier for “national unity” in case of the new Skënderbeg project. What is important here is the specific way in which such “unity” is brought about. Contrary to the wild and spontaneous growth of trees and plants in the Lake Park, which, although fundamentally artificial in nature, was designed to imitate uncultivated forest and park areas, only a precisely enumerated, named, tagged, and presumably “well-balanced” variety of trees and plants can signify unity and harmony.
In other words, both the Faith Park and the Skënderbeg Square project signal a very important ideological presupposition underlying the politics of Edi Rama and Erion Veliaj: only order composed and imposed from above can create unity and harmony. In this sense, the contrast between on the one hand the Lake Park, where the natural growth of trees is jeopardized by concrete walls and meters-deep foundations, and on the other the Skënderbeg Square to-come, with its carefully selected and ideologically predestined vegetation and pavement, is very clear: they both represent political models. The latter – top-down – is to be desired and cultivated, whereas the former – bottom-up – is to be undermined and eradicated.
Then finally, a more ambivalent point – an issue perhaps that has not yet been fully clarified, not even in the minds of the powers that be. If we review 51N4E’s & Anri Sala’s original project description, we find that there is a very specific architectural intervention into the square that forms its conceptual core. I quote in full:
The central square of Tirana is designed as a void in the chaos of the city, a void shaped by a collection of gardens and public buildings, both existing and new. This surrounding green belt functions like an antechamber, negotiating between the congestion of the city and the emptiness of the square.
From the empty center, the full range of buildings defining Albania’s past can be seen, representing a common past that can be built upon. The oppressing monumentality of the communist constructions is countered by the shape of the square: a large, low pyramid. Standing on top of this pyramid, one is no longer overpowered by the architecture of the past. This subtle intervention acknowledges Albania’s past, and gives it a new perspective as well.
As is very clear, apart from the green and water spaces on Skënderbeg square, the original vision from 2008 proposed a “large, low pyramid” to shape the empty space in the center of the square. This pyramid (a brilliant intervention, I find) not only mirrors, but perhaps counteracts the other pyramid in Tirana that still dominates the cityscape through both its form and idea, as it also allows the citizens to “elevate” themselves, to become, so to say, temporarily the primary monument of that historically charged square. It communicates a very specific humanist and, dare I say it, anthropocentric view of the citizens of Albania, in which the crossing of an otherwise sun-blazed, blinding, and agoraphobia-inducing square becomes a play of perspectives that creates a very specific consciousness of situatedness and potential empowerment.
Screencap from a 3D rendering of Skënderbeg Square to-come.
The “renewed” vision presented by Erion Veliaj remains ambivalent at this point. The low pyramid is not mentioned anywhere in his plan, but the mock-up image, provided in the press package and inserted above, faintly suggests two diagonal lines crossing between the Et’hem Beu mosque and the National Historical Museum, and Palace of Culture and the National Bank, respectively. By contrast, the 3D rendering shown on a separate website shows no such diagonals or any other trace of a pyramidal architecture. Instead we are confronted with a desert-like, monolithic, grey surface on which individual citizens struggle to make their way across a panoptic, non-Euclidean perspective.
Whereas the original intervention of 51N4E and Sala potentially turned the square into a place to explore and hang out, a site, perhaps, to enact forms of citizenships and social relations, the bleak vision offered by Veliaj’s 3D model offers a shadeless void, where any possible political expression is preemptively neutralized by nationalistic pavement and unifying vegetation.
In a recent Facebook post, art historian Raino Isto hinted at a possible relation between the Monument for Independence in Vlora, sculpted under the direction of Edi Rama’s father, Kristaq Rama, and the Rama-Veliaj’s current project for Skënderbeg Square. This was a correct intuition. Comparing the 2016 plan with the 2008 plan reveals several alterations that cannot be accounted for as merely “finishing a job left undone.” The implicit Albanian (pan)nationalism, the presuppositions on the genesis of order predicated on the pavement and the vegetation, and the reduction of the citizen from self-empowering figure with a unique individual perspective to self-effacing line of flight on an ideologically predetermined surface are all indices of what has changed between 2008 and 2016, and offer us an unambiguous promise of the Albanian state to come.
PM Edi Rama ostensibly looking at a 3D projection of Skënderbeg Square. Does he see the pyramid?
About the Author:
Vincent W.J. van Gerven Oei is a philologist, director of project bureau for the arts and humanities The Department of Eagles, and runs multilingual publishing house Uitgeverij. For Berfrois he writes a regular series on the state and concept of Albania, where he lives and works most of the time.