The Unofficial View of Tirana (105)
The remainders of a socialist realist bas-relief on a heap of former Qemal Stafa Stadium debris. Photo from Edi Rama’s Facebook.
by Vincent W.J. van Gerven Oei
For the last two months, I have been woken every day by workmen below my apartment building, viciously attempting to renovate the kindergarten and elementary school behind it, working without protection in the midday sun, with machinery and in labor conditions that definitely do not pass minimum safety standards. For example, hanging out of a smashed-out window with a jackhammer to destroy an overhanging ridge on which you are standing with one foot, without a safety net, head protection, or harness, is not safe. I am sure that fairytale moralist Erion Veliaj, being the former Minister of Social Welfare and current Mayor, has some nice words to cover up the misery of these construction workers. Something of the type: “These heroes are working for the wellbeing of our children. Do something with your life!” Who can possibly be against children right? (As long as they are not Roma children, in which case he is happy to destroy their homes or dump them in a camp.)
In any case, construction work has been a bit the political theme of the last weeks. With the constitutional reform in his pocket, Edi Rama has been using his favorite social media platform from his governmental beach to bombard his subjects with new building plans, the majority of which have been prepared by his faithful Albanian architecture studio Atelier 4. Public procurement no longer seems an obstacle, as over the years the Albanian government has fabricated a host of dubious juridical constructions to circumvent anything that is “public,” “transparent,” or “open.” (Even the government’s “Transparency” website is used merely to attack the opposition, or the few independent or opposition-affiliated media outlets in the country.)
Tony Blair visits Edi Rama in his governmental holiday home and teaches him all about public–private partnerships.
The simplest one is just orchestrating the public procurement such that only the preferred company can win. In that case you either ask the future winner to provide two competing but higher bids from “friendly” companies, or you announce the tender so late that only the company that has been “tipped” can prepare the full documentation. Another method is giving “bonus points” to the company of your choice, which in nearly all cases yields a secure and risk-free winner. You can also redo a public procurement procedure if the wrong company accidentally won. A more recent construction are the “strategic investments,” which get a fast lane treatment without competitors (the main three “strategic investments” all happen to be from a single developer). There is also something that is deceivingly called public–private partnerships. Initially, public–private partnerships were a Blairite codeword from the UK for government concessions, in which the government outsources some of its functions to a private company, hoping they will be more efficient at them and therefore be profitable to both the state and the company. In spite of reality, the Ministry of Economy recently announced government concessions will be extended to transportation, energy production, water facilities, recycling, telecommunication, education, science, tourism, entertainment, hotels, culture, sport, healthcare, social services, prisons and juridical infrastructure, industrial parks, mines, government buildings, ICT, urban and suburban development and rehabilitation. It’s good to know that the government is busy making itself irrelevant and delivering all of us to the cleansing forces of the neoliberal marketplace.
Architectural render of the new Qemal Stafa stadium, designed Archea Architetti and Atelier 4.
The architectural “plan” of the new stadium, signed by PM Edi Rama and Minister of Urban Development Eglantina Gjermeni, design by Archea Architetti and Atelier 4.
I elaborated a bit on the public–private partnerships, because the same term is now also used for a very different juridical construction, namely not a construction in which the government enters into a contractual agreement with a private actor, but one in which the government starts a company together with a private actor, in order to avoid its own public procurement procedures. This is the case with the “reconstruction” of the National Qemal Stafa Stadium. In order to avoid publicly tendering the design and construction of the stadium, which is public property, Rama’s government and the Albanian Football Association created a new company, Qendra Sportive Kuqezi (Sports Center Red and Black), in which the government owns 25% and the AFA 75% of the shares. It should also be mentioned that the AFA is run by a businessman, Armand Duka, whose company AIBA produces the eggs in my fridge. The government then basically “gives” Qendra Kuqezi the stadium and the land, which subsequently is able to contract anyone they want to design and construct the building; for it is a private company.
Marco Casamonti’s 4Ever”green” Tower, bankrupt and unfinished.
This is where the fun part starts. The architect of the new Qemal Stafa stadium is Marco Casamonti from Archea Architetti. Casamonti was arrested in December 2008 for falsifying a public competition project in Florence and sentenced in October 2015 to two and a half years of prison for corruption. Casamonti is well-known in Tirana for one of the largest eyesores in the city, the 4Evergreen Tower. Originally part of the ten-skyscraper Tirana masterplan by Architecture Studio selected by Edi Rama in 2003, its developer is seemingly bankrupt and it sits in the city center, being forever grey instead. His other never-realized project is a second prize win for a commercial complex next to the Qemal Stafa stadium, for real-estate developer Samir Mane (the one of the strategic investments). In other words, he certainly had the credibility to embark on another landmark project!
Multifunctional commercial center designed by Archea Architetti in 2009 for Samir Mane.
Architectural render of Marco Casamonti’s new Qemal Stafa stadium. Note the characteristic tower.
As may be clear from both renders, in terms of formal language the designs for the commercial center and the stadium are very similar, with the vertical slats and the black/grey/red color palette. Considering the speed with which the project was announced and rushed through all layers of government, one cannot imagine the architect had the time to do in-depth research into the site, its history, and context. Casamonti’s plan thus completely glosses over the fact that the original Qemal Stafa stadium was part of a monumental complex of buildings dating back from the fascist period of Albanian city planning, designed by Gherardo Bosio. As such, it used to be part of one of the best preserved Italian modernist architectural ensembles, and, according to the Albanian Law, a Class II Cultural Monument.
Director of the Institute of Monuments, Arta Dollani; Minister of Culture Mirela Kumbaro; architect Marco Casamonti. Photo from the Facebook of the Ministry of Culture.
On July 2nd, when everything except for the façade of the Stadium had been destroyed in record speed, the National Council for Restorations, headed by Minister of Culture Mirela Kumbaro, convened inside the ruins of the Qemal Stafa stadium. The mental gymnastics of those involved in this closed meeting were of Olympic standard. For it had to be argued that the original façade (and only the façade) of Bosio’s design was the only thing “monumental” about the stadium (and not even all of the façade), and that saving that façade – whatever “saving” means – meant to save the stadium as monument in the architectural ensemble of monuments around Mother Theresa Square. I quote first from the words of Mirela Kumbaro:
The main western façade is the part that most respects the original idea of Bosio, and not only that, that façade in which we are are right now is the connecting architectural bridge with the other part of the city: Italy Square, Mother Theresa Square, the architectural complex over there, but also with the nostalgias of the city and the supporter as well as with the memory of professionals. Today we don’t judge whether we need a stadium or not. This decision has been taken and personally I have no doubt that as a member of the National Council for Restorations I must reconfirm my approval for this.
And from PM Edi Rama:
We are not faced with the fact that we simply need to save a little piece of cultural heritage, but we also face the fact that we have to rebirth that little piece of cultural heritage, which has been infinitely barbarized for many years. […] We will have the building that Gherardo Bosio had promised and which corresponds nearly 100% with what he desired to have here, as entrance of the stadium.
To think of an architectural monument only in terms of its façade as if it is a two-dimensional, volume-less and context-less projection that can be replaced within any other environment without its meaning being changed is of course bordering on the delusional. Certainly as delusional as when it was argued that Philippe Parreno’s marquee did not damage the façade of the Edi Rama’s office (another Bosio design) because it was “temporary.” As I said, mental gymnastics – the only Olympic sport in which our political team may win a medal. Note also, that none of the concrete plans for the “rebirth” were made public. The only thing we ever saw was Alb-Star’s white panelling surrounding the site, and behind Bosio’s façade lost in a desert of debris.
But that wasn’t all! For Casamonti’s design included, inexplicably, a large “multifunctional commercial center” tower. Who has ever seen a national stadium with a skyscraper on top of it?, the very reasonable question was. One indeed wonders if Bosio imagined his façade to give entrance to the luxury apartments of Rama’s close collaborators and allies, whether this was indeed his authorial “intention.” We will never know, and Rama insisted that a stadium with a skyscraper was very modern and that we were all cavemen. End of argument; he needs an erection on every plot of Tirana.
The former façade of the Qemal Stafa stadium.
Then, one morning, Tirana woke up to discover that even the façade had been demolished. Photos made rounds the entire day on social media, and people were rightfully upset with the fact that even the last piece of that memorable building had been crushed. By the end of the day, there was a sudden reveal from Rama on his Facebook that the actual stones of the façade had been saved and would be replaced later at the very end of the project to “recreate” the entrance. In other words, within the conceptualization of “cultural monument” that seems to prevail in the heads of the cultural visionaries that seem to rule us, culture is indeed just “skin deep.” Peel off the outer layer, store it somewhere, dust it off, monument saved. It can’t wait till they apply this method to Butrint, Apollonia, or the amphitheater in Durrës.
Anyhow, the message – and language – through which Rama “informed” his citizens of this rather unconventional procedure in monumental “conservation” is remarkable. It is remarkable because it clearly pitches the “worthless” cultural heritage of socialism against the “worthy” heritage of fascism. It is even more remarkable because of the enormous disdain and arrogance that speaks from it, the disgust and genuine hatred for anyone who, with no information about plan, budget, schedule, or explanation about “his” National Stadium, was honestly emotional and indignant about the loss of a site of memory. (This includes myself.) I will translate the message in full, lest we forget how our Prime Minister addresses us.
A WORK WITHIN A WORK – THE RETURN TO IDENTITY OF THE FAÇADE OF THE NATIONAL ARENA
The professional mourners-for-rent who hold ignorance [as] argument have pulled the alarm (for two bas-reliefs without any value, with which the nitwits of the old regime patched up the façade of “Qemal Stafa”) and are yelling that culture heritage is being damaged. Those bas-reliefs that embarrassed even Socialist Realism have fulfilled their disfiguring mission and are going nowhere as asset of cultural heritage.
The fact is that cultural monument façade is treated with all professional standards under the supervision of the Institute of Cultural Monuments in collaboration with the Italian center of excellence in restoration Palazzo Spinelli. All stone elements of the [fascist] period are being inventorized and will be placed back in their spot [it’s impossible to see how this can be], just as they have been in the project of the famous architect [Bosio], where in place of the two vulgar concrete patchworks two doors will be realized that were envisioned and designed by Gherardo Bosio.
So one more time: Let the dogs bark, the caravan continues and the new stadium will be the final answer to all the tempests in teapots of the mental laziness and provincial adversity against the new that have been raised and will be raised until the National Arena is imposed with all its radiance.
In this context of the façade, it is interesting that suddenly the phrase “Return to Identity” reappears, a phrase that first arose in his first period as Mayor of Tirana in the early 2000s, when the “return to identity” included the wholesale destruction of “informal” buildings, paid for by doling out construction permits to friendly private companies, and, specifically, the painting of the façades of a socialist housing blocks. We may thus conclude that for Rama the concept of the “façade” and the concern to “return to identity” are conceptually linked; as if the façade itself would contain the key to identity, much more than what is behind it. That a façade can be painted, removed, displaced, that precisely such a transformation or transposition would constitute the “return,” is what underlies this idea. Rama’s “return” is therefore never an attempt to reconstruct, a work of memory or introspection, but always essentially destructive of the past. We have seen this time after time with the way in which he treats cultural monuments or – in general – sites of memory, and perhaps his own memory, too.
My final point, and I will leave it at that, is that maybe the most curious aspect of Rama’s response is the very fact that he, being the Prime Minister of Albania, felt that he was the right person to respond to the commotion. As far as we were explained the legal construction, the project for the new stadium is officially the responsibility of Qendra Sportive Kuqezi sh.a., of which the state holds only a minority of the shares, with the majority of 75% in the hands of a chicken farmer. I would be much more interested in what the majority shareholder in our next National Stadium has to say about all this. Or maybe, just maybe, the National Arena is actually a state project and the whole legal construction is just to flaunt the law? But hey, there’s my provincial adversity again!
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.