The Unofficial View of Tirana (107)
Render of a farmer’s market in Skënderbeg Square’s parking garage, from Edi Rama’s Facebook page.
by Vincent W.J. van Gerven Oei
Skënderbeg Square has once again become a giant building site in order to be transformed into a nationalist underground parking garage. Although we know that the official technical specifications of this “urban requalification” project do not include such a garage, and that the additional construction needed for one will certainly drag the construction period further than the 12 months officially allotted to it, the main argument and selling point of this costly reconstruction work (ALL 527,535,937, or 3.8 million euro awarded to Fusha shpk for the first phase, on top of all previous – and wasted – investments when Rama was mayor of Tirana), is that the end product will be returned to citizens of Tirana as public space, a pedestrian zone where every inhabitant can enjoy their free hours in a lush green environment. Public space, pedestrian zone, who can be against it? So let us try to understand what the Albanian government means when it says “public space” through two examples: the Pedonalja next to the dilapidated National Gallery of Arts and Mother Theresa Square.
The “Festival of Friendship” at the Pedonalja, organized by Elbar beer.
First, the Pedonalja. This street in between the Ministry of Interior Affairs and the National Gallery of Arts, connecting the main Boulevard with Toptani Square, was one of the last public works started during Rama’s period as mayor of Tirana, a walkway shaded with large trees, decorated with colored lights, and benches and greenery in the shape of the backward music score of Beethoven’s “Für Elise” (why or how this was a good idea, I don’t know). When Lulzim Basha became mayor in 2011, one of his first public acts was officially opening the Pedonalja, only to rent it out immediately to a variety of businesses, which filled up the street for weeks on end with cheap qoftë bars, beer halls, giant LED screens, and tons of urban waste. At first, everyone thought that this was a way for Basha to sully Rama’s urban heritage. But when the endless sequence of beer festivals, Christmas markets, friendship fairs, and so on didn’t stop with Veliaj’s arrival in 2015, the only conclusion could be that this “public space” is actually just a way for the municipality to generate money, while the citizens of Tirana have to endure endless amounts of barbecue smoke, tiles sticky from beer, piss, and puke, and a public infrastructure destroyed with impunity by commercial companies.
Mother Theresa Square, once upon a time.
Our second case study is Mother Theresa Square. Again, this is a part of Tirana public space that was first “reconstructed,” in this case for the visit of Pope Francis I to Tirana in 2014. The reconstruction was carried out, again, by a “trusted” government contractor, Fusha shpk, and included the removal of the socialist era fountain in the middle of the square. Back then, this act of vandalism was defended as a “rehabilitation” of Gherardo Bosio’s 1930s masterplan, but recently it has appeared that the government really doesn’t care so much about this masterplan, as it unceremoniously and illegally destroyed one of its core architectural components, Bosio’s Qemal Stafa Stadium. We must assume that the fountain was merely removed to make sure everyone could see the Pope.
After the visit of the Pope, Mother Theresa Square was declared a “pedestrian zone” during the evenings, and for one gorgeous season the citizens of Tirana were able to enjoy the square as they wished. Sitting on the stairs surrounding it, biking and skateboarding, or just for a walk toward the Lake Park. But ever since the UEFA football championships, the square has been occupied by commercial companies, which, through “entertainment,” beer, qoftë, LED screens, loud music, and tons of advertisement have made the free and unencumbered enjoyment of the square impossible. The result is the same as with the Pedonalja: the square is avoided by the citizens of Tirana, and trash piles up in its corners. So far for “rehabilitation.”
Metal gates blocking the entrance to the Mother Theresa Square.
On all sides the view of Mother Theresa Square is blocked by scaffolding, advertisements, LED screens.
This situation became all the more painful when recently Mother Theresa was sanctified. While the square was fully occupied by yet another commercial enterprise – Telekom’s “Electronic Beats” festival – Mayor Erion Veliaj and Minister of Culture Mirela Kumbaro unveiled a commemorative plaque at the entrance the square.
Erion Veliaj and Mirela Kumbaro unveiling the commemorative plaque on Mother Theresa Square.
If you look carefully at the photographs and news footage of the event, it is clear that all the media (most probably at the politicians’ orders) choose their angle such that the enormous magenta advertisements are not inside the frame, embarrassing as it would be to show the square in such a state at the day of its namesake’s sanctification; there was simply no square to be named!
Mother Theresa’s plaque, next to the emergency exit.
The plaque itself is a work of supreme irony. Not only has the Ministry of Culture managed to misspell Mother Theresa’s name in English, while erroneously putting quote marks around it (who or what is quoting “Mother Teresa” remains a mystery), they overlooked the essential aspect of the entire sanctification ceremony, in which an Albanian nun with dubious financial history and a healthy dose of hypocrisy becomes a “saint”: Mother Theresa is now – for better or for worse – Saint Theresa. But to call a square in which rubbish heaps in every corner and the entire center is a dump full of river sand “holy”…
But to end on a serious note. As I have shown by means of two examples, when the government speaks about “public space,” this never means a space that can simply be enjoyed by all citizens in peace and quiet – it in fact signifies a space that can be enjoyed by the government. To turn an urban area into “public space” or “pedestrian zone” implies 1) an intervention into its architecture by means of large urban infrastructure projects that profit only the construction business tied to politics; and 2) subsequently renting out that space to commercial businesses (“partners” of the government), which then develop cheap “entertainment”: beer gardens, open-air football watching events, game zones, which all end up permanently occupying the “public space,” alienating and excluding most of the ordinary citizens. So when I hear Erion Veliaj speaking about turning the entire center of Tirana into a “pedestrian zone,” we have much to fear.
Public spaces, pedestrian zones, and parks – especially in a city like Tirana – ought to be as free as possible from noise, both visual and sonic. They should offer an escape from the overpopulated, overpolluted, overconstructed environment in which most of us live. They should definitely not make our free time even more miserable with dumb entertainment, massive advertisements, loud music, and street food and alcohol that is rapidly contributing to the reduction of Albanians’ lifespan. Public space should not be a space that generates money for the government; public space should be a space in which an immaterial good – the good life – is enjoyed.
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.