Near the center of Tirana, Albania stands a pyramid. It is still standing, although the windows are broken and the ugly concrete architecture is patchy with spray paint, in the center of a park devoted to peace. The pyramid was built to honor the communist dictator after his death in 1985. It was made into a museum, then a venue for public events, a club called The Mummy, a headquarters for NATO during the Kosovo crisis, a storage space for minivans, the location for a broadcasting company, and has now languished in semi-dereliction for over a decade. City officials have threatened since 2010 to tear the thing down, but they met with public resistance and no organized demolition is underway. So the pyramid is still there, presiding over the old Blokk as a strange and charming feature in Tirana’s nightlife.
I climbed the pyramid after dark, following a dinner of eggplant and Tirana’s traditional fërgesë, made from veal in a spicy, tomato-based sauce. I was tagging along with a friend on a portion of his travels that summer, 2016, and a hostel employee recommended the pyramid as the best (free) view of the city. The building was unmistakable as we made our way up the boulevard. Pyramid is something of a misnomer—not a textbook example of geometry, Tirana’s pyramid has slopes in sections that radiate from the central peak like a fan of playing cards under the thumb. A few of these radial sections drop off abruptly into vertical walls, and these were embroidered with razor wire to keep people from falling. The rest of the walls slope all the way to the ground. They’re not tall or steep enough to prevent most people from climbing them, but I am especially terrified of long, flat slopes—the kind where if you begin rolling, nothing will catch you until you hit the bottom. The tiles had some faint texture that offered grip, left over from holding the absent slabs of white marble. I took off my shoes and socks and tied the laces together.
Tirana is a walking city. The streets were packed at sunset, although not uncomfortably, with promenading couples, elderly men on benches, and kids playing in the many parks and squares. Perhaps this is not as true today as it was in the past when no cars were allowed. Government officials once strove to keep the city walkable as they tightly controlled all of Tirana’s building up and tearing down. In the course of 100 years, Tirana has been designed and redesigned by imperialism, fascism, communism, and in the past decade, consumerism. The city became a poster child for what each of these ideologies saw as the beating heart of a capital city. Every new age has a plan for Tirana.
Looking up the boulevard, it’s tempting to attribute Tirana’s early 20th century regimes with a crazed need to make Tirana look bigger, older, and more like somewhere else. Tirana was far from urban in 1920 when the new national government chose it for Albania’s capital. Tirana had a river. Tirana had roads to the coast and roads inland in several directions. This was good enough to begin a makeover. In the first flush of Albanian independence, Tirana grew from a provincial Ottoman town to the image of a Western capital, with its broad square and impressive boulevard designed by Italian architects to echo Rome. Early plans ignored the existing town almost entirely. Tirana’s original centerpiece, its 17th century mosque, was awkwardly accommodated in the layout of government buildings, military headquarters, and a palace for the new monarch, King Zog. But Italy annexed Albania in 1939, mid-construction, and after that no one could seem to stay in power long enough to complete their architectural ambitions. King Zog fled the premises.
Fascist town planning in Tirana had predictable aesthetics. Engineers built in stone and straightened the curves out of streets and canals. Apparently annoyed by King Zog’s Baroque square, Italy’s imperial architect built a new square for government buildings at the opposite end of the boulevard. He ornamented it with an imposing Casa del Fascio, an Albanian Fascist Youth Institute, and the Albanian Leisure Time Institution before imperial Italy gave way to Nazi military occupation in 1943. When German forces left Tirana at the end of 1944, Albania’s fledgling communist party consolidated its rising power with a whole new cast of public officials, who renamed the streets yet again.
This was the world of Enver Hoxha, Albania’s communist dictator and the longest-running non-hereditary reign in the world up to the time of his death. He was “cultured,” according to his contemporaries, well-read, and good-looking. He studied law in Paris and Brussels, losing his scholarship and then his job when the Albanian government discovered his communist organizing activities abroad. When he returned, he helped to overthrow King Zog, but maintained that previous ruler’s tendency to eliminate opposition through the death penalty. Hoxha is perhaps best-remembered for the number of people he executed out of suspicion.
Under communism, Tirana’s city center was “redecorated” in flat, ugly architecture representing whatever pomp and solemnity the state allowed in its own praise. No commerce was to take place in that sanctum. Much of the existing private commercial space was seized and transformed into public space, creating parks and greens. Up went multistory apartment buildings, one flat for each extended family. The only bit of distinction was within the Blokk, where high-up party officials had simple but private housing for their families. The entire neighborhood west of the boulevard was closed to average citizens. What emerged was a communist garden city, which, despite the cramped living conditions and difficulties getting housing, had a decent standard of living, extremely low crime, and a lively social contract in which public spaces were kept up by voluntary—though peer-pressured—maintenance from the people around them.
Along my cross-country bus route through Albania, men and women sold their wares without shops or even stalls: stacks of motor oil containers or bulk salt bags or lamps in rows by the side of the road. Apartment buildings of unfinished, uninsulated, unpainted brick were fitted with door handles and curtained windows, clearly inhabited. The Balkans at the moment have a general feeling of being under construction, as their tender economies grow like young cabbages with pale leaves, cultivated in the early summer by bent-backed women and horse-drawn blades. The past and future seem equally obscure, but there is a vision for prosperity, banks, international business. The Albania I could see was visibly making decisions about how to move forward, and how to look back.
The pyramid, with its patchwork history and crumbling exterior, forms the strange centerpiece for these decision-making efforts. Bread lines in Tirana had grown long by the time the pyramid opened to the public, a few years after Hoxha’s death in 1985. People were in no mood to appreciate the unique building Hoxha’s daughter and son-in-law designed for the dictator’s museum, however obliquely fitting it was to his Pharaoh complex. The democratic party that took control in 1992 made the pyramid a convention center, and even renamed it for Pjetër Arbnori, who had been tortured and imprisoned under Hoxha’s rule. But Albania in the 1990s was more preoccupied with the pyramid schemes crashing the economy than with the one falling to pieces in Tirana.
The fact is that Tirana has had trouble maintaining its communal spaces in the decades since Hoxha’s death. Edi Rama, Tirana’s mayor during the first decade of the 21st century, cracked down on unauthorized building by demolishing and hauling away over a hundred thousand tons of concrete in a desperate effort to protect the riverbank from citizen encroachment. In a place haunted by both the ghost of dictatorship and the values of communism, it’s often hard to find the balance of communal decision-making. And in the face of true, grinding poverty, it is sometimes hard to care.
“We have to understand that the public space is not a Kleenex that one uses, crumples, and then throws away,” wrote Slavenka Drakulić, contemplating post-communism cities from her home in nearby Croatia. “It’s more like an old-fashioned, fine batiste handkerchief, embroidered at the edges, that one has to wash and iron to be able to use it again.”
The woman working the hostel desk was perhaps in her late 20s, and so had lived her entire life in a struggling democracy. She told us she had grown up in Tirana. She told us, tracing her finger over colored lines on our city map, that the nicest restaurants are all in the area where communist officials once had their homes. Her job was to stand at a desk all day or all night, talking to foreigners about her city, and something in her tone made me suspect this took courage. She was talking about things no one wanted to remember. She could not so much as give directions or recommend a restaurant without running a finger over her parents’ generation’s worst memories. She had no direct experience of the Hoxha dictatorship’s violence and chaos and disintegration, but she lived in its immediate aftermath, surrounded by people who knew the possibilities. She was, perhaps, the future they had survived for. This is a world where you learn to tread lightly.
When American journalist Matthew Brunwasser interviewed Albanians in 2011 about what they thought should happen to the pyramid, he got several different answers. Put money into it, some said—rejuvenate the place and make it “something nice for the young people.” Or, alternatively, let the thing be, and don’t let it distract government officials from more pressing tasks. But no one seemed to want the pyramid torn down. “It’s part of our history,” an Albanian journalist told Brunwasser. “Have you destroyed everything in your country that brings you bad memories?” Few people seemed to condone the city’s intention to bring down the pyramid, but protecting the structure required making some statement about what it means—dedicating it to the memory of a dictator, or to those who suffered under him, or to the people of a city who had great faith in architecture. Protecting the pyramid would force some articulation of the past. Leaving the building in limbo is a way of treading lightly. It offers a little space, a ruin both painful and attractive, that might mean anything you please.
Each regime in Tirana has done its best to destroy vestiges of the previous ones. This was especially true for communist restructuring, which obliterated the old bazaar and a landmark café. When the practice of religion was outlawed, the Orthodox cathedral was bulldozed to make way for Tirana’s new symbolic city planning. But as Tirana’s city center organizes once more around commerce, the latest powers-that-be have struggled to decide what to do with these vestiges. Albanians are, in many ways, still deciding what the beating heart should be and how to safely memorialize the past. So while city residents and officials quibble over whether or not to tear down the pyramid, and what they might subsequently do with the space, the thing stays uncurated. It falls down bit by bit and endures half-hearted vandalism. It’s a reminder of the past and attracts young people who don’t really remember that past. This situation can’t last forever, but might be necessary as a phase in the city’s life. Community petitions to save the pyramid had, essentially, one small but unprecedented message: this time, remaking the city, keep the vestiges. Even if they still ache. Even if it’s difficult to know what they mean.
In 2011, the pyramid crawled with citizens gathering to protest government fraud and corruption. The protestors seem to have chosen the pyramid for its location near the city center, its uniqueness as a landmark, and its general acceptance as a public space rather than for any symbolic potential. And it’s hard to say if that choice was supremely appropriate or utterly ironic: this broken-down monument to a leader who turned so much private property into public space, now a community area used to protest the corruption of the people who replaced him. As a city, Tirana’s organic growth has been punctuated by radical, purposeful, symbolic restructurings. And after overcoming initial surprise, initial resistance, Tirana adjusted and resumed the essentially uncontrollable, often unpredictable movements of people living together.
There is, of course, a new plan. An international architecture contest awarded the contract to Stefano Boeri, approved by the city council in January of 2017. The plan encompasses the whole of Tirana and its satellite communities with a 21st century vision for a capital city. Bounded by a thick, green forest to prevent sprawl, Tirana will have new, fast rail connections to the airport. Concentric rings of greenery and paths will keep this a walking city, a garden city, in the best traditions of the communist era. Small text on the public version of the plan declares, “Preservation of 20th century architecture.” As for the pyramid, the plan calls for it to be “revitalized and transformed into a multi-functional center for technology, culture, and art,” appropriately vague and with no more talk of destruction. There are never any guarantees, but Tirana’s newest architect seems to accord his predecessors at least a little respect. Perhaps he knows, then, what happened to the best-laid plans in Tirana, and how to make the most of what’s left.
The city below the pyramid was not well-lit, but it was hatched by headlights and dotted with bright windows. The slope seemed to go on ahead forever in the dark as I put one foot in front of the other, first walking, then bent and climbing, waiting for the final edge to appear. I could see very little, but below me Tirana bustled in and out of the infrequent street lights and the glow of new multinationals, and above were soft voices speaking a language I didn’t know. I looked neither up nor down and concentrated on my own fast-beating heart. On the pyramid I was not thinking ahead or behind.
The pyramid is an accident of history, a monument that never meant quite what its builders intended. The anachronism has neither been taken down nor restored to “original” condition. Small groups of teens clamber up to have a smoke and a view, and the view is gradually being closed in by tall buildings. Ambivalence towards the monument is not sustainable, perhaps, but at the moment it fills a need, creates a physical place to be uncertain. Albanians have not put up informational signs here or taken serious steps towards codifying this particular historical memory. This particular memory is still feral.
Part 2 of the Balkan Landmarks Triptych. Read Part 1: “The Bridge.”
Read Abby Dockter’s essay “The Bridge,” also appearing in Terrain.org.
Header photo of the Pyramid of Tirana by Kroll Markus – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, courtesy Wikipedia.