Chronicle in stone: Tirana’s changing face divides Albanians

Corruption fears and protests cloud bold modernisation of once isolated capital

Sometime during the seven years, three months and 10 days that he spent locked in a labour camp in communist Albania, architect and painter Maks Velo was asked to become an informer by officers of the ruthless Sigurimi security service.

"I refused to collaborate, so they told me I'd be a labourer for the rest of my life," says Velo, who upon release from the infamous Spac camp in 1986 was indeed ordered by the authorities to work in a factory in the capital, Tirana.

"No one wanted to talk to me when I got out," recalls Velo, who had been jailed for "agitation and propaganda" under Enver Hoxha, the dictator whose 40-year rule turned Albania into one of the most repressive countries in the world.

One day soon after leaving the prison camp, Velo was in central Tirana when he spotted Ismail and Elena Kadare walking past. He had been a close friend of Albania's most famous novelist and his wife before falling foul of the regime's deepening paranoia.

“I pretended not to see them. But then Ismail shouted, “Hey, Maks!” and invited me to their flat that evening.”

It must have been a strange reunion. Velo had designed the building and apartment where the couple lived, beginning work in 1971, the year Kadare published an acclaimed novel under a title suggested by Velo: Chronicle in Stone.

The “modernist tendencies” of Velo’s art and architecture were cited during his 1978 trial, and his case was not helped by the elegant touches he had added to his friend’s flat and which were the envy of some of the writer’s neighbours.

“Does my apartment have folding doors like Kadare’s?” Velo remembers being asked pointedly by a senior official who lived on another floor of the elite building.

“Tirana has many ghosts,” says Velo (84), who still paints and writes and takes a walk each morning through a city which, after decades of isolation, is now changing quickly in ways that would surely have horrified Hoxha, who died in 1985.

Bars and cafes

The flat where the Kadares lived before moving to Paris in 1990 is now a museum, as is the atmospheric House of Leaves, which sat at the centre of the Sigurimi’s vast and intricate web of mass surveillance until the secret service was dissolved in 1991.

Two bunkers in Tirana that were among 170,000 such structures that Hoxha built to ward off potential invaders are now museum and gallery spaces, and a concrete-and-glass pyramid that was intended to house exhibitions to honour his legacy is set to become a technology training and innovation centre.

The Blloku district where Hoxha and his closest allies lived in heavily guarded seclusion is now full of bars and cafes, and at least part of the dictator's villa may soon be turned into an artists' residence, according to mayor Erion Veliaj.

“We neither embrace it nor erase it, but we definitely co-opt it,” he says of his administration’s attitude to Tirana’s communist-era heritage. “We’re saying that while being reminded of the past, we can also get our act together for the future.”

Since taking power in 2015, Veliaj (39) has fully pedestrianised the vast Skanderbeg square in the city centre and sought to tame Tirana's chaotic sprawl with eco-friendly bicycle lanes, playgrounds and many thousands of new trees.

With backing from Albanian prime minister Edi Rama – who covered Tirana's dilapidated tower blocks in vivid colours and murals when he was mayor from 2000-2011 – Veliaj has attracted renowned international architects to city projects.

“Tirana is going through a phase of experimentation,” Veliaj says in the roof garden of city hall, overlooking buildings around Skanderbeg square that recall periods of Ottoman, Italian, Soviet and Chinese influence over Albania.

“So it’s been fun because we face all these debates. Everyone wants change but when change happens they say: ‘No, start with someone else, I’ll change later’.”

The fiercest opposition to the grand designs of Rama and Veliaj has coalesced around Albania’s national theatre, barely 100m from the mayor’s office.

For more than a year and a half, a protest movement led by actors and directors has demanded that the government drop plans to replace the theatre, which was built in 1939 after Benito Mussolini's fascist Italy occupied Albania.

Cultural heritage

Since scuffling in July with police and security guards who they thought planned to seize the theatre prior to demolition, protesters have kept a 24-hour watch over what they call an irreplaceable piece of their cultural heritage.

"They can build a new theatre anywhere. Why here?" says film director Robert Budina.

"This place has huge history," adds Neritan Licaj, an actor at the national theatre for 28 years. "All the national institutions of the arts were born here: the opera and ballet, the first art gallery, the state philharmonic, the academy of arts - this is public territory."

Lecturer and former education minister Mirela Karabina says the round-the-clock vigil is simply "about democracy".

“This is the first protest of its kind in Albania. We are here to build our democracy and show Albanian citizens that if something is wrong, we have to act.”

The government says the building is hopelessly outdated and plans to replace it with a state-of-the art new theatre designed by Denmark's Bjarke Ingels Group, with the €30 million cost covered by developers who will be permitted to construct residential and office blocks on adjacent land.

The authorities are using a similar public-private partnership to build a new national stadium in Tirana, where an adjoining tower is set to become a luxury hotel.

“We have a €70 million stadium without spending a penny of public money,” says Veliaj. “If I was mayor of London or Paris I could afford to foot the bill, but I’m mayor of Tirana. People want London or Paris quality with the taxes of Tirana.”

Critics say the cost is just one of many concerns, however. They accuse officials of ignoring public opinion on such schemes, of breaking rules to push through projects and of letting suspect cash slosh through the construction sector.

"Tirana is becoming a laundromat for hundreds of millions in crime and drug money," says Lulzim Basha, leader of the opposition Democratic Party. "There is no economic feasibility for the high towers that are being licensed throughout the city ... This is visible proof of organised crime now penetrating our economy."

Corruption concerns

Velo describes the plan for the new theatre as “terrible” and he has signed a petition against it with fellow architects. “The most amazing thing here is the power of thieves,” he says. “We should change our passport to say we come from Ali Baba’s cave.”

EU states cited concerns over crime and corruption last month when declining to start EU accession talks with Albania, but Veliaj insists the theatre and other projects are clean and will overcome the objections of naysayers and political enemies.

“This is one last landmark for them to fight for. When they lose it, they’ll enter history as the guys who did nothing when they had the city and tried to stop everything when others were in charge,” he says of the Democrats.

“I love debates. But I also understand there is a time to make a decision and move on ... I think we’ll most likely start building the new theatre early next year.”

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