How the battle to save Tirana’s National Theatre ignited Albanians’ thirst for conservation

How the battle to save Tirana’s National Theatre ignited Albanians’ thirst for conservation

The Albanian National Theatre was demolished on 17 May despite a two year battle to save its home in the heart of Tirana. But activists who fought against plans to redevelop the area say they haven't given up yet.

27 May 2020
Images: Isa Myzyraj

Neritan Liçaj was inside the Albanian National Theatre building at dawn on Sunday, May 17, when hundreds of police broke in. It was still dark and the country was under an imposed lockdown as a result of COVID-19. He knew it was the end, but attempted one last move.

“Together with a friend, I tried to climb to the roof so they wouldn’t be able to use the excavator to demolish the building,” he said. “But we couldn’t make it, given a large number of armed police.”

By 5 am, the well-known actor found himself in a police station, crying. At midday, he was released, but the country’s National Theatre, where he had performed for three decades, had already been turned into dust. It was the end of more than a two-year battle to save it.

“The plans to demolish the old theatre were a sign of an autocracy. Citizens needed to act”

That day same day, local people gathered heartbroken by the theatre’s ruins, breaking lockdown and clashing with the police in protest for what they had lost. For many, the theatre wasn’t just a building, but a symbol of the old city that is being stripped of its history in the name of the new and modern.

The Albania National Theatre was established in a building complex in central Tirana in 1939, after the Albanian monarchy commissioned Italian architect Giulio Berté to create the country’s main cultural and artistic hub. It was finished months after Italian fascists occupied Albania. Later, when the Albanian communists took power in 1945, the building was turned into a national theatre, serving as a stage from which generations of artists launched their careers. In 2014, the Kujtim Spahivogli experimental theatre was housed in the same complex.

At the beginning of 2018 however, the future of the historic building began to be called into question. A local construction firm, Fusha Shpk, offered to build a new National Theatre building, designed by Danish architecture firm BIG, while using the surrounding area for private development. This public-private partnership offer was welcomed by authorities, who branded the existing building as too old to be renovated.

A protestor demonstrates against the demolition of the National Theatre building in Tirana

Artists reacted strongly to this plan. Most believed that tearing down the building which had stood at the heart of Albania’s cultural world for eight decades was simply not an option. Instead, they asked for the old building to be modernised, a plan which won the support from many members of the public. But their protest fell on deaf ears.

At the end of 2018, parliament passed a special law that would allow Fusha Shpk to carry out its plans. Artists and activists considered the law to be anti-constitutional — but at the time a the Albanian Constitutional Court was not sitting due to ongoing judicial reform. They could not rule on the case.

Political science graduate Gentian Gaba joined protests to save the theatre because he felt they were important not just to save a historical building, but the country’s democracy. “I was supporting the artists’ cause by writing to newspapers — but at some point, I saw that it was not enough. The authorities’ plans to demolish the old theatre, despite resistance, were a sign of an autocracy. Citizens needed to act and protest,” he said.

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Gaba became in 2019 part of so-called Alliance for the Protection of the Theatre, comprised of artists and citizens committed to stopping the building’s demolition. The Albanian opposition joined their cause. Soon they were also able to make important international friends. Europa Nostra, a well-known organization in the protection of cultural heritage, become a close ally in the resistance. In a press release condemning the demolition, the described the theatre as “a remarkable example of innovative construction and modern architectural expression from this time period.”

“The architectural significance of the building has been recognised by many international experts,” the organisation said. “In past years, it became an important cultural centre and now, a symbol of civil society’s will to defend their heritage and the intangible values connected to it.”

The police made a final push in July 2019, when they tried to force artists occupying the theatre to leave. They failed, leaving actors and activists to take over the building instead.

The group cleaned the stage and the halls, and began to put together a calendar of artistic performances. The authorities had already cut electricity to the building, forcing activists to use their own generator in order to keep the show running. On summer nights, artists would perform in the theatre courtyard, drawing in crowds of both activists and bypassers who wanted to enjoy a free performance from some of Albania’s finest artists.

“In almost six months, we were able to hold 70 cultural events, with international artists joining us as well. It was a wonderful time,” Gaba recalls nostalgically. At night, meanwhile, the group would form a so-called duty team to stay awake and guard the theatre building.

Under rising pressure, Tirana city hall announced that plans with its private contractors had fallen apart in February 2020. But the mayor of Tirana, Erion Veliaj, confirmed that the theatre would still be demolished — only this time, the new building would be covered by public money, rather than a private company working in exchange for public land.

The remains of the demolished National Theatre building on May 17.

One important backer in the plan to demolish the old theatre building was the country Prime Minister, Edi Rama. A painter by profession, Rama’s own aesthetics have long been strongly interlaced with his politics. While praised by some at home and abroad for both his painting an in transforming Tirana’s building facades while in his former role as mayor, others have criticised his “love for concrete and skyscrapers” that has both rapidly reduced public space and wiped outbuildings of old Tirana.

Some protestors, including Neritan Licaj, believes that Rama is using his political powers to impose his own preferences on Albanians. Indeed, Rama has been firm in his view that the National Theatre was “a building without any cultural heritage values” — a stance he’s maintained for the past two decades.

A painter by profession, Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama’s own aesthetics have long been strongly interlaced with his politics

Sociologist Ergys Mertiri, part of Alliance for the Protection of the Theatre, believes the same. He says that by tearing down the National Theatre, the prime minister in fact “tore of his mask as a man of culture”. “Rama believes that country’s aesthetics should match his own artistic taste, and is trying to spread the latter all over the place and impose it to every Albanians. This is a pure totalitarian mentality,” he says. Mertiri claims that demolishing the theatre was a crime, not only because of its unique architectural values, but also due to its significance in the country’s history. “On that stage, the Albanian art scene was born and developed,” he says.

For many, there’s also a sense of powerlessness: the idea that against the government’s own vision, the will of the people no longer matters. It drove not just opposition to the theatre’s demolition but much of the anger and demonstrations that took place even after the building fell. For more than two years, activists had fought against the building being torn down. Yet ultimately, nothing changed. Force prevailed over their arguments.

A protestor against the theatre's demolition blocks a road in Tirana

A day after the building was demolished, Rama shared images of the planned new building on Facebook. He said that the new building would give Albanians a proper theatre and artists a dignified stage. The Alliance for the Protection of the Theatre, however, is not ready to let its cause go. They have started to gather 100,000 signatures on a petition to push for the rebuilding of the old theatre in its original spot.

Today, the authorities have surrounded the perimeter of the former building complex and are cleaning away the demolished building. But citizens still gather in the area to express their support for the artists and asking them to not drop their cause. Two weeks after the building was demolished, in the park across the road, a woman who presents herself as Licaj, citizen of Tirana, has come with a paper with the names of 50 family members, friends and neighbours who have signed in support of the petition. She says she can’t easily forget how the theatre vanished. She is asking for more forms for people to sign.

She also asks Licaj to carry on the fight. Calmly but firmly, he replies that quitting has never crossed his mind. Instead, he says, the group are planning to tour Albania in order to bring more people onboard.

“We lost the theatre but not the cause,” he says.

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