Letter from Tirana: as the threat of urban demolition looms, will creative communities survive?

Creative cities: Tirana

Rapid gentrification in the Albanian capital has seen scores of grassroots culture groups left without a home. But rather than simply closing their doors for good, the shift has left many artists rethinking their use of space — while a new creative network is reclaiming traditional Albanian ideas of hospitality to help and help alike.

30 March 2021

This article was produced by The Calvert Journal in partnership with British Council

Hosting guests is an ancient ritual in Albania. In times past, if a “foreigner” came to the door, he (women rarely travelled alone) would ask: “Do you receive friends, man of the house?” The guest would be welcomed in the house, and then the ceremony would begin: the forceful offering of coffee and cigarettes until food was prepared. The ritual was made for mohabet, or the exchange of information.

Read more The Tirana cultural hubs breaking new ground amid a city in flux

Such precious rites began to fracture under the inescapable weight of Albania’s totalitarian communist regime. As borders were closed, many became informers for the Sigurimi, the state police, and the exchange of information suddenly became life-threatening. Later, civil conflict in 1996 and 1997 further eroded the idea of exchange and hospitality.

But this ancient rite of hosting can still be found in contemporary Tirana in initiatives that embrace the “unknown” in their spaces: cultural groups that have been displaced by the gentrification that is continuously changing the city landscape. As more and more historical buildings are paved over in the city centre in the name of “regeneration,” otherwise blossoming cultural and community spaces are being turned onto the street. Yet, these groups are resisting the city’s rapid gentrification by finding new homes in a time of impermanence. And while some businesses are opening their doors to new guests, others are daring to welcome the “unknown” by building new nomadic initiatives.

The creative community in Tirana, no matter the wrecking balls, keeps its door cracked in case someone is looking for a shelter — even while playing hide and seek

Tirana’s Backpackers Hostel is just one of the venues pioneering this new wave of initiatives. I remember going to the hostel a couple of years ago, strolling through the local labyrinth of rrugicas, the city’s ubiquitous pathways and mini-streets, into the sanctuary of the garden. My nose quickly travelled from the meaty smoke of the local zgaras – the abundant grill houses – to other lands: a mix of curry spices wafted from the recently-built outdoor communal kitchen. Locals and visitors were reading, playing music, drinking raki, or simply lazing about while waiting for dinner, prepared every night by a different volunteer. Now, in March 2021, the atmosphere is quiet. The hostel’s manager, Ilir Hysa, prepares coffee. Renovations are being made, a sort of collective spiritual preparation for when the pandemic has subsided and the villa can come back to life. In the meantime, several historical buildings are being torn down just around the corner, making space for the seemingly endless endeavor of real estate speculation. Trapped amid the cycle of construction and destruction, the outside world becomes too loud, and we find a small room inside the hostel to talk.

6 Albanian emerging creatives reshaping Tirana’s contemporary culture
Read more 6 Albanian emerging creatives reshaping Tirana’s contemporary culture

Hysa opened the business in 2005. “For me, it was a little bit unexpected,” he says. “I did not plan to start a hostel. I didn’t even know what a hostel was.” At the time, Hysa was in his 30s and managing a restaurant. One night, he and his friend Edvin Parruca met a backpacker from Denmark, who told them the city needed a hostel. Albanians were only granted visa-free travel within the Schengen territories in 2010, and five years prior, neither Hysa nor Parruca had experienced a hostel or the malleable community one can foster. But the encounter spurred them, together with their colleague Nevila Prifti, to start work on what was then considered an urban leftover: an abandoned villa built during the Italian occupation of the 1930s. “It was a beautiful big garden with trees and the villa had nice architecture with a big basement,” says Hysa. “Taking care of the house was what kept me passionate about doing this. The feeling of being connected with the place happens when I maintain it. By painting a door or fixing something, I feel a connection, which is very special for me”. It did not take long before their project gave life to much more than a business. Their care for the space, the time taken to tell and listen to stories, transformed the building from a common space into an idea of community. Local musicians would play with guests; together they would cook, take part in the never-ending process of fixing the villa, grow vegetables. But the team had to find a new home to take care of when the owners of the villa decided to lease the building to more a profitable business. Backpackers had to change locations, and since 2013, has made its home on Rruga e Bogdaneve street.

Image: Tirana by Gerta Xhaferaj
Image: Tirana by Gerta Xhaferaj
Image: Uzina Cultural Space via Facebook
Image: Uzina Cultural Space via Facebook
Image: Destil Creative Hub via Facebook
Image: Destil Creative Hub via Facebook
Image: Tirana by Gerta Xhaferaj
Image: Tirana by Gerta Xhaferaj

Such stories are commonplace in Tirana, a city which is convulsing under large waves of rapid redevelopment. The Covid-19 pandemic has only made the situation worse. Lockdown has also been difficult for Backpackers: the only visitors I encounter during our chat are two children playing hide and seek who run into the guest room while we’re having coffee. But the hostel has faced the challenge head on. They’re just one of the venues that has opened its doors to other creatives, many of whom have also struggled to find a space of their own.

The creative collective Uzina was forced to leave their home – a former state-owned tractor factory built during communism and located in Tirana’s eastern periphery of Shkozë — in March 2020. The team had managed to maintain the building throughout the 2019 earthquake that shook Albania, but the pandemic was too big a jolt.

The Covid-19 pandemic has only made the situation worse. Lockdown has also been difficult for Backpackers: the only visitors I encounter during our chat are two children playing hide and seek who run into the guest room while we’re having coffee

Now the volunteers of Uzina work from the first floor of Backpackers, where Hysa and I are talking. It was a perfect fit: Backpackers could not accommodate guests because of the pandemic, whilst Uzina was unhoused in the city. Uzina now organises outdoor poetry readings, a film club, a queer “culture club”, and design workshops, among other things. On Sunday, Uzina will be using the hostel to host the radical feminist reading group Radical Sense. The group will be collectively reading and discussing Silvia Federici’s Wages against Housework, which the group recently translated into Albanian.

“Uzina was started by Livia Tice and Rigers Shimaj. They went to Termokiss, a community centre in Prishtina, and liked it so much that they decided to make a similar one in Tirana. It was July 2019. I found out about Uzina in March or February, and I decided I wanted to be part of it,” Ina Biçai, one of Uzina’s volunteers, told me in a phone call a few days earlier. She said that from the very beginning, the group was focused on building the idea of a collective in contemporary Albania: “[We asked] what is Uzina’s identity? What do we want to give to the community? What community are we talking about?”

But ultimately, the precarious nature of Albania’s cultural initiatives has made an atomised network of creative spaces in which community can thrive

The atmosphere of exchange that Backpackers and Uzina convey stands in stark contrast with the turbo-capitalist world tearing down buildings just outside the villa’s gates. Both Hysa and Biçai are resisting gentrification by sharing space. “It creates communities because it builds up connections,” says Hysa.

Other Tirana-based projects are also enduring the uncertainty by redesigning spaces that can host different creative ideas under a single roof. Co-working space and cultural hub Destil saw their original venue, another abandoned 1930s villa, knocked down a few months ago to make room for a six-story commercial center. Now, the collective behind the space is dealing with the challenging pace of another building renovation.

The original Destil opened in 2014 and has offered a context where a generation of young creatives can train and built networks. Founded by a collective — Edjon Myftaraj, Elvis Hoxha, Renis Batalli, Qendrim Gashi, and Sonila Abdalli — they sought to design a space where people could collaborate, share, and find a safe space to express themselves.

“We wanted to make an impact not only with Destil as a functional space, but also as a paradigm of the change in the reuse of buildings, old buildings,” says Batalli, an architect and Destil cofounder. “We used to jump the fence and fall in the mud and get dirty. Doors were locked and it was all dusty. It was very exciting to explore this abandoned and haunted place. We used to design how we imagined the place to become by sketching in dust.”

Image: Uzina Cultural Space by Ina Bicaj

Over the span of five years, Destil hosted not only visitors in their hostel and cafe but also a community of young people that are now friends. Many have created other collectives, or opened studios together. But when Destil received notice that they had to leave their home within a month back in the summer of 2019, a group of designers were left sketching in the dust once more — and with it, the never-ending resistance of collective placemaking. Now, a year later, that dust has taken shape: the new Destil is located in a building designed by Skënder Kristo Luarasi in the 1940s. For decades, it hosted the production Gazeta Bashkimi, one of the official newspapers of the Democratic Front of the Communist Party of Albania. Now, Destil will become a crucial point for the city’s young creative community and for the neighbourhood by hosting a bar, co-working space, two floors of offices for creative industries, and a terrace for screenings and events.

Other Tirana-based projects are also enduring the uncertainty by redesigning spaces that can host different creative ideas under a single roof.

Not everyone regroups in the heart of a city which is still endlessly shifting. Some activists and artists see moving to the periphery as a new possibility. ATA, a collective of Albanian activists, is based in Kamza, just outside Tirana’s city limits. Challenging the concept of what a periphery can be or become, they collaborate with artists, give free legal aid, produce theatre alongside director Anila Balla, and publish and promote activist journalism. Away from the glossy facade of the capital’s most recent facelift, they fight each day for young people’s right to stay and to imagine in an area struggling with a high rate of unemployment, and endless environmental woes as the local government struggles to manage both waste disposal and the provision of water.

Image: ATA
Image: ATA
Image: Destil Rruga by Qemal Gurangaku
Image: Destil Rruga by Qemal Gurangaku
Image: Tirana by Gerta Xhaferaj
Image: Tirana by Gerta Xhaferaj
Image: Backpackers Hostel
Image: Backpackers Hostel
Read more Creative Yerevan: the people and places innovating contemporary culture

Other projects are simply abandoning the idea of a physical space altogether. After my conversation with Hysa, I go back towards the city center, across the convex Skanderbeg Square and alongside the sharp-edged colonnade of the National Library. I enter a light blue wooden door in the building opposite that opens onto a polished concrete staircase. This structure too was designed during the Italian occupation – at the time and for 30 years afterwards, it was the tallest building in the country. Even this building has been earmarked for demolition. Inside, the solid stairs lead to creakier, wooden counterparts that reveal the radical bookshop 28 November, named both after its address and Albania’s Independence Day. It is the last week of the shop’s “dematerializing sale” before they leave the space for good. After more than a year of not being able to gather people physically, 28 decided to simply do away with it all together, continuing in a more nomadic form. Sitting among the books as the sun shapes our shadows through the attic space, the group tells me they are simply no long interested in mirroring the Western or European image of a community that endures both in time and space. Instead, they hope to seed their dialogue — film screenings, bootleg bookmaking, collective readings, experimental breathing workshops — on the ground of impermanence.

I walk home a few books richer to my apartment, where the balcony overlooks a tireless crane as it builds the sixth floor of the building that was once the former Destil. With the dust still yet to fall, it is difficult to take a collective picture of a creative Tirana. But ultimately the precarious nature of Albania’s cultural initiative has made an atomised network of creative spaces in which community can thrive. Perhaps most importantly is that amid this precarity, cultural actors are still foregrounding discourse, in all its forms, wherever that can or will take place — all in an effort to carve out, over time, safe spaces for conversation when the noise of the city outside becomes too loud. The creative community in Tirana, no matter the wrecking balls, keeps its door cracked in case someone is looking for a shelter — even while playing hide and seek.

Read more

Letter from Tirana: as the threat of urban demolition looms, will creative communities survive?

The Tirana cultural hubs breaking new ground amid a city in flux

Letter from Tirana: as the threat of urban demolition looms, will creative communities survive?

6 Albanian emerging creatives are reshaping Tirana’s contemporary culture

Letter from Tirana: as the threat of urban demolition looms, will creative communities survive?

5 destinations that prove Albania is perfect for your next climbing getaway