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The National Theatre affair in Albania

The demolition of the National Theatre in Tirana sparks opposition and anger.

August 28, 2020 - Bardhyl Selimi - Articles and Commentary

National Theatre of Albania. Photo: Besi Turdiu

The beginning of 2020 in Albania was marked by political and social upheaval. This reawakening of concerned citizens began in late 2019 with the mass student demonstrations against the new Law of Higher Education.

In February 2020, a majority of the opposition parties decided to abandon their mandates in parliament and local municipal councils due to the arrogance of the ruling socialists, who come from among the ranks of communist Albania’s Party of Labor. Socialists have enjoyed an absolute majority of deputies since 2013. They hold a mandate of 80 seats in the Albanian Parliament of 120 seats. 

Many Albanians thought that in the aftermath of this situation the government would have no choice but to call general elections to decide on a new political balance in the country. But nothing happened. On the contrary, the ruling socialists decided to test the waters. First the government arranged the local elections in June with only socialist candidates on the ballot. Of course, because of low participation and by mostly socialists, who make up less than 15 per cent of the voters, all the local town halls fell into socialist hands. The former pluralist republic became, after 28 years, a one-party state again!

The earthquakes

In the autumn of 2019, the country was rocked by two destructive earthquakes on September 29th and November 26th in the most inhabited areas of Tirana, Durres and Lezhe. Hundreds of houses and schools fell down and 52 people died. It was indeed a great disaster. Much money has been granted from the European Union and the Albanian diaspora to put towards recovery efforts. 

New world disaster and Albania

In the new year of 2020, all Albanians thought that the worst was over and they would be able to enjoy a little peace. But no. This time Albania and the entire world experienced a whole new disaster, the COVID-19 pandemic. As an undeveloped and poor country, Albania is experiencing it most difficultly. The quality of life has fallen extraordinarily. Let us hope it will pass as soon as possible.

The destruction of the National Theatre, a cultural monument

Another significant event, which is the focus of this article, is the situation with the National Theatre in Tirana. The government has for many years intended to destroy it and build a few high rises in its place. The theatre would occupy two or three floors of one of the towers. The theatre was situated near the city centre, where the price for 1 quadratic meter is 5000 euros, so companies with relations to senior politicians have great interest in the project.

The idea was strongly contested, and not only just by artists who considered it one of Albania’s great cultural monuments. The Alliance for Protecting the theatre, founded more than two years ago, worked day and night to save the building. But the government of Edi Rama and Mayor of Tirana, Ervin Veliaj, with the help of 1000 policemen destroyed the theatre early in the morning on May 15th, when the COVID-19 state of emergency was still valid!

The government’s arguments were based on the old age of the building (80 years) but both earthquakes did not do any damage to it, so this argument is not valid. Furthermore, according to Prime Minister Edi Rama, the government does not have 30 million euros to build another theatre of the same architecture in the same place! Nor to repair it!

The artists’ and historians’ arguments are based on the functions of this building complex historically:

  • As a community centre.
  • As the Albanian Institute of National History.
  • A musical film and entertainment centre before 1945.
  • After 1945 it served as a political communist court
  • A large cinema
  • Finally it was used as a National Theatre and residency of the Albanian Writers and Artists League.

Oriel Besi Turdiu, engineer of architecture says:

“It is known that the modern Tirana design was done by Italian architects in the year 1930. The city centre has a north-south axis of 2.5 km in length and passes from the Technical University to the Queen Geraldine maternity hospital and the houses of government, with Skenderbej Square and the National Bank located between them. During the communist era, the state destroyed the City Hall and built the National Historical Museum instead. In the year 2000, the famous Hotel Dajti was no longer functional. The National Theatre, in the shape of a U, is also part of that general urban plan.”

Photo: Besi Turdiu

The architectural style includes clean lines and cubic forms without excessive architectural ornaments. There are two vertical houses side by side each other. The two were joined by a covered colonnade and crowned with a balcony at the entrance. The building on the left held the stage, while the right one contained living rooms, a restaurant, kitchen, offices, library, lecture halls. Therefore, the second house was complementary to the first. In the theatre there was the atrium, the hall where the spectators further prepared themselves spiritually for the spectacle, and lastly was the velvet hall.

There was a total of 800 seats facing a main stage. The two houses with the gym were joined by a courtyard with three sides and a pool in the middle. The courtyard functioned as a barrier against noise from the city. It was possible to arrange different spectacles under the open air in the courtyard.

Photo: Besi Turdiu

The structure was built with steel and prefabricated elements using innovative materials.

Nobody knows when the citizens of Tirana will have their city theatre back and the Albanians their National Theatre. The Opera Theatre has been undergoing reconstruction for many years. Thus, there are no theatre performances in Tirana as of now.

Photo: Besi Turdiu

The National Library has not functioned for a few years because of a fire and flooding. Meanwhile, Tirana itself does not have its own city library.

It is unfortunate that the greed of the prime minister and mayor have destroyed such a precious monument such as the National Theatre! It was always a part of the culture and identity of the Albanian capital.

Bardhyl Selimi is a retired teacher of mathematics, born in Kosovo in 1945. He has published articles about mathematics and its relation to philosophy. He is an activist of the Esperanto movement.

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