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How to design a cultural monument for an oligarch

How to design a cultural monument for an oligarch

Vincent WJ Van Gerven Oei

It was early morning, May 17, 2020, the day before the end of the COVID curfew. A small group of activists from the Alliance for the Protection of the Theater were huddled together in the National Theatre's main corridor, trying to nap.

Several others were outside the building, keeping an eye on any movement. Earlier that evening, dozens of people, among them opposition party leaders, had been there to protect the National Theater from demolition, which it was thought could happen at any moment now that the City Council had voted to demolish it. But by that morning, all the politicians had left, spreading the word that the threat had passed for that night as well; about 30 people remained, the ones involved for almost two years with the most extended protest in Albanian history.

Around 4:00 a.m., dozens of special forces entered the building, surprising those inside, who quickly spread through the building, aided by the darkness, to hide from the masked and armed intruders. But the excavators came after the armed men who began tearing down the facade. As the demolition began, there were still people hiding in the attic who feared for their lives as the historic building began to collapse around them. They were later discovered alive. By midday, the National Theater was gone, and with it, most of the historical archives, props, and costumes that had been housed inside. The Ombudsman later concluded that the police had used excessive violence and had endangered the lives of the protesters.

The National Theater, opened in 1938, is located directly behind the Ministry of the Interior, right in the center of Tirana. A work of historical value, commissioned by King Zog and designed and built by Italian masters, it is also located in one of the most coveted areas for construction in Tirana.


The story I will tell is the story of the Albanian government's campaign to destroy this cultural monument, suppress the workers and activists who wanted to protect it and give the land to a government-connected oligarch.

On March 2, 2018, Prime Minister Rama  presented a plan to redevelop the entire area around the National Theater, which was to be redesigned by the Danish architect Bjarke Ingels. He argued that the existing building could not be restored and the entire project would be concessioned to a private company through a special law that bypassed all legal procedures for public procurement and expropriation.

As it was later learned, this project was presented to the government as an "unsolicited proposal" by a company whose name was not initially made public and owned "93 percent of the land" adjacent to the Theater. The prime minister's claim was closed because, since the government had no public funds, a direct concession without a public procurement procedure was the only option for the redevelopment of the area.

While the land and the building of the National Theater were under the administration of the Ministry of Culture, some parts of the land and the adjacent building belonged to the Municipality of Tirana. At that time, Edi Rama's Socialist Party did not have a clear majority in the Municipal Council due to the irregular swearing-in of some new socialist members. The particular law had permitted the central government to bypass the local government, combining both parts of the land to build a new building for the Theater and, more importantly, a commercial space that would occupy more than half of the public plot: some new tall buildings.

When the draft law became public, it was seen that it was drawn up to donate the public land around the Theater to a designated construction company, Fusha, which had a long history of cooperation with Prime Minister Edi Rama since he was mayor of Tirana in the 2000s. Some time ago, the company was involved in prestigious projects, such as the multi-million euro renovation project of Skënderbej Square. According to the draft law, the Municipality of Tirana was expropriated and negotiations for the public-private redevelopment project had to begin immediately, without a competition procedure, with the Fusha company. For its part, Fusha was committed to contracting Bjarke Ingels as a designer.

The law "On determining the special procedure for the negotiation and signing of the contract 'for the design and realization of the urban project of the new building of the National Theatre'"  was approved by the parliament on July 5, 2018, with an accelerated procedure, even though it conflicted with Albanian and international laws. Since the Constitutional Court was not functioning, as the vetting had left without the minimum number of members to convene, there was no possibility to challenge the constitutionality of this law immediately.

In this whole story, Ingels plays a despicable role. It was through his company's website and an interview he gave to a Spanish magazine that it was learned that Fusha had originally contracted the National Theater project and a number of towers behind it—the plan Rama presented in March 2018.

For his part, Ingels  claimed that he had won an "international competition." However, the Ministry of Culture, the owner of the National Theater building, denied having any international competition or development plan for the new building. When asked about the details of this competition, Ingels declined to provide information, citing a confidentiality agreement with client Fusha. When held accountable in his country, Ingelsi, whose company had made a public commitment to maintain non-corrupt practices in international projects,  complained against accusations made against him of "inciting corruption and violence" about the Theatre. National—an accurate determination based on events that would follow.

After four opposition MPs sent a letter to the European Commission, the international community was forced to pay attention to this issue. The creation of special laws to favor a particular construction company, without any form of competition, is a violation of the Stabilization and Association Agreement between the European Union and Albania as part of the European integration process, and the European Commission officially asked the government for explanations about this special law. Meanwhile, President Meta refused to decree the special law, calling it unconstitutional. He sent it back to the Assembly, which indefinitely postponed the review of the president's veto.

In September 2018, the European Commission requested that the special mention of the company Fusha be removed from the law, but it refused to make its report regarding this law public. According to the Commission, making it public would "compromise the extraordinary efforts achieved to build quality international relations with Albania" and "could lead to a diplomatic incident."

The government obeyed the Commission, but as before, it used the institutional loophole in the Constitutional Court to approve the amended special law at the end of October 2018. President Meta then appealed the law to the (non-functional) Constitutional Court. At the same time, the government opened in July 2019, in violation of the deadlines set in the special law itself, a tender for the concession of the redevelopment of the National Theater closed for the Field.

From the beginning, as a reaction to the threat of the Theater's expropriation and demolition, the National Theater's actors and social activists managed to organize to protect the Theater. His building was occupied by the Alliance for the Protection of the Theater. It became an opposition symbol against the Rama government, bringing together cultural workers, civil society activists, and members of the party opposition in an often tense alliance at the heart of Albanian politics.

From June 2018 to May 17, 2020, a collectively created program of exhibitions, speeches, theater pieces, and music turned the occupied theater environment into a cultural space, becoming the scene of the longest-running show of resistance and solidarity of uninterrupted that had ever seen against the Albanian government.

In particular, the Alliance for the Protection of the Theater initiated the civic collection of aid after the earthquake that hit central Albania on November 26, 2019, distributing aid to many citizens of Tirana while the government was slow in its response.

Their activism exposed the effort to protect the National Theater to an international audience. These efforts were rewarded when, in 2020, Europa Nostra, an EU-funded initiative, listed the theater building as one of the seven most endangered works of cultural heritage in Europe. Also, the then EC Commissioner for Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth, Marija Gabriel, publicly defended the preservation of the building.

After remaining silent for many months and refusing to announce the result of the tender it had opened in July of the previous year, the Municipality of Tirana announced in February 2020 that the negotiations with the tender winner had failed due to what Shkëlqim Fusha, the owner of the company Fusha, described as "an increase in government demands" that harmed his company's economic interests. For this reason, the municipality declared that the National Theater would now be fully developed with public funds.

On May 14, 2020, the City Council of Tirana voted in secret to demolish the National Theater building without any competition procedure or redevelopment plan.

In July 2020, the municipality of Tirana opened a new tender for the design of the National Theatre, with a €500 thousand fund, which was won by the company A&E Engineering. Despite earlier claims that there were no funds for the construction of the Theater—a claim used to justify the concession and the special law for Fusha—the Rama government transferred  €7.3 million to the municipality for the project. In contrast, Mayor Veliaj claimed the project would cost €36 million.

Meanwhile, the Constitutional Court was completed and started functioning. On July 2, it ruled on the President's petition against the special law, ordering the withdrawal of the law, which had happened after the EU's objection. Further, the Court declared illegal the transfer of ownership of the National Theater from the Ministry of Culture to the Municipality of Tirana because the Theater has the status of a protected monument.

However, at the end of the month, the government transferred the property to the municipality. Mayor Veliaj argued that while the monument no longer existed (the building was demolished), the passing of the land did not constitute a violation of the Constitutional Court's decision.

On May 5, 2023, the Municipality of Tirana decided to grant the Fusha company a plot of 1266 m2 adjacent to the Theater plot, exactly as Fusha had requested in 2020. In March 2024, it was revealed that Fusha would use this plot to build a tower 23 stories high, despite the repeated assurances of Prime Minister Rama and Mayor Veliaj that towers would not be built.


This course of events illustrates how the government effectively used the institutional vacuum caused by the Justice Reform to illegally transfer public land and a cultural monument and then arbitrarily demolish the monument by placing the rebuilt Constitutional Court before a fact committed unconstitutionally.

These events also show how a construction company with close ties to the government tried and succeeded in securing public land to build private high-rises: first through an unsolicited proposal, then through a negotiated tender (which failed) with the Municipality of Tirana, and finally, receiving the land as a free gift.

A very prominent international architect, whose project miraculously survived this dizzying series of political and business maneuvers, gave the whole process a respectable gloss.

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