On June 10, the “renovated” Skënderbeg Square will be inaugurated. This will be the completion of a project that started in 2008 with an international architecture competition written out by then Mayor of Tirana Edi Rama, and won by Belgian architecture firm 51N4E and Rama’s former student Anri Sala.
The design of the square is based on a very shallow pyramid, with an increase in height from base to top of only 1.80 m. Different from the original concept, the entire square will be surrounded by a corridor of trees.
As a concept, all of this doesn’t sound very bad. The shallow pyramid on the square, the climbing of which takes no particular effort, mirrors the Pyramid of Enver Hoxha, just down the Boulevard of the Martyrs. Prime Minister Edi Rama later announced that the square would be paved with tiles made of stone “from all the Albanian lands,” including areas of Kosovo and Macedonia.
But its entire success is based on execution and balancing the asymmetry of the square with the symmetry of the historical center of the city. Like the Persian rug in The Big Lebowski, the square is supposed to tie together the various architectural heritage that surrounds it: the Ottoman Et’hem Bey Mosque, the Italian Bank of Albania, and the communist National Historical Museum and Palace of Culture. This is, in fact, its main architectural challenge. And as always, it’s all in the implementation. And the implementation is a failure.
A few days ago, I had a look on the square, and “climbed” the pyramid. What is immediately apparent is that three of the four main buildings will soon be invisible behind a wall of trees. Contrary to initial architectural renders of the square, lines of trees have been planted in front of the National Historical Museum, Palace of Culture, and Bank of Albania. Thus a unique aspect of the square, the combination of architectural histories and styles, will no longer be visible once these trees grow to full size. The square will literally be isolated from the architectural history of the city, as if arrived from another planet.
Second, although nice on paper, the pyramid itself doesn’t work. There is too much movement going on at the edges, with the elongated stairs toward the Museum and Cultural Palace, the shallow hill on which the Mosque is built, and the silly depression behind the Skënderbeg statue. As a formalist intervention, it does not have the desired effect of breaking up and skewing the horizon lines. This is already done by the fluctuations in height of the surrounding terrain. This concept would have worked very well in the Netherlands or Flanders, where the land is completely flat. But it falls dead in the area in which it is executed.
Mayor Erion Veliaj, with a typical infantilizing touch, said that you could “slide” from the pyramid. Unless it freezes over, it will be too shallow for such fun.
The tiles “from all over Albania lands” are frankly a total deception. Yes, there are many different tiles, but they are all mixed up randomly, such that the entire surface of the square looks like a cheap bathroom floor. The stones have not been properly cut or polished, and many of them show traces of mass industrial production. It just looks crappy. On “top” of the pyramid, there are several stones with inscriptions, showing which tiles come from where. This would be a nice touch, were it not for two tiles with giant “Fusha shpk” logos just above them in the middle of the square. The company, which through clearly corrupt tender procedures amassed €12.6 million of public money, even had the guts to put its own name on top. It is a nice symbol for the power that the oligarchs have amassed in Albania, shamelessly claiming works paid with public money as their own.
Even the Egyptians, thousands of years ago, knew that a pyramid needs specifically cut stones for its edges. This piece of construction knowledge has apparently been lost on Fusha, which decided to construct the four edges leading from the top of the pyramid to the base with regular flat tiles. The result is that the edges are not sharp, but follow a zigzag line of with alternating tiles sticking out left and right. Visually this is extraordinarily ugly, especially because the formalism of the project is so important. But you can already see that those edges will be the weakest link in the construction, and its tiles the first to break off and erode. The result will be further ugliness.
On Saturday, Prime Minister Edi Rama will take all the credit for the “brilliance” and “genius” of this project. But the sad truth is that millions of euros were spent on sacrificing the architectural unity of the city center, breaking up the symmetry of the north-south axis for a formalist exercise that doesn’t work, and has been executed poorly. Sad.