On November 10, 2015, Atelier Albania, the National Territorial Planning Agency (AKPT), and the Ministry of Culture launched the international architectural competition “Design of a Bypass Road in the UNESCO Protected City of Gjirokastra.” Gjirokastra is built on a site with archeological evidence showing habitation dating back to the early medieval period, and the best preserved town from the Ottoman period in the Balkans.
During the presentation of the competition and the three finalists, AKPT director Adelina Greca raised eyebrows by unexpectedly announcing the “winner” before the presentations, and the subsequent jury process, had started: Atelier 4. Atelier 4 is a major client of the Rama government, involved in the construction of the Qemal Stafa Stadium, among many other development projects. The project is funded by the World Bank through the Albanian Development Fund.
The two other competitors were a conglomerate of SON Group, C+S Cappai Associates, and F&M Ingeneria and a combination of Metropolis and Cultural Heritage without Borders, an NGO specialized in cultural heritage protection and restoration.
Atelier 4’s “winning” proposal for the Gjirokastra bypass was approved on September 13, 2016, by the National Council of Restoration (KKR), but now appears to be radically different from the initial competition entry, while at the same time threatening protected cultural monuments.
Violation of the Protected Zone
The initial call for the project states that the bypass is to be “located in the surroundings of the Historical Center and the Protected Zone.” By intervening into the protected zone, the project is in violation of the Albanian Law on Cultural Heritage:
Law on Cultural Heritage, Art. 29(1): Museum Cities, Museum Zones, Historical Centers, Museum Ensembles, Centers, and Archeological Parks are a category of objects in a group, that are protected in their entirety as historical-archeological, monumental, architectonic-urbanistic, and environmental complexes and therefore new constructions that touch existing objects are prohibited, with the exception of the underground engineering network.
Besides the above, the Gjirokastra Bypass project also violates the Albanian Charter of Restoration (VKM no. 426, July 13, 2007). In spite of the extant legal framework, the Regulation for the Protection, Conservation, and Administration of the Historical Center and Protected Zone of Gjirokastra passed by the Rama government (VKM no. 619, July 7, 2015) states that “new constructions in the Historical Center except the improvement of the road infrastructure, engineering network, and the above-mentioned reconstructions.” In other words, the Rama’s VKM violates the Law on Cultural Heritage precisely in order to allow the Gjirokastra Bypass project, tendered out to one of his preferred clients.
Let’s see what else is wrong with this destructive project.
Violation of the terms of reference
Given the fact that Gjirokastra Bypass project is already in violation of both national law and international treaties, the projects proposed should have at least offered solutions with the lowest impact on the protected area. The winning proposal of Atelier 4 locates 90% of the entire bypass project in this area, the historical center of Gjirokastra, with the remaining 10% of the project in the so-called “Buffer Zone.” Of all three proposals, this makes Atelier 4’s proposal the most damaging to the protected area.
Destruction of cultural monuments
Atelier 4’s project implies the destruction of two Category II Cultural Monuments, as well as an invasion into the natural foundations of the Gjirokastra Castle, which had been planned for archeological excavations. In doing so, the proposal merely moves traffic from the bazaar area to the area surrounding the castle, destroying a green and pedestrian area in the process. No overview study of transportation in Gjirokastra has been done, and there is no proof that the Bypass project will truly alleviate traffic.
Twice as expensive
The project discussed in and approved by the KKR is significantly different from the one announced as winner of the Atelier Albania competition. It is twice as expensive as the initial proposal (now valued at €5 million) more than 50% different in both shape and solution. This automatically invalidates the entire competition. The two figures below show the initial proposal of Atelier 4 (fig. 1) and the proposal approved by the KKR (fig. 2).
At least three independent geological and seismic studies (from 1980, 2006, and 2012), including one conducted for the Ministry of Culture, have shown that the bypass is planned on a seismic area, on top of a very dangerous tectonic crack. No provisions regarding the risk of seismic activity have been undertaken by the proposal.
Beyond an immediate threat to the cultural heritage of Gjirokastra, the effects of the implementation of the Bypass project will most probably reach further. According to Cultural Heritage without Borders, there are at least 169 cultural monuments in Gjirokastra of Category I or II inside the protected historical center which are currently in critical condition.
In 2011, the UNESCO World Heritage Center threatened to place Gjirokastra on the List of World Heritage in Danger, if it did not meet certain criteria. While none of these criteria have been met by the Albanian government, the money spent on the ill-planned Gjirokastra Bypass project could have been well spent on the restoration of the cultural monuments that are currently under threat.
This summer, an international assessment team of ICOMOS is planning to visit Gjirokastra to decide whether sufficient progress has been made in the protection of the city. So for the government to show off a brand-new road, two destroyed monuments and 169 others in a serious state of disrepair is perhaps not the best start.