By Vincent W.J. van Gerven Oei
A New Theater Demands New Laws

On Monday, Prime Minister Edi Rama presented the construction project for the new National Theater, designed by the Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG) (which, by the way, looks suspiciously like the 2011 proposal of Forma Architects for the Busan Opera House). The relation between BIG and Rama goes back to his period as Mayor of Tirana, when BIG won the architecture competition to the never realized new mosque project. This time, BIG didn’t have to face an architecture competition, but was awarded the project directly by the artist-in-chief. This follows the new habit of the Rama government to hand out design and construction projects on public property without any form of meaningful public consultation or debate.

Model of the New National Theater by BIG (2018).
Render of the Busan Opera House by Forma Architects (2011).

The presentation made by Rama at his Center for Openness and Dialogue focused mainly on the theater building itself, arguing why it was “impossible” to renovate the monumental twin theaters built during the Italian occupation, and why instead billions of public money need to be spent on a public–private partnership with (so it is whispered) construction companies Fusha, Kastrati and Edil Al-It, all involved in large, lucrative government tenders.

However, the end of his speech was perhaps the most interesting, because the Prime Minister claimed that the construction project for the new National Theater would be implemented through a “special law” passed in Parliament, where Rama hold an absolute majority.

This is an unheard of situation. No other construction project in Tirana, not even the National Arena or the new mosque, had to be passed through Parliament. So why is it that suddenly this project would need parliamentary approval? A clue: the National Theater lies on the most expensive piece of land in Tirana.

The “public space” that the architects have been kind enough to leave to the citizens of Tirana.

The reason lies not in the National Theater project itself, but in what it is supposed to hide. The entire surface of the public land on which the current National Theater and several adjacent building are situated is around 7,500 sq.m. Meanwhile, the project for the new National Theater occupies less than half of that surface, 3,000 sq.m. The rest will be used not for the profit of the general public, but – as always – for the construction of a high-rise apartment/shopping complex, which is called in the project proposal, exclusively obtained by Exit, the “retail connection.”

Render of the new National Theater seen from the apartment complex built behind it on public land.
Left a render of the new shopping mall/apartment complex behind the National Theater.

Because private construction on public property is illegal, all of this land needs to be expropriated from the municipality of Tirana, which owns the land. Such a decision can only be made by the Municipal Council, which, however, is currently in disarray as several new council members of the Socialist Party are illegimate because they were not legally sworn in by the Council. The Democratic Party has gone to court over this issue, putting any majority vote in the Tirana Municipal Council in jeopardy.

Prime Minister Rama has therefore probably developed the idea to expropriate the municipality of Tirana via a special, custom-made law, passed in a Parliament that he completely controls. This is of course a gross attack on the rule of law. At the moment that the government can make a law just in order to justify a single expropriation at the expense of the Albanian public under the guise that they get a new National Theater in return, there is no longer any limit to what new legislation can be used for. Perhaps next time, he wants to save Tahiri from jail, or grant the entire coastline to another oligarch for “development.” No problem: we’ll just make a law. But this is not how a democracy works. This is how an autocracy works.

To get this very clear: In order not to renovate a historical building and spend more public money than necessary on a financially dubious public–private partnership, the government is willing to give away its property in the most expensive and coveted part of Tirana to a private company just in order to build… more apartments and another shopping mall. And art, as is always the case with Rama’s cultural politics, is supposed to hide all this from public criticism.