Faith No More
In 2015, Atelier Albania held a competition for the so-called “Faith Park,” a brain child of Prime Minister Edi Rama who envisioned the surroundings of the Pyramid in the center of Tirana as follows:
“It seemed appropriate today to convey to you the idea of building in Tirana, soon The Park of Faith. A public, green space, planted with all the flowers, plants, and trees which are mentioned in the Qur’an and the Bible (and other holy scriptures). In this park, dedicated to coexistence, to the children, parents, grandmothers, and grandfathers of the of the capital or other cities of Albania, and also foreign visitors, will be able to discover not only all the green creations from the holy books, but images, objects, sounds that echo this history and this invaluable Albanian asset. Humbly, every Albanian, starting from the government and including all public institutions and government authorities, should be grateful to the religious communities in this country…”
“…The Tirana Faith Park competition has in its center the “pyramid” and all green spaces where we aim to create a tangible image of our country’s religious harmony, including those whom do not believe. This Park will bring all the flowers, plants, and trees that are mentioned in the holy books of religion…”
The competition was won by Italian architecture firm UNLAB, which then together with Italian architect and wannabe politician Stefano Boeri became the masterminds behind the General Local Plan of Tirana, which had the Faith Park at its core. The basic idea was to reconceptualize Tirana public space around a grid of trees that would have the Pyramid at its center. Suffice it to say that in spite of all the money spent on all kinds of architectural flourishes, none of it was realized. Together with its inspiration – Angela Merkel – the Faith Park simply disappeared from public discourse, as if the entire idea had been just one of Rama’s many frivolous non-sequiturs. Instead, we were bombarded with an imaginary “orbital forest,” a central square on which one can bake an egg in the summer, and an accumulation of skyscrapers that will remain empty for the coming decades.
At no point did Edi Rama or any his subjects state that the entire conceptual premise on which the Tirana Masterplan 2020 was built had been a mistake, that there wouldn’t be any Faith Park dedicated to “coexistence.” That, in fact, the entire idea of coexistence had turned out to be a massive lie, as the country’s political system has ripped at the seams and the massive emigration and braindrain continue at an unabated pace.
The Rhetoric of Transparency
Instead, Rama had the brilliant idea that another architectural prestige project could save the day. And this is where the naive protagonist of our story, Dutch architect Winy Maas, enters our story. I have already related before how two previous projects of Maas, Tirana Rocks and Toptani Center, where taken from his hands and subverted under the construction-state logic of Albania – his vision transformed, interrupted, and, in case of the Toptani Center, considerably cheapened. But, like any magical thinker, he believes that his current “vision” of Tirana will somehow be realized how he imagines it, in spite of all concrete evidence to the contrary. Perhaps he feels secure that by designing a kitschy skyscraper for one of the country’s wealthiest oligarchs, he has also secured this more “creative” and “personal” project.
Today, as the opposition blocked the major transportation axes of the country, Winy Maas presented his new project for the Pyramid, to turn it into some type of open center for digital collaboration and innovation. His discourse was of course very close to Rama’s bombastic announcement of the Center for Openness and Dialogue, which in spite of its cutting-edge architecture and facilities, hosts a stunning spectrum of mediocrity. It is only suitable that Maas would hold his presentation inside this building, whose door and Parreno-designed marquee have been fortified with metal plates to prevent the opposition from entering it and using its openness to have a real “dialogue” with power.
The presentation was exclusively live-streamed on Edi Rama’s personal online TV channel, ERTV, whose funding remains until today completely obscure and most likely in violation of both the media law and the electoral code. Maas, of course, didn’t mind or simply didn’t care. What could possibly be wrong about announcing a monument to the former autocrat on the TV channel of the current one?
There were multiple aspects of the entire presentation we can comment on. For example, how the logic of Veliaj’s “kioskization” of Tirana will metastasize on top and around the Pyramid, with “light-weight structures,” “pavilions” that are “movable” and which still have to be “determined.” These would be the “workshop” spaces activated by Tirana’s youth, quite similar to the one near the artificial lake that now has been all but abandoned.
We can also talk about the constant emphasis on the purported “transparency” of the building, a design choice that is remarkably similar to Bjarke Ingels’s project for the National Theater, which also wanted to “expose” the inner workings of the theater to the people outside. The logic of Maas’s Pyramid is the same: to open it up, to make it transparent, again continuing a propagandistic discourse that originates with the Center for Openness and Dialogue. As I have pointed out before, this constant emphasis on the transparency of the architectural object in fact hides the thorough intransparency of the entire procurement procedure around it, the involvement of its official “client,” the Albanian-American Development Fund (AADF), and the construction companies that will be granted this prestigious project. In fact, Rama’s esthetics of transparency is designed to hide the massive corruption and money-laundering that his regime facilitates. In fact, both Maas’s MVRDV and the AADF refused to answer any of the questions asked by Exit regarding the specifics of the procurement procedure of this project, confirming that even the AADF’s own internal ethical guidelines cannot withstand the pressure of Rama’s delusions of grandeur.
I will perhaps spend another time taking apart the unbearably bland word salad thrown at the audience in the COD by AADF Board of Trustees chairman Michael Granoff, in which he seemed to think that in order to implement an educational program in Albania you first need to hire a starchitect and do a multimillion-euro make-over of a communist building. Perhaps he could have just spent his money on actual teachers and classroom facilities, rather than on a giant, glass-paneled triple garage door. The ways of a private equity fund such as the one Granoff is CEO of, are often as vacuous as they are destructive. Leave it to an American to speak about “revolutionary change” when standing in front of a monument to a communist dictator!
This brings us to my final, and perhaps most revealing point. In his presentation, Maas explained the different stages of the project. This is how he explained the second stage:
“Then the next stage is very important: We want to build on top of it. We have the marble stones and then we would take concrete – very nice concrete, anti-slip – on every beam you make stairs.”
This is perhaps the most iconic and telling aspect of the entire project: covering the marble (most of which was already removed by the Berisha government) with concrete, the material that is perhaps most associated with the political tenures of Edi Rama and Erion Veliaj, whose many clientelist construction companies have suffocated Tirana in it. It is amusing that Maas specifies that the concrete would be “very nice, anti-slip,” as if he is aware of the sin he is committing by encasing a marble building in concrete. This act is literally an act of burying the past, of entombing it in eternal greyness.
Perhaps we could take this interpretation one step further: The renovation of the Pyramid proposed by Maas is the perfect metaphor for Rama’s politics: a politics that is as transparent as concrete, which buries the past (including his own past as an offspring of the communist party elite) by the schizoid layering of facade upon facade upon facade. If it were up to Rama, he would gladly cover every single communist building in Tirana in concrete – just to forget his own past.
With a blissful smile on his face, Maas then asks us to imagine to climb these very nice, anti-slip concrete stairs and arrive at the top: “You are the hero of the environment, with the star, and you are yourself the star.” Can you feel it already?