I once vowed to keep this blog free from opinions that could be construed as political, but there is one pertinent issue that has really grabbed my attention. Now before you all decry me as a political puppet, or as being paid by whichever political party or figure you think I am agreeing with, stop and actually take in what I am writing. I am not, have never been, and never will be affiliated with any political party in this country, but as far as I am concerned, this is an issue that transcends political agenda. To me, this is an issue that represents a possible precedent that if set, will trigger a chain of events that will have a devastating impact on the rich cultural tapestry of this fine country. As a writer, a creative, an Albaniophile, and a lover of art, history, and heritage, I feel it is my duty as an individual to stand up and have my say.
The topic of my ire is the issue of the National Theatre located in the centre of Tirana. For those that do not know, the National Theatre is a beautiful old building located a stone’s throw from the Bashkia and Toptani Centre. Set in the middle of a pedestrianised plaza and surrounded by stunning, brightly coloured Italian colonial-style buildings, with Bunkart 2 nestled in the middle, the theatre is a landmark building; the subject of many Instagram shots, a tourist attraction, and an important part of Albania’s artistic heritage.
Designed by Giulio Berte, and built between 1938- 1939, Teatri Kombetare has served as the epicentre of the Albanian theatre scene for almost 80 years. During this time its boards have been trodden by the countries finest actors acting in both the country’s and the world’s finest plays, all whilst being overseen by Albania’s best theatre directors.
Yes, it was built by Italian invaders with blocks held by the cement of fascist propaganda, and yes, over the years it was a place favoured by communists, dictators, and their minions, but it was also a place where history was made, and most importantly it is the place where the art and theatre scene of today came from.
In 2008, some non-technical research was undertaken by the Bari Polytechnic institute with regards to the prefabricated material that was used to build it. This cement/poplar fibre/algae mix was suddenly deemed unsafe and this combined with years of sub-standard maintenance and above-standard neglect meant that the building was unusable and a risk to public safety. Then a further technical assessment was undertaken by The Institute of Construction (a state institution) who were able to declare in just 14 days that the theatre was quite literally on the verge of collapse. I mean, the fact that it withstood a quick succession of earthquakes, including the biggest one in the theatre’s history and still stands unscathed is of little consequence- it has been deemed unsafe and that is that. The supposed state of its trembling structure, combined with the presence of asbestos (not a valid reason for demolition) meant that its demolition seemed to be the only option.
Then, on February 8th, a chain of events was set into motion that surpassed levels of efficiency that would make Nordic countries jealous.
In just a couple of weeks, the theatre and the land it stood on was ordered to be released, sparking suspicion that it was earmarked for development. Then an unsolicited proposal for a new theatre and a block of commercial buildings on the premises was submitted to the Municipality along with formal government plans to enter into a Private Public Partnership for the construction of the new theatre with the same company proposing the project.
The Government then submitted a draft law that would allow Fusha LTC (the company that tendered their unsolicited proposal) the sole right to the National Theatre area whilst giving the government itself the right to negotiate the concession contract on behalf of the public.
So, in just three weeks the project went from unsolicited proposal to being ready to go. During this time and subsequent months, hundreds of pages of documents were created, research was conducted, studies are done, consultations given- a seriously impressive administrative feat. What was even better was the fact that the Ministry of Culture was able to set up a working group for the evaluation proposal, review it, assess it, AND create a six-page report stating it was a super idea, all on the same day.
The subsequent draft bill was approved by the Council of Ministers before being approved by parliament just a week later, in the middle of ongoing protests. The decision now lies in the hands of President Ilir Meta who has promised the public that he “will not be affected by any external factors”. I wait with baited breath for the outcome.
The whole thing just stinks- unsolicited proposals, discrepancies in numbers, biased reports, shrinking expanses of public land, the creation of new laws at the speed of light so a project can be approved, levels of efficiency that surpass AI, and a handful of people to get exceptionally rich, whilst the rest of us get culturally poorer- it just doesn’t sit right with me.
There is a saying that culture and cultural heritage is what shapes us at the most fundamental level- we construct identities from stories, buildings, and objects that conjure up the past of our ancestors- for good and for bad. When we visit historic places we are walking in the footsteps of people that have all contributed in some way to our present as well as our future. Discarding these facts is the height of philistinism and cultural unsophistication, and it shows a willful ignorance towards the identity of the country and its people.
There is also another point that I think is being missed here. As far as I believe, we never really own the land we inhabit, we are mere custodians who are entrusted with preserving it for future generations. It is not our place, nor our right to erase parts of history to make way for self-serving, capitalist, steel monoliths that serve no benefit to the inhabitants of the city. No one is going to look back and say “I’m so happy that government demolished the old theatre”, quite the contrary, they are going to look back with regret and pity on the greed of a few that was a detriment to all.
Of course, I am aware that these plans include a new national theatre and whilst that is all very well and good, it is blatantly obvious that its inclusion is an afterthought designed to placate the public whilst someone gets rich from the immense profit to be had. I am all for building a new theatre but this does not mean that the old one should be demolished. Why not turn it into a museum? Or an educational centre? An exhibition space? Or something that is beneficial to everyone in society, not just the gilded few.
Whilst I am in favour of progress, I am completely and utterly against the demolition of a historical and cultural monument, and I am completely against the building of a horrific and by all accounts, potentially illegal development that will blight the landscape for generations to come. The rest of the world is scrambling to protect their history and to savour the memories of their past (good and bad) and for a country that seems so desperate to join the EU, demolishing cultural heritage against the will of the people is not going to do many favours.
Your culture and heritage are not for sale, and once it is gone, you cannot get it back.
First published in The Balkanista blog.