Why are there no more architecture competitions in Tirana? All the noise over the National Theater – heavily discussed but still a mystery to the public – seems to be dying down. Artists, both young and old, also have stated that they actually seem to like the new project for the Theater, intended to be built where the current Theater now stands, after looking at it during their meetings either with the Minister of Culture or Tirana’s mayor.
Rumor has it, the New National Theater will be designed by a Danish architect calles Bjarke Ingels. What, one wonders, happened to the international architecture competitions so loved by Edi Rama, when he was the mayor of Tirana? How come these competitions aren’t organized anymore, and, instead, projects are directly awarded to those architects closest to the Prime Minister’s heart?
Let us be clear: we are not speaking here of bypassing a tedious bureaucratic step. Even though, however tedious, bureaucratic steps mustn’t be avoided as they are, after all, legal obligations. Here, we speak of an extraordinary filter, an element of public transparence, often times an institution – the competition – that, via its authority, contributes directly in the protection, consolidation and advancement of public interests in a city in urgent need of public spaces and institutions.
When Rama was mayor of Tirana, he organized several international competitions for every key project he planned to implement. A competition was held for the City Center, the Plaza Towers, the Tower across from the Orthodox Cathedral, the Eyes of Tirana Tower, Toptani Center, the Ambasador 3 Towers, Skënderbeg Square, the Namazgja Mosque (won by Bjarke Ingels), a plan that was never realized, and the Artificial Lake Dam area. In contrast, the ruling government of the time organized a single competition for the New Parliament Building on the site of the Pyramid.
In the time of the competitions, it was said that Rama dreamed of a Tirana transformed into a tourist destination renowned for its modern architecture. Foreign architects, some of them even well-known, and international juries were used by Rama the Mayor to present his visions of these projects to the public, the media, and interested parties.
All of a sudden, Rama the Prime Minister has abandoned competitions and now projects are handed directly to those same architects that once were so involved in the competitions of Rama the Mayor. It must be said that, even then, these architects merely took turns at switching places: at times sitting on the jury, at times playing at competing, and that is how they divided the trophies.
But, instead of being improved, the institution of the competition seems to have been erased entirely. At least for now. It’s like saying: since the Albanian courts and justice system are problematic, it is better to get rid of them entirely and let a handful of elected judges and the Prime Minister deliver judgement.
Competitions have been forgotten because they are bothersome and not always allow for the winning project to be awarded to the architect the patron has in mind. In the case of the Theater, the patron being, of course, the Ministry, the Municipality and the Prime Minister. Yet, what guarantees the quality of the winning project? Who makes sure that Bjarke Ingels’s project will be appropriate for Tirana, rather than another project touted as “fantastic” by the Prime Minister’s people? Bjarke Ingels would have had to compete for such a project if we were talking about Croatia, Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia, not to mention France, Germany, Spain, Italy, etc. He would, therefore, have to work hard for his proposal to be convincing to the jury and the public.
In the absence of a competition, Ingels’s project need only satisfy the few courtiers the Prime Minister surrounds himself with. This handful of people, who have usurped the right of public judgment on everything, are the ones that lead the majority. This is not a democracy, but an oligarchy. The disappearance of the competition is actually a good indicator of what Rama meant when he said he wanted to “selling the baking tray for scrap”. The tray has been melted down and recast as a royal scepter.
Furthermore, the disappearance of the architecture competition must be seen as a cautionary tale when it comes to the much-touted vetting process. Words heard everywhere today, because they fit the interests of the Prime Minister and his handful of oligarchs, might not be heard again tomorrow.
Justice figureheads propped up by these oligarchs will be powerful enough to make the public bow to them. The National Theater project, elected with no competition, is the result of a process of the concentration of power in the hands of a few people loyal to and trusted by the Prime Minister.
It is a nice metaphor for what is happening to public interests in the hands of those in power: ignored when it can be, and deformed to protect private interest, when ignoring is no longer an option. In the case of the Theater, public interests were ignored resulting in a project and an architect favored by Rama. The public is left with the bill.