With the Opposition Under Curfew, Albania Demolishes its National Theatre5 min read
The National Theatre of Albania was an essential part of the architectural landscape of Tirana. The Italian architect Giulo Berte, who had designed other prominent public buildings in Tirana, built the theater between 1938 and 1940, about two years before Italy invaded Albania during the Second World War. The theater was designed to arouse curiosity. The exterior of the building was made of a material called populit, an unusual blend of poplar fibers and algae, among other elements. Architecturally, it definitely possessed typical aspects of Mussolinian Architecture with squared shapes, symmetrical features, and little decorative ornaments. But the history and context of the building go well beyond the physical structure; it is imbued with the intangible heritage of having been the home of the modern Albanian theatrical tradition.
In its early days, the National Theatre produced mostly Albanian works, making it a central venue for many important conversations about national and cultural identity. In 1945, the Savoy Theatre, as it was then called, raised its curtain for the first time with a play called Topaze, originally written by French playwright Marcel Pagnol in 1928. It was directed by pioneering Albanian playwright Sokrat Mio, who is now known for his patriotic sketches. Also in that era, the actor-director Pandi Stillu interpreted plays by the Soviet writer Aleksej Arbuzov, among other Russian authors in vogue at the time.
Throughout the 1950s and 60s, the Albanian theatrical scene embraced the standards of socialist realism to tell stories of political and military resistance. The theater was renamed Teatri Popullor, The Popular Theater. It also served as an ideological instrument for anti-religious narratives, like Kolë Jakova’s play Toka jonë, (Our Land). It also housed stories of rural emancipation and condemnation of the wealthy, like Spiro Çomora’s 1960s Karnavalet e Korçës (The Carnivals of Korça) and Loni Papa’s Cuca e maleve (The Mountain Lass), which later materialized in some of the Party’s campaign materials for women’s emancipation. All were produced in Tirana.
The 1970s would be a period of intense re-direction when foreign influence was purged. In this time, the popular 1960s playwright Fadil Paçrami was sentenced to prison for anti-communist behaviour.
In 2018, Prime Minister Edi Rama launched a national program to develop the capital city as part of the urban revival portfolio he had been implementing since 2000, when he was the mayor of Tirana. Rama’s government claimed that it did not have the budget to preserve the National Theatre, and proposed demolishing it and building a new one elsewhere in the city. What had started as a discussion about a theatre turned into a highly politicized debate with two sides clearly drawn along party lines. The opponents of Rama’s new plans, who counted among their ranks local artists, students, journalists and members of the Albanian diaspora and intelligentsia, stood also broadly in opposition to Rama’s other policies, like his controversial media laws.
Hope for the theater burned brighter in February this year, after a private agency hired by the government failed to find evidence that the building violated safety standards and needed to come down. When the local construction institute eventually did determine that the building was in need of demolition, it was quickly sued by The Alliance for the Protection of the National Theater. President of Albania Ilir Meta, a member of the Independent Party and a political opponent of PM Rama, also filed a case with the constitutional court claiming the theatre was a part of Albania’s national heritage. A month later, the European Heritage organization Europa Nostra listed the theatre as one of the 7 most endangered sites in Europe.
Despite all their work, on 14 May, Erion Veliaj, the mayor of Tirana, announced the theatre’s imminent demolition. Neither of the court cases had been resolved. In the early hours of 17 May, while most Albanians stayed inside to fight Rama’s “war on coronavirus,” demolition crews tore down the National Theatre of Albania.
It is easy to see the demolition of the National Theatre as an abuse of power. Since mid-March, the government has severely limited movement to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Locals were not informed of the exact date of the demolition. Police officers blocked the area from protestors. Some demonstrators arrived after the building had been torn down and soon clashed with police officers, leading to arrests and a scene of violence . Opposition candidate Lulzim Basha called for national protests and promised that his party would rebuild the theatre.
In Albania, political dialogue has gone stale. The country needs bi-partisan reforms and fair elections. The European Union, which has put Albania on its agenda for future enlargement, has emphasised the need for democratic transformations and rule of law.
Beyond matters of aesthetic and architecture, the soul of the National Theatre of Albania seemed as important as the material roots of its edification. To those who refuse to see demolition as its final act, one that ultimately impairs it from its historical host, the theatre now takes on a political meaning. The theatrical tradition in Albania goes back to the Greco-Roman theatres in Butrint, Appolonia, and Byllis. In its architectural exceptionality, the National Theatre symbolized the modern tradition; now, it also represents the theatralization of politics. The destruction of European heritage in Albania’s path to join the European Union constitutes a tragic irony that does little promise a joyful denouement.