Tirana's historic building stock is disappearing. Overnight, listed buildings lose their status and are demolished the next day. Last year, at least ten villas were levelled to the ground. In their place, multi-story residential and commercial buildings are being built by private investors. This development does not benefit the city's residents.
100 Years of History
Most of these villas were built after Tirana was declared the capital in 1920, reports Doriana Musaj. The 37-year-old urban planner teaches at Polis University in Tirana. Because of King Ahmet Zogu's close ties to Italy, many of the villas were designed by Italian architects. Tirana also owes its main axis and part of its monumental architecture to them. Officials and wealthy merchants settled in their villas. Today, nothing reminds us that King Zogu also lived in one of them. Villa Njuma (1924) hides behind a high wall, surrounded by eight-story buildings.
Together with the journalists of Citizen Channel, Doriana has been researching the city's historical heritage for months, visiting the villas and talking to residents. They have compiled the results on the “Urban Stories” website, where the villas can be explored via an interactive map. There is information about the buildings as well as videos in which residents tell their stories. The project is a reaction to the lack of transparency on the part of the responsible authorities, who leave Tirana's citizens in the dark about what is happening to the city's cultural heritage, explains journalist Lorin Kadiu. He was inspired by the view from the balcony of his office. From the fifth floor, the city's rapid transformation is hard to miss.
In the Interview on Urban Stories, the owner of Villa Njuma tells how his grandfather was asked to have an audience with the king after the house was completed, and then left it to him for a few years. As he tells the story of the house, he gently climbs the wooden staircase and leads the journalists to the balcony. Formerly, the view stretched all the way to the mosque on Skanderbeg Square in the center of the city. Today, the residential towers of recent decades block the view.
After the Communist Party took power in 1944, Enver Hoxha established a secret service rule, filled prison camps and isolated the country from the outside world. Profiteers of the royal dictatorship, those who lived in Tirana's villas, were the first to fall victim to the regime. Some were expelled, expropriated, arrested or executed. Others were forced to take in foreign families. Frequently, the new residents were tasked with spying on the homeowners. What was talked about at home? What books were read? Forced tenants also lived in Villa Njuma until the 1960s.
Meanwhile, the Hoxha regime designed the city on a socialist model. Regulation was not limited to public spaces. The dictator's long arm reached into the living rooms. After Albania was declared an atheist state in 1967, party soldiers went door to door collecting sacred objects. The mobility of citizens was also subject to strict control; one's place of residence could not be freely chosen.
Decades of top-down planning were followed by a period of anarchy. With the fall of communism in 1991, a rural exodus began. The migration was a reaction to the newfound freedom of movement and the problematic living conditions in the rural areas. With the hope of a better future, tens of thousands made their way to the capital. By 2001, more than half of the population had left their original place of residence. Once in Tirana, they occupied open spaces or vacant villas as well as the disused industrial sites on the outskirts of the city. Even green spaces and parks were repurposed on their own initiative. Informal living became a mass phenomenon. At that time, there was no thought of preserving historical monuments, such that entire neighborhoods were structurally transformed within a few years.
The villas that survived this period tell a hundred years of history. They bear witness to the urbanization of Tirana, European architectural history, decades of repression and the chaos of the transformation phase. The one hundredth capital year would have been an opportunity to come to terms with its own past. Instead, the city demolished potential places of remembrance.
Due to Hoxha's expropriation policy and the informal urban development of recent decades, the legal status of many properties and buildings is unclear today. For some villas, this means that they fall into disrepair while their potential owners are engaged in years of litigation. In the end, the parties often opt for sale instead of high redevelopment costs.
Whether an object is listed seems to have nothing to do with the condition of the building. It is true that the criteria according to which the status is granted or revoked usually remain unclear - without explanation, monuments disappear from the list. But time and again it seems that the authorities use the status as an instrument for land speculation. This fits into the prime minister's neoliberal agenda. For years, the government has relied on public-private partnerships in all economic sectors, which are usually awarded in opaque procedures in favor of private interests. Tirana's urban development policy objectives are also oriented toward profit maximization in the real estate sector.
Tirana's current mayor, Erion Veliaj, is relying on star architects and city marketing for this purpose. Large projects are mainly awarded to foreign offices. Ever since, Tirana has appeared in glossy magazines and foreign architectural journals. He successfully stages the image of a people-friendly city, yet Tirana has a massive environmental problem. In the ranking of countries with the most pollution-related deaths in Europe, Albania ranks second. Air pollution from traffic and construction sites in the capital is also to blame.
Doriana describes the fact that foreign architects are designing the city as a “colonial process”. Albanian architects have as little right to co-determination as the city's residents. There are hardly any participation procedures or hearings, and citizens are rarely consulted on building projects.
The direct consequences are displacement and increasing privatization of public spaces. Civil society actors no longer find a place in Tirana. The LOGU social center, a meeting place for the student movement, will soon have to move for a third time because the current building is to make way for a residential tower. “We are losing our space to developers. The rich are robbing our land,” formulates activist Nebih Bushaj. Along with the villas, potential emancipation spaces are also disappearing. At the same time, rising rents are forcing students out of the center. This also makes urban movements like the student protest more difficult in the long term.
The development also harms those who can stay. This is because infrastructural development has not been able to keep up with the rapid urban growth of recent decades. At the end of the communist era, Tirana had 245.000 inhabitants, ten years later already 341.000 and today about one million. The subsequent installation of sewage systems, electricity and transport is proving difficult, and some households only have running water for a few hours during the summer months. Increasing density with multi-story residential buildings is likely to put additional strain on the infrastructure.
The November 2019 earthquake revealed the extent of the structural confinement. No one could feel safe in the canyons of buildings. In the absence of open spaces, people left the city and slept in their cars in the parking lots of shopping malls or on the emergency lane of the highway.
Many residents can no longer identify themselves with the city. “I remember a Tirana that smelled of orange trees,” says activist Gresa Hasa. “But I can't revive visual memories because the places have been taken from me. I can no longer find the traces of my childhood. The city has turned into a concrete monster from which I feel increasingly alienated.”
Yet construction continues unceasingly. Anyone walking across Skanderbeg Square these days is likely to spot at least one construction crane in every direction. The permanent state of construction is supposed to suggest an upswing and generate foreign direct investment. Thereby, it is completely unclear for whom construction is actually taking place here. The influx has slowed down in the meantime, so that many new buildings remain unoccupied. If you take a walk through Tirana at nightfall, you will find blocks of flats without a single light on. At the same time, Albania's total population is steadily declining: From 3.87 million in 1991 to 2.87 million in 2020. As a result, accusations are voiced repeatedly that the money comes from drug trafficking and that the construction projects serve to launder money.
Only recently, Albanian media published the transcripts of telephone recordings from the investigations of Italian authorities against the criminal group “Ndrangheta”. It is considered the most powerful mafia organization in Europe, is said to dominate the cocaine trade and to have infiltrated several sectors of the economy. In one of the recorded conversations, alleged clan members express their interest in investing in the Albanian construction industry. A businessman close to Prime Minister Rama and Mayor Veliaj is said to be helping. While both deny involvement, local media have been reporting for years on the group's alleged links to Albanian politicians.
Increasingly, protests are rising against the authoritarian decision-making and lack of transparency. Activists are demanding their right to design and are resisting the construction projects. The protest against the demolition of the National Theater, which is to be replaced by a shopping mall, became known far beyond the country's borders. Actors and activists occupied the building for months.
But the aggressive construction does not tolerate any resistance. When the corona virus reached Albania, the government repeatedly imposed curfews. After each lockdown, the city showed new gaps. While no one was allowed to leave the house, the government had the villas torn down. “Five of them in two weeks,” Lorin reports. “And at the end, the National Theater as a grad finale. After that, the curfew was lifted and we were allowed to go out and see what was left of the city.”
 EEA: Health environment, healthy lives: how the environment influences health and well-being in Europe, EEA Report No 21/2019, URL: https://www.eea.europa.eu/publications/healthy-environment-healthy-lives, 22.12.2020.
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 Oranews: Ekskluzive/ Mafia italiane në Tiranë?! Ora News zbardh përgjimet, biseda për pallate e tendera në shëndetësi, 22.01.2021, URL: https://www.oranews.tv/ekskluzive-mafia-italiane-ne-tirane-ora-news-zbardh-pergjimet-biseda-per-pallate-e-tendera-ne-shendetesi/, 29.01.2021.