Despised dictator's 'scary' shrine becomes a bet on Albania's future

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Despised dictator's 'scary' shrine becomes a bet on Albania's future
The Tirana Pyramid, long a reminder of both a brutal regime and the decades of disappointments that followed, in Tirana, Albania on Feb. 1, 2023. The looming pyramid is now a symbol of a city desiring to be the high-tech “Tel Aviv of the Balkans.” (Sergey Ponomarev/The New York Times)

by Andrew Higgins

TIRANA.- Built in the 1980s to commemorate a dead tyrant in Pharaonic style, the concrete and glass pyramid in the center of Albania’s capital, Tirana, was falling apart by the time engineers and construction workers arrived to rescue it.

The windows were broken. Homeless people were sleeping in its cavernous hall, which was daubed with graffiti and stinking of urine. Empty bottles and syringes littered the floor, which was covered in polished marble when the pyramid — a shrine to Albania’s late communist dictator, Enver Hoxha — first opened in 1988, but had since been stripped bare by vandals and thieves.

“The place was a wreck,” Genci Golemi, the site engineer, recalled of his first visit. “Everything had been stolen.”

Now, after two years of reconstruction work, the building is a glistening temple to Albania’s ambitious hopes for the future.

For Tirana’s mayor, Erion Veliaj, the $22 million makeover of the pyramid points to how he imagines the capital — as “the Tel Aviv of the Balkans,” a high-tech hub offering jobs and promise to a country that was so impoverished and cut off from the modern world under Hoxha, who died in 1985, that typewriters and color TVs were banned.

“Instead of being a blast from the past, it will be blast off into the future,” the mayor said of the pyramid, brushing aside the fact that Albania is still one of Europe’s poorest countries and better known as a source of economic migrants than software engineers.

Still, after decades of failed grand plans for the pyramid, hope is running high. It is being repurposed as a space for classrooms, cafes and tech company offices, and is scheduled to open to the public later this year.

“Hoxha will be rolling in his grave to see his memorial turned into a celebration of capitalism, jobs and the future,” Veliaj said, standing atop the pyramid, which is about 70 feet tall, near a hole in the roof that used to be filled with a giant red star made of glass. The outline of the star is still visible in the concrete that housed it, a ghostly reminder of Albania’s four decades under brutal communist rule.

Many countries on Europe’s formerly communist eastern fringe have wrestled with the question of what to do with massive structures left over from a past most people would like to forget.

Winy Maas, the principal architect of MVRDV, a Dutch firm that led the redesign of the Tirana pyramid, said that dealing with structures erected to celebrate tyranny has always involved “difficult decisions” but added that no matter how baleful a building’s beginnings, demolition is “rarely a good option.”

He said he had been inspired by the reconstruction of the Reichstag in Berlin by British architect Norman Foster, who added a glass dome to a building long associated with Germany’s Nazi past and turned it into a light-filled symbol of the country’s modern democracy.

Albania was the last country in Europe to ditch communism, doing so in 1991 with a frenzy of attacks on statues of Hoxha, his memorial hall and everything he stood for.

But hopes of a new era of democratic prosperity quickly turned into yet more upheaval when a network of financial Ponzi schemes collapsed in 1997, setting off violent nationwide protests that pushed the country toward civil war.

Tempers eventually calmed, opening the way for Albania to apply to join the European Union in 2009, and win candidate status in 2014 for future entry to the bloc, which it has yet to join.

Throughout this turbulent journey, the Hoxha pyramid loomed over Tirana, slowly decaying and seemingly taunting each new Albanian government with its memories of a Stalinist system that few wanted to bring back but whose replacement had fed so much disappointment.

“The ghost of Hoxha was everywhere and terrifying for everyone,” recalled Frrok Cupi, a journalist who was appointed in 1991 to manage the pyramid, which was supposed to become a cultural center.

One of his first and most daunting tasks, Cupi said, was to somehow get rid of a 22-ton marble statue of the late dictator in the main hall. Its removal, he believed, offered the only hope of saving the pyramid from angry anti-communist mobs that wanted to destroy the whole building.

The statue was so big and heavy that moving it risked breaking the floor and bringing down the pyramid. The Italian Embassy proposed hoisting the statue out through the roof by helicopter. Others suggested cutting it to pieces with a special saw. In the end, Llesh Biba, a young theater director working as a carpenter at the pyramid, set upon Hoxha with a sledgehammer, bashing away with gusto at his head and body.

“It felt great to hit Hoxha,” Biba, now a sculptor, recalled in an interview in his Tirana studio. “Nobody else dared. They were all worried about saving their own skins.” After finishing his work, however, Biba checked into a hospital suffering serious lung problems from breathing in shards of marble and dust.

Biba’s health crisis established what became a long pattern of misfortune associated with a building that “seemed cursed,” according to Martin Mata, the co-head of the Albanian-American Investment Fund, which helped finance the reconstruction work.

With no money to keep the pyramid operating as a cultural center, authorities turned it into a rental property.

Albania’s first nightclub took space there in the early 1990s. The United States aid agency, USAID, a television station and Pepsi moved into office space in the basement, followed by NATO, which set up an office there during the 1999 war in neighboring Kosovo.

Over the years, the pyramid started falling apart, taken over by squatters and swarming with young people who used its sloping concrete outer walls as slides. Bold plans to give the structure a new purpose came and went, including a failed project promoted by Albania’s former prime minister, Sali Berisha, to turn the pyramid into a new national theater.

By 2010, the pyramid had become such an embarrassing symbol of failure that legislators demanded it be torn down and asked Austrian architects to come up with a plan to build a new parliament building on its land. That effort, too, fizzled.

The current renovation finally broke the streak of failure.

Driving the current effort is Tirana’s mayor, Veliaj, a close political ally of Albania’s prime minister for the past decade, Edi Rama, a former artist who has won plaudits, even from some political rivals, for shaking off the country’s reputation for chaos.

The mayor, 43, recalled visiting the pyramid as a schoolboy soon after it opened in 1988 as a lugubrious memorial to Hoxha. “It was like going to a scary funeral,” he said, describing how a floodlit red star in the roof “looked down on us all like the eye of Big Brother.”

Maas, the architect, said that in the renovation, he tried to “overcome the past, not destroy it” by preserving the pyramid’s basic structure while opening it up more to sunlight and modernizing the interior to purge it of associations with Albania’s grim past.

In a concession to the happy memories many Tirana residents have of sliding down the pyramid’s slopes, the new design includes a small area for sliding. Most of the outer walls, however, are now covered with steps so that visitors can walk to the top. There is also an elevator.

Not everyone likes the new design. Biba, who demolished Hoxha’s marble statue more than 30 years ago, scorned the reconstructed pyramid as a flashy public relations stunt by the prime minister.

But that is a minority view. Cupi, who, after his cultural center flopped, supported demands that the building be torn down, now praises the redesign as a sign that Albania can overcome its communist ghosts and post-communist demons.

“We all wanted to be part of the West but did not really know what this meant,” he said, “The pyramid has now been totally transformed and that gives me hope for this country.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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