The Pyramid, Tirana: Do not forget me

The Pyramid  in Tirana, Albania, is a long loved building of mine, but it is now under threat. It was constructed in 1987 to celebrate Albania’s Communist dictator, Enver Hoxha, following his death. As an ancient symbol of immortality, The Pyramid was designed by Hoxha’s son-in-law, Klement Kolaneci and was to be a museum celebrating the dictator’s life. The concept of a pyramid as a physical and a historical form is, of course, common knowledge: the great Albanian author Ismail Kadare satirises this building, setting his novel The Pyramid[1] in Ancient Egypt where the constant construction of pyramids at massive economic and physical cost to the inhabitants of the nation meant that control was kept over the country and the people would never rise up against the rulers, therefore, in Kadare’s words, “the people, more easily dominated, must be kept in misery”[2].

At a time of increasing constraints on the availability of materials, when the mass of people were encountering extreme hardships and could no longer take the empty rhetoric spieled by the party, the luxury of this building was – and still is – stark for most Albanians, confronted with glass, steel and marble. Some may think the building trite, yet for a country crushed by totalitarianism, it is a wonder that this dynamic building was able to be built. Modernist in its essence, it is ironic that this was built to celebrate the life of a dictator who insisted upon Stalinist classicism in architecture.

Enver Hoxha’s disintegrating mausoleum: The Pyramid in 2011. (Author’s own photographs)

Although a pyramid is an obvious symbol for the mausoleum of a dictator, where the building fails symbolically, being sickeningly “scraped together on the back of poverty”[3], it succeeds architecturally, as an ultimate rejection of soviet classicism.

Now The Pyramid stands neglected, its once perfect surfaces cracked; its concrete shell is broken and covered with graffiti. Its transformation into a Cultural Centre in 1992 did not last and now the Democrat government wants to build the new parliament on the site, demolishing the building; an ideological and propagandist decision and a misplaced attempt at erasing the past. To fully erase the traces of communism in the built environment would mean destroying much of the country’s infrastructure and prominent architecture. It is true that this building exhibits “the ambiguous moralities of architecture”[4] but,

“Demolishing the pyramid may constitute an unconscious act of revenge, anachronistic and contradictory, involving a symbol of a past political condition that has, in the meantime, acquired a new value and is a symbol of the nation’s tortuous process of redemption and coming to maturity”[5].

The words “Do not forget me” are scrawled on the wall in front of The Pyramid; a thread of a reminder that this is a space of collective meaning and history whereby the architecture becomes a record of the past, regardless of its original purpose, and serves as a tool for remembrance. The use and meaning of The Pyramid is widely recognised in Albania and “according to a survey conducted by the country’s most powerful media group, 79% of public opinion is against the demolition of the pyramid”[6]. Even the UN has asked the government not to proceed with the bulldozer. The new ‘temple of democracy’ that the government wishes to build is to be named the ‘Open Parliament of Albania’ and is designed by the international architects Coop Himmelb(l)au.  Akin to the Norman Foster conceived Reichstag, the public will be able to view the parliament at work via a series of round walkways. According to Coop Himmelb(l)au the building is to represent the “fundamental democratic values of openness, transparency and public co-determination”[7]. However, Albanian politics has a long road to travel if it is to come close to embodying these values.

Albania is not the only country to deny its past. Following the fall of communism there was a rush to remodel and remake cities; to erase the traces of totalitarian symbols; of monuments and memorials. Consequently, Albania is covered with empty plinths from the past; the monuments removed from them long ago. The wall is gone and the names have changed – Leningrad has returned to Saint Petersburg and Qyteti Stalin to Kuçovë – but the histories still remain the same. You cannot deny the past when faced with the vast visual legacies of Europe’s cityscapes.


[1] Ismail Kadare, The Pyramid (New York: Arcade Publishing, 1996)

[2] Ismail Kadare, Albanian Spring: The Anatomy of Tyranny (London: Saqi Books, 1995), p. 29

[3] Francis Spufford, ‘Red Star Rising’, The Guardian Review, 7th August 2010, p. 2

[4] Elian Stefa and Giacomo Cantoni, ‘Beyond Narcissism’, Domus Web, 2 February 2011, <http://www.domusweb.it/en/architecture/beyond-narcissism/> [Accessed 19 December 2011]

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Rose Etherington, ‘Parliamentary Complex of the Republic of Albania by Coop Himmelb(l)au’, in De zeen Magazine, 1 April 2011, <http://www.dezeen.com/2011/04/01/parliamentary-complex-of-the-republic-of-albania-by-coop-himmelblau/> [Accessed 19 December 2011]

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