The historical structure of the city of Tirana – notes from the fieldwork

Text: Agata Rogos

Architecture never creates a neutral and harmless unity, but rather, produces an integral structure of political symbols, which were used in Albania as mechanisms for the de-Ottomanization of urban space, which in turn, were focused on the process of state-building and symbolic space. In the time of Ahmet Zogu, one might discuss the existence of two parallel city centers, which reflected symbolic changes in the Ottoman city structure. One marker of this iconographic transformation was the oriental clock-tower (Sahaat Kulla) and its surroundings, which in fascist urban planning had been marginalized, as Italian architects focused on new, modern, European city planning. In the successive communist narration another element of the “old” city structure disappeared – the old market place, which along with the clock tower and Et’hem Bey mosque constituted the most important elements of the oriental city structure. With modern city planning, the main emphasis was placed on the city’s main axis and Skënderbeg Square, which became a place for political rituals during the communist period.

The crucial changes of the urban structure came along with the proclamation of Albanian capital that was initiated in 1920, as provisional, and reasserted in 1925 as official decision of National Assembly. Even though other towns such as Shkodra, Durrës, Vlora or Korça were argued by some groups to be more appropriate for the capital, according to their historic, cultural or economic significance, it was Tirana that was eventually chosen as a main center. The choice was made according to two reasons: geographical position of the city – close to the port of Durrës and not immediately on the border and besides it was one of the few Albanian cities without foreign armies stationed there. Another advantage of choosing Tirana, as capital was its open plain surrounding that could meet the needs of new administrative and governmental buildings and common civic space serving for power rituals, manifestations and gatherings.

As in other south-eastern European post-Ottoman cities and capitals, also Tirana in the early 20th century was being transformed from the oriental city into modern and Europeanized city, which was a parallel process to the national movements of the late 19th and beginning of the 20th century and establishment of national states.

A significant change in the urban structure of Tirana was implemented with a development of the master plan by noted Italian architect Armando Brasini (1925) that expected the construction of a new center with administrative institutions, the parliament and the state government and foremost with a major open with a boulevard in a north-south direction dividing the new town from its other historical and spatial layers. Nevertheless Brasini’s plan was ambitious and most of it was never realized, but the north-south axis has remained central to all urban plans of the city.

The main urban development of Tirana came along with the proclamation of Albania as a ‘democratic, constitutional and heritable monarchy’ in 1928. Since the early 1930s the biggest effort of constructing Tirana’s urban structure was on creating the representative space including institutional edifices as it was designed in the project proposed by Brasini with the main north-south axis crowned with a monumental square that was named for Gjergj Katriot Skënderbeg. The references to symbolic continuation of power of Ahmet Zog I, who claimed to be a relative of Albanian prince suggested legitimacy of the Albanian nation-state. However project proposed by Brasini seemed to be far more monumental and failed to accommodate the old (oriental) city structure with Et’hem-bey mosque and the Clock Tower.

The regulatory plan dated on 1929-1930 revised the previous master plan by increasing the north-south boulevard up to the future stadium was expected to be built north of the old bazaar. The northern part of the boulevard up to Skënderbeg Square was named after King Zog I and was 40 meters wide, whereas the southern part was called the New Boulevard (later renamed as after Stalin).

Yet in 1942 on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of Albania’s independence, a new Freedom monument with a characteristic fascist style was erected in the main city square. In photographs discovered by Valter Gjoni (2012), one can see from a banner slogan “Rroftë Shqipnija e madhe. Rroftë populli” (Long live Great Albania. Long live the nation) that this monument was based on the idea of Great Albania. As a consequence, this image proves that the fascist regime in Albania was supportive of the act of liberation of Albania performed by Ismail Qemaili in Vlora (1912) and the incorporation of the Albanian territories along with Kosovo and Çamëria. Aesthetic transformations, in this case under the pressure of political and ideological changes, included marking characteristics of identity in the context of national ideology, which will be shown based on the example of a statue of Stalin, which stood on the main square of Tirana in 1951–1968.

In a manner parallel to every Soviet city, the capital of Albania and other smaller cities and towns in the country were constructed as artifacts of socialism based on the concentric structure of the main open public space with a symbol of/monument to the leader in its central position. This type of construction was intended to provide a location for political performances and rituals – actions that would consolidate the Party’s or leader’s authority. The space was defined by two important elements: constative (official) and performative (enacted), which in turn led to a distinction between the masses and the political elites.

General features of the new representation system implemented by Socialist-Realist aesthetics will be crucial also in Albanian context and will enable the overall understanding of the construction of New Space. It is essential to say that these systems of representation have reshaped the very nature of the planning profession. The new form of architecture and art was about to transmit or translate states ideas and prioritize the image of the leader and state apparatus. In a way Stalin, as a creator of the New Order, had begun to extend a homogenous structure over all cities, firstly in Soviet Union and later in other socialist republics of the Communist Block, which were being designed in a more or less parallel way. This kind of ideological and aesthetic constructs creating specified system of representation transposed Soviet Union and its fraternal states as a single land, characterized by the spatial unity, defined by aesthetic references and continuity over boundless territory. Thus, the new style clearly served to represent certain ideological model of power that used the landscape as a stage of projection of ideological constructs.

By analyzing different spatial structures of Socialist Realism it might be observed that cities were adopting the same functional model that was based on different societal units defined as residential quarters. Each one of them was designed to provide access for every resident to necessary services of social living. In the central part of the spatial structures – city center was created a kind of administrative, social and political hierarchy embodied with the most important institutions and with a very important element of the political discourse, which was the symbolic component constituted as an artifact (monument).

Another important feature in the new urban planning is openness and exposition to wide-angled light, creating the space for monumental design, with broad streets and a transparent communication system. That kind of planning imposed the images of the bright future that filled the everyday with a sense of socialism.

As can be seen two different city-planning models adjusted in Tirana – Fascist and Soviet – are very similar according to exposition of space and creation of a representative space. The new structure and new indicators of city planning and the perception of public space in general were implemented according to the Stalinist iconographic vision.

The Stalinist city that emerged on Albanian soil was built upon socio-material and political forces and was totally controlled by political actors, both internal and external. This could be easily referred to as a theatrical construct consisting of stage and audience, with state architects and state artists performing the function of deaf script-writers, caught between two different translations: the visuality of the text that was transmitted through the artifacts of socialism and the Soviet narrative of socialism – the constative and performative aspects of the space.