Painting the Past: Adaptive Reuse of Communist Architecture in Albania
Picture this: grim concrete edifices tower over pothole-riddled asphalt roads, irregular balconies and unstable expansions jutting out precariously unsupported into the air. Hundreds of thousands of grey mushroom-like bunkers sprawl across a once-pristine mountainous landscape, resembling ugly fungi proliferating after rainfall. The granite sculptures of fallen tyrants, their gazes contorted with spite, loom over public spaces and command undeserved respect.
This type of scenery has dominated formerly communist countries for decades, a daily reminder of the oppression of now-collapsed regimes. The brutalist and constructivist debris belies the civil progress that has been made since, both psychologically and physically. But the concrete and steel relics are notoriously difficult to demolish—and impede both urban development and efforts to move beyond the communist past.
Yet the survivors of communist repression are doing something nonetheless. The governments and people of formerly communist nations have embraced the concept of adaptive reuse: putting old, unused buildings to new purposes. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the Republic of Albania.
Walking down the repaved roads of colorful Tirana today, it is hard to imagine the brutality of Enver Hoxha’s 44-year Stalinist regime. Fashionable youths idly scroll through their iPhones under the shade of vibrant buildings, painted eclectically with rainbows, stripes, polka-dots and almost every pattern imaginable. The streets are lined with abstract monuments and interesting designs, best appreciated from a nearby café. Church bells ring and the ezan (the Muslim call to prayer) is heard where previously prohibited under penalty of internment. Yet despite this felicitous façade, the scars of communist repression are still not completely healed.
Tirana’s famous colored apartment blocks were originally grey slabs of mass housing constructed under Hoxha. Just years ago, Tirana was a miserable spectacle. Grey walls of housing and uninspired public architecture divided the city into a senseless concrete maze. Today, mostly due to the efforts of former mayor (now prime minister) Edi Rama, the city’s communist architecture has been reborn.
Educated abroad, Rama was elected mayor in October of 2000 and found a city riddled by public disorder, institutional failure, and aesthetic dereliction. In searching for a solution, Rama had to be crafty; lacking an adequate budget for the forbidding task ahead of him, he opted for an unorthodox solution—a brush and a bucket of paint. The results were far better than expected. Initially met with ridicule, Rama’s project strengthened local feelings of safety, rekindled civic spirit, recreated community and even decreased crime.
Rama’s initiative is certainly ingenious, and could be easily replicated by other local governments or civic groups in postcommunist countries. However, a layer of paint can only go so far: some relics of the past are immutable. Designed to immortalize the ideology which birthed them, communist monuments in Albania and abroad are notoriously difficult to adapt and reuse. Such is the Piramida in Tirana.
The Pyramid of Tirana is a strange, dilapidated structure at the heart of the city, originally built as a museum dedicated to Enver Hoxha. A tangible symbol of oppression, the Pyramid was first repurposed as an exhibition center, then as a NATO command center. Since then, the Pyramid has stood abandoned, attracting vandals, curious tourists, and a strange but widespread tradition of scaling its granite slopes to reach the peak: an act that, during communism, could have earned jail time.
Originally, the government of Albania was set on demolishing the Pyramid and using the site for a new Prime Ministry. However, popular opinion and partisan concerns curtailed that effort. The Pyramid symbolized oppression, obedience, and the strength of the state: to destroy it would be to whitewash history. Rather than forget, the government decided to readapt.
Currently, the Pyramid is undergoing an extensive refurbishment project which blends educational and social value with history and quirky tradition. Aiming to transform the site rather than destroy it, the government has contracted a socially-minded Dutch agency called MVRDV to redesign the monument. Their plan promises to transform the Pyramid into a museum commemorating the true legacy of communism while improving on the building’s aesthetics. The planned addition of built-in steps on the new building’s slopes is a skillful incorporation of postcommunist public tradition into meaningful design.
Yet by far the most peculiar adaptive reuse of authoritarian architecture is found outside the national capital. Amidst the scattered boulders and dense shrubbery of the Albanian countryside squat 750,000 hemispherical concrete bunkers—the remnants of Hoxha’s paranoid “bunkerization” project. Thinking that an American invasion of Albania was imminent, Hoxha wasted millions fortifying every inch of the nation while leaving his own people to starve. Today all but a few of these bunkers sit ruined and abandoned.
Albanian ingenuity, however, has found new use for a select few. Whereas most bunkers are forgotten, vandalized, or used as storage, some have been given a new life by entrepreneurially-minded locals like Keq Marku Djertoshan, who converted the largest of the “concrete mushrooms” on his land into a tattoo parlor.
Elsewhere in Albania, Hoxha’s bunkers, notoriously difficult to demolish, have been repurposed into art, planters, residences, barber shops, restaurants, and even hotels. Some are integrated into new architecture. Others are amended with extensions. The government has even followed suit by converting Albania’s largest bunkers into BunkArt, museums commemorating the hardships and victims of Stalinist tyranny in Albania.
This attitude towards the physical remnants of communism is not isolated to Albania. Across Eastern Europe and Russia, adaptive reuse of old Soviet architecture is a thriving initiative. In Bulgaria, a dilapidated indoor swimming pool in a former communist sports center has been repurposed into a trendy night club. In Russia, unused Soviet factory installations are converted into office spaces. Most dramatically, in Lithuania, pieces of the granite statues of former dictators have been collected and scattered amongst the brush of Grutas Park. The once formidable stone-carved visages of Lenin and Stalin now serve as stools for weary parkgoers and scaffolds for ivy and moss.
In attempting to achieve utopia, communism spawned death and oppression. The physical and psychocultural scars it left behind are difficult to heal. Communist buildings and monuments are concrete daily reminders of the institutional corruption and nepotistic oligarchy that have been the legacy of communism in many postcommunist states. Although the adaptive reuse of these buildings is only a small part of the transition process, it is important nonetheless. Without physical change, there cannot be abstract change. The repurposing of these grim sentinels is a way to protest and counteract the atrocities of communism while refusing to forget the oppressive past.