Albania – Fierce debates continue over the replacement of a landmark national theater building in the center of Tirana

The old building of Albania's Italian designed National Theatre at Tirana's main square
The old building of Albania's Italian designed National Theatre at Tirana's main square

Tirana, Albania | July 25 (Tirana Echo) – Albanian actors remain highly divided over the replacement of an landmark building of the national theater, as a number of renowned artists sign a petition in favor of a new theater instead of the old disputed one, with several others refusing to be part of it.

The country’s President Ilir Meta is expected this week to express his official opinion on whether he will decree a controversial law recently passed by Albania’s parliament, which paves the way for the destruction of the old building.

Several known artists such as Robert Ndrenika, Luftar Paja, Alfred Trebicka, Leka Bungo, Albert Minga, Arben Derhemi and Zamira Kita have signed petition calling on Albania’s highest authorities as well as on the EU and OSCE Presences in Tirana to build new theater as soon as possible.

We actors, producers and representatives of performing arts stand for the building of a new modern and contemporary national theatre which would serve the entire community and art lovers, without touching any existing cm of the existing property.” – says the petition sent to the President, Prime Minister, Speaker of Parliament, Mayor of Tirana and bizarrely copied to the EU and OSCE presences in Tirana which have stayed out of the scorching debates.

Other renowned actors who were allegedly part of a previous petition such as Viktor Zhusti, Petrit Malaj, Kastriot Çaushi, Elia Zaharia, Eva Alikaj and Pëllumb Kulla have stayed out of the latest initiative, confirming huge divisions among the community of artists in Albania.

The move has angered civil society activists who have engaged in a several week marathon style protest at the old theatre’s premises and has added further fuel to several months of a vicious stand-off between those in favor of preserving the old building and the government.

The petition is seen by many activists and artists as a betrayal to the performing arts community and accuse the government of having bought off the artists who signed it.

They argue that the old building which was erected by Italian architects in 1939, is hugely important to Tirana’s historical memory and as such it should be preserved and restored to its original shape and glory.

Speaking for Tirana Echo, Alida Karakushi one of the organizers of the protests at the theater’s ground said that those in power are using division and propaganda to manipulate public opinion in order to sideline attention from the real deal.

Standing across the 54 signatures in favor of destroying the theater, there are 150 artists, 130 architects, 5000 signatures of Tirana’s residents and over 300 articles which elaborate in depth over why the theater should not be destroyed. Our alliance will continue protesting as usual in front of the theater every night, and our actions could escalate if the law is not withdrawn.” – said Karakushi.

Other critics, including opposition repreentatives have said that out of the 54 signatures, there are also public administration employees who have nothing to do with performing arts.

The controversial case of the national theater building has dominated Albania’s news for the past few months through a fierce standoff between a group of civil society activists and artists demanding Edi Rama’s government to abandon plans to build a new modern theater at the place of the old historic building.

Activists accuse the government of privatizing the centrally located theatre’s plot of land in favor of a building contractor who plans to erect several skyscrapers behind the new modern theatre building.

According to critics, the project which has now been voted in parliament and awaits approval by the president, aims to divide over 7000 square meters centrally located in Tirana through a public-private partnership by leaving 3000 sq m for a new modern theatre and cunningly granting 4000 sq m to a private building contractor who plans to erect properties in the area.

The government denies allegations and says the PPP is needed in order to finance a modern and contemporary building for the new theatre as the old one is out of any acceptable standards of safety and performances.

I am determined to move forward with the Theatre project. I have just been informed that all artists have signed a petition in favor,” – said Tirana’s popular and debatable mayor Erion Veliaj yesterday during a municipal council meeting which was boycotted by opposition councilors.

As the public debate has largely been dominated by confusion and lack of transparency over what exactly is planned over the plot of land currently hosting the old theater, earlier in the year several portals announced that Danish architect Bjarke Ingels was selected to design the new National Theater of Albania.

For Ingels, who’s the founder and creative partner of the internationally renowned firm Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG), the news comes on the heels of several recent high-profile commissions (including New York’s Two World Trade Center). The Danish innovator will be the first high-profile architect to design a public structure in the country, if the destruction of the old building goes ahead as planned by the ruling socialist government.

The stand-off is expected to continue as parliament is in recess until September.

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