An eternal 1st of May

Devising large scale public space is a hazardous undertaking, if not an implausible one. All ‘successful’ examples seem to share but one specific propensity: their capacity for palimpsest behaviour and symbolic impurity.

Somewhere in the summer of 2008 an unrelentless palimpsest was stumbled upon, a shapeless ground called ‘Skanderbeg Square’, Tirana’s most allegorical and permissive central space spreading over more than 170.000m2.

Apart from being the city’s prime bone of contention for politics and religion Skanderbeg’s main auspicious merrit has been its performance as a gargantuan roundabout, a lawless playground held together by a static cloud of unfiltered diesel fumes.

Only one day a year – the 1st of May – wheels and other burdens get banned from the Square and its adjacent boulevards, turning the center into an endless ground for some serious Italian-inspired strolling, a piacere. A momentous display of vast humming masses without ideological ballast or lingering frays.

What if this 1st of May placidity could be perenially at hand? How soothing or onerous would this be in a city like Tirana? Presumably it was this exact trope pondering Edi Rama in the summer of 2008 whilst preparing to put Skanderbeg up for architectural competition. Could the possibility for an eternal 1st of May be a gift to citizens? And how to avoid meaningless sentimentality or a misguiding sense of sehnsucht?

Instead of publishing a typical architectural brief Rama sent out a letter. A clarion call for help, deeply personal and upfront. By doing so the Mayor – almost uneventfully – reinvented the concept of ‘the architectural brief’, freeing it from its typical and all too administrative claims. Some fragments of the letter:

(…) A competition for Skanderbeg Square. Time has come. I have repeatedly hesitated because this square gives rise to great dilemmas every time we brood over working on it. (…) A space where manifestations beyond comparison were organized to hail the occupiers, and then see the liberators covered in flowers; to mourn Stalin and welcome Khrushchev; to demonstrate boundless love for Chou en-lai at the time of the great love affair with China, and to vent ideological hatred against the citizens that stormed the foreign embassies after the fall of the Berlin Wall (…) To mourn the death of the dicatator Enver Hoxha in April 1985 and to drag down his monument in February 1991 (…) These are some of the questions, as yet unanswered, concerning this square where the history of the Albanian state – not yet 100 years old – was written. In order to find the answers we need assitance from those that look at the Skanderbeg Square from the outside, whose eyes have not been bloodied by the history we have lived through and are trained in dealing with such conceptual battles, free of prejudices towards the heritage of the past and with no fear of what the future may give birth to in this challenging space. (…) Since the square became hostage to dilemmas and cars, a space unfit for living and in constant degradation, one could not but be impressed by the silhouettes of citizens, the elderly, families and young children, who when seating along the edge of the square in the afternoons at the end of winter, resemble spectators that have been waiting for seventeen years for something to happen to the emptiness of the arena. What will happen?

Reading this ‘brief’ you couldn’t help feeling humbled, challenged and focussed. Of course ‘moving from words to buildings is one of the great challenges of architecture’, as succinctly stated by Denise Scott Brown.¹ The eternal struggle of creating the physical from the verbal.

The ten years following the competition’s entry endorsed Scott Brown’s words in a more than ominous way: the eternal ‘yes but no’, unrivaled political scramble, annuling the project, starting the project, then annuling the construction site halfway through, literally burrying the project for the sake of a new roundabout, excavating what was burried, building anew, …

Euphemistically speaking this decade of political upheaval has sharpened the ideas of what the square could and should do. And perhaps the most radical outcome of this coerced detour has been the abolishment of the singular and central idea of ‘the square’. Gradually the project became square, the free associative and exploded arena Rama was hinting at.

The square opened some two weeks ago with an abundant fest. The event made clear that Tirana has been offered a new abysmal scale, a surplus space opening up the palimpsest installed by fascism, communism, democracy and ecocide. Skanderbeg has resuscitated a forgotten and deprived res publica, with at its core the simple act of sauntering citizens. For now all is tranquil and harmonious, a piacere.

Peter Swinnen
July 7, 2017

[1] SCOTT BROWN D. Words about Architecture. Having Words. AA Words 4 (2009)