Protests erupt over historic theater demolition and BIG’s replacement in Albanian capital

In Brief

Protests erupt over historic theater demolition and BIG’s replacement in Albanian capital

It was first announced that the Albanian National Theatre, a 1939 Tirana landmark and cherished venue among Albanian artists and intellectuals, would be unceremoniously razed and replaced with a new cultural venue in 2018. Pushback to the decision has been nothing short of heated. (Leeturtle/Wikimedia Commons

Fueled by existing civil unrest, heated protests involving clashes with the police—and at least one high-profile arrest—have erupted in the Albanian capital of Tirana after officials proceeded with the planned demolition of the National Theatre of Albania (Teatri Kombëtar). The in-disrepair but culturally revered landmark was completed in 1939 during the Italian occupation. The ongoing protests, which initially involved “a few thousand people” according to the Associated Press, were held near the Interior Ministry, and in defiance of the country’s lockdown orders during the coronavirus pandemic.

Added to European conservation group Europa Nostra’s 7 Most Endangered list this past March, the building’s fate has been murky since 2018 when authorities announced in 2018 that the historic theater would be razed and replaced with a new, roughly $33 million theater and cultural complex designed by Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG). Despite ongoing efforts from a large faction of artists, activists, intellectuals, conservationists, governmental opposition leaders and supporters, and others to preserve and restore the building, Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama, a former mayor of Tirana, ordered the demolition to proceed so that work on the BIG project could commence. A definite start date, however, has not been established due to funding conflicts.

Per Reuters, demolition work at the site started on May 17 after authorities began “dragging away two dozen actors and activists protecting the site, drawing a large crowd chanting ‘shame’ and ‘dictatorship.’”  As of earlier this week, the protests have reportedly yielded 37 arrests. One police officer was hospitalized following a skirmish with activists, who claim that authorities have been employing “unjustified violence and verbal abuse” to control the crowds. As reported by Reuters, authorities have disputed any claims of aggressive action on the part of the police.

illustration of a planned cultural center in albania, replacing the National Theatre of Albania
A rendering of BIG’s bow-tie-shaped cultural center to replace the just-razed National Theatre of Albania. (Courtesy BIG)

“This is no longer about the theatre’s demolition but the downfall of democracy and freedom. We are in a dictatorship,” Reuters reported one member of the Alliance to Protect the Theatre, the organization leading the charge against the demolition, as saying in a Facebook video.

Now that the theater has been demolished, protestors are calling for current mayor Erion Veliaj to resign and for the Albanian people to start a civil disobedience campaign until Rama’s center-left government is overthrown, according to the Associated Press. The opposition party, the center-right Democratic Party, has referred to the demolition as a “macabre crime and flagrant violation of the constitution and the law.”