Work kicks off at MVRDV’s transformation of a communist relic into a new cultural hub for Tirana, Albania

Climbing Out of The Past

Work kicks off at MVRDV’s transformation of a communist relic into a new cultural hub for Tirana, Albania

Rotterdam-based MVRDV has announced that renovation work has started at the Pyramid of Tirana, an adaptive reuse project in Albania’s capital city that will see a monument-museum erected in honor of Enver Hoxha, the Stalinist dictator who ruled over the mountainous Balkan nation with a ferocious grip for over four decades, transformed into what MVRDV has called a “new hub for Tirana’s cultural life and a carrier for the new generation.”

Completed in 1988 in the heart of Tirana just three years after Hoxha’s death, the Brutalist structure first served as a decidedly eccentric landmark museum honoring Hoxha that was co-designed by his architect daughter, Pranvera Hoxha, and her husband, Klement Kolaneci, along with others.

The tenure of the so-called Enver Hoxha Museum, however, was relatively short-lived as a pyramidal shrine (colloquially referred to as the Enver Hoxha Mausoleum) was shuttered shortly after the fall of communism in Albania in 1991. The 127,000-square-foot monument was then rebranded as the Pyramid of Tirana and in subsequent years has served an eclectic range of proposes, none of them having much permanence: A conference venue, a nightclub, a base for NATO during the 1999 Kosovo War, a media broadcasting center, and a filming location for at least one direct-to-video horror remake. Most recently, the Pyramid, having fallen into a state of disrepair, has served as an unsanctioned (and somewhat perilous) hangout spot for Albanian youths, who have taken it upon themselves to cover the hulking, marble tile-clad structure in graffiti and “often climb it at night and then—not without risk—slide down its slopes,” according to an MVRDV press release.

exterior rendering of a pyramid covered in staircases
Visitors will be able to scale the structure along a series of new external staircases. (© MVRDV)

Climbing up and then sliding down the building seems to have been something of a time-honored tradition for the youth of Tirana. As the current mayor of the city, Erion Veliaj, explained to The Guardian last year in an article detailing the reuse of Hoxha-era structures and sites, he certainly partook in this activity in his younger years: “I remember our butts would catch fire sliding down. We all used to have the same corduroy pants and you could see them losing their corduroy ribbing,” he said. He also relayed to The Guardian that he personally specified that the reimagined Pyramid should remain climbable. “The building represents our transition,” he added. “It’s a metaphorical display of what we’ve gone through.”

Proposed demolish-and-replace schemes have come and gone over the years but none have stuck due largely to pushback from the residents of Tirana, who prefer that the Pyramid remain standing as a reminder, however painful, of the oppressive, isolationist Hoxha regime. (Hoxha’s widow, Nexhmije Hoxha, died last year at the age of 99. She remained an unapologetic defender of her late husband and his policies, which included banning all religion and private property and forbidding travel outside of Albania’s borders, until her death.)

In 2017, a plan to revitalize and repurpose the structure was formalized, leading to the now-underway MVRDV-lead transformation, a project co-financed by the Albanian central government and the municipality of Tirana with assistance from the Albanian-American Development Foundation. The reborn structure’s main tenant will be the nonprofit organization TUMO Tirana, which will establish a multifaceted creative technology learning hub and cultural center at the Pyramid and provide free educational courses in software, film, music, robotics, and animation to local teenagers.

interior of a pyramid structure undergoing gutting
Clean-up work begins at the Tirana Pyramid. (© MVRDV)

The overhaul of the Pyramid, its interior currently “hermetically sealed and inaccessible” per MVRDV, will be a dramatic one although the building’s concrete shell will be preserved. A multitude of modular boxes containing individual programmatic spaces will be “placed inside, upon, and around the existing structure” to create a dynamic “village” composed of classrooms, cafes, and studios according to the firm. The dark and cavernous main interior space will be opened up and converted into a light-filled atrium.

The sloping concrete beams will be, as mentioned, left intact and converted into external staircases so that the public can continue, as specified by Veliaj, to scale—and slide down, on one single beam—the structure, albeit in a safer and more organized fashion. As noted by MVRDV, the external staircases help to preserve “the appropriating [of the former dictatorial monument] that began with the citizens of Tirana” while transforming the stair-clad building into a venue for open-air events and touristic sightseeing opportunities. On the landscaping front, plans to cloak the largely vegetation-free site with trees and greenery will further boost its appeal as a place for the public to congregate.


renderings of different pyramid sections indicating visitor flow

Said Winy Maas, founding partner of MVRDV, in a statement:

“Working on a brutalist monument like the Pyramid is a dream. It is striking and interesting to see how the country struggled with the future of the building, which on one hand is a controversial chapter in the country’s history, and on the other hand has already been partly reclaimed by the residents of Tirana. I immediately saw its potential, and that it should be possible to make it even more of a ‘people’s monument’ instead of demolishing it. The challenging part is to create a new relationship between the building and its surroundings. I am confident our design establishes this. I am looking forward to seeing young people and for the first time older people climbing the steps to the rooftop!”

The transformation of the Pyramid of Tirana—a project that “shows how a building can be made suitable for a new era, while at the same time preserving its complex history, and demonstrates that historic brutalist buildings are ideal for reuse” per MVRDV”—seems to have been warmly received by residents of the city, many of whom have rallied against plans to raze, instead of repurposing, other decrepit but culturally significant structures in the capital. Case in point: Last May’s demolition of the historic National Theatre of Albania (Teatri Kombëtar) sparked heated—and at times violent—confrontations between protestors and police and lead to mass arrests. The iconic theater, erected in 1939 during the Italian occupation of Albania, will be replaced with a bowtie-shaped, Bjarke Ingels Group-designed cultural center.