In Albania, a Monument to Tyranny Begins Anew

MVRDV has finished transforming the Pyramid of Tirana—a maligned symbol of Albanian oppression under the dictatorship of Enver Hoxha—into a vibrant cultural hub teeming with activity, technology, and optimism for the future.

For decades, the Pyramid of Tirana had been casting a pall over Albania’s capital city. Built in 1988 as a museum dedicated to commemorating the Eastern European country’s late communist dictator Enver Hoxha, the hulking concrete structure eventually fell into disrepair. It served as everything from a NATO base during the War in Kosovo and a nightclub to an event space over the years. Then, Albanian youth seeking to reclaim the aging Brutalist monument repurposed it as a hangout spot and canvas for graffiti, often scaling it to slide down its slopes. Grand plans to transform the monument into a cultural center came and went, and for years it sat hermetically sealed and inaccessible to the public. Windows were broken, homeless people slept in its hall, syringes littered the floor, and it stunk of urine.

Demolishing the structure proved neither popular nor sustainable. In 2017, the Albanian government announced plans to transform the concrete monolith into a vibrant cultural hub that would symbolize victory over Hoxha’s regime. They commissioned Dutch firm MVRDV to lead the renovation, which involved gutting the dank interior and building a multitude of stacked, colorful box-like structures inside and out that would house studios, classrooms, incubators, offices, and spaces for the nonprofit TUMO Tirana, which provides free after-school education in software, robotics, and animation for teenagers. Viewed from afar, the visual effect is akin to that of a festival—a desolate concrete behemoth burdened with the legacy of a despised dictator now teeming with activity and optimism. 

For Winy Maas, the principal architect of MVRDV, figuring out how to repurpose structures imbued with painful political memories can prove thorny. Demolition, he says, especially at a time when Brutalist monuments around the world are under threat, is “rarely a good option.” Instead, the Dutch architect was inspired by Norman Foster’s approach to reconstructing Berlin’s Reichstag—a structure long associated with the Nazis—by transforming it into a light-filled beacon of the country’s newly espoused democratic values. 

Most evocative of that approach are the steps MVRDV added to the structure’s sloping facade, allowing Albanians to literally walk over Hoxha’s former showpiece. In doing so, they rise above and move ahead. “Instead of being a blast from the past, it’ll be a blast into the future,” Tirana mayor Erion Veliaj told the New York Times. “Hoxha will be rolling in his grave to see his memorial turned into a celebration of capitalism, jobs, and the future.”

(All photography by Ossip van Duivenbode, courtesy of MVRDV.)

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