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Shqip 06 Nov 12

Developers Ravage Albania’s Historic Landmarks

Albania’s shrinking stock of historic buildings is in danger as owners, real estate developers and mayors conspire to get rid of them, and rebuild on the sites.

Fatmira Nikolli
BIRN Tirana
Undated photo of the Flag House | Courtesy of Pirro Thomo

On August 16, the people of the southern Albanian town of Korca woke up to an unpleasant surprise.

Overnight, one of the city’s most important landmarks, a villa known as the “Flag House,” had been flattened.

In the same house in 1916, while Albania was being fought over by competing foreign armies, a group of local patriots declared the autonomous region of Korca, also known as the “Republic of Korca”.

The goal of the declaration of independence was to counter the threat of annexation by Greece, which laid claim to the region as part of what it called “Northern Epirus”.

Under the auspices of the French military who at the time occupied the area, the small self-styled republic would endure until 1920.

In mid-September two other historic buildings in Korca were illegally torn down. Police are still investigating the actions. But some suspect that the owners of the buildings demolished them in order to deprive them of their heritage status, so opening up a path to redevelop the site and build new apartments.    

Jorida Namcka, head of the Institute of Monuments in Korca, says that despite their dilapidated condition the three houses did not crumble away on their own, but were torn down illegally.

Experts warn growing pressure to develop historic town centres has already dispatched many local landmarks to oblivion.

They say too little is being done to conserve what remains of Albania’s architectural heritage.

According to the Institute of Monuments, Albania has lost hundreds of historic sites and monuments in the last decade to a real estate boom.

From 1997 to 2006, the Institute estimates that 17 per cent of the country’s 2,564 listed monuments were totally destroyed and another 37 per cent were damaged or ruined.

In the latter case, owners either entirely abandoned the properties, or carried out renovation without reference to the integrity of the original architecture.

In many other cases, unsympathetic development has destroyed the sites’ overall architectural milieu.

Although Albania’s property boom has slowed in recent years, due to the knock-on effect of the European debt crisis, demand for construction in city centres remains high.

Pressure from developers, coupled with weak state institutions, a lack of funds for conservation and corruption, threaten to overwhelm halting efforts to protect cultural heritage.   

Pirro Thomo, an expert on Albania’s vernacular architecture, says that historic town centres, like Korca’s, are being besieged by new builds, which have a negative impact on the older buildings’ historic and architectural value.

“Albania’s landscape is being polluted by new construction close to cultural monuments or architectural ensembles, which do not respect the value and character of the protected buildings,” Thomo said.  

“The new builds threaten the stylistic and architectural unity not only of the traditional ensembles but also of the landscape,” he added.

The destruction of cultural monuments is not a phenomenon confined to Korca.
Two years ago, a historic building in the northern city of Shkodra, known as the “Pioneers’ House” was demolished and the culprits where never arrested. After it was flattened, the house was de-listed as a protected cultural monument.

In 2008, two historic buildings in the capital, Tirana, were destroyed after being engulfed by fire. Few heritage experts believe that a malfunctioning electrical circuit caused the fire, as was claimed at the time.  

Emin Riza, one of Albania’s top heritage experts, who helped draw proposals for the inclusion of the cities of Berat and Gjirokstra in the UNSECO list of World Heritage Sites, says Albania is losing some its best cultural landmarks to greedy developers.  

“The damage done to many buildings of extraordinary heritage value is difficult to fathom,” he said.

“Developers are the reason why so many old buildings are being burned or demolished, because they want to build new apartment blocks,” he added.

According to Artan Shkreli, former director of Albania’s Institute of Monuments, a lack of investment by the government in the preservation of historic homes and monuments has led many people to believe that they are of no value and might as well be flattened.

“We are losing some of the most important architectural heritage sites in our towns because nobody bothers to protect them,” Shreli said.

Instead of just blaming the property owners, Shkreli points the finger at municipalities that have allowed conditions to deteriorate.

“In the last three years there is not one small or large town in Albania that hasn’t seen such buildings ending up destroyed,” he asserted.

“But no one is ever convicted because the main people responsible for their demolition are the local mayors,” Shkreli concluded.

This article is funded under the BICCED project, supported by the Swiss Cultural Programme.

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