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Feature 09 Jun 17

Historic Tirana Square: A Shrine to Change

Albanians have gathered at Tirana’s Skenderbej Square to protest and celebrate for 100 years, will its latest makeover be a hit with the public?

Fatjona Mejdini

Tirana’s Skenderbej Square. Video: Ivana Dervishi from BIRN on Vimeo.

For Albanians, many of their most vivid memories linked to the nation’s most significant historical events are linked to Skenderbej Square.

Little surprise then that many are keenly awaiting this Saturday’s makeover unveiling ceremony, when they will finally see what the square now looks likes after months of restoration work.

Situated in the heart of Tirana with a statue of the Albanian national hero Gjergj Kastriot Skenderbej atop a horse, the square has borne witness to the nation’s happiest, and most tragic, events.

It was here that Albanians toppled the statue of former dictator Enver Hoxha in February 1991, and where 300,000 flocked to in June the same year to receive the former US Secretary of State James Baker.

Skenderbej Square was also where most Albanians protested when demanding the last government tied to communism be removed from power in June 1991.

It is also where they celebrated the election victory of the Democratic Party in March 1992 with great enthusiasm, Tirana’s membership of NATO in April 2009 and 100 years of independence in 2012.

The square itself has never been fully finished. It began to take form around the Tirana Clock Tower and Et'hem Bey Mosque in 1917, when Albania was occupied by the Austro-Hungarians.

During the monarchy of Ahmet Zogu, the square became the site of the government ministry complex and a starting point for the Zogu I Pare boulevard. Around this time, other landmark buildings began to pop up around the square.

The Square with the Stalin statue in the centre. Photo: Wikipedia/MZSL/Ofner Károly

Albania’s communist era left its mark on the square, as in 1951 a statue of Stalin was erected in the centre of it. The Palace of Culture was built to create a border for the square and to sweep out the Old Bazar. The old City Hall building was transformed into the National Historical Museum.

However, in 1968, the statue of Skenderbej, made by local sculptor Odhise Paskali, and a number of fountains were erected in the square that now measured 40,000 square metres.

Saimir Kristo, an architect and lecturer at Polis University in Tirana, told BIRN that the communists swept away the old charm of the square, making it more spacious but cold, a vast sparsely-populated space in heart of the capital.

He added that successive Albanian regimes have all struggled to leave their mark permanently on the square.

Skenderbej Square during communist Albania in 1988. Photo: Flickr/Peter

Back in 2010, Edi Rama, the former mayor of Tirana who is now prime minister and leader of the Socialist Party, announced the plan to modernise the square and also turn it back into the pedestrian zone it once was.

The plan submitted by Belgian architects 51N4E was brought to a halt in 2011 when Lulzim Basha, a Democratic Party MP who is now the party leader, was elected mayor.

The Square during Basha's tenure of Tirana municipality. Photo: Wikipedia/Alban1989

Basha opted for a less ambitious, temporary overhaul, surrounding the Skenderbej statue with a large grass field.

But the Socialist Party did not give up on a restoration project based on the Belgian firm’s proposals.

In June 2015, Socialist Party member Erion Veliaj was elected mayor and one year later he began restoration work at the square, inspired by the 2010 plan.

According to Veliaj, the new square will present a modern and European Tirana to the world, while retaining elements that strongly reflect Albanian tradition.

The square is now paved with stones brought from every corner of Albania and also from outside the country, wherever Albanians live. It also features trees, bushes and flowers. One hundred fountains – which can refill using rain water – will sprinkle in it.

An underground car park has been built underneath the square, while the above ground area is a pedestrian-only zone.

The makeover has attracted criticism on social networking sites as residents are alarmed that using so much stone in a Mediterranean city like Tirana is a bad idea – pedestrians will need shade from the strong sun.

Architect Kristo believes that because the initiative is so important for the life of the city, and the project is brought back many years since the original proposal was made, there should have been a wider professional consultation with additional public discussions. 

"The relationship of the monumental axis of the main boulevard as projected before and its natural connection with the square are not taken into consideration. Good solutions on public transportation around or under it are not projected, even thought this is a significant project," he said.

Skenderbej Square on June 5th. Photo: BIRN/Ivana Dervishi

Mayor Veliaj’s models and artistic renderings of the square show a well-constructed public space, with plenty of shaded spots for people to rest.

In addition, he believes only time will tell how functional the new square is.

"In the end, the people’s involvement with the new square will decide whether it is a success story. If people go there naturally and spend time in it without the need of extra activities, then this would be without any doubt a success," he says.

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