Dutch practice MVRDV has retrofitted a 1980s huge concrete brutalist cone, built as a monument to former dictator Enver Hoxha, transforming it into a centre for tech education that embodies the Albanian capital’s changing image
Albania has been in the spotlight in recent years, covered in several newspaper articles, often promoting it as a tourist destination. One of these had a photograph of the country’s capital, Tirana, in 1991 after the fall of Communism. It’s a view of Skanderbeg Square, which we wrote about in 2019. That project by Belgian practice 51N4E relaid the square, featuring the charming idea of including a paving stone from every corner of Albania – a patchwork of its geology.
Looking at the same view now fills you with disbelief that the other photograph was taken only 31 years ago. The fields beyond the square are long gone. There are buildings as far as you can see – up to the foothills of the mountains that surround the plateau on which the city sits.
Tirana has more than doubled its population in that period, from 254,000 people to 520,000. Before 1991, Albanians generally weren’t allowed to relocate to other areas of the country. Once this became possible, many moved to the capital. Expansion was rapid and often impromptu.
Today the economy is booming and since Edi Rama became mayor in 2000, there have been more consolidated efforts to rationalise and plan development. These include a radical campaign to bulldoze hundreds of illegal constructions, restoring areas in the centre and along the Lana River and repainting the facades of many Soviet buildings, changing the city’s image and making it a visitor attraction.
Rama has had a varied career. As well as his time as mayor, he has been a painter living in France, a university professor, a writer and publicist and, since 2013, Albania’s prime minister. It was during his time as mayor that the Tirana City Master Plan was initiated as a strategy to contain the urban sprawl, densify the centre, plant thousands of trees and make a greener, more environmentally friendly city.
From MVRDV’s Downtown One, a mixed-use, 140m-tall tower under construction, the broad strokes of that plan are becoming visible: the square, the 10 Tower Project (of which Downtown One is one) and the redevelopment of the Pyramid of Tirana – one of the country’s most iconic but fraught buildings. Establishing a new identity for the pyramid has been a crucial element in how to reimagine and reorient the city; a symbol for how the nation can move forward while acknowledging the more difficult periods of its history.
As I visit, the surrounding streets are closed off and the city is stuffed full of dignitaries here for the Berlin Process Summit being held in the building, discussing ways to bridge the socio-economic gap between the Western Balkans and the EU. Mark Rutte, the then Dutch prime minister, is at the building’s opening event just afterwards and French president Emmanuel Macron arrives the next day for his own personal tour as part of a state visit, also because he has his own grand projet plans.
The Pyramid was originally built as a museum to Albania’s dictator Enver Hoxha who ruled from 1944 to his death in 1985. The building was designed by his daughter Pranvera with her husband Klement Kolaneci as well as Priio Vaso and Vladimir Bregu as a monument to the leader’s legacy. It opened in 1988, a huge concrete brutalist cone which occupies a park city block. Inside, there was a giant sculpture of Hoxha himself.
The building’s use as a museum, however, was short-lived. After 1991 it was repurposed as a conference and exhibition centre. During the 1999 Kosovo War, it was a base for Nato, after which it was partly used as a broadcasting centre while the rest of the building and landscape suffered dilapidation. It never fully found an alternative programme, prompting proposals for demolition which proved unpopular within Albania and beyond. Children famously used the building as an epic climbing frame, sliding down, running up and all over its sloped walls.
MVRDV was appointed to redesign the monument in 2018, turning it into the building we see today. The principal thrust of the design is the retained Pyramid at the centre, extended and brought back to use by the addition of 32 cubes scattered on top of, around and inside the site like a multicoloured colour wheel of Hagelslag – the sugar sprinkles the Dutch pour onto their bread with butter for breakfast (and often lunch).
The sloping sides of the original concrete building have been covered with 16 new staircases that allow people to climb and crawl all over the building as they had done since the early 1990s – but now, more mindful of safety, with balustrades. One section, from halfway up, has been retained as a sloping area to slide/push yourself slowly down. At the top of the pyramid a level area acts as a viewing platform over the city, also accessible by the newly inserted lift, while you can also peer down into the building through a glazed oculus in the centre.
Programmatically, from a building that was designed to honour and represent a dead old man’s legacy and history, the pyramid has been handed over to organisations that provide educational and training opportunities for teenagers and young people, developing skills particularly in the tech and digital sectors – a national spiritual recognition shifting emphasis from the past onto the future.
Half of the building is the first base in Albania for TUMO, an international creative technology education organisation aimed at 12–18-year-olds. Another part will be occupied by the College of Europe in Tirana and the rest will be accessible to the public, with spaces for cafés, restaurants, start-up offices and labs, incubators and studio spaces. The building opened in June but many units were still vacant in October. Its functions materialise across the original pyramid internal spaces as well as in the cubes. There is a yellow jaunty auditorium cube with stepped seating both inside and on the roof, which comes alive on the opening evening, held outside so the light display across the facade could be watched. You can’t just climb over the pyramid but also many of the cubes, staircases and bridges, crawling up and between them.
Internally, boxes are mostly stacked like children’s building blocks in the central void where the statue of Hoxha once stood. However, some are also inventively suspended from the original structure. The effect is transformative. Trees perch on the terraces, together bringing colour and life into the space. All the concrete walkways and staircases already existed, reconditioned by new handrails and balustrades and a few metal grid walkways. The interior is designed to always be open to the public, who can pass through at any time of day. New glazing has been installed around entrances and light shafts that loop around the building, upgrading performance in anticipation of very hot summers and cold continental winters. The cubes are the climatised spaces, rather than the whole interior.
Curiously, not every detail is finished to perfection. Some of the existing internal and external concrete has crumbled and, rather than fill it in to create a new finish, it’s been accepted and painted over. The marble that originally fully clad the rear blank walls of the exterior, and which was partially missing, has been left as is rather than removed or replaced. The external staircases look carefully integrated into the design. In some ways, they might be, but they are also just slapped on top of the existing concrete shell with thermal insulation in between. On most buildings of this scale and importance, this approach might not work. Yet here it does, perhaps because of the pyramid’s focus on bringing about change through young people learning and experimenting. It is a fun, radical design that could help spark the imagination and be conducive to creative freedom.
These kinds of methods and ideas are spreading rapidly around the city to the extent that Tirana is fast becoming an architectural playground in the guise of, say, Rotterdam. Architecture firms from around Europe and the world are flooding it with fantastic buildings full of excitement and boldness that are not often appreciated or desired elsewhere. If you are interested in architecture and the future of cities, it’s worth a look.