Earlier in 2018, it was announced that the National Theatre in Tirana, built in 1939 and designed by an Italian architect, which served as a theatre for over 70 years, will soon be demolished. The Albanian government announced that no protest or opposition to the plan will stop this development.
The reason for the demolition of the historical building in appearance is simple: the government declared that its renovation exceeded the amount of public funds available, and that a newer, modern theatre building would take its place. In the past years, the theatre’s maintenance declined, with only partial or insufficient maintenance, and in 2018, it was deemed damaged beyond repair. The plans for the theatre however, have unveiled more interests and agendas. Despite a lack of transparency, the public later found out that the new theatre building would be built with the help of a Public-Private Partnership. This implies that any company that will pay the bill for its construction will be given public land to build a commercial and residential complex. The public space they would occupy belongs to the current theatre building. The new theatre is set to take up less than half the size that the theatre now occupies, while the other half would be granted to a private investor.
The legal issues
Public land cannot be simply ‘given’ to a private company. According to national legislation, several conditions have to be met, including those related to tender to privatisation procedures. In order to avoid those, the Socialist government drafted a ‘special’ law, which was secretly passed on to the Parliament for approval. The draft law takes the responsibility of deciding to alienate public land from the local council (where the governing party does not have the majority), and putting it into the hands of the parliament, where with a majority, the Socialist Party is sure that the law would be approved. The same law then transfers the responsibility to the Municipality of Tirana, to establish a commission and negotiate a contract with the private company (Fusha spk). Many people have contested this arrangement, from the actors who oppose the demolition of the theatre, to individuals, and some prominent Albanian lawyers.
The company awarded the PPP
The draft law, which avoids the legal framework for granting concessions, essentially facilitated the sale of 8465 square metres of prime, central public land to Fusha spk. Not only that, but after the law was passed on to Parliament, BIRN Albania reported that the company would be buying the land, was valued by the government at 470E/sqm, in an area in which apartments are sold at 2500E/sqm , which the price of commercial spaces can reach up to 5-6000E/sqm. Apart from paying the real value/high price for the land which it will obtain, the company also avoided any forms of competition. Although this is a Private-Public Partnerships, the law which governs this states that if an unsolicited proposal is received by the municipality (as was the case with the company at stake), then the proposal may participate in the PPP procedures/concession, but without any preferential treatment and under the same conditions as other economic stakeholders.
Bjarke Ingels Group
The company building the new theatre, a Danish architectural firm has announced that they ‘won’ an architectural competition that was never made public. Other references to this contract suggest that it was a ‘direct call’. At the same time, in the list of clients, BIG does not list the municipality of Tirana as a client, but the private company ‘awarded’ the concessions, Fusha spk. The company has failed to directly answer questions related to the project, for example, when media outlet Exit.al requested them, on the grounds that: We are not dodging your questions or deferring responsibility, but given the magnitude and importance of this project, it would be highly unusual to not have a contractual agreement with our client about speaking publicly. I have copied Erka [Mato] from the Mayor’s office to this email who is more than happy to answer competition related questions.
Exit further reports that the company publicly stated the following: BIG will not participate in corruption; BIG will not contribute to corruption; BIG will not support corruption.
Civil Society: actors, artists, and citizens’ responses
The opposition to the government’s plans boomed, and is on-going. Artists, activists, and the general public were all set to stop the theatre building from demolition. They have requested dialogue with the minister of culture, proposed alternative plans for the building, opened a bank account where the public could financially support renovation works for the existent building, protested, and even occupied the building. So far countless public meetings were organised in which experts and artists sought to inform the wider public of their struggle, demands, and potential solutions. The Forum for the Protection of Cultural Heritage also released a public statement in which it declared that the National Theatre building cannot be demolished, as it is belongs to Albania’s unique cultural and architectural heritage. They dismissed the argument that it should be demolished for safety concerns, and also the argument that it cannot be restored. The Forum declared that the skills and finances needed to renovate the building are currently available in the country. Moreover, those pursuing the demolition of the building and degradation of the Tirana city centre were accused of a cultural crime. The Association of Albanian Architects, also joined in to denounce the demolition of the theatre. In an open statement, they suggested that if a new theatre will be built, than it cannot take the place of the old, and that it should be built in areas that need revitalising, rather than in the already crowded centre of the capital.
Apart from daily protests and meetings in the theatre, in June, the artists, actors, and activists who seek to protect the building and oppose the draft law, they have also occupied the treatre. The dialogue that took place between the government and actors was futile, as no party was willing to comprise as much as the other had wished. On the 29th of June, after the draft law was sent to parliament, the actors announced that they will go on a hunger strike.