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Tirana's 'pyramid' puts checkered past behind it for new tech future

 

TIRANA, ALBANIA (May 1): The sprawling, space-age "pyramid" in Tirana's centre had many uses before falling into ruin: built as a museum for a dictator, it later hosted a NATO base, TV studio, nightclub and more.

After years of neglect, the crumbling structure is now set for another rebirth as an IT hub in the heart of Albania's fast-changing capital.

"I don't think there is anyone who thinks it is beautiful," admits Joni Baboci, a city hall architect involved with the redesign.

"But it's a sort of a landmark of the city, and people want to preserve them in a city that has lost a lot to development," he added.

The 127,000-square-foot (11,400-square-metre) behemoth has triangular wedges of graffiti-covered marble and dark window panes that meet at a peak, giving it the pyramid look.

For the project's architects, its overhaul is about striking a balance between preserving and reclaiming a relic from a dark period of Albanian history.

The bizarre building was originally erected 30 years ago to glorify the life of former communist dictator Enver Hoxha, who ruthlessly ruled Albania for four decades until his death in 1985. 

After communism collapsed a few years later, the museum was shuttered and the pyramid became a venue for a merry-go-round of uses, reflecting the explosion of culture in a country that had been hermetically sealed under Hoxha's iron grip.

But for the past 10 years the building has sat virtually abandoned, aside from the locals and tourists who can be seen scaling its walls for the 360-degree city view at the top.

When authorities announced plans to demolish the pyramid several years ago, protests broke out, revealing how the unusual monument had won its way into people's hearts.

The demolition plan was scrapped and city hall came back last year with a project to turn the pyramid into a digital learning centre.

- 'Open to everyone' -
"We thought there couldn't be a better symbol than giving the building back to Albanian society in its best form, to the kids, for their future education," said Martin Mata, of the Albanian-American Development Foundation, which is funding the more than $10-million (nine-million-euro) renovation.

It is a fitting purpose for a country suffering from high youth unemployment and emigration rates.

Designs revealed last month by Dutch firm MVRDV will open the structure on all sides of the ground floor, bring light into the atrium with more glass, surround it with trees and carve stairs onto its exterior to make the pyramid walls a safer climb. 

"The pyramid will be open to everyone" and the building will be nearly "transparent", the chief architect, Winy Maas, said at the presentation in Tirana.

Inside will be a mix of commercial space and a learning centre for youth, run by non-profit group Tumo, offering classes in programming, design and other digital skills.

- 'Making Albania great again' - 
For Tirana's mayor, Erion Veliaj, the project is a "story of resurrection" -- for the pyramid and Albania itself. 

"Since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the start of (Albania's) transition, the question has been how do we make Albania great again?" he told AFP. 

The pyramid's renovation is part of a dizzying amount of transformation that the country's capital has undergone in recent years.

The collapse of communism unleashed a massive wave of migration from rural areas to the capital, leading to unchecked construction, an explosion of cars and chaotic urban spaces.

As mayor of Tirana in the early 2000s, Edi Rama, who is now prime minister, gave the city a major face-lift by splashing its drab communist buildings with bright colours and bold patterns.

Veliaj says he is trying to further spruce up the city by cracking down on illegal construction, creating more parks and recently turning a massive Skanderbeg Square traffic roundabout into a pedestrian space.

- Architectural hodgepodge -
The changes are raising Tirana's profile on the tourist map.

Its vibrant cafe scene now comes in for praise, as well as the unique hodgepodge of architecture, including Italian fascist buildings, Soviet-style tower blocks, Ottoman-era mosques and, of course, the pyramid.

But not all of city hall's revamps are popular. 

There have been regular protests in the last year over plans to knock down homes and shops for a ring road project.

In the centre, a crowd has been demonstrating daily against a government-backed project to bulldoze Tirana's national theatre, built in 1930, and replace it with a modern one.

As for the pyramid, some would have preferred to see it become an archaeology museum or national library, among other things.  

But for Rama, the transformation of a "symbol of dictatorship" to a "symbol of each individual's power in a new time" is an apt roadmap. 

"I am happy that we have managed to solve a problem that has vexed us for 30 years now," he said.

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