The Black Hole of Tirana
The Albanian capital of Tirana will never be able to fully purge itself of totalitarian urban planning. The city centre was designed by the Fascists during the Italian occupation of Albania in the 1930s, and they installed wide streets and open squares, perfect venues for holding military parades. After the war, during the Communist period, this design was augmented with angular Stalinist constructions (the Palace of Culture and the National Museum) in the centre and high-rise concrete residence blocks in the outskirts. Enver Hoxha [pronuncation] was a man who understood the propagandist potential of space: he managed to take possession not just of the urban environment but the natural landscape as well, building tens of thousands of bunkers along beaches and mountain ridges, and having his name carved in massive letters into hillsides, thereby militarising and possessing the natural space in a way few authoritarian leaders have even attempted.
After the fall of the regime in 1992, what amendments could be made, were. A programme to remove the bunkers began (this painstaking process still continues), the mayor of Tirana ordered that the apartment blocks be painted in bright colours, and prominent Albanian artists changed the word ENVER seared into the hills above Berati to NEVER. Yet the underlying design –the width and layout of roads, the Stalinist central square– remains in Tirana. So much of the modernising process of the capital’s urban environment has taken place under the auspices of governments which were not just autocratic but totalitarian that its influence cannot be undone save in truly catastrophic circumstances.
There is one case, however, in which the urban landscape of Tirana was altered in a way so drastic that it cannot be undone or assimilated: the Enver Hoxha Mausoleum. Enver Hoxha’s daughter and son-in-law began designing the pyramid-shaped museum to their nation’s leader in the mid-1980s, when Hoxha was wheelchair-bound and close to death. It opened in 1988, three years after Hoxha’s death and three years before the collapse of the system of government he inaugurated, in a prominent position at the intersection of the river and Boulevard Dëshmorët e Kombit (Martyrs of the Nation), a wide fascist-era street running down from the city’s focal point, Skanderbeg Square.
The Pyramid served as a museum of Hoxha’s life and works until 1992. Afterwards, it was converted into the Pjetër Arbnori International Cultural Centre; however, its continuing association with Hoxha led the Albanian population to shun it in vast numbers, and the Centre closed. During the Kosovo War it was used as a military base by NATO officers. Today, although the surrounding concrete square plays host to an inflatable bunker-shaped club and a radio van, the Pyramid is now unoccupied, and sits massive, graffitied, angular, and unmissable in one of the city’s central spaces.
It does not, however, appear on any map.
This is a bit of an exaggeration; I don’t mean to suggest that the building cannot be mapped due to an ancient curse. You can of course find maps which mark the Pyramid. But any map produced in Albania –even tourist maps of Tirana for foreigners– will ignore the Pyramid. There are three different ways I have seen of erasing the place’s existence: (1) label the building as the Pjetër Arbnori Cultural Centre; (2) leave the square completely blank; (3) draw a fictional street through the centre of the square.
To succeed in informally suppressing the existence of a building as vast as the Pyramid is surely a feat to be admired, demonstrating tremendous determination. But it is also an admission of weakness, of an inability to combat the building by any more practical means. Other remnants of the communist era have been erased, but the Pyramid is bigger, more centrally-placed, harder to remove, less useful, and more personally connected to Hoxha than any other place in the country. Even the act of renaming of the building in honour of Pjetër Arbnori, a man who survived decades in Albanian labour camps, was unable to shift public perception. To tear it down would require vast amounts of money and construction in the very centre of Tirana, next door to the Prime Minister’s office and across the road from the Parliamentary offices. Nobody is quite sure what could be done with the space afterwards, but in a way it doesn’t matter: it will always be thought of as Enver Hoxha’s space.
Bahrain’s Mystery Junction
We all know the story of Bahrain by now: the uprising, the government’s deployment of the sectarian divide, the Saudi invasion, Western silence, and the increasingly Orwellian tactics deployed by the government in an ever-more futile effort to calm the country down. The crackdown, in March 2011, began a process which eventually halted the revolutionary moment across the region.
The central focus of the protests during those initial few weeks in Manama was the Pearl Roundabout, a rather bland and dusty monument, next to the highway, commemorating the foundations of Bahrain’s economy – sailing and pearls. Pearl Roundabout had two main disadvantages, the one geographic and the other historical. Geographically, it was not in the centre of the city. Manama is a large city on a small island, and as such it does not have a natural central square. (The Bahrain Gate, which serves as a ‘centre’ for tourist purposes, used to be up against the sea and has become geographically central only through a massive land reclamation campaign.) Historically, it only became symbolically important in 1982, and its popular occupation during the uprising thus lacked the sort of resonance afforded to Tahrir Square, Habib Bourguiba Avenue in Tunis, or Green Square in Tripoli, all of which were designed and constructed by Europeans during the colonial era. Once the protesters gathered, therefore, not many impediments stood in the way of the government’s surprisingly rapid decision to tear it down.
On the 18th of March 2011, government forces (and the GCC) stormed the square, evicted the protesters, and tore down the monument (video) with such haste that two workmen were crushed to death underneath it. While the clashes escalated elsewhere, the square was levelled and transformed into an astonishingly cumbersome five-road junction named Faruq Junction. To unpack the blatantly hostile layers of this particular act of apellomancy would fill another post, but here are the basics: the name Faruq means “distinguisher between truth and falsehood”, and was not only the cognomen of caliph Umar ibn Khattab, famously hostile towards the Shi’a, but also the name of the military undertaking which cleared the square: Operation Faruq.
When I visited Bahrain last year, I drove past the new Faruq Junction twice, on the highway flyover just north of it. More than two years after the Pearl Monument had been razed, the area is still closed off and no cars are allowed to use the junction. All the entrances to it are guarded by Saudi tanks, and the entire south side of the flyover was lined with soldiers to prevent anyone from taking pictures of the area. Yet the stated goal of the demolition was that it was part of an urban development programme, to ease congestion and make it quicker for traffic to move along the highway to Saudi Arabia.
Therefore, not only is this expenditure of military hardware frankly obscene, it is also an implicit admission that all the government’s attempts to remove Pearl Roundabout from public memory have failed. Most people still refer to the area by its old name, including Western expats for whom the English exonym is easier to remember than a caliph’s laqab. No matter what transformations the area may have been through, its resonance is such that, were public access to be once against granted to the area, protests would be inevitable. Rather like a singer dying in their 20s, the destruction of the Roundabout immortalised it as a place of innocence and revolutionary optimism, and its continued excision from the urban space of Manama serves as a reminder of the government’s brutality.
I have chosen just two examples for this post: in Tirana, an informal understanding that erases one of the countries iconic buildings from cartographic existence; in Manama, a rebellious refusal to acknowledge the government’s alteration of the urban environment. There are thousands more examples across the world, not all of them originating in situations of autocracy – I can’t count the number of cities I’ve been to in which people only knew the streets by their old names. In Dornoch, in north-east Scotland, the rail line running from Inverness through the village northwards to Golspie was demolished in the 1960s as part of Beeching’s Axe; the area has never recovered. When I visited in 2011, the town map in the square still marked the route of rail tracks, and a building labelled grandly as “Train Station” turned out to be a cafeteria.
A population can keep a geographical fiction going for decades –or prevent an innovation from taking root– if that change depicts a version of the city they would rather see. In Tirana and Bahrain especially, this phenomenon appears when the population is unable to alter their urban environment by other means, either because the change is too monumental or because the political context is too repressive. Nevertheless, the experiences of these two cities expose the principle that changes to the urban environment must be consensual, otherwise popular resistance will eventually see them undone. In these days of land developers, corporate real estate, and skyscrapers built by stealth, it is a powerful reminder of the fact that urban geography can ultimately only be popular.