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Open Letter to Bjarke Ingels about Albania’s National Theater Project

Open Letter to Bjarke Ingels about Albania’s National Theater Project

Gjergj Bakallbashi, an Albanian-American architect, asks Bjarke Ingels to withdraw from the current project for the Albania’s National Theater in order to open the way for a competitive and fair process.

Dear Bjarke,

Through social media, I read about your stay in Mexico during the Covid-19 confinement, and your work on a master plan for the planet.

How inspiring it is to hear of someone, especially an architect of world stature, thinking of the work we do now as having a role to play in the next 150-200 years. The future is shaped heavily by our current decisions and projects, resources and outlook on it.

As countries begin to move out of the lockdown of the first wave of the virus, returning to normality seems to be the imperative of governments and people alike.

In Tirana, the city where we first met when you won the competition for the Grand Mosque of Tirana, and I was working for the City, returning to normal seems to be just not possible. The controversy of demolishing the building of the National Theater to replace it with a new one, designed by you, Bjarke Ingels, has the media, people, politicians, actors, foreign diplomats alike all stirred up.

Bjarke Ingels - Photo by Thomas Sweertvaegher

It is very likely that when the Italians built that building in Tirana, they were not thinking of the next 150-200 years. But how many buildings were built to do that during World War II, in a country like Albania?

Temporary structures often in such places gain historical importance because there were not that many like those at the time when they were built, and most importantly because of their history they have accumulated.

You are aware of all these, I am sure. What perhaps has escaped your attention is the lack of a public process regarding the future of the theater. There was no competition, no conversation, no public debate regarding its future. You, somehow, were asked to draw up a project, based on the premise that the existing theater should be torn down.

I emphasize that there was no competition held for a project of such high public importance.

We would be hard-pressed to find in any EU capital, or aspiring EU-capital, a project of such high public profile moving forward without an architectural competition, transparent public debates, and most importantly deliberations

You, as a de facto cultural representative of Denmark and of its EU values, should not forget the larger role that you play, not only as just an architect offering services to clients, but as a promoter of values, worthy of someone who thinks of saving the planet.

National Theater Project by BIG

And saving the planet is not an effort one can do alone. Any master plan needs backing, not just of politicians, but of alike minds. In your case, of architects. Well, in Tirana, your project for the theater has a lot of architects and intellectuals discouraged and dismayed, that in a European capital things are done in an autocratic, manipulative way. You and your design is not associated with the optimism that you would hope, but with pessimism, and downright surrender of the belief in public competitions.

By choosing to withdraw from this project and to join in only when a competition process is in place, you will contribute more to the belief of a lot of people in a better future in Tirana, than your theater ever will in saving or making Tirana a better part of this planet.

You will have them believe that European values are possible in Tirana – not just European looking projects – and not just inside the EU, a place they see as an alternative to Tirana, when they should be seeing Tirana as an extension, a young one, of the EU.

We all cheered for you when you won the Grand Mosque Competition. We were sorry not to see it built.

Let us be hopeful that competitions and open values still belong to Tirana.

I asked architects to join my ‘plea’ and cosign this open public letter. They are afraid to do so because they think that they will not get their projects through in the Municipality, but will be branded ‘opponents’.

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