The Last Curtain Fall – This was our National Theatre

Tirana Times
By Tirana Times May 28, 2020 16:48

The Last Curtain Fall – This was our National Theatre

By Oriel Besi Turdiu, M.A (TUM) Architecture

I took the courage to write about the National Theatre of Tirana, since it was a building of which I have studied the original plans in search of my Master Thesis in Architecture. I grew to appreciate this building so much so, that I was prepared to propose a project for its restoration and revitalisation of the surrounding urban area.

Sadly, I couldn’t go through with it, since my University, the Technical University of Munich, kindly asked me to choose a project within the European Union, even though they saw and acknowledged its potential. I went on to graduate in March and started working in my profession in the city where I did my studies, but I am still in love with the building, the demolition of which left me heart broken.  

With this somewhat detailed description, I wish to forget the debris that were left behind. Furthermore, I wish to bring the former National Theatre of Tirana closer to the hearts of those who appreciated it, as well as to those who remained sceptic of its values.

I invite you collectively to an imaginary stroll to better understand this symbolic building of Tirana. 

Urban situation

Since the beginning, Tirana’s urbanisation was influenced by Italian architects. Under the patronage of King Zog I, they created the main axis of the city that starts from the maternity ward “Princess Geraldina” and ends at the University of Tirana leading up to the green hills. Along this axis, through the boulevard, we pass by the maternity ward, the old City Hall (also demolished), Skanderbeg Square, the National Bank, the complex of Ministries, the Dajti Hotel (currently being restored to serve a new purpose), the Prime Minister’s Office, the University of Tirana, the original National Stadium, up the hills towards the Faculty of Geology and Mining and lastly “Pallati Brigadave”, the former Royal Palace. 

All these buildings were planned and built by Italian architects mostly during the 30s and early 40s. The positioning of the then new National Theatre shaped like an elongated “U” open towards the boulevard, offers a welcoming gesture. It expands the space, inviting you to slow down, step in and relax. It acts like a comma to a sentence, the sentence being the main axis of Tirana. 

It is an elegant solution to the area for the integration of the new building. A building that does not scream, it’s simple, but loud enough to grab your attention with its elegant cubature reflecting its importance. 

The architecture and functionality of the theatre

We walk closer to the theatre complex and stand in front of it. This building stands apart from the complex of ministries as an example of one of the first modern Italian architectures with clean lines, simple cubature and stripped down from ornaments. The escalation of the interior functions is reflected on the facade. We can see two vertical buildings standing side by side. At the beginning, they were connected in the front by a colonnade and were each crowned with a balcony right above their entries. The colonnade, a detail that reinforced the unit as a whole, unified the complex and was used as a "covered" passage from one unit to the other.

The building on the left was the one housing the actual theatre, while the one on the right housed secondary rooms such as saloons, a restaurant, a kitchen, offices, a library, lecture rooms, etc. In other words, it contained the complementary functions of the theatre. Side by side, always in symbioses. The beauty of the theatre complex’s floor plans lies in the gradual escalation of the interior functions. Slowly and softly you reach the entry stairs and make your way from the area in front of the theatre towards the inside. The entry used to have an elegant coverage against the weather, a detail only a few people may know, or remember.

The stairs in front of the entrance have historically been an element that lifted the entrance from the ground to emphasize it, to stage it. As a parallelism, think about the Greek temples and the effect the stone stairs have while climbing them. The same feeling, but in a much smaller scale, was sensed in front of the theatre’s entrance. Once inside the building, we are welcomed in the atrium, then the hall in which we emotionally prepare for the show and then finally walk into the velvet stage hall.

We slowly make our way to find a place within the eight-hundred seating possibilities and at the end, right in front of us, we see the stage. With our walk towards the building and inside it, our feet have stepped through all of the building’s functions, from the most public one to the most private (stage hall) only to find ourselves outside again in the enclosed courtyard. A clean cut function. The rooms of the building to the right follow the same logical arrangement. Both these buildings, together with the gym in the far back, create a three-sided courtyard with a cooling swimming pool in the middle. A courtyard which in this constellation acts as a noise buffer, too. Tranquillity, from the noise and movements of the city.

The courtyard offered the possibility to organise outdoor performances and gatherings. So again, a thought-out floor plan with attention to detail and functionality for all seasons. Attention to details that can also be observed in the interior. Architects here had a rare opportunity to have been involved in the interior designing of elements such as stairs, railing and lighting, all done in beautiful woodwork.

It should be noted that the simplicity of this building is not easily achieved. Anyone who has had the fortune and opportunity to plan a theatre in real life or during their studies, understands how difficult it is to manage the complexity of such a function and "pack" it into a timeless architectural project. 

The building’s construction

According to a study done in 2008 by the Polytechnic Institute of Bari, one of the main building materials used was ‘populit'-a mixture of cement with wood fibres. This mixture combines the hardness of cement with the elasticity of wood to create a prefabricated building material. As a result, you achieve a material that is lightweight and is just as easy to work with. “Populit” has been the filling material on the main supporting structure.

The stage structure is made of steel. What adds to the uniqueness of the building is that for the time (1938/1939), prefabrication of elements and the materials used were innovative. Prefabrication requires a high level of accuracy in design and planning, but in return it shortens the construction time and as a result makes the building more economical. 

Side note: In my opinion, the negative perception “populit” has had over the years is wrong. 

In comparison, “Typha” which is a moor plant (also found in Albania, my grandparents put it in vases for decoration) is being studied and experimented with by Fraunhofer Institute in Germany to evaluate the use of its flower as a building material. “Typha” fibres are glued together irregularly to create a strong, durable material.4,5

Currently, “Typha” can be used as a soft material for inexpensive thermal insulation, or in the strong version as load-bearing structure.4,5

With these building materials and the proper care from us as users, the National Theatre of Tirana should have outlived us. 

Conclusion:

Buildings like theatres are not built with an expiration date. They are supposed to stand the test of time, educate, entertain different generations, and become part of its people’s culture and legacy. The National Theatre was part of the historic facade of a “new” city like Tirana. 

The above-mentioned points make the theatre a cultural object. The well-thought-out architecture in its details, functionality and integration with the capital’s centre, prove that this building went far beyond serving as a “dopolavoro” of the Italians. The National Theatre accompanied our grandparents during the occupation periods, served as a centre for cultural and sport activities, as a movie theatre and even as a place where trials for the political opponents of the regime took place. 

The second building was used as a meeting place for the elite Writers Club. The numerous functions it served through the years reflect the flexibility of the floor plans and the endless options that could have followed. These arguments are important, and they cannot be eradicated so easily without making any effort. History and heritage should have weighted more heavily on the shoulders of our leaders, that should be looking further than us, “the common people”.

We didn't take care of our theatre, we let it degrade for more than twenty years. Consequently, we gave others enough arguments to seal it as a building that must be demolished. This is where the mistakes lie. We shouldn’t have discussed whether the walls are strong enough. Maybe it would have been better to discuss if it was too small and whether it could be expanded.

The National Theatre had been neglected for far too long that it required at least a thorough restoration. Broken windows that allow the unforgiving and harsh nature inside, unventilated rooms, poor maintenance, complete abandonment, all affect the condition of the building. Every material, without exception, is affected by usage and the years that go by, but they can be maintained, repaired, adapted. 

With the growing population of Tirana, it might be true that the building became too small. But these are not reason enough to demolish a theatre. You forgot to discuss its historical values, its functionality and how it has stood the test of time. Ah, I wish we were so motivated and creative that we could have united wise, knowledgeable, and experienced professionals from various disciplines and professions to find a rational solution for the future of the National Theatre building. 

It could have been restored, it could have been expanded, it could have changed function. It would not have been the first building for which such as decision has been made in Tirana. The Ministry of Interior, the National Bank and most recently the Dajti Hotel, are all buildings that are not in their original condition, but the concept and architectural solutions have been preserved.

Lastly, I would like to briefly address the projects that have been implemented so far or are planned to replace the theatre and other buildings in Tirana. Ask the city locals and those who have lived in the capital for many, many decades, how many buildings from our parents’ generation, our grandparents’ generation, our great-grandparents’ generation have been destroyed and have disappeared. How many are left? Tirana is not an old city, but most of the buildings are already younger than my generation.

The identity, the character of the city, the facade of Tirana is not coop-Himmelb(l)au, nor Bjarke Ingels of BIG, nor MVRDV. It is the duty of those foreign architectural studios invited to work here to adapt to our tradition, our culture, our area. Not the other way around. You cannot build in a fragile country like Albania monster-like buildings without identity that can be built anywhere, even on an empty field.

Choosing an architect may seem like an easy thing to do, but few of them reflect on their work and the impact they leave behind. Remember that architecture affects the way you live; where you eat, where you sleep, where you work, where you rest, how you travel etc. Design and construction require a great sense of responsibility, vision, and integrity. 

Tirana Times
By Tirana Times May 28, 2020 16:48