Before it was the Pyramid of Tirana, it was the Enver Hoxha Museum. The monumental brutalist structure, which was opened in 1988 to honour the communist dictator, was designed by his daughter (and architect) Pranvera Hoxha and her husband Klement Kolaneci. At the time, it was the most expensive building the Albanian communist state had ever realized. After the fall of communism in 1991, the building was repurposed as a conference centre, before being utilized as a NATO base during the 1999 Kosovo War and then converted into a broadcasting centre and radio station in 2001.
Given the building’s various uses over the years — and in turn, its ever-changing identity — the current phase of its evolution has been highly controversial. Previous incomplete renovations left the building interior cluttered and dark. But it didn’t make sense to start from scratch: A 2015 study showed that the majority of Albanians were against demolishing the building. Enter Dutch architecture firm MVRDV, which was tapped by the government and the Albanian-American Development Foundation (AADF) in 2017 to transform it into a nurturing cultural hub for young people.
The architects were inspired by the building as a symbol of agency and empowerment, drawing on the way that locals had already reclaimed the space. Even as the structure deteriorated, Tirana’s youth used the structure as a gathering place, climbing the sloping beams and sliding back down. “The first time I saw the Pyramid being walked all over by the youth of Tirana, I was deeply touched by its symbolism and by its incredible optimism,” recalls MVRDV founding partner Winy Maas.
For this reason, the architects opted to add steps along the building’s sloping sides, animating the roof as people of all ages climb up the 20-metre-high pyramid (a lift on the building’s Western façade provides an accessible route to the top). In a playful ode to its past as a teen hangout, one beam incorporates a sloped section where people can slide their way back down.
The 11,835-square-metre building, unveiled this past May, is now completely open to the public and surrounded by a new urban park, reviving the complex as a landmark in the heart of the city. MVRDV injected a sense of fun — and new programs — through a series of vibrantly colourful boxes placed on, in, and around the main structure. By promoting addition rather than demolition, the design strategy is also a sustainable one: Only the added boxes need to be climate-controlled, as the rest of the structure is open to its surroundings for much of the year. These spaces — around half of which will be occupied by profit educational institution TUMO Tirana, which provides free after-school education in robotics, animation, music and more — host cafés, studios, workshops, start-up offices, incubators, festivals and classrooms.
“Keeping in mind this was the most expensive building the communist state had ever realized in a time when the oppressed Albanian population was living in poverty, we removed all symbols glorifying the dictatorship in our transformation. We did keep some of the original details so visitors are also aware of the building’s dark past,” Maas explains. “The structure is completely open as a ruin in the park, and all these boxes are ‘squatting’ in and around the structure. The transformed Pyramid has now become a monument for the people and their ability to overcome and outlive dictators.”
There is humour and irony in the fact that a building designed to be a showpiece of the former dictator is now trodden by the very population he once ruled over. Not only is the Pyramid of Tirana a paragon of adaptive reuse, but it is also a lesson in making a building representative of foregone ideals relevant in the present day. After all, we cannot learn from history if we erase its influence on the built environment. And now, the country’s complex past and its promising future are proudly on display for all to see.
The Pyramid of Tirana, which formerly served as a museum dedicated to dictator Enver Hoxha, has been revived as a colourful cultural hub.