Albanian Architects Working Together to Prevent the Past From Being Forgotten

In collaboration with Hostwriter, we have asked the Tandem Western Balkans participants to share their stories. In this story, Jakob Weizman reports on Renis Batalli's and Fortunë Haziri's collaboration.

In the southern region of Kosovo, a small city is undergoing an architectural revitalization, in both its history and its future, thanks to two promising young architects from Kosovo and Albania. The youngest nation in Europe, in contrast, is no stranger to the sands of time, undergoing many transformations in the past centuries under the rule of several authorities, including the Ottomans, Italy and Yugoslavia.

Renis Batalli is 31 years of age, born and raised in Albania’s capital city, Tirana, where he studied and now teaches architecture and design, while embarking on projects that establish creative spaces in the city’s urban landscape that took advantage of its history.

Through his organization, Destil, he collaborated with fellow architects to create a workspace that also accommodated travellers as a hostel, and a bar as well. Since 2014, a variety of events, concerts, art exhibitions, conferences and many more have been hosted at the Destil Hostel and Creative Hub, which was an old Italian villa from 1938.

“Unfortunately, two years ago in 2019, we were forced to move from this building because the owner sold it to someone who wanted to destroy it and make a building out of it,” said Batalli.
“Last July, they destroyed the building, and it created a huge buzz in the media that they were demolishing an old villa that was a monument of culture to make a building of seven stories.”

“And this is happening a lot in Albania right now. They are destroying many, many monuments of culture just to make highrises for the economy,” said Batalli.

Last summer, tension rose to an all-time high in defiance of the Albanian government’s plans to destroy the historic National Theater, which, like the villa, had stood there since the Italian occupation during World War II. Protestors filled the streets of Tirana, which was met with violence carried out by the police, as the theater was demolished soon after.

Albania’s Prime Minister, Edi Rama, considered those that opposed the plan for a new theatre to be constructed, to be people that “don’t love development.” Albanian film director Edmond Budina responded in an interview with Balkan Insight saying that “this is not the destruction of a building. This is also the installation of a dictatorship,” he said.

Inspired to devote more effort into preserving the remnants of the past, Batalli teamed up with an architect in Kosovo, 27-year-old Fortunë Haziri, who is Kosovar Albanian, to prevent something similar to this from occurring in her hometown of Ferizaj. Haziri, who studied both architecture and archaeology, is currently involved with the Foundation for Cultural Heritage Thana, striving to protect the country’s history.

Ferizaj, only a forty-minute drive south from the capital city Pristina, is undergoing a drastic change much like many other cities in both Kosovo and Albania, where old buildings are being torn down to create skyscrapers that can garner more money for investors and the municipalities alike.

Both Batalli and Haziri devoted their project, into doing the best they can to spread awareness about why it is important to conserve their heritage. One of the buildings stands out in particular, which is the first Albanian school, which was established in 1930 after two years of construction.

During this period, Kosovo was under the rule of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, and though the region was mostly populated by ethnic Albanians, they did not have the right to learn in their own language until after the second world war. The school was built by an unknown architect, however the style of architecture is Austro-Hungarian.

“Until then they were studying in Serbian and they were quite persecuted, so this building is very important to the city,” said Haziri.

“The municipality was trying to destroy it with the justification that it’s an old building and we don’t need it. The first Albanian school is on the list of protection of cultural heritage, but which has been left at the mercy of time. The school can serve as an example of how buildings with architectural value in Ferizaj do not receive proper attention and care.”

In addition, the school has become a victim of arson on five separate occasions in recent time, causing authorities in the municipality to declare the building as a danger to citizens, which gave them reason to prepare and plan for its demolition. In response, the local community along with the former students of the school pressured them to prevent this from happening, since the school was in fact protected by law on the list of protection of cultural heritage.

Haziri and other activists decided to clean up the building after it had been damaged by the fires in 2018, and together with the local community they created a petition to restore the school and renovate it for a new way to use the space. Their plan was to turn the building into a new art school in the city of Ferizaj, under the Ministry of Culture and Regional Center for Cultural History in Ferizaj.

Initially, the plan to bring life back to the edifice was slated to begin in the spring of 2020, however little work progress has been made due to the global pandemic, yet Haziri points out that construction has begun in other parts of the city and country since the beginning of summer last year. Together with Batalli, Haziri hopes to provide transparent information upon the importance of preserving history in cases such as this.

“While the architectural heritage in Ferizaj is at risk until we start doing something concrete about its preservation, this project aims to document the old buildings in Ferizaj and inform the citizens about the architectural values in the city that should be preserved,” said Haziri about the book she plans to publish with Batalli about Ferizaij’s architectural history.

Ferizaj before 1920
Ferizaj before 1920

“In case they get demolished before we save them, at least we told the story of Ferizaj from a different point of view, since nobody up until now took an interest to write about the development of the architecture of the city from its foundation, which was in 1873,” she added.

The project began during the end of 2019, with plans to publish the information in the spring or summer this year. Stemming from his own personal experience with the eradication of his own country’s past through architecture, Batalli collaborated with Haziri and saw the potential in raising each other’s voices through the power of awareness, and let the story of the city help those understand why it is important to save these still-standing structures.

“To start this conversation would attract more people so they can be aware about cultural heritage because you cannot change everything with one action, but you need to go step by step. And the first step is that we want to make people aware of it and we want to have people contribute in this work, not to be just our project, but to be everyone’s project, everyone’s will,” said Batalli.

As the two began to investigate further, they uncovered that buildings similar to the first Albanian school, did not receive the same care and attention which led to them being erased from the past, such as the ‘Primary School Tefik Çanga’ which was built in 1923, yet demolished in 2014 due to poor conditions and being a risk to citizens. One of the first students of the school was interviewed by both Haziri and Batalli, who shared his thoughts on his history becoming deleted.

“Because it was an old building, there were great remarks from the citizens that they decided to demolish it. It should not have been demolished! They had built the new building near it, so it had to stand out, and the old building had to go,” said Ibrahim Hyseni, one of the school’s first students.

“I met some fellow-citizens and they knew that I was very attached to that school and they were telling me: ooo Ibo they are putting your school to the ground! -I went there and looked … the building already became one with the ground. Seeing that image, it had me in tears!” added Hyseni.

Haziri points out that this can serve as a lesson to citizens that local authorities will destroy the architectural heritage, manifesting itself as a wakeup call to become more active in saving the other buildings.

Throughout their investigation, they found many other buildings that must be saved, and fellow citizens suffering from the pressure of economic development to give up their ownership of historic buildings to allow highrises to be constructed. One owner received threats from construction companies and pressured by local authorities to give up his building, which is one of the oldest in the city, according to Batalli.

“There are few other houses in the other part of the city near the center that are already in the process of being destroyed, even though they’re like 80 years old and this might not sound that old, but it is. So there is this fear that (Ferizaj) has already lost its identity,” said Batalli.

The publication will feature photos, interviews, data and endless information about Ferizaj’s past, aiming to cement a memory that belongs to the people, regardless of how Kosovo’s government treats the monuments, it will live on through efforts of architects such as Haziri and Batalli to raise their voice and promote awareness.

“The interviews are also very important because we are going to tell the stories of the people, not just of the buildings, but the people who are the ones that will leave them. And it’s through their memories in which we want to tell the story,” said Haziri.

In order to build our future, we must learn from the past. Thanks to the work of those striving to protect the past like Haziri and Batalli, the future will present itself clearer. Recognizing the work of cultural change-makers in Western Balkans will conserve the importance of history and building bridges between different communities, and calling on today’s youth to spark change.

*All historical photos were provided by Fortune Haziri from the archival center in Ferizaj

Haziri working in the field. Photo courtesy of Fortune Haziri.
Haziri working in the field. Photo courtesy of Fortune Haziri.

About Tandem Western Balkans:

The programme encourages experimental collaborations between cultural change-makers in the Western Balkan region, working together to cultivate creative solutions that set forth a ripple effect of change in their local communities and beyond. The progamme transcends across different sectors, looking for innovative ways to sustain socio-economic development in the region.