Restoring and Reinventing Albanian Identity: A New Mosque and Museum of Tirana & Religious Harmony

 

by Dan Madryga

 



Winning entry by Bjarke Ingels Group

 

Tirana, Albania might be the last place that many would associate with cutting edge architecture. The capital of a poor country still struggling to sweep away the lingering vestiges of the communist era, it is understandable that architecture and design have not always been a top priority. Yet in the face of the city’s struggles, Tirana is striving to reclaim and reshape its image and identity, and international design competitions are playing no small role in this movement. And while Tirana has yet to be associated with contemporary architecture, the implementation of these design competitions has introduced a handful of renowned architecture firms to the city with high hopes of bolstering the international image of Albania. In 2008, MVRDV won commission for a community master plan on Tirana Lake that will herald forward thinking, ecologically minded urban development. Earlier this year, Coop Himmelb(l)au won a competition for the new Albanian Parliament Building with a design intended to symbolize the transparency and openness of democracy. Most recently, Tirana can now add BIG (Bjarke Ingels Group) of Denmark to these ranks as the winner of the New Mosque and Museum of Tirana & Religious Harmony Competition, an ambitious project aimed to further rekindle a tattered Albanian cultural identity.
The recent efforts to renew and improve the physical image of Tirana can be attributed in large part to the city’s three-term mayor, Edi Rama. With his background as an artist, Rama has launched a number of initiatives over his decade in office, intent on improving the aesthetic image of Tirana. The design competition for the mosque and cultural complex can be viewed as the latest component of his “Return to Identity” project, which has gone to great lengths to remove the many unsightly and illegally constructed buildings that plague the city and help provide a clean slate for more progressive architecture and urban design.

The Mosque and Museum competition focuses on reclaiming a key religious and cultural identity that was long suppressed by communism. While Albania claims three chief religions—a Muslim majority alongside significant Orthodox Christian and Catholic communities—a strict communist regime ruthlessly banned religion. For over four decades, Albanians were under the thumb of an atheist regime where religious practitioners could face humiliation, imprisonment, and even torture and execution. The anti-religious campaign reached its zenith in the 1960s, when most Mosques and churches were demolished, and a select few with architectural significance were converted into warehouses, gymnasiums, and youth centers.

The revival of religious institutions began with the 1990 collapse of the communist regime. Yet decades of suppression took their toll, with the vestiges of Albania’s religious heritage essentially reduced to rubble. While the two Christian religions have since regained centers of worship, after twenty-one years of restored religious freedom, Tirana still lacks a mosque suitable for serving the sizable Muslim population. Only one mosque still stands in the central city—the historic Et’hem Bey Mosque—certainly a potent symbol of Tirana’s Islamic heritage, but particularly inadequate in size to accommodate the large numbers who would want to worship there on special occasions.
Hence emphasis in the brief concerning the size of the building: a grand mosque that can adequately serve 1000 prayers on normal days, 5000 on Fridays, and up to 10,000 during holy feasts. Supporting this mosque, the program also specifies the design of a Center of Islamic Culture that will house teaching, learning, and research facilities including a library, multipurpose hall, and seminar classrooms.

Another component of the competition program, the Museum of Tirana and Religious Harmony, moves beyond the realm of the Muslim community in an explicit gesture to bring together citizens from all faiths and backgrounds. Aside from presenting the general history of Tirana, the museum will focus on the city’s religious heritage, highlighting both the turbulent moment of suppression under communism as well as the religious harmony that has since been reinstated. Educating the public about Islamic culture and promoting religious tolerance at a time when relations between religious communities are strained throughout the world is certainly a noble objective.
Underlining the importance of this project is its prominent site on Scanderbeg Square, the administrative and cultural center of Tirana where major government buildings share an expansive public space with museums and theaters. The square itself was the subject of a 2003 design competition that will eventually reclaim the urban center—at present a rather chaotic vehicular hub—as a pedestrian zone with a more human scale. Situated on triangular site adjacent to the Opera and Hotel Tirana, the Mosque and Cultural Center will be a highly visible component of Tirana’s urban landscape.

 


left: BIG site plan; right: rendering of Scanderbeg Square to appear after redesign (image by seARCH Architects)

 

The two-stage, international competition was organized by the City of Tirana and the Albanian Muslim community and advised by Nevat Sayin and Artan Hysa.
Over one hundred teams—the vast majority European­—submitted qualifications for the first stage. In early March, the short-listing committee selected five teams to receive an honorarium of 45,000 Euros each to develop designs:
Bjarke Ingels Group – Copenhagen, Denmark
seARCH – Amsterdam, Holland
Zaha Hadid Architects – London, UK
Andreas Perea Ortega with NEXO – Madrid, Spain
Architecture Studio – Paris, France
The designs were judged by a diverse European panel:
Edi Rama – Mayor of Tirana, Albania
Paul Boehm – architect, Cologne, Germany
Vedran Mimica – Croatian architect; current director of the Berlage Institute
Peter Swinnen – Partner and architect at 51N4E, Brussels
Prof. Enzo Siviero – engineer; Professor at University IUAV, Venice
Artan Shkreli – architect, Tirana, Albania
Shyqyri Rreli – Muslim community representative

On 1 May 2011, the panel announced Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG) as the winner.

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The Berlin Trade Union School Competition (1928)

 

Bauhaus Director, Hannes Meyer, Rehabilitated with


the 2007 Restoration of his Winning Design

 

 

After the Nazi government ascended to power in 1933, one of their first acts was to take possession of a trade union school in the Berlin suburb of Bernau and turn it into a training facility for the SS and Gestapo. This action represented an antithesis of the school’s original purpose when it was built in 1930—to serve as a training facility for the members of the All-German Federal Trade Unions. Since the union movement was an anathema to the Nazis, it is understandable that this institution was a high-profile target on their agenda so soon after they took power. The fact that the architect of record was a Communist may also have played a role.

 

Initially, the Federal School of the All-German Trade Unions (ADGB in German), had been the subject of a competition in 1928, won by the new Director of the Bauhaus School in Dessau, Hannes Meyer, with his partner, Hans Wittwer. The team also included a supporting cast consisting of the architecture design department of the school and the Israeli architect, Arieh Sharon. Although this competition was hardly as high-profile as one which took place a couple of years earlier for the League of Nations Headquarters in Geneva—also entered by Meyer—it could hardly be characterized as one which slipped completely under the radar.

 


Aerial view of model from east; Bauhaus competition entry (right)

 

Why this competition was limited, rather than open to all architects was made clear by the program. Although it could have been limited for political and budgeting considerations, the list of shortlisted participants was an indication that the goal was to produce something modern, rather than traditional, and more in tune with the forward-looking philosophy and pedagogical Zeitgeist of the left.

 

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In Memoriam: William Bricken

It’s seldom that one finds a separate section in an obituary dedicated to architecture competitions. We shouldn’t have been surprised to find this in the case of Bill Bricken, a frequent participant in design competitions and one of our long-time subscribers. It was also a case where we had published articles on competitions

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SO-IL Re-invents Place Mazas in Paris


View of site from south Rendering ©SO-IL

 

In Paris, it’s no longer just about Grands Projets. Lately, the French have become more focused on areas bordering the Seine River, and how to turn them into more attractive destinations for locals and visitors alike. The most recent projet, and the subject of a competition, was Place Mazas, located on the Right Bank of the Seine in the 12th District. Partially because of the bordering highway’s proximity to the river, the site is underused and hardly regarded as a high profile destination.

 

Now that may all change. The competition, won by the New York-based firm, SO-IL, has conceived a plan, which will create a series of park areas and structures relating to the current needs of the community. Sustainability is almost always on the front burner in these competitions, and this was no exception. SO-IL’s plan for the site’s only major building is a seven-story structure made primarily of wood. Although situated all by itself at the end of a street—bordering on the Seine—its shape and size serve to address the composition of the streetscape in a very logical, spatial manner. According to the intent of the winner, “This volume includes a housing program in co-living typology, with several interior and exterior shared spaces for the residents as well as a public restaurant on the ground floor.”

 

 



Arsenal Basin Rendering ©SO-IL

 

The rest of the site is devoted to “public activities,” opening up views to the Seine River and includes a repurposed 1905 lockhouse and a “temporary pavilion” hosting facilities like public co-working spaces, a fabricaion lab, an event room and a terrace offering views on the Arsenal Basin, the river, and the surrounding city, “as well as a facility for homeless care already established on site.” Labeling the pavilion as a “temporary” structure is based on the assumption that neighborhoods are always evolving, and that future changes could be in store.

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New Taoyuan City Main Public Library, Taiwan


Creating a Culture Cluster

 


©Azusa Sekkei

 

Located in the Zhongzheng Arts District of Taoyuan, the new city public library, to be situated next door to the Taoyuan Arts Center, is the newest building block in what is intended to become a cultural center in the city. No longer just a book repository, libraries have embraced the digital age and are now providing additional activities for the community such as lectures, occupational therapy (OT) projects, theme restaurants, etc. In the case of the Taoyuan City Library, a cinema is also to be added.

 

The competition for this US$60 million project was organized as an invited, one-stage competition—not counting the initial short-listing phase—which concluded with the selection of 10 firms. In the first, “tender” phase, a local Taiwanese firm could, but was not required to, team up with a foreign architecture firm. In any case, the “Representative Tenderer had to be a registered architect in Taiwan, but were encouraged to invited international architects to join with them. Thus, foreign firms, not registered in Taiwan, were not allowed to enter without teaming up with a domestic firm.

 

The ten local “tenderers” were:

 

  • Habitech Architects
  • Bio-Architecture Formosana
  • HCW Architects & Associates
  • M.H. WANG Architects and Associates
  • Chien Architects & Associates
  • Imagineering Architects (Taiwan)
  • T.C.K. Architect Engineer Planner
  • Q-LAB
  • Cosmos International

Although we do not know who the five local unranked firms teamed up with during the final adjudication process, three of the five finalists teams did include outside participation, including that of the winner.

 

■ First place – T.C.K. Architect Engineer Planner + Azusa Sekkei (Japan)

■ Second place – Ricky Liu & Associates (Taiwan)

■ Third place – Habitech Architects + Tange Associates (Japan)

■ Fourth place – Bio-Architecture Formosana + MVRDV (Netherlands)

■ Fifth place – Q-LAB (Taiwan)

 

Although one outside structural engineer, Abolhassan Astaneh-Asl, a professor at Berkeley, was originally scheduled to participate on the jury, the catastrophic collapse of a highrise in Teheran caused by a fire, resulted in his call to investigate the disaster. Still, one should note that five of the eight panelists were architects from Taiwan.

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Hannes Meyer’s German Workers’ Seminar in Berlin as UNESCO Heritage Site


When we recently learned that Bauhaus Director Hannes Meyer’s Bundesschule ADGB (German Workers’ Seminar in Berlin/Bernau) had been designated a World Heritage site by UNESCO, we felt it was an opportunity to toot our own horn. Back in 2007, when a renovation of the complex had just been completed, we were given a tour of the facility and subsequently did a feature article on that 1928 competition in our COMPETITIONS quarterly magazine (Vol. 17, #4). Hardly six months passed before we learned that the site had received the initial award for the 2008 World Monuments Fund Modernism Prize. In most cases, we wouldn’t have made a case for any influence that may have resulted from our publication, except that one member of that 3-person jury happened to be on our distribution list. So when the UNESCO designation occurred, we also received congratulations from a member of the German committee responsible for the renovation—for any role we may have played in the matter.

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The Fort Worth Museum of Modern Art


Tadao Ando © Laio (all other photos by author)

 

When you think of iconic libraries in the United States, Louis Kahn’s Kiimball Library in Fort Worth, Texas is one of the first that comes to mind. But space in the old existing Museum of Modern Art as well as in the Kahn building was limited; so in 1996 a competition was organized to select an architect, based on a winning design. The competition, which was documented in our quarterly (COMPETITIONS, Vol. 8,#1), was supplemented by an insightful article by the former Dean of the School of Architecture at the University of Texas at Arlington, George Wright. He mentioned that the competition took place at the same time that the competition was occurring for MOMA in New York, but that this did not deter architects from the first echelon from submitting their qualifications for a shortlist.

 

From that group, Tadao Ando from Japan won out over Richard Gluckman (New York), Arata Isozaki (Tokyo), Ricardo Legorreta (Mexico City), and David Schwartz (Dallas).

 

The brief stipulated that the new museum should “neither mimic the Kimball nor dispute its primacy.” As a very modern giant box with protruding galleries breaking up the façade by facing out into the lagoon, Ando’s design did neither. But its very spacious entrance and lobby area was an immediate sign that it was a different kind of museum. Consisting for the most part of large volumes, it was ideally designed to accommodate 21st Century art installations and art works.

 


Visiting such an important facility more than a decade after its opening was an opportunity to examine how the museum has stood the test of time. From my perspective, it is certainly one of the best museums dedicated solely to modern art that I have visited—a view affirmed by others accompanying me on this visit, most of whom were not architects but frequent museum visitors.

 

Aside from the many attributes of the main building, the landscaping, containing a large lagoon surrounding the structure, was also masterfully conceived. As a shallow element at the edge of the building, one could see an artwork by Jenny Holzer, illuminated words in red, carrying a message out of the building into the shallows. Also of special note, exemplifying the spatial attributes of the building, was Martin Puryear’s Ladder for Booker T. Washington (left), an obvious crowd favorite.

 

This building, exquisite in its finished concrete interior and spatial planning, with a flexibility to accommodate all kinds of modern art, is an example not only of good architecture in the broader sense, but also turning the landscape into an art form.

 


Martin Puryear – Ladder for Booker T. Washington

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Qatar Art Mill Competition

 

 

ELEMENTAL was selected by an international jury, from 26-strong longlist, based on their strategies for the site and its links to the city. ELEMENTAL’s concept design for the historic waterfront site in the centre of Doha took as its inspiration the rhythmic monumental grain silos that are the industrial legacy of the original Flour Mills on the site, which have produced bread for the State since the 1980s. However, in a creative riff, the team added to the strict geometry of retained silos a looser grouping of new silos that will act as cooling chimneys circulating air through the site that extends spectacularly on three sides into Doha Bay.

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Remembrance on the Pacific Rim: The Canterbury Earthquake Memorial Dedication


Winning entry:
Graga Vezjek Architect (Image © Simon Baker)

 

Living on the Pacific Rim can be a risky business. In L2010, Christchurch, New Zealand suffered a devastating series of earthquakes, resulting in the virtual destruction of half of the city’s urban fabric in the downtown area, the destruction of 100,000 homes, and the deaths of 185 of its inhabitants.

 

When we first heard of this disaster, one of our concerns was the survival of the new Christchurch Art Gallery, a stunning modern structure, which was the result of a 1998 design competition won by the Buchan Group of Sydney.* Based on the success of that competition, and its strong support by the local populace, using a similar process to select a design for a memorial to commemorate the victims of this disaster would have seemed to be a logical strategy.

 


Christchurch Art Gallery by Buchan Group (Sydney, Australia)
Competition (1998)
Completion (2003)

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Science Island Design Competition



Image © SMAR Architecture Studio

 

Until the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1989, the occupied Baltic countries were known for their hi-tech contributions to the Soviet economy. As a carryover from that period, the Baltic nations still emphasize technology as a major factor in their economies. Thus, the establishment of a new Science museum by Lithuania in the nation’s capital of Kaunas is hardly surprising. To highlight the importance of this project, the government turned to a design competition, providing the museum with international exposure and attracting the attention of the global architectural community.

 

The stated purpose of the new project was clear from the competition brief:

 

‘Science Island’s mission is to popularize science through hands-on enquiry and exposition and celebrate recent achievements in science and global technologies. The Centre, within the celebrated university city of Kaunas, one of UNESCO’s global creative cities, will focus particularly on environmental themes and ecosystems, demonstrating sustainability and future energy technologies in the design of its own building. The circa 13,000 sqm site for the development is ideally positioned in close proximity to Kaunas’ historic Centras district, and most of Lithuania’s nearly three million residents live under an hour’s drive away.’

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