Once a state secret, these Albanian bunkers are now museums

Creative ideas and art transport Tirana, Albania’s lively capital city, far from its Communist past.

In many former Eastern Bloc countries, wrecking balls and social progress took out hulking Communist buildings and militaristic Cold War structures after the Berlin Wall fell. In Tirana, the mountain-framed capital city of Albania, the government and local artists have chosen more vibrant and unusual ways to blaze their way out of years of dictatorship and economic depression.

Crumbling, gray Ottoman-era mansions have been painted in shades of Creamsicle orange and rain slicker yellow; drab, Stalinist mid-rises serve as outsized canvases for jewel-toned Cubist abstracts or rainbow stripes. Much of the credit goes to former mayor Edi Rama, a painter-turned-politician (now Albania’s prime minister), who began a citywide beautification effort in 2000 that saw artists decking out building facades and city workers planting 55,000 trees and bushes in public spaces. 

“When colors came out everywhere, a mood of change started transforming the spirit of people,” said Rama in a TED Talk. “It revived hope that had been lost in my city.” Residents and tourists now use the rainbow-tinted edifices as selfie backdrops, and the government claimed the paint helped crime go down and local pride go up.

Public art and paint aren’t the only forces moving this small Balkan capital beyond the oppression of the Communist era. Around Tirana, history museums fill former military bunkers and galleries dot neighborhoods once reserved for party officials. 

A paranoid dictator and his bunker obsession

Until a decade or two ago, the most common souvenir you’d tote home from Tirana would probably have been an alabaster bunker ashtray, not a selfie taken in front of a colorful building. The domed tchotchkes pay wry tribute to the more than 173,000 bunkers (bunkerët) that once dotted Albania and its capital, bleak reminders of the 1941-1985 reign of dictator Enver Hoxha.

(These Brutalist monuments salute a country that no longer exists.)

Brutal to his citizens and notoriously paranoid, Hoxha believed neighboring countries Greece and Yugoslavia as well as former Soviet allies wanted to invade Albania. So from the 1960s through the early 1980s, he erected thousands of concrete fortresses around the country, ranging in size from two-person igloos to multi-room underground lairs. (For an idea of how pervasive the program was, see the recent documentary Mushrooms of Concrete.)

Their construction further isolated the country and drained its finances and energy, leaving it one of Europe’s poorest countries. In the end, all that cement mixing was for nothing. “Hoxha spent billions of dollars for his dream of bunkering (bunkerizimi) every inch of Albania, enslaving and bringing an entire population to the brink of starvation,” says Admirina Peçi, a local journalist and historian. “But history has proven that the real risk of attacks was zero.”

Today, though many bunkers have collapsed or been destroyed, hundreds remain, repurposed as animal barns; painted to resemble flowers in city suburbs; or, for teenagers, used as secluded hideouts to smooch. At some of Albania’s Adriatic coast resorts (about an hour west of Tirana), cement domes have morphed into food stands and changing rooms. Elesio Resort in Golem has turned its basement bunker into a spa; its domed roof, jutting up into the hotel restaurant, is lined with shelves that hold morning breakfast buffets.

Cold War hideouts become museums 

The most elaborate repurposing of these doomsday structures is Bunk’Art, a pair of history museums/art galleries filling two underground nuclear shelters built for Hoxha and his allies. Amid stark, windowless rooms and thick steel doors meant to protect party leaders from a nuclear blast, video installations, artifacts, and contemporary art delve into 20th-century Albanian history, including the Fascist Italian occupation from 1939-1944 as well as the Communist era.

 “It was becoming increasingly difficult to come across symbols of Hoxha’s regime. The only pieces of Communism were the thousands of bunkers scattered all over the country like concrete mushrooms,” said Carlo Bollino, an Italian-born, Albanian-based journalist who helped to found Bunk’Art in 2014. “A museum inside bomb bunkers seemed like a formula for showing history.”

Both Bunk’Arts—one on the outskirts of Tirana, the other in the city center—hold an eclectic mix of history and art. An exhibit about the overemphasis on sports in Hoxha’s time slyly recreates a school gym; a basketball hoop holds a bust of the mustached dictator. At the entrance to downtown’s Bunk’Art 2, vintage photos of Albanians murdered by the Communist government line the domed entry as a soundtrack of their relatives’ remembrances plays.

“Albanians have a strong relationship with retelling the past,” says Driant Zeneli, a Tirana video artist with work at Bunk’Art. Since creatives have only been able to express themselves freely since Communism fell in 1990, Zeneli feels like the community is making up for lost time. “Today Albania is a place of big ideas and energy, with artists translating the transition from a long dictatorship. It’s the gaze of a generation understanding its past and looking at the future.”

Some activists and younger Albanians believe more needs to be done to preserve Cold War military structures, and to use them to recount a period in history marked by forced labor camps and brutal interrogations by the Sigurimi secret police. 

“There is no memory politics, no desire by Albania’s ministry of culture to deal with the Communist legacy or strategic thinking about what to do with the bunkers,” says Ivo Krug, co-founder of Tek Bunkeri, a Tirana-based NGO working to repurpose bunkers and revive rural communities. The group turned one cement tunnel outside of Tirana into an arts and culture pop-up in 2017 and hopes to help carve an interactive history museum out of a massive underground shelter in Gjirokastra, UNESCO World Heritage city in southern Albania.

Though some critics claim repurposing or painting over Cold War structures is a cheap fix for crumbling infrastructure (or a white-washing of Albania’s dark history), these creative changes have brought optimism and forward motion to a city once considered dull and economically depressed. Punch-bright walls in older neighborhoods like Pazari i Ri and Ali Demi now draw tourists, and street murals, forbidden during Communist times, have bloomed all over town.

“Color was almost nonexistent in the public space [until the 2000s], but day by day, giant leaves, geometrics, dots and words appeared on building façades,” says local artist Ledia Konstandini, who has chronicled the changing city with illustrations and photos. “At the beginning, they looked out of place. But the more decorated facades there were, the more natural they looked. People overcame fear and boundaries with color, and it has become part of our urban identity.” 

Just off the city’s central Skanderberg Square (a tribute to the 15th-century hero who fought off the Turkish), the National Gallery of Arts weaves together Albania’s past and present. Contemporary works—sound sculptures, photo journalism—keep company with a large display of “Socialist Realism” paintings and drawings. 

See these forgotten Soviet bunkers around the world.

Mid 20th-century artists, “guided” by the oppressive government, made idealized images of farms and happy peasants. Pretty pictures—Kolë Idromino’s villagers in elaborate folk costumes, Isuf Sulovari’s head-scarved female factory workers—suggest a bygone Socialist utopia at odds with the exhibits at Bunk’Art.

A few blocks south, there’s another crumbling symbol of Albania’s Communist past, the Pyramid of Tirana. Built in 1988 as a tribute to Hoxha, the hulking cement and glass behemoth had fallen into disrepair in recent decades. But a futuristic renovation of the Brutalist behemoth started in February. It will see the space turned into a STEM school and cultural center, complete with an exterior slide.

Like most changes to historic spaces in Tirana, the pyramid’s potential redo has created controversy. “Many people consider these things as makeup, like lipstick on an old face,” says Konstandini. “As an artist, I believe in urban language, and I think Tirana is gaining a new vocabulary to express its life and temperament.”

Jennifer Barger is a senior editor at National Geographic travel. Follow her on Instagram.

Marta Bellingreri is an Italian writer. Follow her on Twitter.

Alessio Mamo is a Sicilian photographer. Follow him on Instagram.

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