The contrast could not be starker. Once a symbol of Albania’s Communist regime, surrounded by monumental Stalinist buildings and chaotic traffic, Skanderbeg Square –the main plaza in the Albanian capital of Tirana– has been transformed into a human-scale pedestrian oasis surrounded by trees and fountains.
Named after the 15th century Albanian hero who resisted Ottoman forces, George Castriot, also known as Skanderbeg, the plaza was built by the Austrians in 1917. A statue of Skanderbeg was erected in the square in 1968, replacing the towering statue of Soviet ruler Joseph Stalin, who had fallen into disgrace after his death. Under Communist dictator Enver Hoxha, who served as head of the Albanian state from 1944 until his death in 1985, the square was reconfigured through the addition of a monumental Palace of Culture and a National Museum of History. Hoxha’s own statue was toppled in February 1991 — after the popular uprising against Albania’s Communist regime.
Skanderbeg Square is now the biggest pedestrian plaza in the Balkans. It is paved with tiles from all parts of Albania, as a symbol of national unity. “This is the square of our national and European identity. It is also the square of equal citizens, not the square of power as it was conceived,” Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama told Reuters at the square’s official re-opening in June 2017.
Critics of the 13.5 million Euro (US$15.7 million) makeover claim the tender process was flawed and that the architectural unity of the square has been destroyed. Still, just one year after the official re-opening, it is clear Tirana’s main square has undergone a metamorphosis that most locals are happy with.