Raino Isto

Let us begin by considering two images. The first is a photograph by Niko Xhufka, one of the principal photographers for Zëri i Popullit, the primary daily published in the People’s Republic of Albania. (fig. 1) Published in a 1976 photobook compiling Xhufka’s work—and highlighting his compellingly artistic approach to socialist realist photography—the image was accompanied by the caption “When spring arrives...” (“Kur vjen pranvera...”).1

Presumably taken from the second story of a school building, the photograph captures an expanse of pavestones from a slightly elevated viewpoint, looking out across a space whose gridded character is visually reinforced by the dark grass growing between the stones, clearly delineating each quadrilateral. Across this expanse, a group of children rush towards the photographer, or more precisely to some point below the camera’s position, while at the upper left, a woman chaperones the group. Raking light produces dynamic shadows as the children run forward, and it also dramatizes the second primary structuring form of the photograph (the grid being the first): a pedestal that disappears off of the left side of the photo, casting its shadow diagonally across the photograph to vanish off its opposite edge. A bust presumably surmounts this architectural element, but any such legible object is not even visible in the projected shadow: only the clean vertical line of the pedestal extends across the open space. This is the photograph’s charm: although it is clearly structured by both architecture and ideology, these actors are absent, in an explicit sense, from its field of vision. The selectiveness of the camera’s gaze is palpable.

Niko Xhufka, Kur vjen pranvera
Figure 1. Niko Xhufka, Kur vjen pranvera.... Photo from Ritme të Jetës Shqiptare (Tirana: 8 Nëntori, 1976).

A very similar photograph graces the cover of Belgian architecture firm 51N4E’s book dedicated to the firm’s project for the new Skanderbeg Square in Tirana.2 (fig. 2) This second photo, by Filip Dujardin, looks down from an elevated vantage point on the new square, completed in 2017, capturing ten figures as they traverse the plaza in the midday sun. Although Dujardin is slightly more distant from his subjects than Xhufka, the angle from which the photo is taken is indeed strikingly similar, and as in the first photograph, the entire space is structured by the gridded paving stones of the square. Here, the grid is of a different character; it is less visually pronounced, emerging as much from the differing coloration of the individual stones as from the lines demarcating their edges. Unlike the first photograph, here the human subjects of the image do not move in unison—instead their trajectories across the space are multiple, and three of them are in fact standing still, their attention otherwise absorbed. One takes a photo, another stands talking on a cell phone, and a third looks down at the ground at a spot where water wells up out of the surface of the square and flows down its surface. Indeed, the entire lower half of the photo, its foreground, is taken up by the flow of water across the stones, and this spreading stain plays a role not unlike the shadow cast by the pedestal in Xhufka’s image. In several cases, the flow begins off the right edge of the picture and terminates somewhere beyond the left edge, providing little in the way of a stabilizing point of orientation. As in Xhufka’s photo, then, so too in Dujardin’s image: the photo is framed in such a way as to suggest the presence of architecture (and thus also ideology) surrounding the open space—what else could the figure at upper left be photographing, except some notable monument? But these surroundings are presented in such a way as to emphasize precisely their careful omission from the field of the camera’s eye.

Filip Dujardin, Sk square
Figure 2. Cover of 51N4E: Skanderbeg Square (Berlin: Ruby Press, 2017), with photograph by Filip Dujardin.

I begin with the juxtaposition of these two photographs not to suggest that they rely on the same ideological framework. Despite their formal similarity, their worldviews seem undeniably different. However, both images represent a particular ambivalence about the issue of how (and to what extent) shared urban space can be structured in such a way as to provide a stage for collective subjectivity and at the same time provide the symbolic, ideological contours of that subjectivity. In banishing the specific political content of architecture (the bust atop the pedestal, the photographed monumental edifice) beyond their edges, the photos pose quite starkly the question of what can be represented in public space. More precisely, they ask if it is possible for the groups of people captured in each photo to really be represented by their surroundings (tellingly staged in each case as the putatively endless grid3), or whether their togetherness— imputed by the snap of the shutter—will just as suddenly dissolve. That this ambivalence emerges in images created during both socialism and neoliberal capitalism indicates its ongoing significance for understanding the relationship of the built environment to potential social unities and agencies.

In an essay entitled “Mass Absence,” published as a conclusion to his book Ladders, analyzing the postwar city, architect Albert Pope considers the relationship between modernist architecture and the city as “the anthropomorphically inscribed scene of contemporary political action, the manifest space of unprecedented urban collectivity.”4 In this essay, Pope traces the convergence of modernism’s supposedly autonomous forms with the political trajectory of totalitarianism in the first half of the 20th century (a convergence that also continued, we might note, well into the second half of the century), and considers the consequences of this convergence for modernist architecture’s subsequent antagonism towards the question of representation—and especially towards representing mass collectivity. Increasingly, Pope argues (following Baudrillard), contemporary mass subjectivity actively retreats from representation, seeking a strategic silence that resists the imposition of meaning. This silence of the collective produces a corollary void at the heart of urban planning, what Pope calls “the mass absence of the contemporary urban ellipsis.”5 Pope identifies this absence not as a failure to represent, but as a real response to a collective subjectivity that defies efforts at reifying its image in the structure and spacing of the city: against “gratuitous representation,” a conglomeration of “empty centers.”6

The function—or dysfunction, as the case may be—of representation is at the heart of controversies surrounding urban space in Albania today, and specifically surrounding the reception of the Rilindja Urbane (or ‘Urban Renaissance’) begun in the summer of 2014 by Prime Minister Edi Rama’s government.7 The current essay constitutes a modest attempt to raise the question of representation in the context of this widespread urban transformation. It asks: Is there a subject for whom this restructuring takes place, and—if so—what is that subject’s relationship to the space that is opened up or constituted by the projects in question? This line of questioning already gestures towards a broader inquiry: what relationship of representation can be said to exist between a political subject and contemporary urban space in Albania? In positing answers to these questions, this essay revolves around a central juxtaposition, one between two extremes of the Rilindja Urbane: the capital city of Tirana (and specifically Skanderbeg Square) and the southern town of Memaliaj. A consideration of the renovation of the central squares of these two urban spaces reveals the Rilindja Urbane as a fundamentally representational project, one that approaches the transformation of space in an anthropomorphic manner, in both its centralized and peripheral manifestations. In ways that are different but nonetheless telling in their similar aesthetic operations, Skanderbeg Square and Miner Square (Sheshi Minatori, the central plaza of Memaliaj) both aim to present contemporary urban space as a mimetic reflection of a particular subject and, in the case of Skanderbeg Square, at placing that subject at the center of this renewed urban space.

For some, the assertion that the Rilindja Urbane, a widespread project of urban renewal and infrastructural enhancement focused on city centers and plazas throughout Albania,8 is a representational project might sound like a strange kind of criticism; it might even sound more like praise. The goal of this discussion, in fact, is not to condemn the Rilindja Urbane on any of the numerous accounts on which it has already been denounced by critics inside and outside Albania: that it is a superficially cosmetic attempt to produce the appearance of ‘progress’ without addressing the deeper political issues that have resulted in the degradation of urban environments, especially in peripheral areas of Albania; that its numerous construction projects have facilitated corruption and misappropriation of public funds on a massive scale; that it frequently constitutes an erasure of the layers of history that inhere in extant urban ensembles; or that it represents an authoritarian attempt to homogenize urban spaces across the country under the aegis of the current government. All of these, and other, criticisms of the project may be true, but they are not my concern here.9 Instead, I aim to draw attention to the ways that the representational aspects of the Rilindja Urbane might constitute a political failure, a failure to understand the character of potential political subjectivities in relation to government-sponsored urban and architectural programs.

That the Rilindja Urbane constitutes a project of representation would be, perhaps, less surprising, were it not for two notable denials of this assertion. First, Prime Minister Edi Rama made significant rhetorical efforts to distance the Rilindja Urbane from perhaps the most paradigmatic form of political democratic representation: the cycle of elections. “[C]onstruction no longer begins, as it once did, when the season of election campaigns begins. [Now,] construction begins when there is a project, when the project is approved, when there has been a competition, and when a contract is signed.”10 In other words, construction now follows a logic far closer to that of the market. The veracity of this statement may be debatable, but its rhetoric is clear: whereas once urban renewal was tied to the necessity to garner votes—and thus the effort of performing the ‘representation’ of a particular constituency—now, as Rama conceives it, the Rilindja Urbane transforms urban ensembles independently of this political context. Second, the discursive framing of Skanderbeg Square by its architects, 51N4E, emphasizes the space as a “palimpsest,” a “large-scale void” that provides an “escape” from the surrounding urban fabric.11 51N4E has presented the square in terms of “openness,” as “a center that is not occupied yet”— that is, as a space characterized by absence, including the absence of a collective subject.12 Thus, Skanderbeg Square—which is undeniably the archetypal project of the Rilindja Urbane, its most iconic instantiation—has been presented (at least partially) in terms of the denial of any specific representational function. Despite these denials, however, representation remains a core, and unproblematized, tenet of the Rama government’s program of urban renewal.

I want to begin with the Rilindja Urbane not at its center, but at its margins: in the southern Albanian town of Memaliaj.13 Memaliaj’s history is, in many ways, as reflective of Albania’s postwar political and economic trajectory as is Tirana’s. Established along the Vjosa river in 1946, Memaliaj saw its development begin in earnest in 1949, in relation to the coalmine located northeast of the town.14 Under socialism, workers from around Albania were relocated to Memaliaj to labor in the mine and to provide services supporting the miners, and the town’s population grew significantly. Built with the aid of foreign architects (from Poland), at various points the town also housed foreign engineers brought to work at the mine as part of transnational networks of socialist exchange of expertise.15 Memaliaj became a key success story for the socialist regime, an example of a thriving community of workers: it contained a hospital, an extensive workers’ club, and a palace of culture with a cinema and a circus space. It boasted a well-known football team and its own polyphonic singing group.

During the late 1960s, the central plaza of the town was renovated, and took on the general configuration that would characterize it until nearly half a century later, with a landscaped area and a lapidar placed close to the center of the oblong square (fig. 3).16 In these years, the mine employed around 550 workers, but this number would more than quadruple by the final years of the socialist regime.17 To this day, Memaliaj remains associated with miners—despite the fact that closure of the mine some time after the end of socialism, in the early 2000s, resulted in a significant economic downturn,18 and Memaliaj is now also known in the Albanian media as a quintessentially ‘abandoned’ former industrial town with high levels of unemployment.19

Lapidar, Memaliaj, Raino Isto
Figure 3. The lapidar in Memaliaj’s main square. Photo by Raino Isto, taken in 2013.

In 2016, Memaliaj’s municipality received funds from the central government to carry out a renovation of the town’s main plaza (Miner Square) as part of the Rilindja Urbane. The plan for the new center was—broadly speaking—similar in character to the other manifestations of the program: it involved an expansion of the area of the square devoted to pedestrians, a corollary reduction in automobile access, a reworking of the facades of the buildings surrounding the square, and a reliance on white stone as the dominant material used in the renovation. The project included fountains, an increase in available seating, and a reduction of greenery, replacing what had been a relatively verdant central ensemble (including a number of bushes and flowers) with two palm trees and a series of four narrow troughs containing grass and sparse shrubbery. (fig. 4) Ultimately, the new project in Memaliaj did more than replace the previous square; it integrated a large space that had previously been defined by three discrete spatial vignettes: a dense area of greenery at the north end of the square, where a statue of a miner had stood during socialism; the area surrounding the lapidar, defined by encircling foliage; and an open area located immediately in front of the palace of culture, serving as an ideal gathering spot for political manifestations and concerts. Following the renovation, these three separate spaces have been unified into a single horizon of experience.

Miner Square, Memaliaj, Raino Isto
Figure 4. Miner Square in Memaliaj, after the renovation of the space as part of the Rilindja Urbane, 2016-2017. Photo by Raino Isto, taken in 2018.

While the transformation of Memaliaj’s center has been controversial with many of the town’s citizens for a number of reasons, several critics seized upon one particular element of the new square: a piece of figurative statuary placed at the north end of the space. In 1969, a statue of a miner created by sculptor Muharrem Turkeshi had been installed at the northernmost extreme of Miner Square, one of a number of public sculptures created for the 25th anniversary of Albania’s liberation from fascist forces. Turkeshi’s statue represented an anonymous miner, although he sculpted the figure after consulting several photographs of miners who had died in the coal mine over its period of operation, given to him by the town’s residents at the time of the statue’s commission.20 (fig. 5) Turkeshi’s miner—a man in a heavy coat and helmet striding energetically forward, with a jackhammer slung over his right shoulder—remained in Memaliaj’s center until 1997, when it was destroyed in the civil unrest coincident with the collapse of the pyramid schemes that overtook Albania’s postsocialist economy in the 90s decade. A few years after the initial statue’s destruction, the municipality placed a simple stone pedestal with a commemorative plaque at the site. (fig. 6) As part of the square’s renovation, however, a new miner statue—created by sculptor Vladimir Llakaj—was placed at the site in 2017. (fig. 7)

Miner Square, Turkeshi, 1969
Figure 5. Muharrem Turkeshi, original miner statue for Miner Square in Memaliaj, 1969. Published in Drita, September 28, 1969.

Plaque Memaliaj, 2013
Figure 6. Plaque installed by the Memaliaj municipality on the formersite of Turkeshi’s miner statue. Photo by Raino Isto, taken in 2013.

Vladimir Llakaj miner statue 2017
Figure 7. Vladimir Llakaj, miner statue, 2017. Miner Square, Memaliaj, Albania. Photo by Raino Isto, taken in 2018.

The inauguration of the new miner statue installed in the square created an uproar. Llakaj’s sculpture depicted a young man, chest bare, holding a helmet in one hand and shielding his eyes from the sun in the other, gazing out across the space towards the palace of culture. Llakaj attempted to approach the miner motif with a more “lyrical” sensibility, to present a youthful figure “full of optimism about life [and] freedom, working to ensure a living for his family and his parents.”21 Residents of the town protested this new statue for several reasons (including quite mundane and conservative judgments about the miner’s partial nudity), but perhaps most salient was the assertion that the youthful figure—a representation of the future—failed to fulfill the necessarily commemorative role that such a sculpture should possess.22 The mine in Memaliaj had been closed for years; the figure of the miner belonged to a respected and vibrant past, but the present was another matter. In response to public dissatisfaction, Llakaj remade the statue to resemble Turkeshi’s sculpture much more closely, essentially creating a copy of the socialist-era figure. (fig. 8) While this new statue was grudgingly accepted by the populace of Memaliaj, it continues to provoke disdain, as does the entire renovation of Miner Square.

Vladimir Llakaj miner statue 2017
Figure 8. Vladimir Llakaj, miner statue, 2017. Miner Square, Memaliaj, Albania. Photo by Raino Isto, taken in 2018.

The frustration that Memaliaj’s citizens express in relation to the project as a whole points to the dubious expenditure of public funds in a town wherein unemployment is so high, and where a large segment of the population struggles with increased health care costs associated with the lasting effects of work in the mine. However, it also shows the citizens’ resistance to being represented in the new square, which is what the project unambiguously aims to do. While Turkeshi’s miner had faced away from the square, looking northwards towards both Tirana and—at least obliquely—towards the coalmine, part of the new project’s integration of the entire space involved the re-orientation of the statue to face southwards, across the square itself, making the space decidedly more self-contained and auto-referential. With this new placement, the miner much more unambiguously stands for the entirety of public space, and thus the precise qualities of the figure present themselves as a synthesis of the collective public. There is no space for agonism, here, and no ambiguity about the identity attributed to the public. Indeed, the myriad and sometimes banal aesthetic accusations leveled at the statue—that it is sloppily placed atop its pedestal, that it is too small in relation to the space of the square as a whole,23 that the miner’s pose is stiff and automated, that the jackhammer he carries is not really the kind used by miners, that the miner’s face is expressionless,24 and so on—all point not so much to a particular catalyst of discontent, but instead to a much broader and more vague resistance to any kind of mimetic reification at all. In a town of unemployment and waning possibilities, the attempt to give public space back to the citizens, and to make it in their image, as if the citizens of Memaliaj still stood for something as straightforward as a mode of production, can only seem woefully misguided as a political project.

If the Rilindja Urbane in Memaliaj evidences a quite explicit attempt to fix the relationship between remade public space and collective subjectivity—by literally reintroducing figurative sculpture as a dominant aesthetic element in the town’s square, reinforcing the name of the square with an embodied representation—then Skanderbeg Square in Tirana would seem to aim at an entirely more open and non-representational relation. Indeed, what could be further from the mimetic construction of public space than a project that quite literally aims to produce an emptiness at the heart of the city, as 51N4E’s project for the capital’s square does? Skanderbeg Square has long served as the symbolic center of Tirana, and thus it has continually been inscribed and re-inscribed as a space of power within the city by successive regimes.25 During the interwar period, architects of the Italian fascist occupation conceived the square as part of the long central line of Tirana’s axial boulevard, a prominent element in the Italians’ plan for Tirana’s urban renewal at the time. After World War Two, the transformation of the square continued as part of the ‘building of socialism.’ (fig. 9) For a time, it was home to a relatively modest monument to Stalin, until in 1968 an equestrian bronze statue of the Albanian national hero Skanderbeg (whose name the square bore) replaced Stalin. After the death of Albania’s longtime dictator Enver Hoxha in 1985, a statue of him was erected in the square, and subsequently pulled down when socialism ended in the country in 1991. Subsequently, the square became crowded with traffic as the number of motor vehicles circulating in the city increased; it became associated with the chaos of fluctuating political power as both the national and municipal governments shifted from one party to another.

Skanderbeg Square in 1980s
Figure 9. Skanderbeg Square during late socialism, in the 1980s. Photo from 40 Vjet Shqipëri Socialiste (Tirana: 8 Nëntori, 1984.)

In February of 2008, Edi Rama issued a call, as mayor of Tirana, for a new plan for the square. He declared it “a space unfit for living and in constant degradation,” and sought a master plan for the center that would re-orient the space towards collective use.26 51N4E initially developed their proposal for Skanderbeg Square in collaboration with artist Anri Sala, aiming for what Andreas Ruby calls an “invisible monument.”27 It is conceived, primarily, as the creation of a void within the city, and thus as an archetypically iconoclastic gesture: the clearing away of structures to produce a palimpsest.28 This void is intended as a way to “interconnect and reconcile the disparate buildings surrounding the square,”29 but it also serves as a challenge to them.

The transformation of the square, in accordance with a slightly altered version of 51N4E and Sala’s initial plan, was completed in 2017. (fig. 10) True to this initial concept, the square does not seek to conceal the monumental structures around its edges, but instead opens up a truly massive space in their midst, an expanse of nearly flat stone surrounded by relatively dense greenery. The entirety of the central rectangle of the square is a low pyramid, with a 3% grade. From its apex, the viewer stands at approximately the level of the tops of the stairs that lead up to the surrounding buildings. This creates an effect whereby the viewer perceives themself to be at eye level with much of the surrounding monumental architecture. The pyramid functions as “a temporary pedestal for the citizen,” according to 51N4E.30 Describing the new configuration of Tirana’s central plaza, Skanderbeg Square, the capital’s current mayor Erion Veliaj asserted, “Power in the form of pedestals and monumentality is subjugated by the pyramidal shape, and at its top the individual—through physical elevation—gets a brand new view of the open-air architectural museum that is the center of Tirana.”31 As Veliaj’s comment makes clear, the square is conceived as a confrontation with traditional expressions of political power. It represents, according to its designers, “an open monument.”32

Skanderbeg Square 2017
Figure 10. 51N4E, redesigned Skanderbeg Square, 2017. Photo by Raino Isto, taken in 2018.

In addition to the anti-monumental aspirations of the square, there is an explicitly nationalist aspect of its conceptualization, probably the most explicitly political content the space possesses. The square stones tiled together to form the plaza are quarried from locations spanning “all the Albanian lands,”33 and the square thus projects the imagined geographic distribution of an ethno-national identity across its surface, essentially consolidating national unity by means of an anti-monumental formal language.34 As the first stones were placed in the square in early 2017, Prime Minister Rama declared, “The project [...] will be a unique kilim woven with stone from all the Albanian lands, where stones from Malisheva will lay beside stones from Konispol, stones from Mirdita and Tropoja beside stones from Manastir.”35 Rama’s description of the project stands in somewhat stark contrast to the rhetoric used by 51N4E: in place of the discourse of openness and the palimpsest is a decidedly nativist one. The metaphor of the kilim—a variety of woven carpet common from the Balkans across the Middle East to Central Asia—lends the square an association with folk crafts, and thus with a kind of traditionalism at odds with the notion of the square as an open space.

It is clear, then, that Skanderbeg Square is not simply a palimpsest: it is also, in two distinct but interrelated ways, a highly anthropomorphic space. It mobilizes the gridded surface—perhaps the paradigmatically anti-mimetic form of modernity—as a fundamentally representational object: the surface of the square as the collective image of the Albanian nation. This is a quite conservative definition of the nation, one rooted (quite literally) in stone, in fixed geographic parameters and inflexible definitions of ethnic dwelling. At the same time, the square also projects a place for the citizen, a very specific location: the apex of the pyramid, the ‘open monument.’ Instead of a void, the endeavor of the square emerges as something quite different: to make the citizen stand for something, and at the same time to be the citizen.36 This relationship is put quite succinctly by Tirana mayor Erion Veliaj in an interview about the project: “The biggest infrastructur[al] transformation in the square hasn’t been the 100,000 square meters that it has changed physically, but probably the ten square centimeters from here to here,” Veliaj explains, touching his fingers to either side of his forehead.37 The square is an attempt to produce, through a government project linked to a widespread urban renewal platform, an explicit and universal cognitive map, a direct correspondence between space and the citizen.

How different this operation is from the vision of the square presented in Filip Dujardin’s photo, used as the cover of 51N4E’s book on the project (and here we must acknowledge that some of the images used to most effectively promote the square also contain within themselves the most effective critiques of its actual form). There, the grid appeared innocently contentless, and the emergence of either a protagonist or a unified collective seemed uncertain and fraught. Against an image that throws the possibility of collective subjectivity and its representation into question in a quite striking way, the new square wants, inexorably, to maneuver the contemporary political subject back towards the field of mimetic reification, to position the subject in such a way that it both is represented (by the space) and represents something (the collective body synthesized as the nation). Against an image in which the figures are permitted the possibility of escape (losing themselves in cell phone conversations, in contemplation staring at water flows, or simply walking away), the square wants to absorb them, to keep them perpetually visible, if only symbolically. The void, it turns out, does not want to remain empty.

The Rilindja Urbane already began as a response, in a sense, to urban voids of a particular kind. In 2014, Rama declared that within his first term as Prime Minister, his government intended to “bring a great urban rebirth to the cities of our country, ... to transform these abandoned communist squares into squares of communal coexistence, into squares that will lend our cities that sense of togetherness possessed by the cities of Europe....”38 What is preemptively excluded from such an approach is the possibility that, as voids, the socialist-era squares presented a kind of space that was, in its own way, appropriate to new conditions of political existence: an urban landscape marked by the absence of a certain kind of togetherness. The determination to remake the ‘abandoned’ squares of communism into new squares also ignored the way in which squares themselves corresponded to the ideology of the prior political system.39 As art historian Wu Hung notes, the establishment of squares throughout countries (in his argument, socialist ones, although the point can be made more generally) ultimately produces “a ‘square system’ corresponding to the hierarchy of the state—a parallel that unmistakably indicates a square’s official function to shape a desirable ‘public.’”40 Certainly, the new public imagined by Rama’s government is quite different from the one imagined by socialism, but the ‘square system’ that it creates is no less energetic in its effort to ‘shape a desirable public.’

Here, let us return to Albert Pope’s discussion of ‘mass absence.’ When he speaks of voids, Pope is not referring to intentionally created voids, and in that sense, he is describing something different than the voids left by the abandoned public spaces of socialism. He is referring rather to “parking lots, gutted central business districts, undeveloped or abandoned lots, corporate buffer zones and endless carscapes”—all forms of space that violently reject “the formally acknowledged presence of the human figure, pedestrian and demonstrator alike.”41 Such lacunae seem to index a profound failure, the loss of public space and its aspirations, but for Pope they also point out not only the failures of modernism, but also a new set of desires on the part of a public that does not want to be reified in public space. Such a public seeks modes of escape, disobedience, obfuscation, and misdirection, and it cannot find these in places made to represent its collective being as an object of official spatial politics.

In A Grammar of the Multitude, the Italian philosopher Paolo Virno posits a fundamental distinction between the notion of ‘the people’ and that of ‘the multitude.’42 The former are the unified body that constitute the state, the political body par excellence for modernist architecture and urban planning, acquiescent to synthesis in the space of the city. The latter, he argues, is the “mode of being” endemic to post-Fordist society and its unique modes of production and social experience. The multitude constitutes an alternative to the people and to their unification through both the general will and the state. Following Spinoza, Virno defines the multitude as “a plurality which persists as such in the public scene, in collective action.”43 It resists the representation of governing bodies and laws, exceeding them and escaping definition in their terms. According to a certain philosophical legacy, the multitude is acutely undesirable: it is opportunistic and individualized, and characterized by the kind of publicness of thought that produces inauthenticity. And yet, for Virno, the multitude is nonetheless the form of collective subjectivity that can most effectively act in the conditions of post-Fordist contemporaneity. One of the political correlates of the multitude is “non-representational democracy,” in which “[t]he ‘many’ persevere as ‘many’ without aspiring to the unity of the state.”44 The spatial realm of this multitude, the stage of non-representational democracy, might be precisely the zones of mass absence that Pope identifies, those regions of the city that are inimical to anthropomorphism, that are hostile to the convergence of ‘the people’ (insofar as this latter is a reflection of the unity of the state).

The spaces of the Rilindja Urbane are spaces of ‘the people,’ in the sense Virno describes: of citizens amenable to representation and ready to see public space as theirs insofar as they see themselves reflected in it. What might it mean, instead, to imagine the spaces of the multitude in postsocialist Albania? To attend fully to the ambivalence of representation, and even to admit that perhaps such representation is neither possible nor desirable in the social context of neoliberal capitalism? To seek political agency precisely in the fractures and misalignments that exceed representation, that posit no holistic subject at all, or else that continually escapes from the spaces that are made in its name? These remain open questions.

May–June 2019

Los Angeles

1 Niko Xhufka, Ritme të Jetës Shqiptare (Tirana: 8 Nëntori, 1976).
2 Peter Swinnen, et al., 51N4E: Skanderbeg Square (Berlin: Ruby Press, 2017)
3 The presence of the grid in both photographs deserves a much more extensive discussion than can be provided here. On grids as a marker of the autonomy of modernism, and of its antimimetic qualities, see Rosalind Krauss’ classic essay “Grids,” October 9 (Summer, 1979): 50–64.
4 Albert Pope, Ladders, 2nd ed. (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2014), 231. I thank Joseph Scherer for drawing my attention to Pope’s book, and the essay “Mass Absence” in particular.
5 Pope, Ladders, 237.
6 Pope, Ladders, 238, 232.
7 For the Albanian government’s statement regarding the inception of the Rilindja Urbane project, see “Program kombëtar për rilindjen urbane” (press release),, July 19, 2014, (accessed June 4, 2019).
8 Following Rama’s official launch of the Rilindja Urbane project in July of 2014, the first location slated for transformation under the project’s umbrella was one of the central plazas in the southeastern city of Korça. However, at the inception of the project, 70 sites throughout the country were already marked for renovation. The project, named to resonate with Rama’s Socialist Party political platform Rilindja (Renaissance), represented—and continues to represent—a sweeping alteration of urban spaces in the country that is also one of the most publicly visible products of Rama’s period as Prime Minister (which began in 2013). See “Program kombëtar për rilindjen urbane.”
9 The last claim, that the Rilindja Urbane is characterized by homogeneity across its manifestations, is the most dubious: the two examples chosen in this essay are meant to show, at the very least, that the project is diverse in its manifestations. This aesthetic diversity does not elide, however, the representational project at the core of these renovations.
10 “Bisedë e Kryeministrit në rrjetet sociale” (press release),, August 30, 2016, (accessed June 4, 2019).
11 Peter Swinnen, et al., 51N4E: Skanderbeg Square, 20.
12 Freek Persyn, “Frame,” in Peter Swinnen, et al., 51N4E: Skanderbeg Square, 82.
13 Portions of this discussion of Memaliaj are drawn from my forthcoming article, “Representing the Worker in Postsocialist Public Space: Art and Politics under Neoliberalism.”
14 Resmi Hoxha, Koha e Minierës: Memaliaj, 1949–2005 (Tirana: Publicita, 2012), 23–28.
15 On Albania’s globalization during the Cold War period, and on the effects of socialist skills exchange in the country, see Elidor Mëhilli, From Stalin to Mao: Albania and the Socialist World (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2017).
16 Hoxha, Koha e Minierës, 23.
17 Albert Zholi, “Intervista: Flet inxhinieri i minierave, ish-drejtues i minierës së Memaliajt, Martin Cukalla,” Telegraf, January 12, 2014.
18 Arlind Qori suggests that “miners and oil workers are the withering traditional industrial working class of Albania.” Under socialism they functioned as some of the most iconic representatives of working-class organization in Albania, but they now constitute “a tiny minority” of the working class; workers in garment and footwear factories managed by transnational corporations now constitute the majority of working class citizens. See Qori, “Scrap Mines, Call Centers and Hashish Plantations: The Grim Options Facing Albanian Workers,” LeftEast, October 16, 2018, (accessed June 5, 2019).
19 “Memaliaj: Qyteti i të papunëve,” Vizion Plus, March 30, 2014, K2BEidxAg (accessed June 5, 2019).
20 See the account of Turkeshi’s interaction with citizens of the town in Edmond Ismailati, “Gani Gjosha, një hero i luftës dhe i punës,” Tirana Observer, December 3, 2014, dhe-i-punes/ (accessed June 6, 2019).
21 Vladimir Llakaj, in conversation with the author, June 30, 2018.
22 The author carried out interviews with several residents of Memaliaj during fieldwork in Albania in the summers of 2017 and 2018. Unless otherwise noted, information on the opinions of Memaliaj’s residents is drawn from the author’s fieldnotes. For more on local reactions to the controversy surrounding the new square, see Përparim Halili, “‘Pedonalja’: 1 miliard lekë në Memaliaj dhe disa pyetje ‘delikate,’ lidhur me projektin e saj,” Telegraf, August 29, 2016.
23 A criticism with which Llakaj himself agrees.
24 I am inclined to give a much more sympathetic reading of Llakaj’s sculpture than many of Memaliaj’s residents: Llakaj’s second statue may indeed be a failure, but not because the artist is unskilled. Instead it is a quite inevitable failure, one that emerges from the impossibility of really representing the experience of Memaliaj through a new figure of a miner, a project that was always doomed to cliché.
25 Portions of this discussion of Skanderbeg Square are drawn from my forthcoming chapter “Permutations of Counter-monumentality in Postsocialist Albania,” in Public Space and its Challenges: Monuments between Political Decision and Cultural Identity, ed. Celia Ghyka (Bucharest: forthcoming 2019). Several other authors have discussed the politics of 51N4E’s involvement in various projects in Albania, a discussion much too expansive to replicate here. See, for example, Vincent WJ van Gerven Oei, “Urban Politics: The Unofficial View of Tirana (87),” Berfrois,, February 17, 2015,; ArdianVehbiu, “Skenografi apo Rehabilitim?,” Peizazhe të Fjalës, April 5, 2016,; and Romeo Kodra, “Skanderbeg Square and the TID Tower by 51N4E,” AKS Revista, September 19, 2018,
26 See the text of Rama’s call reproduced in 51N4E, Falma Fshazi, and Stefano Graziani, How Things Meet (Gent: APE, 2016), 173.
27 Andreas Ruby, “The Invisible Monument,” in 51N4E: Double or Nothing (London: Architectural Association, 2011), n.p.
28 The presentation for the initial project proposal showed a bag of multicolored Legos being poured out on a concrete floor, and then a hand reaching down to slowly push aside the blocks to open up an empty square amidst the scattered forms. See Freek Persyn’s lecture in association with 51N4E’s exhibition Double or Nothing at the Architectural Association in London (in October 2011), available at (accessed June 6, 2019); and 51N4E, Fshazi, and Graziani, How Things Meet, 174.
29 51N4E, Fshazi, and Graziani, How Things Meet, 174.
30 Peter Swinnen, et al., 51N4E: Skanderbeg Square, 22.
31 Erion Veliaj, qtd. in Swinnen, et al., 51N4E: Skanderbeg Square, 22.
32 Swinnen, et al., 51N4E: Skanderbeg Square, 19, 22. There is a much longer discussion to be had about the continued relation of the space to the monument of Skanderbeg, which continued to reinforce not only the nationalist character of the square but also its narrative structure. For reasons of space, however, I leave this point aside.
33 Edi Rama, qtd. in “Vendosen gurët e parë në ‘Skënderbej,’” Top Channel, 27 January 2017, http://top- (accessed June 6, 2019).
34 For a breakdown of some of the stones used, and their origins and aesthetic qualities, see Swinnen, et al., 51N4E: Skanderbeg Square, 56–58.
35 Rama, qtd. in “Vendosen gurët e parë.” The Preševo Valley is a region in southern Serbia with a high population of ethnic Albanians. Malisheva is a municipality near Prizren, in Kosovo. Konispol is a municipality in the south of Albania, near the border with Greece, while Mirdita and Tropoja are both regions in northern Albania. Manastir is the Albanian name for the town known in Macedonian as Bitola, in the Republic of North Macedonia.
36 In this sense, Skanderbeg Square is in many ways as ‘figurative’ as the new Miner Square in Memaliaj, with its statue modeling its projected subjectivity.
37 “Interview with Johan Anrys and Erion Veliaj,” Public Space, skanderbeg-square (accessed June 5, 2019).
38 Rama, quoted in “Program kombëtar për rilindjen urbane.”
39 That there is some similarity (either ideological or aesthetic, or—as is almost always the case—both) between contemporary political appropriations of space and the kinds of urban policy that prevailed during Albania’s socialist period is not sufficient reason for criticizing contemporary spatial politics. Superficial assertions that Rama’s attempts to completely recreate public space resemble the totalitarian efforts of leaders like Enver Hoxha cannot get us very far; indeed, we should be surprised if Rama’s efforts at modernization did not resemble those carried out during socialism, precisely insofar as both are projects that aim at modernization.
40 Wu Hung, “Tiananmen Square: A Political History of Monuments,” Representations 35 (Summer, 1991): 90.
41 Pope, Ladders, 231.
42 Paolo Virno, A Grammar of the Multitude: For an Analysis of Contemporary Forms of Life, trans. Isabella Bertoletti, James Cascaito, and Andrea Casson (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2004), 21–26.
43 Virno, Grammar, 21. Emphasis in original removed.
44 Virno, Grammar, 79–80.