37 monuments in 30 days, and what I learned along the way.
Monday 17 July 2017
In the picture on the right, there are five bunkers. Maybe you can’t see them all… but they can all see you.
It takes a few days for the madness of Albania’s bunker-building project to really set in. The first few I saw were intriguing but it was only after taking a bus around the country, driving through miles and miles of rugged landscape peppered with steel and concrete domes, that I really began to appreciate just how utterly paranoid Enver Hoxha’s regime had been.
When I wrote my recent article about communist-era architecture in Tirana, I didn’t tell you the whole story. The piece was already long enough so I decided against mentioning Bunk’Art at all. I didn’t even know about this place, in fact, before I visited Albania.
When we got back to that hostel in Tirana one evening, there were five Albanian men sat smoking joints in the conservatory. They had closed the doors against the rain, so instead the fumes were drifting back into the building. I went inside, surrounded by the sweet smell of cannabis, and the sound of water dripping from raincoats onto a polished wooden floor. And that’s when I spotted the sign, an A4 black-and-white print-out pinned to a wall: “Visit an Abandoned Nuclear Bunker,” read the title, followed by a map.
With all the many thousands of bunkers that Albania built to defend its borders, it would make sense that the leader himself had the biggest bunker of them all. Not that he ever got to use it.
Enver Hoxha’s emergency shelter was built into a hillside just east of Tirana. It was five levels deep – some 3000 square metres of offices, furnished rooms, stores, dormitories, assembly halls and private suites. More than a hundred rooms are linked by a three-dimensional labyrinth of passages, bulkhead doors and stairwells.
Construction of the project – codenamed ‘Objekti Shtylla’ – began in the 1970s, and it was intended to serve as a nuclear shelter for Hoxha, his officers and guards should the Cold War ever get hot. By the time of the dictator’s death in 1985 it remained unfinished however. After Albanian communism collapsed, the place lay abandoned for some years before a more recent initiative was begun to preserve the site.
Now, managed as a joint initiative between the Albanian government and a nonprofit art collective, the bunker has finally been opened to the public as a mixed-use cultural centre: part history museum, part gallery.
We took a taxi out to Bunk’Art, as it’s called now. The driver claimed to know the place, but his confidence soon looked misplaced. We spent most of an hour stuck in traffic, or driving up and down backroads in the rough vicinity of our destination. This district of Tirana had a handful of active military bases, and the last time we stopped for directions it was a soldier who put us onto the road for Hoxha’s bunker.
At long last we arrived – entering the territory of a military base, and driving through a long stone tunnel to reach an inner courtyard, where a single ticket office stood in the rain in front of a hillside dotted with reinforced steel doors.
The bunker was incredible. Which is not to say that any particular room was especially mind blowing, but rather the size of the place was simply quite mad.
Past the entrance – where a young attendant glanced at our tickets, and waved us on in – we were left to our own devices. Besides the two of us, I wouldn’t see another human being for all the time I was down there.
Most of the rooms that twisted off from the min corridor – the backbone of the bunker – had been arranged as museum-style exhibits. There were old uniforms, framed black and white photographs, and information panels on every wall that gave a long-winded account of Albanian Communism from start to end. In one room, visitors could hold a vintage phone to their ear and hear a recorded message from Hoxha himself.
Towards the end of the museum space, the bunker morphed into a gallery of modern art. A former assembly hall formed a social hub for modern Bunk’Art events, with red velvet seats lined up to face a stage. This was designed as a place for Hoxha’s government to hold meetings, as they sheltered from World War III. Now it hosts jazz concerts. Around this space, corridors were decorated with light displays or festooned with abstract art installations that dangled from the ceiling.
But the main attraction for me (of course) was the bunker itself.
Enver Hoxha might never have got to use the place, but it had been set up in readiness for his arrival. A private suite was dedicated to the President’s use: a wood panelled bedroom, a lounge, and a private meeting room. There were kitchens inside the bunker, plus storerooms, dormitories and industrial-looking boiler rooms to manage the heating and air purification systems.
Even by the time we left, I didn’t quite feel like I’d managed to make sense of it. Only a section of the complex is open to the public, and beyond the guide ropes darkened corridors branched off in all directions. I had a look at a few, but I still probably saw just a fraction of what there was.
Work continues on the redevelopment of the site, as more and more areas inside the bunker are converted to art or museum spaces. But as I walked away from Bunk’Art in the rain, I found myself looking not to the future, but backwards instead… wondering what this place was like in the 1990s, when a five-level subterranean complex previously kept secret from the public was suddenly left abandoned. What an experience it would have been to have stumbled across it then.
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