The house that Hoxha built: dictator’s villa to become public space – The Guardian


The house that Hoxha built: dictator’s villa to become public space



Enver Hoxha’s empty villa stands in the centre of the revitalised Blloku district of Tirana.
Photograph: imageBROKER/Alamy

Enver Hoxha’s villa in central Tirana, once sealed off by the Albanian secret service and home to party elites, is to be opened to the public

by in Tirana

Main image:
Enver Hoxha’s empty villa stands in the centre of the revitalised Blloku district of Tirana.
Photograph: imageBROKER/Alamy

The interiors of Enver Hoxha’s cavernous three-story villa are mostly just as they were when Albania’s communist leader died in 1985. By then, Hoxha had led a Stalinist dictatorship in the country for four decades, turning Albania into one of the most isolated and repressive states in the world.

During the communist period, the whole area around Hoxha’s house in Albania’s capital city, Tirana, was sealed off by police and secret agents. Known as the Blloku, the district functioned as a kind of wall-less Kremlin in the heart of Tirana, reserved for the party elite and their families.

Now, the Blloku is Tirana’s most happening neighbourhood, full of bars, nightclubs and restaurants. Amid them all is the ghostly presence of Hoxha’s house, untouched, shuttered and closed to the public.

Modern-day Albania is now looking to join the European Union, and after many years during which people preferred to forget than to dredge up the past, Albanians are now coming to terms with the legacy of the Hoxha-era repressions and surveillance state. Attention is turning to how the dictator’s house might be opened to the public.

An ice-cream vendor and pedestrians pass a building with a portrait of Enver Hoxha c. 1980


An ice-cream vendor and pedestrians pass a building with a portrait of Enver Hoxha c. 1980 Photograph: Michel Setboun/Corbis via Getty Images

Inside, the walls are adorned with socialist realist art, while multiple living rooms are equipped with chunky Albanian-made television sets, on which Hoxha and his wife would on occasion watch video footage of the torture and interrogation of those accused of being political opponents.

The multiple doors to Hoxha’s bedroom have soundproof cushioned cladding, while in the basement there is a swimming pool and an escape door leading to a tunnel, through which the paranoid Hoxha could flee to an underground bunker in case of attack.

Albania’s current prime minister, Edi Rama, said he has been thinking for some time about the “big dilemma” of what to do with the house, fearing it would be equally inappropriate either to keep it in its current state, as a sort of shrine, or to completely destroy it. “It’s difficult to find a good solution where the past is still there but you are serving the future,” he said in a recent interview with the Guardian.

Soundproofed padded doors lead to Hoxha’s bedroom.


Soundproofed padded doors lead to Hoxha’s bedroom. Photograph: Shaun Walker/The Guardian

Other buildings symbolising the Hoxha regime have already been repurposed for public use. The former headquarters of the Sigurimi, Hoxha’s feared secret police, is now a museum where visitors can marvel at the all-pervasive nature of surveillance and informants during the communist period. Exhibits include a training manual showing officers how to insert tiny listening devices into walls, picture frames and even the soles of people’s shoes.

Hoxha had approximately 168,000 concrete bunkers built during an eight-year period, after getting the idea from a visit to North Korea. The largest, on the outskirts of Tirana, is spread over five below-ground floors, sealed with multiple six-inch-thick concrete doors and containing a decontamination room, living quarters for Hoxha and his close circle and a large hall where sessions of parliament could be held underground. Two years ago, it was opened to the public as a history museum.

Most striking are the plans to transform a vast concrete pyramid in the very centre of Tirana, next to the prime minister’s office. Constructed in the late 1980s as a museum to the deceased dictator, the pyramid fell into disrepair after the collapse of communism and was used variously as a nightclub, an informal shopping centre and Nato headquarters during the 1999 campaign in neighbouring Kosovo.

The Enver Hoxha memorial museum memorial in tirana ironically called the pyramid 1997


The Pyramid of Tirana, once a memorial museum to Enver Hoxha, is to be redeveloped to mirror the city’s transformation. Photograph: Network Photographers/Alamy

“That building represents our transition,” said Erion Veliaj, Tirana’s energetic mayor, who has launched a project to transform the city centre by 2030. “It’s a metaphorical display of what we’ve gone through. If, instead of the pyramid, you said Albania, it is that story. The paranoia and so-called glory of communist ambitions, the brutal transition to casino capitalism, and then this renaissance. So now it’s time for the pyramid to match the renaissance of the city.”

The Dutch architectural firm MVRDV has unveiled plans for a total overhaul of the pyramid, keeping the original structure but finishing it in white, and turning the inside into an IT learning centre for schoolchildren. Veliaj said he expected the project to be finished by the end of summer.

The mayor said he had specified that the design should allow for people to climb up the outsides of the pyramid, as this was the pyramid’s association for a whole generation of Tirana’s youth in the years after communism fell. “I remember our butts would catch fire sliding down. We all used to have the same corduroy pants and you could see them losing their corduroy ribbing,” he recalled.

Hoxha rarely travelled, and spent much of his last decade chain-smoking at his villa in the Blloku. He shared it with his wife, who is still alive and now aged 98, and his three adult children, whose bedrooms were decked out with escapist motifs of horses and palm trees.

The basement swimming pool inside Hoxha’s villa, where an escape door leads to a secret tunnel.


The basement swimming pool inside Hoxha’s villa where an escape door leads to a secret tunnel. Photograph: Shaun Walker/The Guardian

He had most of his close associates from the early years shot, and also had thousands of real and imagined political enemies among the rest of the population executed, imprisoned or exiled to closed-off settlements from which they were forbidden to leave.

As part of the effort to create a homogenous population, beards and long hair were banned, with a barber stationed at the airport ready to cut the hair of anyone among the rare groups of foreign visitors, usually Marxist-Leninist groups, who arrived inappropriately coiffed.

One of the most noticeable features of his house is the predominance of books, with thousands of tomes arranged on sets of shelves in many of the rooms. Hoxha was a voracious reader, and checked the Paris publishing catalogues each year to order batches of books on everything from Marxist history to the sexual mores of ancient civilisations.

Hoxha’s personal bathroom.


Hoxha’s personal bathroom. Photograph: Shaun Walker/The Guardian

This was in stark contrast to the population, who were banned from reading most 20th-century literature. Rama, who was an art student in the 1980s, remembered that one exception was Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman, which had been mistakenly classified as an agriculture book and passed by the censor. “I remember there were five copies in the faculty of agriculture and you can’t believe how much they were circulating,” he said.

Rama said the house had a “wow factor” which would be important to keep when it is finally opened to the public. “If you erase everything completely it would not be good. It’s important to have his ghost inside. My point is that it should be Enver Hoxha’s house, but inside all the things the guy would hate should happen.”

This could include modern art classes and exhibitions, literature talks and foreign policy discussions, said Rama, all things Hoxha would have despised. The idea would be to have a public space for these events on the ground floor, while the upper floors would be turned into an upmarket guesthouse.

Socialist realist art features throghout Hoxha’s villa.


Socialist realist art features throghout Hoxha’s villa. Photograph: Shaun Walker/The Guardian

For all the inventive architectural plans, there is still no proper monument in Tirana to Hoxha’s victims. Blendi Fevziu, a television journalist whose biography of Hoxha is the bestselling book in modern Albanian history, said he planned to launch a campaign soon to build a monument to the 5,000 Albanians who were executed and whose graves have still not been found.

Fatos Lubonja, an artist and intellectual who spent 17 years in prison under Hoxha, accused the Rama government of creating “some nice facades for westerners in central Tirana” but complained that elsewhere, little was being done.

“I went back to my prison camp recently for the 40th anniversary of the execution of my friends. The same mine we worked in is now run by a Turkish company, and there is nothing there to remember what happened except a small plaque,” he said.

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