In Tirana, Albania, Oppenheim Architecture has won the contract for Besa Museum, the capital city's newest cultural institution. Besa Museum will include exhibition spaces, archives, an auditorium, educational spaces, and a newly constructed wing under the exterior courtyard mirroring the original organization of the Ottoman structure. This winning scheme emerged from a two-phase competition with over 40 entries.
The Ministry of Culture of Albania selected the historic Toptani Residence as the museum's site because of its place in Albanian history and connection to one of the country's most historic families. In approaching the site's significance, Oppenheim Architecture worked closely with local experts and a museologist to bring Besa to life in the concrete form of architecture while staying true to the existing residence. The firm's first step in the design process was to engage with local experts, including Albanologists, restoration experts, historians specializing in Ottoman and Albanian architecture and culture, and a museologist. The architects also collaborated with revered institutional specialty firm Ralph Applebaum Associates to ensure that they could adequately meet the unique requirements of a museum such as this within an existing fabric.
From there, the team imagined how an abstract concept such as "Besa" could be transformed into a concrete work of architecture. Integral to Albanian culture and history, "Besa" is a sacred principle to honor and welcome any guest as one's own.
The museum experience is divided into two parts, one above ground located inside the existing residence, taking the guests through a journey of historically and culturally understanding Besa. The second is underground, where visitors are immersed in the experience of Besa for a fully interactive experience of the concept. The concept for the museum spaces revolves around creating spaces of gathering within the site. Each space is a testimony to the Albanian way of life through the restoration of the rooms and art as well as the highlighting of historical and current events during which Besa has guided Albanian hospitality: notably the welcoming of Jews during the holocaust as well as Kosovar and Afghan refugees in more recent times.
As a way to expand the museum and create space for temporary exhibition spaces, archives, auditoriums, and educational spaces, an entirely new wing is proposed under the courtyard and connected to the main house through its cellar. Spatially, this new addition mirrors the organization of the Ottoman structure, with an ample gathering space in the center and adjacent rooms connected to it. The area above the central room will become a courtyard gathering space.
Here in the courtyard, the most notable additions to the property are found with bright red beacons of light that reflect down into the below-ground wing and use the effects of natural light and shadow to accent the exhibits. These above-ground sculptural elements will also announce the museum's presence in Tirana, adding a minimal yet impactful new feature to the city's historic skyline.
"We are honored to represent Albania through the Besa Museum," states Director of Oppenheim Architecture Europe Beat Huesler. "Since beginning our work in Albania a few years ago, we have been inspired by the culture and vibrancy of its people. We hope that our vision for the Besa Museum will use architecture as a tool to illustrate the Albanian people's deep love and respect for their heritage and one another— this is what makes the country so dynamic. Our thanks to the jury and competition team for trusting us with this most important project."