The GRAND story
Text by Eliza Hoxha
Since 1947 when Pristina gained the executing role of the political and administrative center of Kosovo and became the capital city, we have witnessed drastic changes in the name of progress, unity, fraternity and freedom – in the name of modernization. A new socialist order had to bring a new city which had to be in harmony with the rest of Yugoslavia’s urban centers. Thus “the elements of urban prosperity of Pristina are pure of political nature.”
To legitimize the destructions while underlying the public interest, a new proposal drafted by Partonic in the ‘50s, amid numerous objections, was passed in 1953. Bashkim Fehmiu, the only Albanian architect in the city at that time, was invited by Fadil Hoxha, President of the National Council of Province, to attend a public hearing of the Provincial Assembly of Kosovo. On this matter, he said “There were objections from many people about this plan. It was very unreasonable to destroy the old part of the city when there was so much free area around it for the new city development. But in the end, nobody considered our concerns”. The proposed plan brought new ideas for transforming the old center into a modern one. After the establishment of the political center, the north-south axis from these buildings was proposed as a new and main boulevard named “Marshall Tito” (today “Mother Theresa)” in soviet-style design. Followed by housing estate projects with mixed-use ground floors together with consumption, touristic, cultural places and green areas in front, it was just a step further in creating an environment for hosting the newcomers to the city. These transformations created a possibility for a new public space named “Republica Square” at the boulevard’s south entrance. Later, a new hotel named “Grand Hotel”, was proposed as a crown to complete the urban ensemble of the boulevard, marking the boulevard’s entrance from the south and its end from the north.
From 1974 when Kosovo gained its autonomy within Yugoslavia, it created the possibility for distribution of power and decision making in the hands of the Albanian majority living in Kosovo. The project for re-modulation of the main boulevard “Marshal Tito” (now “Mother Theresa”) was still ongoing and Grand Hotel was the last act to complete it as a whole. The hotel project and its construction began in 1974. Bashkim Fehmiu, the first Albanian architect educated in Belgrade (Kosovo didn’t have its own school of architecture until 1978), was one of the architects involved in this project, together with “two architects from Belgrade Miša Jevremovic and Dragan Kovačević followed by Students’ Canteen (1974) by Dragan Radulović”. The building was completed and was open for use in 1978. Kosovo Assembly took the loan for constructing the building from the Yugoslavian Federation Fond with an interest rate of 4%, which had to be returned from the Kosovo Bank. The architect Bashkim Fehmiu was also responsible before the Provincial Assembly of Kosovo for the “Grand” hotel project.
On the other hand, according to interviews conducted with one of the hotel’s former directors, Mr. Zeke Ceku (during the years 1984-1987 and 1999-2006), and Isa Rexha, first employed as a security guard while studying economics and later as a manager at the hotel, there is another story about the hotel’s project idea. In which they both confirm that the project was brought in Pristina by Tito. It was a hotel designed to be built in the coastal city of Cavtat near Dubrovnik in Croatia. They remember a project with three cylindrical towers with balconies, and due to a different climate zone and urban context, the three named architects most likely modified and/or used it as an inspiration for a new project hotel in the new location in Pristina, Kosovo.
Obviously, it is influenced by the trends of international style. The pure forms and the play with volumes, especially the one coming out from the first floor, which is a congress hall inside whereas outside creates a very elegant shelter point at the main entrance. This interplay of volumes can also be perceived in the vertical aspect of the building. The main tower with 13 floors (12 with rooms and the 13th with a restaurant) positioned at the center, dominates the whole building. The four-story tower on the right attempts to be in line with the surrounding buildings proportionally, but not from the architectural language as such. The south viewpoint, where the other left tower with 6 floors is located, emphasizes the new part of the city that was coming up during that time. The number of room units per floor in each of the three towers is clearly shown by the vertical ribs that permeate the facades. Even on the darkest nights, the Onyx stone cladding gives hotel a shiny and bright appearance.
Such a visionary position has enabled the spaces around “Grand Hotel” to become vibrant public spaces. In the future Grand’s plateau was supposed to be connected to the plateau of the Youth and Sports center Boro & Ramizi (today Adem Jashari) via the pedestrian bridge above the street “Luan Haradinaj”. Underneath the Grand’s plateau is the entrance to the main restaurant of the hotel from the west side where also a set of shops enrich the back part of the building. According to Mr. Ceku, the shops were invested with the hotel’s funds, but they were taken into use by the political structures of that time. In addition, unfortunately, the pedestrian bridge was never built.
The hotel’s interior was also well-thought-out and meticulously designed to the last detail of each function and space. Matej Rodiqi, a local artist from Kosovo was in charge of curating and branding it. Black marble flooring, imported from Hungary, can be considered as one of the identifying elements of the typical modernist interior. The furniture’s design of the main spaces, main hall, and residences was in line with the modern design of the time.
During this period, specifically in 1980 when Tito visited Pristina, he was hosted in Grand at his own residence. Ms. Berisha, the main hostess, remembers those days when she took care of everything that was needed for him during his stay in Pristina. Before Tito left, the hotel staff took a photo together with him and two local politicians of that time, Mahmut Bakalli and Xhavit Nimani. As Tito was leaving the hotel, as a sign of respect, he gave a watch as a gift for the main hostess Sanije Berisha.
In 1984, a temporary administrative management team was selected to replace the hotel’s previous bad management. Mr. Zeke Ceku was appointed as a director and a new management board was established. By the end of 1986, Grand Hotel had regained its reputation and was ranked among Yugoslavia’s top five five-star hotels. Its staff participated in yearly competitions for cooking and touristic services in cities across Yugoslavia, winning several certificates and medals.
“The entrance is forbidden for Albanians, Croats and dogs”.
The ‘90s were a dark and difficult time for Kosovo in general. In 1991, Mr. Mikullovci was replaced by Serbian director Dragisa Vuckovic, who would go on to become the general director of SLOGA enterprise, which managed the Grand Hotel as well as 15 other tourist and customer facilities in Pristina. Employees of the Grand Hotel remember how Serbian symbols of the Milosevic regime (4S) were placed in their wardrobe – working uniform, and that any Albanian who refused to wear them was expelled from their working place. This was one of the ways by which the majority of Albanian employees were left jobless.
Between 1996 and 1999, the situation worsened when Arkan – paramilitary forces were stationed at the Grand Hotel; they were practically residing there. During this period, according to Mr. Ceku, a statement was written at the hotel’s main entrance that read, “The entrance is forbidden for Albanians, Croats, and dogs”.
From 1997 and on, many international organizations, as well as journalists, were also placed in Grand Hotel. At the moment they left in 1999, just before the NATO bombing started in March, the paramilitary forces and also the Army forces in the next building to Grand, created their base in the hotel’s underground spaces. This way making Grand Hotel a potential NATO target.
“First it was Serbs, then the KLA, and now KFOR,” this is how Turkish journalist Turgut described Grand Hotel during the ‘90s. “From the first day, I haven’t seen this hotel without guys with guns”; he stated. Mr. Ceku and Mr. Rexha also highlight that on June 11th, a large number of military Serbs and Russians were present. On June 12th, as NATO moved in and Serb soldiers departed, the resulting chaos spilt from the street into the hotel lobby. The first thing Mr. Ceku did after returning to Kosovo (as being a refugee in Macedonia during the war) was going to Grand Hotel to see what was going on. “Those employees who worked before 1990, were the first ones to be called to get their jobs back” said British Army Major Richard Bennett, the KFOR officer who was a hotel manager at the time. According to Bennett, some 50 Serb employees had decided to stay, while 130 ethnic Albanians had shown up to reclaim their lost jobs. One of them was Mr. Ceku. Major Bennet facilitated a meeting between the hotel’s Serb director, Mr. Milan Djorovic, and the Albanian ex-director, Mr. Ceku, and other ex-employees. On the 26th of June 1999, Grand Hotel returned to the hands of the Albanian majority. Mr. Ceku remembers the first tour through the spaces of the hotel, focusing on the Bowling area – two floors underground – where stood a large pile of ashes, shoes, clothes, blood signs, a lot of cables, and whatnot. Obviously, this was the place where the Yugoslav army and paramilitary forces were stationed during the NATO bombing, and where they tortured and raped civilians. KFOR soldiers and UN-Mission administrators in Kosovo took pictures and evidence, after which the place was cleaned. No one had ever seen any document and/or pictures of that particular condition. Mr. Ceku was present and witnessed everything, and he also points out that other traces and evidence of violence and torture were found in several rooms of the hotel.
Grand Hotel was privatized in 2006 with a special spin-off which according to Mr. Tolaj, director of Kosovo Privatization Agency, is a combined form of privatization. There were three conditions to be fulfilled in this regard: 1/ the buying price; 2/ the sum of further investment; and 3/ the number of employees to be kept.
On the third wave of privatization Grand was sold and the new owner became Mr. Zelqif Berisha with its company “Unio Commerce”. The contract required to maintain the nature of the building and its function, furthermore it required implementing all the investments within three years. The hotel was bought for 8 million Euros with the memorandum of further investments of 20 million Euros and to hire up to 570 employees. Unofficially besides Mr. Berisha, there were two other shareholders in the Grand Privatization – Mr. Behxhet Pacolli (the owner of Swiss Diamond Hotel) with 40% and Mr. Remzi Ejupi (the owner of flying company Eurokoha). The Kosovo Privatization Agency director, Mr. Valon Tolaj, claimed that the agency only acknowledges the official owner – Mr. Zelqif Berisha. Since the planned investments were not completed within the frame of the three-year contract, Kosovo Privatization Agency offered the owner a second chance by extending the contract for three more years to fulfil the obligations.
Besides the will, the official owner failed to meet all of his investment and contract obligations, which is why in 2012 Kosovo Privatization Agency took the hotel under its administration by withdrawing the shares of the buyer.
Due to this development, Mr. Pacolli (a former Minister of Foreign Affairs, Vice-Prime Minister, and President of Kosovo) sued the Kosovo state in the court of appeals for the Grand Hotel case, alleging that he owns shares and investments in it. Regardless, Mr. Pacolli was not recognized by the state as a stakeholder, even at the time when the hotel was deemed to be privately owned.
Because of all this, the Grand Hotel case was demanded to be investigated by the Kosovo Parliament by establishing a special investigative commission for privatization in this regard.
Immediately after privatizing the hotel, his owner planned to organize an invited competition for a project that would lead to investments. To ensure the quality of investments, a German consultant, Oliver Tile, was hired as a project manager. He developed a program for Grand Restauration with the standards of the intercontinental group. From six invited architecture companies in the competition, a company from Albania called “Studio Enigma” headed by architect Klement Koloneci was chosen to design the new Grand and a local Kosovar architecture company named “INFINIT” to do the project supervision. The idea of making wider rooms possible as a request of technical norms for a 5-star hotel led to major changes inside the hotel, but it also impacted the Grand facade’s main structure. The C tower on the building’s left side was planned to host administrative services, offices and shops (mainly to host Raiffeisen Bank and compensate the loan taken for investments at the hotel). However, since 2012 the investments were not completed, and that part of the building now appears to be a workshop space.
“The idea was to maintain the identity of the building”, emphasized the architect Gjergj Mehili of Enigma studio, who worked on this project. But what they aimed at and what is implemented today are two different things. The building’s solid volumes were replaced with glass structures, making it appear lighter. The vertical ribs in the façade were also removed, as three rooms were combined into two, wide enough to reach the 5-star standards. As a result, it seems that the inside re-modulation and changes to certain functions impacted the whole structure from the outside as well.
The materials planned to be used for the façade was Alucobond – an imitation of stone, but in the end, another material was used. Due to several problems and changes in the project during implementation, the German project manager left in 2011.
Today the building has two faces – the old and the new, coexisting to tell us a story of foolishness.
It is a piece of living evidence to remind us, how a vision and a genuine approach to such a vital building, a signifier and a vital location in the city center was missing and the building as such was used and exploited only for narrow interests of certain groups of people for such a long time. It continues even today, where bits and pieces of it have been transformed from the physical and functional point of view.
- A former Banquet hall, today is a space for the Martial Arts Club.
- The big main restaurant, today is used as a fitness center – ironically named 5-stars.
- The former national restaurant – Grand Taverna – today is a milk restaurant and an improvised small mosque.
- The security offices now host a shop for photography, and so on…
There is a specific art collection that the Grand administration commissioned and bought to expose in the rooms and other spaces. The painting “The Dinner,” by Gjelosh Gjokaj, an Albanian well-known painter, still stands in front of the conference hall in the main hall. A large wall mosaic of a well-known artist – known as the father of contemporary Kosovar art Muslim Mulliqi is hidden with a new interior design of the “Ma Belle” milk restaurant. The tapestries of Matej Rodiqi are still hanging on the walls and in a good condition, together with sculptures of Agim Cavderbasha. The problem is that not all of the paintings and other artistic works are present in the rooms… over the years, they were taken or got lost…
The National Gallery of Kosovo’s board became interested in this collection with the idea to nationalize it and make it visible to the general public in the future. At that time, the building had been privatized with all of its assets, making it impossible to initiate the procedures. The circumstances changed over time, and when the building was returned to the Privatization Agency, the Ministry of Culture began the procedures. This process took almost nine years to complete, and the art pieces of Grand Hotel are now part of the National Gallery of Kosovo as a national collection.
In May 2019, the FEMART festival took place and Grand Hotel was chosen to host the ceremonial opening of that year. This decision was made for a variety of reasons.
The theme of the festival was “With Freedom Against Shame”, and I was invited by the director of the festival to participate with an exhibition. Through this exhibition, my goal was to raise awareness about sexually abused women during the last war in Kosovo. But the main question was how to illustrate an issue that is still taboo and all these victims are remaining silent. We decided to go back to a crime scene, and one of them was Grand – Bowling Space – 2nd floor underground. But being an architect at the same time, the idea was to figure out how one project could activate a building. How it can ensure other forms of engagement and representation… and why not… since Grand itself became a heterotopic place. The bowling space hosted my personal exhibition on sexually abused women named “Be my face”, an interactive exhibition that invites visitors to give attention and give face to faceless painful stories of rape in Kosovo – because almost all of these women avoid discussing this topic in public.
So, the GRAND scream project aimed to place the entire building at the center of discussion…as it held inside a lot of hidden screams, untold stories, and a lot of pain for so many years, not just in the bowling space, but also on various floors and rooms.
But today, the building itself is our urban pain and screams for more attention.
The building had a lot of potentials that, if well thought out and widely used, might make it once again a GRAND place to be.
 The General Urban Plan for Prishtina was drafted in Belgrade by Dragoljub Partonic and was approved after three years in the Provincial Assembly of Kosova.