Tirana

Proof that architects really can make a meaningful contribution to the city and its inhabitants came from artist and Mayor of Tirana (capital of Albania) Edi Ramas. In 2000, the year that Ramas took office, Tirana was in a state of total chaos as a result of the monetary crisis that hit Albania in 1997 and plunged the country into anarchy. There was a rampant growth of illegal structures housing and illegal activities on public spaces. Structures were tacked onto and on top of existing buildings. Words like solidarity and community had lost their meaning. The city was thrown into darkness, literally, because defunct street lighting wasn’t replaced after 1997. Just 78 street lights were still working. Ramas saw it as his duty to transform the city where people were doomed to live into a city where people wanted to live. A complicating factor was the lack of almost any funding. Ramas’s first remarkable project involved painting buildings. Colours turned buildings and all their illegal additions into a single entity again, and once anonymous housing blocks acquired an individual expression. All this occurred without any resistance. Colour was the topic of conversation on the streets and in the council chamber for months. To Ramas’s satisfaction naturally, for at last the people of Tirana felt involved and responsible for their surroundings. Albania’s first art biennale was staged in 2001. Artists were invited to make designs for murals, some of which were later realised. In the years that followed all the illegal structures were removed from the parks and banks of the River De Lana. Once the city was ‘recaptured’, as Ramas put it, architects arrived on the scene. In 2004 the Berlage Institute studied public space in Tirana. This research resulted in proposals, a number of which were actually implemented. The parks and riverbanks were redesigned and footpaths were fitted with decorative surfaces. The city held design competitions for some prominent sites, one of which was won by Belgian office 51N4E and is now under construction.

The evening before the conference Ramas had spoken to Adri Duivesteyn about the latter’s plans to make the people of Almere both the starting point and finishing point of the urban design process by promoting ‘organic’ planning and housing initiated and developed by private individuals. Although Ramas represented politics, he wasn’t in favour of these plans. Ramas: ‘What is needed is strong leadership, not only political but also professional’. Project Tirana shows that Visionary Power can work as long as everyone in keeps in mind the collective (the city and its inhabitants). Few of the architects who presented projects on Friday realised this unfortunately. Ramas, for that matter, was recently re-elected for a third term as mayor.

The turnout for both days was somewhat disappointing. Were architects too busy working? Or were they enjoying a long Pentecost weekend? The room has only half filled, mainly with speakers, most of them architects attached to schools and architects from fledgling offices who were there to present their work. The research and design projects presented on the first day were fairly academic. The purpose of such projects would seem to be to raise discussion. But none materialised because, simply, there wasn’t an opportunity to pose questions, even though plenty could have been asked.

On Friday three case studies were presented: Spectacle Cities, Corporate Cities and Capital Cities. Saturday focused on Informal Cities and Hidden Cities. The ingredients of all presentations were the same: a short introduction, an explanation of the problem – all three forces mentioned were assumed from the outset to constitute problems for the city and its inhabitants – and a presentation of one or two projects by offices and teams at the invitation of the IABR. Projects that might possibly offer a solution – or ‘visionary power’ – for the problem in question. The sessions concluded with a ‘debate’, which turned out to be a friendly private chat amongst the speakers at a table.

In her lecture entitled Tourism, Spectacle and the Urban Condition, Joan Ockman (Columbia) argued that the word spectacle has had a negative connotation even since the publication of Guy Debord’s book La Société du spectacle (1967). She questioned whether this was a good thing. According to Ockman, we need a theory about the way in which architecture is perceived, understood and received. Her lecture consisted of what she called ‘just some thoughts that I wanted to scatter and throw out at you’. At the end she got a lukewarm round of applause.

Frans van Schouten (former lecturer at the National College of Tourism and Traffic) explained that tourism mainly consists of mass tourism, and that the number of tourists will rise over the years. He also told his listeners that only 12% of the tourists who visit Venice actually sleep there, and that the city council in Barcelona is considering measures to take away the landing rights from low-cost airlines. This is an attempt to reduce the number of British visitors to the city. He was of course referring to those weekend visitors who get drunk and run riot in the city.

Keller Easterling (Yale) does research on economic zones managed by companies or organisations specially set up for that purpose. The examples she showed were located in Dubai (Dubai Internet city) and Iran (Kish). Her biased view was that the Free Trade Zone was a reprehensible development. No historical framework was given and Easterling viewed the issue entirely from an American democratic perspective, which meant she was oblivious to any possible benefits of the Free Trade Zones.

With his lecture City as Political Form, Pier Vittorio Aureli whisked his audience in breakneck speed and in inimitable fashion from the ancient Greek city and a lesson in etymology to the Schinkel’s Berlin. But unfortunately he ran way over time and had to abruptly end his lecture there with a real cliff-hanger.

No doubt about it, the presentations varied in quality and contained few new insights for anyone who occasionally reads the economy pages of the paper or watches a documentary on television.

The design projects presented on Friday mainly raised questions about the urgency of the projects. Why this project? Why now? What are new models for the city? Part of the difficulty lies with the young architects themselves. Most of them understand just one thing: architecture. They aren’t sociologists, planners, economists or geographers. They pick and choose the knowledge they think they need to construct a story that legitimises their project, their truth. There was a clear difference in approach between projects made by local offices and those by offices unfamiliar with the situation. Projects in the latter category were cynical and provocative. What, for example, to make of the project by the New York-based WORK to construct an Urban War Zone, an island off the coast of Beirut where countries can do battle to resolve their conflicts? And their proposal to build a Silicone Allee under the motto ‘Plastic Surgery is a right’? And what to make of the project by Rotterdam-based IND to roof over the streets and squares of Astana, the capital of Kazachstan, with cupolas – said to be the mayor’s favourite form – with as underlying idea, ‘let's take beloved capitalism one step further’?

The question that arose over the course of the day was: ‘Does architecture matter?’. On the basis of the presented projects, the answer is a whole-hearted No.