Tirana, the capital of Albania, is a fascinating place. According to the latest articles on tourism and events, it is a trending European capital and an exciting destination for various reasons. Saimir Kristo writes about what lies beneath the bright, colourful surface.
After the Second World War and the fall of fascism, Albania was the only Italian colony in Europe, the country fell under the influence of a communist regime and its dictator Enver Hoxha, who would oppress the country for more than 45 years, isolating Albania from the outside world and making it one of the harshest societies in Europe. Initially, the regime had limited access to countries in Eastern Europe, former Yugoslavia and Soviet Union, and also China until the early 1980s, allowing a small degree of cultural exchange. A handful of Albanian architects, among them Sokrat Mosko, Valentina Pistoli and Enver Faja, studied abroad. Later, these architects would lead in several fields of development in Albania, allowing a different style of aesthetics to develop, going beyond the ideological limits imposed by socialist realism.
Nevertheless, Hoxha’s mission to influence and rule Albania was not limited to politics, society, economics and so on. As an authoritarian ruler, he wanted to impose his power on everyday life, shaping the way people thought, lived and believed in ideals. The image of the city at that time was shaped by the principles of uniformity, the ‘equal’ status that society should reflect in itself, starting with the main boulevards of the city.
Under this ideological principle he destroyed a considerable number of historical neighbourhoods in Tirana, wiping out the ‘oriental image’ of the city and in particular its city centre, destroying the old bazaar, which was one of the most essential elements of Tirana since the city was established (Dhamo, Thomai, Aliaj, 2016). Also, many churches and mosques were destroyed after religion was abolished in Albania, and the country was the first to be declared atheist. Leftover spaces in old neighbourhoods were surrounded by communist housing blocks, creating new facades along the main streets.
After half a century of isolation and suppression, Albania has since the early 1990s appeared to make great efforts to open up and modernize. The country faces many difficulties similar to those in neighbouring countries, such as corruption at various levels, a brain drain and new flows of emigration around Europe, and the way it deals with them also shows many similarities. Political change in Albania always brought new developments in its cities, particularly Tirana, the ‘centre of Albanians’. The city is a great example of how political authority imposes power in an attempt to rewrite the history of a country. Albania’s capital has become a place where rational and bizarre elements co-exist, generating an identity that’s not permanent but always set to change. A portrait of Tirana – a city that provokes architects to dare more – would be a mosaic, a conglomerate of ill-fitting pieces.
‘Taking over a city with colour!’
After a decade of anarchic capitalism that followed 50 years of authoritarian rule, the population of Tirana grew from 200,000 to almost 800,000. In October 2000, Socialist Party member Edi Rama, artist and former Minister of Culture, was elected Mayor of Tirana. As mayor, he inherited a post-communist city with illegal buildings, high crime rates, no public spaces, an inadequate sewage system and waste collection infrastructure, and lots of greyness: grey buildings, grey roads and grey lives (Rama, 2012). A similar strategy applied in post-communist Europe focused on superficial change, such as painting facades, replacing old communist slogans with new billboards, and opening stores at street level in many buildings as well as new brands and fashion (Pusca, 2008).
Rama’s decision to paint a whole city in bright colours was one of the most significant risks that a mayor could take, but as a painter, he was conscious of how colour affects psychology. His initiative to paint the city’s facades resulted in a successful and temporary change in the image of the city, achieved with few resources.
Internationally acclaimed artists were invited to repaint Tirana’s buildings in a riotous array of colours and patterns. The centre of Tirana, from the central campus of the Polytechnic University up to Skanderbeg Square, was declared a protected district. In that same year, the area began a process of renewal under the initiative ‘Return to Identity’ to prove that change is possible.
There was a hope that Tirana and Albania would build ‘third way’ policies, as Slavoj Zizek put it, in order to create a unique culture and new forms of welfare’. (Mimica, 2010)
Later on, Tirana would see a new attempt to realize the original aim of Rama to ‘take back your city with colours’. This plan in its early phases (2001-2003) resulted in socially harsh but aesthetically promising projects, such as the redevelopment of the banks of the River Lana, including cleaning the informal buildings on them, the renovation of Rinia Park, and the painting of grey communist facades to give a new breath of hope. In the meantime, the city was full of construction work in the centre and on the periphery, creating a real estate bubble and allowing the population to increase fourfold while offering inadequate basic infrastructure and public transportation facilities.
In this dynamic atmosphere, Tirana aimed to finish the initial plan within 15 years, transforming the city’s facades with the development of a downtown area while providing space for further speculation in the property market with the development of numerous towers and residential units around the city.
In the same framework, a new national strategy for city beautification emerged, and most of the main public squares in Albanian cities were paved white, while the surrounding buildings dedicated to public administration were painted a deep red, as was done in the municipalities of Durres, Vlora, Korçe, Patos and elsewhere. This strategy aimed to create a new image for Albanian cities, yet it just made them homogeneous and erased their local and original character.
As part of the same initiative, the work on Skanderbeg Square resumed and was completed thanks to strong central and local political support that cost almost 20 million euros. Also completed was the redevelopment of the ‘New Bazaar’ for Tirana, full of national colour motifs and patterns. Contrary to the aim, the New Bazaar became a district of bars and cafes, bringing gentrification to an area once full of character and completely transforming the original identity of public space.
The same strategy was followed in the destruction of the historical stadium of Tirana, designed by Gherardo Bosio in early 1940s. In its place, a new ‘red and black’ stadium was developed. The project was filled with nationalistic and patriotic motives, which aimed to promote the commercial and residential facilities in the tower building plugged into the stadium. There was also an attempt to destroy the National Theatre Complex, designed by Italian architect Julio Berté in the 1930s and part of the cultural heritage of the city, in order to build a new ‘colourful’ theatre.
The vast new public spaces created around the country, such as Skanderbeg Square, now serve as stages for numerous performances and events organized to attract people, even though the spaces themselves are more like voids and intersections than public squares. The large number of construction sites around the square shows the level of property speculation in Tirana. With 221 building permits issued in first trimester of 2018 alone (Instat, 2018), and almost 800 permits for the whole year, the city has become a living centre of construction surrounded by public events to keep people busy and unaware of the imminent destruction of public space.
In the end, public spaces like Skanderbeg Square are not created for the people of the city, but to create better conditions for the property market. A front lobby for the numerous high-rise buildings to be erected around it.
At a time when there is an exodus of Albanians heading to other countries in search of a brighter future, the construction of these new towers and residential facilities seems absurd and unrealistic. Nevertheless, it seems that growth in the name of profit is the new motif, the same old strategy for a city that has faced several attempts to transform its identity with imposed new ideologies. Colours and their use are an ideological mechanism implemented in the city, imposing and controlling social behaviour.
It is not a naive attempt to cheer up the citizens of Tirana, making them forget the authoritarian rule that was in place for almost half a century. After all, it is impossible to start afresh after the fall of a regime. Today, we can observe the straightforward Western tendency to paint post-communist countries as grey and present capitalism and development as ‘vibrant’ and ‘colourful’.
The strategy to activate the main facades of the city with colour without adding value to the economy serves no public interest. It is a technique to distract the public from the enormous development in the property market, with the construction of numerous high-rise buildings that deform the city skyline as we know it today. Observing the city at eye level, people see colours but fail to see the urbicide that is happening in Tirana.
The spaces that are constructed within the framework of ‘urban rebirth’ are, after all, squares not built for people but to stimulate property speculation. In this sense, all private high-rise towers around Skanderbeg Square will use the ‘square’ itself as their courtyard. Nevertheless, the vibrant dynamics and atmosphere that Tirana provides tourists and foreign visitors should go beyond a shallow profit-oriented motive for the sake of growth and development. Unfortunately, the strategy is still applied today, while there is a great need to create a new system of thinking and action, with structural change that prioritizes the quality of life for Albanians. A splash of colour is not enough. It takes much more.