Something old, something new

The many faces of Tirana

The history of the Albanian capital is both a brief and chequered one. Tirana has gone from a village to a metropolis in just a few years and is set to become a prime example of the modern city. However, this process is not without its share of conflict, says Julia Putzger from Postcards from Albania.

Albania is a country of many faces. This is clearer than ever in Tirana. Take a look around the main square and you will see a modern, flourishing city with a European outlook. However, if you venture to the outskirts and suburbs in the north, you will be met by the sight of water tanks on the roofs of dilapidated houses, as there is no city-wide water supply. And if you then manage to grab a seat on one of the overcrowded public buses and take the tortuously long and slow journey back into the centre, you will pass by sprawling high-rise housing estates, modern office buildings and building site after building site. Tirana is a city of contrasts undergoing a period of huge upheaval. The new is both complementing and displacing the old. Urban development concepts aim to provide some direction in this jungle of projects and find integrated solutions for the city.

Tirana’s population boom

Today, Tirana’s urban sprawl is home to over 800,000 people – according to official figures, the city alone has a population of more than half a million. When the communist regime collapsed in 1991, the number of inhabitants was around half that figure. With the dawn of a new era came a sense of new beginnings: while thousands of Albanians emigrated to Central Europe, Tirana was also a popular destination. The huge surge of people moving to the city led to massive expansion, particularly to the north. Even today, it is no easy task to bring order to the lawless chaos of development projects that date back to this time.

Map of Tirana: © Margit Steidl

The most comprehensive plan for Albania’s capital is called Tirana 2030. It was developed by Italian star architect Stefano Boeri, who is best known around the world for his innovative green façades. Boeri won the international competition in 2016 with his vision of a kaleidoscopic city – a city which can shine from many different angles – and proposed a strategy that involved a total of 13 projects. The creation of more green spaces and public areas and improvements to infrastructure are at the core of this concept. The plan particularly focuses on the suburbs, aiming to help them develop a certain degree of independence and thereby ease the burden on the centre. It envisages the construction of a “fourth green belt” around the city, which will feature recreational facilities and also help optimise the flow of public transport. It also includes plans to build 20 public schools.

The concept has sparked a deluge of criticism from the Democratic Party of Albania, who believe it offers gimmicks but absolutely no solutions to real problems. However, the city’s mayor Erion Veliaj is very taken by it. “These plans will transform Tirana into a European city,” he announced when the concept was showcased at the end of 2016. Veliaj, who has been in office since the summer of 2015 and is just short of 40, likes to present himself as a mover and shaker who drives projects forward. The wallpaper in his office is a map of Tirana and his shelves are adorned with models of future building projects and expensive sculptures by famous artists, next to hand-crafted creations by nursery school children. In this office, which has the air of an oversized games room, Veliaj is particularly proud of one object: his bicycle. Clean as a whistle, gleaming silver and decked out with bright orange wheels, it is parked in front of a bookcase and seems to be just waiting for the mayor to take it for a spin around the city.

However, Veliaj will have to be careful not to get it mixed up with the 4,000 other identical bikes recently distributed all across Tirana. They are hire bikes made by the Chinese company Mobike, which can be used via an app and parked at their very own docking stations. The Albanian capital is leading the way in the Balkans with this concept. Veliaj is proud of this and sees it as an important step towards a greener future. So what would it be like if the mayor wheeled his bike out of the office and showed us his city from a cyclist’s perspective?

“We turned the most congested area in the city into one of its liveliest places,”

— Erion Velija, mayor of Tirana

Tirana city hall is housed in a red and yellow building constructed by Italian architects at the beginning of the 20th century. It is located right on the main square, which is named after the national hero Skanderbeg – the south side of the square boasts a larger-than-life statue in his honour. If Veliaj hopped onto his bicycle here, he could go round and round in large circles without being bothered by a single car. Skanderbeg Square is the heart of Tirana. It is a rare space of calm in the Albanian capital, where both visitors and residents can collect their thoughts. Covering an area of 97,000 square metres, the spot is used by young and old to relax, to party or to just take a stroll. The sprawling square is paved with polished stones from regions all over Albania and surrounded by little green oases. Sage and mint grow in the gardens, the leaves of young linden trees rustle in the wind, and benches are nestled among the dense maquis shrubs that are so common in Albania, providing the perfect spot to unwind. This is Albania at its most European, aspirational and modern.

“We turned the most congested area in the city into one of its liveliest places,” says the mayor with satisfaction. The plans to redesign Skanderbeg Square were developed by the Belgian architectural firm 51N4E; Albania’s current prime minister, Edi Rama – who served as mayor before Veliaj’s predecessor – had something similar in mind. The plans were finally realised in 2017 thanks to financial support from the United Arab Emirates and were a resounding success: in 2018 the redevelopment of Skanderbeg Square struck a chord across the world and won the tenth edition of the European Prize for Urban Public Spaces, selected from 279 submissions from 32 countries. In its explanatory statement, the jury said that the project had “an intentional yet unassuming connection with Albania’s national identity”. While the heart of Tirana may seem to give a glimpse of this country’s future, the city centre could not be more steeped in history.

Looking to the north: Skanderbeg Square, once surrounded by the roar of traffic, has undergone a stylish remodelling – complete with green oases and fountains bubbling out of the ground – making it a popular meeting point in the city centre. Photos: © Michael Sommer (now), Robert Pichler (then)

99 shades of grey

If you only visit Albania for a few days, you run the risk of getting lost in the chaos that dominates the country. It is not easy to get your bearings – not when navigating its maze of alleyways, nor when trying to assess the fiercely debated issues in the Albanian media and politics, which often play on stereotypes. No matter how much research you do. You could just join the chorus of dissatisfied voices, decrying corruption as a ubiquitous evil, and rant and rave about why everything isn’t just done differently.
But everyday life in Albania is simply not as black and white as we would sometimes like it to be: things here are rarely all good, but they are also rarely all bad. Instead, there are countless different shades of grey in between.
Urban development in Tirana is also one of these grey areas. Some projects seem to be heading in a positive direction, but when it comes to putting them into practice, much still goes wrong. Politicians like Erion Veliaj are faced with a dilemma. They want to present Albania to the world as a modern and attractive country. At the same time, however, they must also make the country more appealing to its residents in their everyday lives to stop them emigrating in droves in search of a better future elsewhere, to make them see that this future is possible in Albania.
Signature projects like those being planned on a vast scale in the centre of the city can only help to a certain extent here, because so much basic infrastructure is lacking elsewhere. On the one hand, you have fountains seeping out of expensive natural stone on award-winning Skanderbeg Square. On the other, tanks on the roofs of houses to make sure the water keeps running. One question that remains is: how many shades of grey can a country like Albania withstand?

Skanderbeg Square through the ages

If the mayor could cycle 150 years back in time on his silver bicycle, his journey through Tirana would certainly be a lot more peaceful and idyllic. Back then there were just a few stables, courtyards and residential buildings dotted along bumpy roads. If Veliaj travelled back to 1868 and told the Albanians about the dozens of gleaming skyscrapers and the vast main square, it would seem as utopian to the 19th century city dwellers as landing on the moon. Just under 50 years later, in 1912, the little country town was slowly coming to life. This was when Albania proclaimed its independence from the Ottoman Empire and was on the lookout for a suitable capital city. After some deliberation, Tirana was declared the temporary capital; this decision was then made official in 1925 when it was written into the Albanian constitution.

The first administrative buildings were subsequently constructed around Skanderbeg Square, including today’s city hall. The wide boulevards, which still radiate from the square today, were built in this period. During the communist dictatorship from 1944 to 1990, national buildings sprung up all around the square, such as the Palace of Culture and the National Historical Museum, which still shape the cityscape. The square itself was not unlike it is today: vast and open so that the people would feel small in comparison and as a symbol of the greatness of the dictator, Enver Hoxha. Cars rarely drove over its paving stones – because they were few and far between back then. Veliaj would have had ample room to cycle around as he pleased.

This changed dramatically after 1990 when the square was transformed into a huge roundabout and traffic junction. In 2008 Edi Rama, who was then mayor of the city, started an initiative to remodel the space into a car-free zone. However, Lulzim Basha from the Democratic Party of Albania took office in 2011 and had other plans: with the help of ten million euros from Kuwait, the square at the heart of Tirana became a greener space, but remained an enormous roundabout. Go to Google Street View and you can still watch the traffic going round in circles. In the offline world, however, the cars have since been banished to a vast underground car park below the area. Skanderbeg Square itself has now become a communal and social space.

“Instead of the promised green areas for the residents of this city, a concrete jungle is emerging, pandering to the wishes of business people.”

— Government critic Redi Muci

Infrastructure for all

In the Balkans, nothing embodies the spirit of community and social interaction as much as its lively bazaars. There is a frenzy of activity in the narrow gaps between the stalls: people are busy bargaining, chatting and nibbling at food. In the Tirana of olden days, the bazaar was next to the Et’hem-Bey mosque, the oldest in the city, which is located on Skanderbeg Square. Today, however, the mayor will have to pedal further to buy his fresh fruit and veg. Just under 500 metres east of the main square, you will find the new market hall with its gleaming glass roof. This is a place of order and cleanliness; there are wide aisles and fixed counters instead of market stalls. The new bazaar is one of Veliaj’s flagship projects: “I think that if I had to name my three favourite places in Tirana – and that’s really no easy task – then the new bazaar would definitely be one of them,” the politician explains in an interview. If you wander just a few streets further, however, you will discover a very different kind of Albanian sales culture: tiny shops in garages, traders selling their wares spread over already narrow pavements, open refrigerated counters and shaky shelving units, which hardly comply with European hygiene and safety standards. Regulations have been developed to put a stop to these kinds of conditions, but the infrastructure needed to implement them is lacking.

There is no shortage of space for retail units here, but many of the buildings planned are still under construction. The most striking of these unfinished projects is the 4 Evergreen Tower on the south-west side of Skanderbeg Square. This concrete shell has stood there for the last ten years, soaring 85 metres and dominating the skyline like a huge wobbly tooth. On the bright side, it could help Veliaj get his bearings while cycling around the labyrinth of Tirana’s alleyways. The 4 Evergreen Tower is destined to be one of ten different structures, which will tower over Tirana and shape the cityscape with their extravagant designs. One is already complete: the TID Tower on the east side of the main square. Construction recently started on the Blloku Cube, designed by Boeri. Many question the usefulness of these buildings, particularly government critics such as Redi Muci: “Instead of the promised green areas for the residents of this city, a concrete jungle is emerging, pandering to the wishes of business people.”

Urban development: a private matter

Influential business figures have in fact often had their fingers in the pie when it comes to Tirana’s urban planning, mostly in the form of public-private partnerships, i.e. collaborative projects between private investors and the public sector. This involves the government getting private investors on board to finance expensive projects. In return, it takes their interests into account by letting them have plots of land or integrating their construction schemes into the planned projects. This is a method preferred by Tirana’s mayor Veliaj in his quest to drive forward the city’s development – after all, its budget is very tight.

The most recent example of this are the plans to rebuild the National Theatre. This inconspicuous building is located just a few steps behind the town hall – it would barely be worth Veliaj hopping onto his two-wheeled steed – and dates back to the period when fascist Italy occupied Albania. It is one of the few historic buildings left standing in Tirana. This partly explains why actors and residents are so attached to their old National Theatre. For functional reasons, however, the decision to rebuild the theatre would seem unavoidable: the building was originally a cinema.

Yet the almost daily protests against the government’s plans for the National Theatre, which began in June 2018, were sparked by a different matter: some two thirds of the site that currently belongs to the city would become the property of private investors, who plan to construct a huge complex of buildings on the land. It sounds like a perfect deal for Veliaj and the city of Tirana: the construction company Fusha Shpk will become the landowner and in return it will build the National Theatre. It will cost the city nothing and create added value in the shape of real estate. “Sometimes we have to join forces with private investors to ensure we can afford to purchase the things we need right now,” Veliaj explains succinctly. In the case of the National Theatre, however, this alliance has left a bitter aftertaste: although there was a public tender for the project, the bid already suggested Fusha Shpk as a partner in this lucrative trade-off. According to the news blog Exit: Explaining Albania, the company has links to the government and has already been involved in similar projects in Tirana. Prime Minister Rama recently made at least a formal gesture to tackle this situation when he tabled a new bill to stop competing companies being put at a disadvantage from the outset. Behind the curtains, however, the construction of the new National Theatre, designed by Danish architectural firm Bjarke Ingels Group, would seem to be a done deal.

If Veliaj cycles south along the Boulevard Dëshmorët e Kombit, one of the most important routes into the centre of Tirana, he will even find a designated cycle lane and many a project to survey. The main attraction on the left is the Pyramid of Tirana. This out-of-place concrete behemoth has been crumbling away for years and was originally intended to be a mausoleum for the communist dictator Enver Hoxha. When proposals were made to demolish the structure several years ago, however, many Albanians rediscovered an urge to preserve the past. As a result, instead of constructing a futuristic new parliament building in its place, the Pyramid was left to fall further into decay and to the children who regularly scramble up its slanting concrete walls. In June 2018, Veliaj re-announced his well-known plans: to transform the Pyramid into the world’s largest centre for young people who want to learn programming. Nevertheless, as with many of the urban development projects, it is not yet clear when exactly this will happen.

The Pyramid is currently an adventure playground for the young people of Tirana. Photo © Julia Putzger

The mayor’s imaginary bicycle tour would include a host of other destinations. The national arena, for example, which is currently under construction, and which will finally provide the national football team with a suitable home. It will also feature an office and hotel tower jutting into the sky, but will not include a track for athletics events. Or the suburbs to the north of the city, which have been planned out in detailed development concepts that nobody sticks to because of the many lucrative business deals going on in the background. The years to come will show whether Tirana’s inhabitants can also benefit from the millions of euros being invested in the cityscape. Only very small parts of the ambitious Tirana 2030 concept have been implemented to date; other projects are still waiting to get the go-ahead. The capital of Albania is thus in many ways a construction site – but one with great potential.

Original in German. First published on on June 2018 in Postcards from Albania.
Translated into English by Rebekah Smith.

This text is protected by copyright: © Julia Putzger. If you are interested in republication, please contact the editorial team.
Copyright information on pictures, graphics and videos are noted directly at the illustrations. Cover picture: Looking to the east: the clocktower and Et’hem-Bey mosque are among the few constants on Skanderbeg Square, the epicentre of Tirana’s recent transformation into a metropolis. The square itself is also becoming a fashionable meeting point. Photos: © Robert Pichler (then), Michael Sommer (now)

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