The Unofficial View of Tirana (87)


TID Tower concept by 51NE4 (2004)

by Vincent W.J. van Gerven Oei

As I have pointed out in previous essays, an important part of the image that the Rama government is intent on creating for Albania is based on his former accomplishments in urban development as Mayor of Tirana, especially the painting of the façades, cleaning up of illegal constructions, and policy making through international architecture competitions. These competitions especially contribute in no little measure to shaping the image of Albania abroad, as they bring internationally renowned architects to the country, eager to compete in projects the scale of which is no longer available in the densely planned out and meticulously tailored urban environments of Western Europe (hence the relatively high presence of Dutch architects in Albania and recently, the involvement of the Dutch state, see below). Conversely, these competitions are cost-effective as they allow for an influx of relatively cheap foreign consultancy without too many strings attached. It’s a competition, after all.

The downside of this approach is obviously that policy making through competitions is in no way a guarantee for a sound and coherent approach to urban development and territorial restructuring, and runs the risk of dividing the city or country into competing and conflicting “poster projects.” Moreover, foreign architectural firms run the risk of acquiring a “political color,” based on the political context in which their projects were promoted. This is confirmed by the fact that in spite of these many competitions, most of the firms and people connected to Rama’s urban development in his period as mayor (51N4E, MVRDV, XDGA, Bolles+Wilson, etc.), are still around now that he has become prime minister, while the realm of development has grown from the city of Tirana to the country as a whole. The same holds for the group of people that has gathered around Atelier Albania, which has control over all current international architecture competitions, which, therefore, turn out no longer to be really “competitions”; the same group of firms, architects, and urban planners continues to “win” these design tenders, which therefore begs the question – especially within the intense temporal constraints under which these projects ought to be developed – of whether this is the best way to guarantee quality and optimal spending of what in the end is public money.

TID Tower near completion (end 2014), on the left construction work on the Toptani Plaza (see below)

The TID Tower by 51N4E has become, now that it is nearly completed, one of the most iconic buildings of Tirana, with Edi Rama proclaiming (apparently echoing a presentation in the MoMA) it “one of the ten most beautiful building of the last decade.” The TID Tower is currently the only high-rise building realized in the context of the Masterplan Tirana, developed under Rama’s two terms as mayor, 2003–2011, which projected at least ten high-rise buildings around the city center. Another one is currently under construction, the 4-Ever Green Tower by Italian firm Archea Associati, won after a competition in 2010. Other competitors were the German firm Bolles+Wilson and Belgian firm XDGA, which has recently won the Vlora Waterfront Project. Besides the towers encircling the center in a sort of Corbusier fantasy, it also included development of the lake area and Skënderbeg square. Rama’s Masterplan was recently replaced by yet another masterplan ordered by Lulzim Basha, in a – wait for it – international architecture competition, won by Grimshaw Architects, which, typically, had never won anything before under Rama (and most probably will never win anything on a national level until Rama leaves).

Tirana Rocks by MVRDV (2008)

Tirana Rocks was the winning concept by Rotterdam-based architecture MVRDV in response to a competition to develop the specific Tirana Lakeside Masterplan. It proposes a “high-density settlement” near the lake of Tirana, “intensifying the area while preserving the park.” Among the other entires for this competition we also find again Bolles + Wilson, which instead has won the competition for the Korça City Center Masterplan in 2010.

Lakeside project by Gener 2 (2014)

MVRDV’s lakeside masterplan was never executed, and instead, current Mayor of Tirana, Lulzim Basha has been planning some construction of his own, namely several high-rise buildings projected by the virtually unknown and wildly unimpressive architecture firm Gener 2.

Toptani Shopping Center by MVRDV (2005/7)

Toptani Plaza by Gener 2 (completion expected 2015)

The same firm is also in charge of Toptani Plaza, which is currently constructed on exactly the same spot where another MVRDV building was supposed rise. Note also the curious resemblance between the MVRDV proposal for the Toptani Shopping Center, drafted during the Rama years, and the Gener 2 design, which replaced it just after Lulzim Basha took over.

So here we see one of the risks related to urban planning based on competitions instead of long-term, coherent urban planning: certain specific architecture firms become politically colored and associated with certain politicians: internationally renowned firms such as MVRDV and 51N4E would be in the Rama/PS camp, whereas local outfit Gener 2 (which also built the ABA business center, in which ex-PM Berisha has his offices) definitely seems to have the right PD connections.

Skënderbeg Square by 51NE4 & Anri Sala (2008)

Another project won by 51NE4, this time in collaboration with Albanian global art poster child Anri Sala, is the redesign of Skënderbeg Square as a slightly sloped pyramid. This project was still under construction when in 2011 Lulzim Basha took over the municipality and quickly turned the projected pedestrian zone into what must be the ugliest and most dysfunctional central square in Europe. The collaboration with Anri Sala here is interesting, as he is known to be a good friend of Rama, and collaborator on many art projects, including the painting of the façades (documented in Sala’s Dammi i colori) and Rama’s publication with drawings from 2000–2009 which was conceptualized by Sala. Other competitors were again MVRDV and Daniel Libeskind, who later built the MAGNET complex (also called Residenza Libeskind) in Tirana, which shows a strange appropriation of the diagonals so omnipresent in contemporary Albanian anti-architecture.

The short review of the three projects above, and we could cite many others, such as the several PS and PD projects for parliamentary buildings and mosques/multicultural centers about which I have written before on this blog, gives us some sense of the logic that underlies the international architecture competitions developed under Rama’s period as mayor of Tirana; projects were often won by competitors coming from a select and rather homogeneous group of architects, largely from North Western Europe, with the same firms often taking part in multiple competitions at the same time. And although the future of many of the winning projects has become uncertain because of a certain architectural revanchism of Basha (and his tragic inability to match the often brilliant vision of Rama’s architecture), the relations that were forged in the period 2003–2011 between these architectural firms and Rama are key to understanding the current urban development policy of the Rama government.

The first, and crucial, element of this policy is the establishment of Atelier Albania in 2014, headed by architect Joni Baboçi, a “laboratory unit” of the National Agency of Territorial Planning, which falls under the Ministry of Urban Development and Tourism (MUDT) and is directed by Adeline Greca, who was a functionary at the Department of Urban Planning and Design and Head of the Micro Planning Department at the Municipality of Tirana under Edi Rama from 2003–2011. Its official mission is formulated as follows:

The new government of Albania proposes to adopt, under the auspices of the MUDT and in careful coordination with all policies, for the development of the country, to set up an unusual method based on based on projection, to promote urban development like an incubator for national development. The means for this method is Atelier Albania.

In other words, Atelier Albania, as the means of an unusual method, has a leading role in promoting urban development as a general engine for national development. This naturally begs the question what would be so “unusual” about their method – perhaps the lack of clear vision on urban development? Anyhow, the website and social media accounts of Atelier Albania suggest that it frantically performs a central role in developing the international architecture competitions that currently involve enormous parts of the Albanian territory, including the Villa of former dictator Enver Hoxha, riviera areas in the south, the Vlora Waterfront (won by XDGA), the Tirana-Durrës “Durana” zone, and Berat Island. These projects, in turn, represent investments of billions of euros, of which a large amount is tax money or government loans taken out based on a certain prediction of Albania’s future productivity. The predators on the top of this food chain are, of course, the construction companies, many of which are (partially) owned by politicians.


Construction on Rama’s private villa designed by 51N4E


Architectural sketches of a “single family house and atelier,” from 51N4E, “Double or Nothing”.

Atelier Albania was developed in the context of International Architecture Biennale Rotterdam in 2014, and on their website it is still listed as a project of IABR, the Albanian Ministry of Urban Development and Tourism, and architecture firm 51N4E. Interestingly, 51N4E was hired privately to design Edi Rama’s new home close to Dajti mountain in Tirana, although until today this fact remains unpublished on their website, and has not surfaced in the local media. Nevertheless, the project was presented at the exhibition “Double or Nothing” at the Architectural Association in London and in a publication with the same title, which also included the TID Tower and Skënderbeg Square projects. In this publication, the villa is described as “single family house and atelier,” in Amorgos (Greece). Nevertheless, the ground plans and sketches show a remarkable likeness to the house Rama currently builds in Dajti.

The Durana (Durrës–Tirana highway zone) project, Facebook header of Atelier Albania

In other words, 51N4E, a private architectural corporation, winner of two major architecture competitions during Rama’s period as mayor and designers of his private villa, are “project partner” in this “laboratory” established by Rama’s government as means of an “unusual method” that has executive power over basically the entire Albanian territory. The cover photo of their Facebook account shows the different lots for the competition about the Durrës–Tirana (Durana) zone. Just saying.

The launch of Atelier Albania in February 2014 by Minister Eglantina Gjermeni (MUDT), PM Edi Rama (to her right), and former Dutch ambassador Martin de la Beij (next to him).

The links with architecture from the low countries, however, have deepened since Rama’s rise to national power, as could have been noted from the presence of former Dutch ambassador Martin de la Beij at the launch of Atelier Albania and the enthusiastic tweets of current ambassador Dewi van de Weerd about the upcoming architecture competition for the Berat Island, and a presentation by former IABR curator Dirk Sijmons in the context of a recent research trip on “urban metabolism,” which included also Eric Frijters, initiator of the Urban Metabolism project for Rotterdam, presented at IABR 2014, and Arjan Harbers, urban designer of Dutch state organ PBL (Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency), which is directed by Maarten Hajer, who is a collaborator of Sijmons, his colleague at Delft Technical University, and coincidentally also the new curator of the IABR! In this sense, Atelier Albania brings together what seems to be Rama’s favorite Belgian architecture firm 51N4E and the Dutch school of urban design represented by IABR, PBL, and Delft Technical University, all under the aegis of his former head of urban development when he was mayor of Tirana, and therefore basically his direct control.

One would think that such a closely knit and opaquely constituted governmental body, with enormous range of executive power and the blessing and support of the PM could work miracles. Wonders of architectural radicalism that never came to fruition in Tirana, be it because of financial blockades by Berisha’s government or intransigent local, regional, or national actors. Yet again here the risk is that all these current projects, projects that because of their size and timespan will necessarily outlive the present Rama government, will become so politicized that any future government cannot but abandon them or give them over to much less visionary voices, just as happened in Tirana after 2011. Precisely because of the enormous speed with which Atelier Albania, which seems to run on a rather tiny staff, announces and decides on enormous projects and like budgets, the risk of failure or half-baked implementation is not negligible.

“Vertical Mall,” Korça City Masterplan by Bolles+Wilson (2010)

Xhoubleta Tower by Bolles+Wilson

The Eiffel Tower of Korça (2014) by Bolles+Wilson, photo by Edi Rama

We have enough evidence: the architectural disaster of the tower in Korça by Bolles+Wilson, which since 2010 degraded from “Vertical Mall” to “Xhoubleta Tower,” only to have a final, miserable embodiment as giant Vodafone RED advertisement slash “Eiffel Tower of Korça,” in the words of PM Rama; the visionary MVRDV blocks at Tirana lake Tirana that are reincarnated as a bad imitation of a Chinese landscape; its multimedia-LED festival of Toptani Center reduced to yet another example of intellectual property theft; 51N4E’s Skënderbeg Square decadence from an ironic and humanizing pyramid to a bad infrastructural joke.

There is no doubt that these projects and the political and intellectual vision behind them would have wished differently: but it is precisely the logic that drives these megalomaniac interventions into the urban landscape that makes them unsustainable. That is, unsustainable in a democracy as dysfunctional as the Albanian one. We all know about the famous modernist architects that went to Brazil and India to realize their wildest dreams: Brasília, Chandigarh. Perhaps the fact that these architects now all flock to redesign Albania should give us more to think about our politics than about our urban planning. What makes all these planning, scheming and well-organized Dutchies believe that they can find their architectural freedom here? Only because “there are no unions,” or…?

About the Author:


Vincent W.J. van Gerven Oei is a philologist, director of project bureau for the arts and humanities The Department of Eagles, and runs multilingual publishing house Uitgeverij. For Berfrois he writes a regular blog on the state and concept of Albania, where he lives and works most of the time.