If you stand in the middle of Tirana’s vast Skanderbeg Square and turn 360 degrees, you will see Italian fascist architecture, buildings in the Russian and Chinese communist style, a mosque, an Orthodox Christian church, the gleaming glass rectangle of the Tirana International Hotel and the bleak carcass of the unfinished Archea tower.
Tirana doesn’t follow the pattern of most European cities. The square is in the middle, but there is no city centre as such, and no major shopping street comparable to Regent Street or the Rue de Rivoli. Nor is there the familiar conjugation of chain stores – no Zara, no Mango, no Nando’s or McDonalds.
Tirana’s population has quadrupled in 20 years, from around 200,000 in 1992 to 800,000 today – though the unofficial total could be as high as 1 million. The average age is 27; Erion Veliaj, the mayor, is 38. He won the 2015 mayoral election by a landslide as the Socialist party candidate, joining the ranks of Europe’s radical mayors alongside Ada Colau in Barcelona and Virginia Raggi in Rome. The worst anyone seems to say about him is that he’s too slick.
Everything about the city feels haphazard. And now one man is charged with bringing it to order.
From Edi Rama, the former mayor and now Albanian prime minister, Veliaj inherited Tirana 2030: an ambitious plan intended to sort out the urban chaos. Devised by the Italian architect Stefano Boeri, it speaks of turning Tirana into “a kaleidoscope metropolis” ringed with an orbital forest of 2m trees and green corridors along the city’s three rivers. The plan is to build up rather than out to accommodate the still growing population.
As per the stylings of the architect, Tirana 2030 is made up of three elements: a metropolitan “fresco” based on 10 major themes (biodiversity, polycentrism, diffuse knowledge, mobility, water, geopolitics, tourism, accessibility, agriculture and energy); an “atlas” composed of 13 strategic projects located in the real landscape and a “chart” of rules formulated around five metabolic systems (nature, infrastructure, city, agriculture, water).
And despite his many critics, in the course of several hours strolling around the city, every other person wants to shake Veliaj’s hand or have their photo taken. Much of Boeri’s masterplan may go the way of its predecessors, but in the meantime, Veliaj’s high approval rating ahead of next June’s election suggests he is doing something right.
While emigration remains high, Tirana is full of young people who have now returned after spending years working and studying abroad. Veliaj himself left Albania 20 years ago to study in the US, returning to Tirana definitively in 2002. Now he sees his aim as transitioning out of the city’s chaotic past and into the future “through exemplary urban design”.
“Tirana is a great, vibrant city which nevertheless has struggled with the transition from being the centre of an isolated regime to the cosmopolitan cultural capital of the Balkans,” he says. “We want to help it through the final stages of its transition and to make up for lost time …
“Me and my team made our choice the day we took that flight back home: modernise this place at any cost.”
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