Tirana’s New Vision from Hell

Tirana’s New Vision from Hell
A sign placed by former mayor of Tirana Lulzim Basha in front of the construction site of the new boulevard. 2013. Photo © Exit.

On January 12, 2016, late at night, I was called on my Albanian telephone by an unknown Italian number. It turned out to be Lorenza Baroncelli, Consultant for Urban and Cultural Strategies to Prime Minister Edi Rama and project manager at the Serpentine Gallery of Hans Ulrich Obrist, another art-milieu endorser of a regime that is slowly suffocating in its own self-importance. “I just arrived at Tirana Airport, can you meet now? It’s urgent,” she said. I had just put some pasta on the stove, and, dressed in my morning robe, I felt reluctant to leave the house at that hour: “Let’s have breakfast instead, I wake up early. What is this about?” – “It’s about a project. We’ll talk tomorrow, let’s meet 09:00 at the Sheraton.” 09:00 became 09:30. The Sheraton became the Rogner.

Immediately after I sat down Lorenza told me about the new masterplan for Tirana, because with a new mayor comes, of course, a new masterplan. In 2012, when the “Unofficial View” was still hosted by continent., I had written about the previous Tirana masterplan, won by Grimshaw Architects and the DAR Group during the reign of then Tirana mayor and current opposition “leader,” Lulzim Basha. This plan, ill-conceived and preposterous as it was had been successfully sabotaged by Prime Minister Edi Rama and the work on the extension of the boulevard up to the river Tirana – its major component – had come as far as the destruction of the train station (making Tirana the only European capital without one), the demolition of one of the few independent cultural spaces in Tirana, and the eviction and expropriation (against very favorable prices and not without the show of police or thug force) of many inhabitants, formal and informal, of this new expansion zone of prime real estate. For two years it remained a muddy wasteland, scattered with building materials, headed by a big passive-aggressive sign “Blocked by Edi Rama. Here would have been built the new boulevard of Tirana.”

Based on my notes and what I recollect from the conversation with Lorenza, it more or less went as follows:

– Within half an hour Stefano Boeri, the winner of the competition for the new masterplan of Tirana, will arrive here at the Rogner. In the afternoon he will publicly present the project at a national conference on urban planning organized by the Ministry of Urban Development. I have proposed you to him as main local consultant on the project.

– Are you sure suggesting me is a good idea? You know that I write about the cultural politics of the government and I get the distinct feeling that they don’t like me for it. I don’t think that I would be acceptable as a consultant on such a project.

– I like your writing on architecture and cultural issues in Albania and I think you would be a good sounding board. Also, we really need somebody that is independent and has a broad knowledge of the issues in Albania.

– You know that even if I would be acceptable to your client, which I highly doubt, this plan will suffer the same fate as all the previous masterplans. If, during the next election cycle, the opposition comes to power, your project will be associated with the previous government and certainly be canceled. They will revert back to Grimshaw or whatever.

– We need to develop a strategy that allows the project to survive the elections. It needs to seem to be above the political divide. That’s why we want to propose you.

– Well, I am always happy to think along. How do you see my role?

– We basically want to commission you to write a series of reports on different aspects of the Tirana urban landscape that reflect broad trends and best practices in international urbanism. We have to move quickly, because the deadline for the detailed plan is in June.

Three Italians enter the Rogner patio: Stefano Boeri and Michele Brunello from Stefano Boeri Architetti and Andreas Faoro from UNLAB, the winner of the “Faith Park” competition. This “Faith Park” deserves a separate essay in itself, but let me summarize it as follows: The idea came to Edi Rama when he was visited by Angel(a) Merkel, and is meant, according to the ample citations of himself in the competition brief, to turn all the green spaces around the main boulevard in Tirana into

a public, green space, planted with all the flowers, plants, and trees which are mentioned in the Qu’ran and the Bible (and other holy scriptures). […] The Tirana Faith Park competition has as its center the “pyramid” and all green spaces where we aim to create a tangible image of our country’s religious harmony, including those whom [sic] do not believe.

The already shameless pastiche on communist rhetoric of the competition brief, characterized by many direct citations from the leader’s angelical concept, is here amplified by the re-emergence of the “Pyramid,” that is, the former mausoleum of communist dictator Enver Hoxha and the presumed nexus of the personality cult after his death and thus the “religious” center of Albanian communism, as the focal point of Rama’s religious plurality. This is of course a gesture fitting to the monumental sensibilities of the son of Albania’s most famous socialist realist sculptor and regime favorite. That UNLAB speaks of “demonumentalization” is here of course false; “remonumentalization” is what is at stake here – a remonumentalization along the lines of fascist practices.

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Gherardo Bosio’s Tirana masterplan from 1939, developed during the occupation by fascist Italy.

That this site is perceived as the “zero point” of Tirana is due to the axial nature of Tirana’s urban landscape, with the Lana river and the main boulevard from Skënderbeg Square to the Casa del Fascio (currently the University of Tirana) intersecting perpendicularly at the site of the current Pyramid, as laid out in the very first masterplan of Tirana by Italian architect Gherardo Bosio. It is a grand irony that again an Italian architect has been chosen to re-articulate this fascist heritage – as if to properly reflect the current political climate.

Because the plan for the Faith Park, which is an integral part of the new Tirana Masterplan, extends Bosio’s axial logic into a total grid extending across the center of Tirana. The Hausmannian rationality with which Bosio imposed order upon the organic, chaotic, and informal urban architecture developed during the Ottoman period, with its many small streets, alleyways, and private gardens, is here echoed by UNLAB’s description of their Faith Park “grid”:

The grid has not [sic] directionality, no expressivity, no hierarchy, and supposedly no symbolic content. It is what it does, and in its [sic] sense, it claims for a formal logic of neutrality – it is an isotropic distributive order. [My emphasis]

This is of course a highly questionable description of a formal structure that in essence was already imposed upon Tirana’s “unordered” urban landscape by the fascists in 1939, indiscriminately expropriating inhabitants and razing their homes to the ground in order to fashion a parade ground for the display of military power. The grid has “symbolic content” insofar as it precisely claims the absence of directionality, expressivity, and hierarchy, a “neutral” foundation for what in the end is the exertion of control by the state over its territory. This point has been made convincingly as regards Hausmann’s Parisian boulevards by Paul Virilio, and I don’t see how the same argument can’t be made for the Bosio’s Tirana masterplan and, by extension, the new “distributive order” of UNLAB’s grid.

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UNLAB’s Faith Park Grid

That this grid is the “matrix” for a “Faith Park” that is superimposed onto Tirana, with a zero point at the symbolic heart of Albanian communism only exacerbates the painful tension between its presumed neutrality and its actual historical foundations. As if, in a perverse equation, fascism plus communism would somehow equal political neutrality – zero politics.

But let us return to our breakfast meeting in the Rogner Hotel. I congratulated Boeri with winning the international competition, but he was very clear – self-confidently clear – about his victory: “I was asked personally by Edi Rama to participate. We had an understanding that my studio would win.”

I have written in the past about how it seemed that only a small group of architectural firms around Rama has been awarded most tenders, and have speculated on rigged procedures and conflicts of interest (the most recent instance was when the “winner” was erroneously announced at the opening of the competition for the Gjirokastër bypass, who indeed ended up winning the competition), but it was nice to hear this directly from the mouth of one of such “winners.” I am looking forward to him repeating these words under oath in court, but that may be just a silly fantasy of mine. In any case, it would not be unfair to ascribe his election at least partially to the very enthusiastic articles Boeri has been writing (let’s not call it ass kissing) about Rama over the past few years.

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Michele Brunello (l, standing), the author (r, standing), and Stefano Boeri (sitting) listening to Andreas Faoro explaining UNLAB’s Tirana Faith Park grid. Photo by Lorenza Baroncelli.

Boeri basically told me the same as Lorenza had told me, that they wanted to be politically “smart” about the masterplan and that therefore I would be logical choice as consultant, at a distance from either political side. I was supposed, according to my notes from the meeting, to create a “survey on metropolitan environments” over the last 10–15 years collecting public policy regarding urban environments from cities such as Rio de Janeiro, Shanghai, San Francisco, and Bogotá. I would have to “create knowledge,” “map the city,” and “create a narrative.”

My response was two-fold. First I suggested that considering the very tight timeframe the survey and creation of knowledge had to happen in real-time and that therefore an open, wiki-based approach was most suitable. Its flat architecture would allow us to gather knowledge on Tirana masterplanning (including all previous masterplans) into a single database, and would transform the knowledge collection process and archiving into a transparent, public, and shared process, allowing for real-time updates and discussion on the various sub-topics. Due to its public and open nature, this form would guarantee that even if the masterplan gets unceremoniously dumped after the next election cycle or the ones after that, the wiki would persist for any future government or generation to peruse and modify. I suggested to call it something like the Encyclopedia or Atlas of Tirana. Boeri then suggested his own platform The Tomorrow (which is not open, not public, and not real-time) might do the job. For these very reasons I objected to it, but naturally he liked his own ideas (and lo and behold Tirana the Tomorrow ended up in the proposal).

My second point was related to the volatile political field in which Boeri was supposed to operate. It told him that I am aware of the many keywords of openness, sustainability, and democracy that are used as empty lingo, but that considering his already fraudulent win of the competition he must be aware that in order to realize his “grand vision” for Tirana – whatever that may be – all these words mean absolutely nothing and are actually an impediment. I suggested coyly that it would be refreshing to work with someone who acknowledges the political status-quo and has the appropriate vocabulary to navigate the muddy backwaters of Albanian politics; “democracy” wouldn’t get him very far, and in any case no one would be naive enough to believe him. I am not sure if he got my point, but he decided to ignore my point and went on to lecture about how biodiversity was very important, and that he wanted to have his first report from me on that topic. I suggested that he could take a long walk along the Lana (as I had done for a week in December 2015) and explore the “biodiversity” there – the idea of biodiversity being the most pressing issue in Tirana Masterplan sounded to me as completely divorced from reality, which this man maybe indeed be.

I also told him that I had always wondered why the citizens of Tirana never happen to be asked how they feel about their city and what they think a masterplan could accomplish. I gave some examples of a lady who sells me vegetables and fruits in the street but has to do so in the open air, about the absence of market facilities, about the police raids on street vendors, on the absence of parks, on the usurpation of public space by companies linked to the government, and the class-based violence of the construction authority. There was an enormous reserve of untapped knowledge inside Tirana in the minds of all residents, and perhaps it would be better to ask them, rather than to look at unrelated contexts such as Shanghai or San Francisco. But Boeri was resolute: “We have to think bigger.” I wasn’t sure what these words were referring to, but perhaps he was talking about his paycheck.

Anyhow, the Italians had to be on their way to the Palace of Congresses and be presented as winner so it was very nice to have met me. They would surely contact me later that day to talk about timeframe and concrete steps. We’d metioned meeting for breakfast the next day, before their return to Italy. I was left with immense curiosity as to how they were going to maneuver my name by the government and whether they would be really committed to creating open knowledge about the city. At home, I wrote the Italians an email politely thanking them for the stimulating conversation. But, as expected, I never heard from them again.

***

That is, until February 23. While I was in Sudan holding a seminar on Old Nubian, I saw news seeping in about the launch event of “Tirana 2030: A Vision for the Future of a Mediterranean Capital.” In a rather charming move, Boeri cum suis had put up their entire presentation on Google Docs, so that regular citizens could provide “feedback” on the “first step of this process.”

One truly hopes and prays that this is not a “first step” at all, but rather a very preliminary, prematurely leaked draft that will be thoroughly revised by numerous editors and translated, in order to independently (and without the rhetorical flamboyance and certainty of Boeri) convey the intention and spirit of this urban regeneration plan. Because if we are to rely on this PDF, the Tirana 030 Masterplan “vision” is founded in its entirety on erroneous citations, questions posing as answers, false attributions, speculation into thin air, misdating, and a complete lack of objective data – in short, blindness. It is an enrapturing exercise in jargon and a pathetic display of translation skills and typographical design. Did no one really proofread this thing? Was there no budget for a professional translator? Or did the Italians, aware of the futility of the exercise, simply think: nobody in Albania will notice?

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Methodology Index, Tirana 030: the new general local plan and a strategic vision for Tirana as an Intense and Polycentric metropolitan entity, 2.

The document opens with a “methodology index,” which divides the masterplan vision into a “Fresco,” a “Charter,” and an “Atlas,” with very little coherence and no suggestion whatsoever of a leading idea, trajectory, or concept – in fact, no discernible “methodology” at all.

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Ambroglio Lorenzetti’s Effects of Good Government in the City and Effects of Good Government in the Country (1338–1339), Tirana 030, 3, 10.

As “Charter” we are treated to a series of seemingly unrelated mood board images under the heading “Towards a Global and Intense City”: excerpts from Ambroglio Lorenzetti’s frescos collectively titled Allegory of Good and Bad Government, specifically Effects of Good Government in the City and Effects of Good Government in the Country, erroneously but ironically dated “1938–1939” (were they unconsciously thinking of the Italian fascist occupation of Albania as “good government”?) and a collage of works with missing titles by Richard Hamilton painted between his birth (1922) (sic) and death (2011) featuring a variety of bodybuilders. Under the heading “Values and Rules for an Urban Regeneration” we find John Trumbull’s Declaration of Independence (1817–19) captioned as “Letter of founding father – 1776” (only one?) together with a curiously cropped American Declaration of Independence that cuts off the “We” from “We the People” (obviously any sense of community has died ever since Edi Rama styled himself Blair 2.0), and a group photo of participants to the CIAM conference from 1933 (again erroneously dated as 1928) together with the cropped cover of Le Corbusier’s La Charte d’Athènes from 1943.

After an interruption in which we are suddenly in the “Atlas” section, we are back at Lorenzetti’s misdated masterpiece and a series of questions that this painting seems to have generated in the mind of the architect. It would be tedious to point out the grammatical errors and rhetorical gaffes in all of them. We know by now that misguidance and citational slip-ups are part of the “methodology” of Boeri architetti and UNLAB, keen as they are not to seem too well-informed. The big boss might feel threatened!

However, a key definition of “Tirana Intense and Polycentric City” should be cited in full:

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Tirana 030, 15.

Please let this sink in. This might take a while, because there is really nothing to sink in except the abuse of the English language. At least the fascists had the self-knowledge not to move outside their linguistic comfort zone; or is Boeri perhaps trying to stun us into obedience with monstrosities like the above boldface definition, which literally defies comprehension? Trying to unpack this one sentence might be too much of a stretch for any imagination, but let’s try. Tirana needs to “intensify” within in its “existing borders”: in other words, the city should stop expanding into the rural areas surrounding it. But this would assume we know where the “borders” of Tirana (as city, not as municipality) are. The sprawling and often illegally constructed suburbs are a grey zone that defies any strict definition of Tirana proper. The constant expansion of Tirana’s concrete jungle is one of the last remaining motors of the economy, and fills the pockets of most parliamentarians, so stopping the expansion would mean to attack high-level corruption head on. This seems unlikely to be triggered by this masterplan. However, instead of this extension, we need to intensify. Unfortunately, two of those “intensification” projects, the TID Tower and the Green Tower, both brain children of Edi Rama’s former Tirana Masterplan (the one before Basha), are respectively empty or bankrupt. And how can we even start to think about “restoring empty/void spaces,” when the current mayor, illegally and with an open show of police force, is undermining the last “empty” spaces of Tirana: Parku Rinia and the Lake Park in “public–private partnerships” that even the IMF feels uncomfortable about. Maybe all of these issues could be remedied by the mysterious “Property Stoke Exchange,” which would, through the magic of the market, strike the “right balance between intensity of relations” and… yes and what?

There are a few other gems, such as this one:

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Tirana 030, 25.

I remember this biodiversity theme from my encounter with Boeri. Apparently that’s really his thing. But when he speaks of the potential of Tirana to become a “non-anthropocentric city,” we have to pause at the brazen cynicism of such a statement. If anything, Tirana is already a “non-anthropocentric city”; not because of all the wonderful wood critters and butterflies surrounding my daily walk through avenues blessed with myriads of Biblical flowers, Qu’ranic trees, and Old Testamental shrubberies, while smiling and singing children carry the crops from the urban gardens to the school canteen, but precisely due to the constant destruction of green spaces, the complete lack of consideration for the actual people who live, work, and move inside the city, and the arrogant insistence on corporate expropriation under the euphemism of “intensification.” To destroy a park area in order to build prefab, low-quality, Chinese-import, Kuwait-financed plastic crap for children and dogs to shit on instead of having perfectly fine multi-functional and child-friendly trees – that is non-anthropocentric. To dump all your urban waste right into an open sewer running through the middle of the city while fining a few poor peasants peeing in the dirt – that is non-anthropocentric. To destroy the “illegal” market stall built with the sweat of someone’s own hands in order to afford adequate schooling for her children while leaving intact high-rise buildings illegally built in what used to be public squares because you are used to licking their balls every Thursday after parliament is out – that is non-anthropocentric. To dare calling the farmlands around Tirana “an inverted zoo” in utter disregard for the people who have been cultivating the land so that we may directly profit from fresh and seasonal produce, something quite unique for any European capital and one of the main attractions of actually living here – that is non-anthropocentric. So Boeri, why don’t you come to live for a while in Tirana, and I’ll show you what non-anthropocentric means; hell, you’ll see it every day when you board a bus! And by the way, that is an invitation that I extend to anyone who feels called upon to sully his or her mouth with that ridiculous term, which, if anything, is the most blind-sighted affirmation of high-minded anthropocentricity. To hail the non-anthropocentric as the “future” is a privilege granted by clean toilet seats and adequate heating.

But let us continue. I will skip the parts in which the authors have wet dreams about Tirana as “first European capital with a high percentage of electric vehicles” and “open air museum of the 900 geopolitics [sic],” because their delusions go beyond what we can imagine (“think big,” he said!). We find Tirana as “the Balkanic capital of auto production.” We ponder the construction of a “free tax area where to host the production […] of utensils [sic] of high attached value [sic] for Italy and other european [sic] countries” (neocolonialism, anyone?). We are asked to marvel at the image of Tirana as “smart city,” as a city of “accessible information” (such as the amount of your paycheck, Boeri?), a “sharing economy” (other than the kickbacks government officials will receive from all the new “intensification” projects), and “management information [sic] system” (in order to provide 24-hour surveillance for every member of the opposition and civil society). And let us not forget a “Satabase [sic] on land ownership and taxation system.” It would be quite practical to involve here the Hong Kong shell company around the two offshore tax haven companies linked to the company run by the business partner of Edi Rama’s brother – they are already privatizing the taxation system through the creation of just such a “satabase.”

I don’t want to come across as a cynical asshole. But it is just very difficult to “think big,” when you are invited to do so by someone who doesn’t inspire any confidence whatsoever, who just seems to echo whatever fancy new term he has heard last week, tries to please his clients by licking every proverbial testicle they have, and is tunnel-visioned on what he considers his past “achievements” (such as a skyscraper full of trees). This combined with the utter lack of care and decorum exhibited by this “vision” document, which truly seems destined for a place of honor among attempts to get away with sloppy work, just fails to convince, or even marginally inspire anyone. In its pages, we can clearly discern Rama’s voice telling them his great “ideas,” for example on page 57:

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Tirana 030, 57.

How is this “religions [sic] festival” in any way related to a 2030 urban masterplan for the capital of Albania? Are we sure that anyone except the Council of Ministers is aware of “the key role of Tirana in the management of the world’s religious conflicts” (maybe hinting at our continuous export of jihadis to Daesh territory and housing thousands of Iranian Islamic Jihad fighters to please the American government?). How on earth, with the Greek crisis fresh in our memory, are the ESF, WorldBank, and IMF going to give Albania money to “facilitate and regulate the flow of migrants”? They just gave three billion to a genocidal criminal to lock up all refugees in his own domestic war zone! And what about this: “Encourage the creation of an [a single one? in 15 years?] art exhibition with one of the most important art fairs in the world as Art Basel [sic] and that benefits of the slenderness of the Albanian taxation [as in: no taxes are ever collected] but also of the proximity with Europe [sic]”? You mean a Swiss-style tax-free art port so Rama can forever sell his miserable doodles to unwitting art “investors” without disclosing his profits while desperately leeching off the reputation of Anri Sala?

I am just making a guess, because so little of this makes any actual sense. I am guessing because this “document” does not contain any program or vision. It contains a set of questions written down by a non-plussed intern during a chaotic last-minute brainstorm session, translated by Google Translate, and formatted in Paint. One wonders if these people can actually produce an architectural drawing, or whether all of their actual work has long been outsourced to anonymous offices in Sri Lanka.

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Tirana 030, 66.

But the most shameless of all is that all of this needs to be covered in an “appendix” (an appendix!) of “Deliberative Democracy.” The man who, gulping down his morning espresso, offhandedly dismissed the creation of knowledge by citizens and the empowering effect that a truly collaborative (and not “democratic”) effort at mapping the city, its problems, and possible solutions could have, the man who, nibbling on his chocolate puff brioche, didn’t express any care about the actual Albanian political situation and tried to hire me as a “hedge” against his own client’s uncertain political future, this man dares to talk about “monthly public meetings” (that is, exactly three until June), a “TR 030 Blog” which shows a sharp spike of likes just after its launch (the effect of buying them through Facebook ads), and otherwise the lowest levels of interest for such an “interactive” blog, which, unsurprisingly, features none of the documents discussed here in the national and only official language of Albania: Albanian.

Again: I support any attempt to make Tirana a better place, hell, I even went to breakfast with these charlatans to see if maybe, maybe they were different. But this “vision” is such an exercise in highbrow cynicism and lack of professionalism that the citizens of Tirana would do well to send Boeri c.s. on a one-way ticket back to their home country before they actually get paid for these 71 pages of pure misery.



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