It is difficult to figure out these days whether Mayor of Tirana Erion Veliaj has any ideas or policies of his own. Certainly, he distinguishes himself from Prime Minister Edi Rama in style of propaganda. Whereas Rama likes to surround himself with the accoutrements of good taste and international culture, Veliaj has chosen children as his favorite decoration. He has even chosen a “folksy” nickname for himself, “Lali Eri.” Rama, being the narcissist he is, would never tolerate such a pathetic appellation. But otherwise, their policies are nearly indistinguishable.
Example 1: Painting Buildings
In the beginning of his first mandate as mayor of Tirana, Rama started painting some of the socialist housing blocks in Tirana as part of the project “Greening and Painting.” First Rama chose the motifs and colors himself, later he invited artists to carry on the project. When elected to his first term, Veliaj did the same thing: he started painting buildings, again in two phases: 1) restore the painted buildings of Rama; 2) invite local artists to do the same trick. It should be noted here that Veliaj’s approach is one of imitation, but always in a slightly more provincial, “local” way. Rama invited international artists; Veliaj courts local ones.
Example 2: Masterplan
In his period as mayor, Rama developed a whole series of international architecture competitions to turn Tirana into the European capital he imagined. Building permits under these “competitions” turned into a lucrative business for everyone involved except ordinary citizens. Several remainders of these generally disastrous initiatives remain today: the self-awarded five-star Plaza Hotel, which Rama, in spite of mediocre food and service, supports with every government meeting he can plan there (perhaps a better name would be “Rama Plaza”) and the 4Evergreen Tower, whose carcass stands bankrupt across the Orthodox Cathedral. We don’t need to remind ourselves of the fact that its architect, convicted for corruption in Italy, is also the visionary behind the National Stadium – Rama’s idea, not Veliaj’s. In fact, Veliaj had just opened a beautiful “eco parking” in the same spot, which was destroyed as quickly as it was built. The only time Veliaj developed an idea of his own… it wasn’t supposed to be!
But Erion Veliaj also got his own Masterplan, including a lucrative construction scheme, albeit exactly in the way that Rama demanded and not without strings attached. Stefano Boeri was parachuted in, and Veliaj and his team had to deal with Rama’s friend all the way through the drafting process, up to the moment where Veliaj abandoned Boeri at the final presentation of the Masterplan in… the Plaza Hotel. No worries: where Rama imagined skyscrapers and had global pretensions, Veliaj’s input probably went as far as a few “educational water filtering installations” along the Lana and, of course, much more construction. With Veliaj we don’t have to fear for internationals flying in to turn Tirana into a smorgasboard of contemporary architecture. Everything will be tendered out wonderfully well to all the government’s favorite local “private” partners, who cannot wait to get their hands on whatever properties are left to be “developed.”
Example 3: Skënderbeg Square
In 2008, Edi Rama started the reconstruction of Skënderbeg Square, based on a design by Belgian architecture company 51N4E and Rama’s student and protege Anri Sala. A large part of the underground infrastructure had already been built when new mayor Lulzim Basha in 2011 decided to change the plan and reopen the square for traffic. One of the first gestures of Erion Veliaj when he came to power in 2015 was to immediately destroy the square Basha had built, close the area for traffic (with disastrous consequences), and reimplement Rama’s plan from 2008 – even with an underground parking garage that Rama dreamed up somewhere in the summer of 2016.
Example 4: Overpass
This was actually the project that prompted me to write this short analysis of Veliaj as Rama’s bad copy. Yesterday, Erion Veliaj announced that he would build an overpass at Sheshi Shqiponja at the entrance of Tirana, “in the style of Edi Rama’s overpass at Zogu i Zi.” The overpass at Zogu i Zi had been started by then Mayor of Tirana Rama in 2005. Ironically, the project was declared an illegal construction project by the former Berisha government, and a legal battle developed between Rama and Berisha, including several of the people involved nowadays in the resistance against the new Tirana Masterplan: former councillor of Berisha for Territory and Public Works and urbanist Besnik Aliaj, currently in the Municipal Council representing the Democratic Party and one of the outspoken voices against the Tirana 2030 Masterplan, and former Minister of Public Works Lulzim Basha, current leader of the opposition. Eventually, the overpass was destroyed in summer 2006.
Just like all Veliaj’s previous “projects” there is an enormous question whether the costs of these imitations are really the best way to spend the municipal budget. Is repainting exactly the same buildings really the best way to do urban renewal? Is destroying a public square only to rebuild it even before the city’s masterplan has been completed really the smartest way to spend tax payers’ money? What if Boeri had told him: this pedestrian square is a stupid idea? But of course Boeri wouldn’t say such a thing… Because Rama.
Veliaj’s repetitions of Rama’s architectural gestures “in his style” – paint, masterplan, square, overpass – recall and reawaken oppositions that have been present in Albanian politics ever since Veliaj took his first political steps as Dutch-funded Mjaft “activist.” However pathetic and uninspired these repetitions may be, they are perhaps even more toxic than the originals because they show a profound lack of originality, ideas, and vision. For Lali Eri just to copy or redo the works of Baba Rama is not only a smart way – he thinks – to retain the favor of the politician under whose wing he grew up; it is also to copy precisely the gestures that have led to the completely disastrous urban situation in Tirana. Not because of the content of the plans, but because of the way in which they were pushed through.
And no amount of children is able to hide that.