To arrive at Mother Teresa airport in Tirana casts the visitor into the architecture of a typical growth city, anywhere in the world, modern facilities but no air bridges reflecting the low cost transport approach to Tirana in transit. The half hour taxi ride to the centre of the city first passes a new business park and afterwards the near virgin Epoka University, order among the open fields.
Approaching the city centre via the long boulevard opens up the more chaotic facets of Tirana alive. The commercial centre stretches for several kilometres with a full gamut of architecture and could have been the condensed result of final year open range architecture projects.
Closer to town, the Stalinist era buildings appear, not in the drab colourless tones of their construction but coloured in a Hundertwasser style architectural competition. This city has been dreamed up by the mayor Edi Rama (and current prime minister) in the mid 90’s as a means to bring “joie de vivre” to the population when they viewed their town. Some may criticise the project and several buildings now need a second coat, but undoubtedly the cover of the book has more appeal than cardboard coloured concrete, and most books are sold on the attractions of the cover.
A quick Wikipedia review of the 45 years of the communist regime with all its bunkers by Hoxha will evidence what a good idea Rama had. It also helps to explain that rather than suffering under a US or Soviet led atomic bomb, Albania, and particularly Tirana, is experiencing its own cosmopolitan explosion. Yet there is fortunately a lack of the competitive high rise buildings so present in other rapid growth cities.
It does not matter the economic lack of imperative, it gives Tirana in transit an independent adolescence, one that we hope will not be damaged in the future. There are only two tall buildings in the city centre, one not yet finished is an exciting architectural experiment mirroring the somewhat chaotic reconstruction and growth of the city. The other, an approximately 20 storey chequerboard structure, is blessed with a mural covering one side advertising Elber Beer; at least it isn’t Coca Cola or Heineken.
The communist era architecture has remained in some key city buildings, notably the National Historic Museum in Skanderbeg Square, where we attended an exhibition for Gjergj Kola, the fine expat expressionist Albanian artist. It is an example of the better elements of communist architecture and the museum records the elements of Albanian history since prehistoric times. There is a certain common theme between Italian fascist architecture and this architecture from the 70’s and 80’s, though the marble may not be from Carrara.
Tirana in transit is a clean city and there seems to be a developing pride in the cosmopolitan town that it has become, with sidewalk cafes abounding, all full, though not always with paying customers as the youth sit and just commune.
Tirana in transit is a very cost effective city and this must surely be an advantage in the development of the country from an economic aspect. The environment is not polluted as some reports may indicate. The people are friendly, the cuisine Balkan, the local wine pleasant, and after 25 years this young adult welcomes new friends and lovers. Try Tirana in transit or more sensibly for a longer period in an experience of how a city is born.
And don’t forget that there is another level of Albanian architecture, the Hoxha era tunnels criss-crossing the city of Tirana with structures seeking the centre of the earth rather than the sky. Maybe 700,000 bunkers spotted around the country: a not so fond reminder of the old Albania the locals would rather forget and are doing so with “gusto”.