Hiding behind the veil of the good politician who doesn’t interfere with the technical issues of planning, pretending to care for the future of Tirana, being part of a dedicated team that according to him is full of goodwill and has worked tirelessly for many months, Erjon Veliaj and a group of architects, many of whom haven’t reached their thirties yet, promenade back and forth between closed door conference rooms. They are followed by a select few, socialist militants and public officials, while displaying the new map of Tirana also known as “Project TR030.”
But the general local plan of Tirana isn’t understood so easily. So Veliaj and several companies used this fact to create bogus “public” hearings, that only fulfilled the formalities and avoided any real confrontation or hearing.
But there comes a time in one’s life when the fear of confrontation is replaced with the unconscious courage to face the opponent.
And that moment came! The showdown happened on the last Monday of the year, in the Queen Geraldina room, on third floor of Plaza Hotel. The opponents: municipal council members of the Democratic Party. The reason: To avoid the real confrontation!
Hotel Plaza is a tall, 85-meters-high tower built close to the statue of the Unknown Soldier, and next to a first-category national monument, the grave of Kapllan Pasha. This monument has survived from the time the earliest history of Tirana, but now it looks as if it is sinking below the massive tower!
This tower is one of the surviving objects from the so-called Regulatory Plan for the center of Tirana, planned by the French company Architecture Studio, whom former mayor Edi Rama declared winner of the Masterplan for Central Tirana. Ironically, this tower, welcomed the hearing session for the new plan.
As I was walking toward the conference room, I took the modern elevator, and I happened to bump into the Italian architect Andreas Faoro. The architect was part of the team led by Stefano Boeri, an architect and city planner from Milan. They undertook the task of designing the strategy for the general local plan. And I had a moment of lucidity on my part, after a previous moment of inexplicable confusion. I felt a release, while I overlooked into his laptop of no more that 15 inches, inside of which was the work done during few months for an urban activity of fifteen years, in a total surface of 110 hectares. There I was filled with optimism.
I have never understood why people are afraid of a hearing. It is wonderful! There everything shines like in a celebration! The speakers are prepared, their thoughts written on paper, which they have read out loud in front of a mirror until learned by heart. And the next day they put on new clothes; they enter the room, in front of the media and the public. Here, looks matter more than thoughts, so an expensive jacket or a official position is enough to be granted success.
However, Erion had decided to do exactly the opposite. While strategies for drafting the plan were dealt with by the foreign architects, the tactics for its approval were assumed by the municipality. But let us go back to the moments before the star of the municipality enters the room.
The first to arrive were the light and sound technicians. It was a big conference room adorned with heavy dark curtains. In the center, up on the front, there was a modern screen. On the white screen there was a green logo. Within thirty minutes the waiters prepared everything: round tables, white cloths, and black microphones for each participant. Bottles of water, glasses, and pen and white paper (that were left so until the end) were on the menu for the invitees.
In the hallway, the young architects of the Office of Urban Planning were folding the pamphlets that depicted the general local plan of Tirana. And, resembling a restaurant table where bread is offered in a common basket, here the maps were served to share, one copy for each table.
At the entrance, the guards of the municipality and the guards of the hotel were supervising together. A great example of a public-private partnership! The message: The meeting is public, but only under our strict supervision!
Only minutes before the discussion is opened, the request of the media to be inside the conference room is refused! The situation is tense, so the guards try to act objectively. The cameras of Top Channel stay also out. No exceptions.
Then some environmental activists and experts are also prohibited entrance. Some of the consultants of the opposition party intervene and the situation arrives at an impasse. What could be the reason that media is left out during a public activity!
The Veliaj administration follows plan B. But only half of it is made public until now: the media is allowed to stay during the presentation of the issues but they won’t speak during the Q&A session.
That’s how easy it is to silence the voice of the journalists and the accountability of the public in Veliaj’s so-called European metropolis.
With the shirt collar buttoned up tight his chin, which rises up behind the oval collar of his pullover, Erjon Veliaj, like a college boy, welcomed the participants and wished them Merry Christmas.
He began his speech while mentally strolling through several European cities. First, he spoke of an Italian city demolished by an earthquake and expressed his solidarity to his colleague. Then he traveled to Barcelona, the famous Spanish city, that is mostly known in Albania by its soccer team. He said that it had been a chaotic and ugly city, but that in a short period of time had become extraordinary.
The famous Gaudì came to my mind and my stomach turned.
His trip didn’t last long and he returned to Tirana. He spoke of a universal Tirana, which, passing through European gothic, like the legend of the Phoenix, will rise from its ashes. So, in a few words, it was more of a pastoral poetry than an actual speech.
“Dowry of Oxygen,” “Green Crown,” and “The Forest of Worlds” will remain in the memories of those who were present. Even though I doubt that this messy speech was clearly understood by anyone.
Wow, what a speech!
I tried putting down some notes in a hurry and prepared some questions but as soon as he finished he didn’t sit down! He said he had to leave. Erion was avoiding the confrontation with the specialists in front of the media. Plan B was being firmly executed. He said he was in a rush to go to his office. According to him he had to be in an important celebration that, in fact, turned out to be real. It was a marriage within the inner circle of the municipality. The meeting lasted until late afternoon and even as the dusk fell outside, the guy with the pullover didn’t return.
The presentation continued with Stefano Boeri, the chief strategist of the general local plan.
In the English language Tirana sounds like a real European city. The chosen poetic wording and the environmental allegory go beyond rhetorical expression. It seemed for a moment that a light breeze of clarity started to blow inside the room. The voice through the speakers resembled the chirping of birds. The concrete exterior was suspended at the back and the façades of the European cities of the Renaissance that appeared on the screen of the “consultant” Stefano Boeri, replaced the images of a Tirana that didn’t exist, but that was clearly being sold!
There was silence in the room. The eyes of the architects of the Office of Urban Planning were shining with the light reflected on the screen.
I listened and my mind flew to those simple socialists, present in the artistic monologues of Stefano Boeri. I was wrecking my brains, trying to understand how the simple minds of the present people interpreted these architectural lessons in English.
I inquired if anyone from the Architectural Society was present but, the answer was negative.
On the screen the canopy of trees surrounded Tirana. Along the green lines, toy cars moved. A topsy-turvy reality! The medieval graphics of the Renaissance cities of Europe were substituted with surreal pictures: green spaces across the roofs of buildings! In this computerized city, social peace dominated.
The shadow of Boeri naturally intertwined with the graphics, and if you lost concentration there was a risk of mistaking his real presence with the illusion of a fake hologram.
After a touristic voyage through the “Orbital Forest” of Stefano Boeri we returned in the real Tirana, in its center, at Hotel Plazza, its height forever drowning the grave of Kapllan Pasha.
There was clapping in the room. Somewhere in the middle, a few number of specialists of the opposition, were ready to take their turn. The meeting had reached its climax.
Besnik Aliaj, city planner and professor of architecture couldn’t be so easily fooled. A real expert of Tirana, he was one of the oldest of specialists selected for the city during three mandates. Because of this fact, the organizers had planned to forgo the explanations and arguments: all the questions were grouped and the answers were to be given in groups as well. This technique skipped the direct answers and so the city municipality morphed the answer only to a shape that was conducive to its interests. There was another manipulative plan. Let us call this Plan C.
The words of Aliaj were tightly compressed and multifaceted. He accused the local leaders that they had intentionally left out the opposition and other interest groups from the discussions and hearings for the general local plan. According to him, in these circumstances, where there is a lack of transparency, this plan couldn’t be legitimate. Through his emotional evocation he also showed directness and clear conscience.
Many questions and identifications over lack of necessary specialists, or dismissal of the suggestions made from institutions such as AKPT and Ministry of Environment, critics over the presented vision, the lack of the joining roads through different urban localities, were all ignored once more.
According to Plan C, the group of architects would answer only at the end. And so after all questions were done, part of them pre-planned, after the socialist specialists were also heard, the group of Italian architects demanded a fifteen-minute break adding therefore to the confusion that hovered over TR030.
People were scattered and only half of them returned. It was close to 15:00, so the next meeting that was to be organized as a genuine public hearing, was superimposed onto the first that was still continuing. The answer of the European architects had to wait.
All of a sudden the public was in the room!
Among them could be seen administrators, a number of local officials, and only a smaller part belonging to the opposition.
So the answers of Boeri started in a loaded situation due to the overpopulation in the room, which worked in favor of the foreign architects. The concentration was scattered by the noise, the opening an closing of the door, and a certain nervousness of the members that didn’t understand English. Everything was done to gain points in front of the present fans. The room was transformed in an overfull urban bus, where the passengers pressed against each other, are anxiously waiting to reach their destination. Certainly, the answers given by Boeri would lose the track….
It happened exactly as predicted. When the specialists of the opposition understood that there wasn’t any hope left they abandoned the room. Then Stefano Boeri also left. Deputy Mayor Arbjan Mazniku, Elisa Spiropali, and a few leftist consultants hadn’t returned after the break. The ways used to avoid conformation with the public, the media, and the opposition had worked.
In the room remained Joni Baboçi, a young architect that Erjon Veliaj had assigned as Director of Urban Planning right after he was elected mayor. This young urban planner without enough experience in the field of urban planning had chosen a career of heavy paperwork instead of technical drawings. And maybe his good relationship with the Belgian studio 51N4E when he directed Atelier Albania, of which 51N4E is still a part, had given him a boost in his fast career.
A room filled with militants and a planning project that assumed no author appeared on the screen. The participants, similar to the former labor controls, squinted their eyes while trying to understand the lines on the map, unable to decode them. The more resolute participants unfolded maps that were left unopened on the table.
The green stain again appeared on the screen. From the speaker one could hear: “The Orbital Forest”, the Green Ring, public transportation, first mile and last mile…
It was time that I left too…
I descended into the streets. It was dark but there was this one thought I couldn’t get rid of! What was this show without spectators, for the sake of the spectators? Was this a plan, a mockery, or just a number: TR030? Was this really a project, or just a screen with colors? That inexplicable unclear frame of mind that I had at the beginning of the day, before entering the room was still there while I was leaving in the dusk.
The people in that conference room didn’t even know! Because someone higher up, there, in the office of the former mayor, is the first client, the real chief architect. He built Tirana in a chaotic irreversible fashion for fifteen years, having neither rules nor vision. He eliminated public space and invented parks of concrete! Maybe he, up there, knows more!
Twenty-five years ago, when Albanians migrated to Europe, they left behind simple cities that were quiet and spacious. And now when some of them are returning, especially here, in the capital city, there is no space that is free.
Therefore it is probable that those few traditional Tirana houses that remain from the Ottoman period, or a group of mostly ruined villas that hides an unattainable esthetic and architecture technique dating from the thirties will be the inevitable preys of the biggest industry in Albania: The concrete industry.
Following the hypothesis that “Zero construction will freeze the city” the new urban planners, instead of developing the city, are becoming its destroyers.
Or maybe the real evil resides even further up, higher than the office of the former mayor, in an even tighter even more impenetrable circle, but which in perfect partnership and in the name of the new plan, with the permit of TR030 in its hands, is seeking to profit all the same, whether from the Tirana of yesterday, or the Tirana of tomorrow!