What urban design in Tirana can tell us about the past and how will this shape the future?

by Dan Cooklin-Smith

A couple of weeks ago I spent a few days in Albania. The capital city, Tirana whilst small is amplified and appears vast due to the surrounding Accursed Mountains to the east as well as the short drive west to the Adriatic Sea.

Walking around the centre I was struck by the preservation of the city’s long history – from the rule of the Ottoman Empire to the Communist regime under Enver Hoxha during which they became one of the most isolated countries in the world. Today’s centre of Tirana is Skanderbeg Square where homage to one of the great national heroes is paid. The square is used for open air events, the national theatre and even protests – where once such dissent against the state was unimaginable.

Whilst the history of the city is visibly apparent, efforts have been taken to modernise the city. Tirana Castle for instance is now a hub for restaurants, bars and forms a central part of the city’s vibrancy. The once grey communist-era buildings have been painted bright colours.

In Hoxha’s day, churches, mosques, and other religious sites were demolished or repurposed into sports halls, warehouses and workshops. Today we see the construction of mosques to reflect the majority Muslim population. The Orthodox Church completed in 2012 is equally impressive in its grandeur and shows the cultural harmony of the city.

In the years following the Iron Curtain’s demise (for now), the city has experienced a mass influx of people and therefore a need to accommodate them. Tirana’s isolationist history means skyscrapers were adopted much later than most of the world. As a result, this presents a unique opportunity to adopt a new urban form and learn from mainland Europe. The sense of openness feels like a unique feature of the city and could be in jeopardy if the cityscape continues its current trajectory. Until 1970, this clock tower was the tallest building in the city. Today, it is impossible to get a photo of it without the large-scale blocks domineering over the old town.

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