Thursday, March 31, 2011

Walking the City- 3rd episode

National Museum - Chamber of Commerce – Durresi Street – Napoli Square – The Mosaic of Tirana – Partizani Neighborhood – FIN – Old Airport – Lapraka – Breglumasi – Treshi Intersection – Tirana Durres Railway – New Polis – QTU

Not our usual starting...not a usual day...

Friday, 21st of January 2011 was a sad-bad day for Tirana and Albania. In the morningof that day with my family we drove first our sun to the kindergarten. The teachers there were concerned and  they told us: it is advisable to pick up your son sooner today, preferably not latter than noon! We asked why? Normally we were supposed to be there at 17.00 o’clock. Don’t you know – they said politely- the opposition has a protest today at 14.00! I smiled and said well it is not 1997 folks! Albania has changed now. (someone would even say we are NATO members and approaching EU accession now…) But  simply said: we don’t have luxury to make troubles any more...! So after we drove peacefully to the new Polis campus to continue hard-working for settling the new school according the deadlines...

At 12.00 a clock my wife asked Eranda to pick up urgently our son from kindergarten. Ladies have more pragmatic sense than man. Indeed, latter it appeared he was the only one left there with teachers. Everyone seemed to be afraid,and picked children much earlier. Well it is not that we do not care, but I didn’t know and I was not even aware of what was going on… At 14.00 o’clock many busses with protesters from all over country embarked on Tirana streets… Central Tirana was paralyzed. While “Tirana-Durres highway” motor-city or the core business district of Albania was just working as usually…

During lunch break I just asked someone, and he told me it was a smooth protest. But than after 2-3 hours I hear from my wife that some fire is set around Prime-minister office. I couldn’t believe it, but I said this is democracy. People protest, some times even angry, but that is all… Well, in the evening when arriving home I hear the news at my car radio: 3 people died today in the protest of opposition. Hundreds of people and policemen were injured. I shocked and become aware of real situation. The main boulevard in front of Government and Parliament was transformed in a battlefield, while the rest of city, including us were working hard. And I believe I am not an indifferent person politically… I care about society and I am active when I think its worth to be… I felt sad and revolted! I lost optimism you get by setting up a new university and a new campus. Is it worth what we are doing? My friend Sotir called me and asked cynically: is it smart that we decided to stay in Albania?

Than I recalled my mind: but we have announced “Walking the City 3” tomorrow… Should we go on under such circumstances, or should we cancel everything? Back home TV stated that PM quoted the protest as a kind of “coup d’etat”. The oppositions leaders indeed added: 3 victims are nothing, we will fight to win even if there will be 3,000 ones… My goodness this is too far, I said. But immediately I though: we must go on with Walking to ignore such kind of pseudo-politics. We must continue our lives and not be scared of irresponsible. Indeed our fear is exactly their victory… So called Sotir and decoded: tomorrow we go on! However deep in my soul I felt also responsible for particpants. But I don’t suffer usually by the lack of courage… So tomorrow the sky was again blue and sunny, despite the bad taste in mouth by the events of last day… We all meet again next to the National Historical Museum.
Besnik Aliaj, Sotir Dhamo & Eranda Janku

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Saturday, 22 January 2011

One week latter from the last city walk we decided that “Walking the City 3” would explore further the western part of the city and further demystify the distance of city center with the new campus of Polis University. Of course we thought for another alternative itinerary, including areas we have been working 15 years ago. We were curious to see parts of the city we have not seen quite for some times, and curious to monitor changes. I was hopping for positive changes…

10.00:              We started from the National Historical Museum built during 80-s and famous for its mosaic of socialist realism. In contrary today appeared more people, at least around 20 persons. There were other newcomers, curious to be part of such ‘adventures’ as they said. Me and Sotir explained das usually the tour, and started immediately to move west in a old road, between Kavaja and Durres roads. It is indeed one of the historical corridors coming to Tirana from north and south. It is the point where old Durresi road Kavaja Road, and Northern road from Shkodra, meet all together before entering the historical center of Tirana. We pass next to the headquarters of the ‘Chamber of Commerce’, hotel “Internacional” built during 20-s, the building of the ministry of Culture also built during 20-s with a neoclassical status, a bit further one can easily read the structure of an ottoman ‘kyllie’ (described in detail from Kostov) with the mosque, social-market services and traditional mud houses around. This is a kind of island, as most of the old ottoman style kylies of Tirana are now replaced by high-rise buildings without special architectural values. In the middle of kylie nowadays is built a petrol station. Authors are some former students of mine at the public school. They have created a studio now. The style is somehow interesting as a tentative of formalist deconstructivism, but it is absolutely not my taste. We shift to the north west and soon arrived another crossroad of the kylie, right behind the Ministry of Education and Sciences built during 30-s by King Zog. We stopped for a while and discussed the rich variety of architecture from Ottoman Empire, to the revival of King Zog, Italian occupation, centralized and market economy. They are all there and that square is perfect. Eranda and other participants makes sure to document the discussion by photos.

We continued further to the west during the same corridor, almost parallel with Durresi road. The discussion on the architecture style and historical regimes goes on… We stopped for a while and discussed the relation of the architecture of time with vegetation. So during King Zog period for example many modernist villas of 30-s include also exotic palm trees in their courtyards. While during 50-s the relation of Russian architecture with eucalyptus tree is also typical. After a short walk we arrived at Durresi Street and discussed the architecture of the Naples Square just at the beginning of the road of foreign embassies. Despite analyzing the clash of 50s-60s, between the local influence of Bauhaus trained architects and the imported ideological Russian style, we naturally shifted discussion about the area of embassies. I started to tell participants while walking next to the Chinese Embassy that I graduated on the 2nd of September 1990, the day people of Tirana rushed into foreign embassies to ask political asylum. We defended final thesis and all went to say goodbye a classmate whom entered German Embassy.  Nowadays he is still an architect and teacher living there. Sotir told also a about a group of youngsters that entered in one embassy fighting with police and army, but than discovered it was Chinese Embassy, so the came out back. Participants listen carefully. Most of them are born that period and don’t know much. The signs of that period are still left there along road while we pass several heavy concrete block as a barrier to the embassies walls.

Walking through the area we entered the so called ’Partizani’ neighborhood build during 70-s, as experiment of the technology of white silica-bricks. The architecture and quality of construction for the time being has not been bad, although nowadays there are also many new extensions and buildings. During early 2000 municipality improved the public spaces, planted green, and paved roads. During the works archeological site was discovered, not far from the previous site of the Mosaic of Tirana, a protected monument of culture by the Institute of monuments. We passed nearby the site but door was closed and no people were inside. So we explored the site, mosaic and a traditional house from the distance of the transparent fence. Suddenly the guard appeared there coming from the nearest bar where he was killing time. He appears to know me as a professor and professional of the field and respectful opens the door without asking tickets. The guard continues to apologize for the delay, and provide us leaflets in Albanian and English. I read them for the participants as a good opportunity for exact explanations. In fact it is nice but modest, even that in Tirana it is considered something important with layers between roman and byzantine styles.

We walked within the neighborhood and I told participants my memories when I was a kid coming to play with my relatives at my aunt house living at that time in one of those buildings. For that time such building where a bit unique. My aunt and her husband were civil engineers and probably they worked voluntary there to get such apartment. The neighborhood is still nice and with good access to city-center and ring-road. Soon we have to pass ring road in front of Civil Engineering Faculty known with the nickname FIN. I have been studding there, and latter one teaching there for 16 years, 13 out of which full time. But when I left I was disappointed by the conservatorism, lack of space for new ideas and research, and lack of reform towards academic curricula. Nowadays the school is painted outside, a new extention is added from the back, but I hear the situation in temrs of profesninal-intellectual software is even worst. Pity! But at least now we have developed an alternative school: Polis! Time will show if we are correct! I am optimistic despite the challenge ahead!

Behind FIN I see a former industrial building transformed in a kind of local bazaar. Bad condition! From here you can notice you are not any more in Europe but somewhere in oriental countries. It is interesting, but the road smells kebab and sewerage, while the garbage and trash fruits are left aside. The road is asphalted and much better of what I remembered some 5-6 years ago. We passed next to dormitories of the students of FIN and Medicine Faculty. Someone is surprised they are still separated for males and females… In horizons appears again the area of the former airport of Tirana. We walked the landing strip at present time under the implementation of meglioration project by the Municipality of Tirana, according Atena studio Rome. The project looks interesting as we saw also one week ahead. But we deviated to the north passing next to the old plane hangars, nowadays functioning as a kind of modest bus terminal/parking. We had than hard time to cross over Durresi Road. It is again the same situation if the heavy traffic and no respect for pedestrians.

The next side of the road we pass under the blue-color cupola-type cover of a petrol station. It is designed by a good German friend - Uli whom lives in Tirana with her Albanian boyfriend and teaches also a course at our school, Polis. She is really goo. I didn’t like the cupola from distance. Seems a bit heavy and exacerbated! But under it I had another great feeling. It was impressive and much better design: like a big powerful cathedral, instead a market economy church. The metallic structure was cleverly used. Could have been more visible from outside. Anyway, it is already a landmark at Durresi road. We had to speed up, passing through the concrete prefabricated housing complexes of Lapraka neighborhood, a former satellite settlement of Tirana. Architecture and construction quality is poor, as in many East European countries. But there is good potential for public spaces, which are lately reopened from informal activities. Roads are also well paved by a project financed by the Italian Government.

We passed quickly in front of the fenced walls of the Military Hospital, arriving at “J.Pashko” factory of prefabricated materials. Some local youngsters showed interest on us, but we just continued ahead. In the middle of the site, me and Sotir explained shortly the history and approach of participatory planning and urban upgrading in the Breglumasi Neighborhood, developed by us and Co-PLAN Institute for habitat development, since early 90-s. The project got credits from World Bank and UN Habitat, and served as a test for other urban pilot projects of creative bottom up planning. I asked participants to be careful not offending people with photo-cameras. Indeed the area has changed dramatically for better. The plan designed at that time with people was implemented including main utility services. Although people were still not veru happy when I talked with them, they accept that now they have higher expectations and that quality of life improved. Some community representatives meet me and Sotir with respect, remembering the time we worked with them. Some youngsters looked on us strangely. To them our faces say nothing… We refused local people to drink some local raki, because we had to speed up, but we promised them to come back. I saw also the community and social center, the Catholic Church, while all houses were totally improved radically. I felt well. We spent so many days here over almost 8 years period. We learned a lot about the DN of cities and informal/organic processes. We have given a clear contribution. More is to be done. Probably our students should come and monitor, undertake surveys, see things critically, and learn from our own success and failures. Sotir says we must encourage students to do that at final thesis research. Our colleguages were also very interested to do questions. I have many old pictures of neighborhood and I must compare with the fresh ones. It must be very interesting.

15.00               We went fully over the neighborhood’s main road planed and opened by our joint work with community ending to the intersection of “treshi” (three roads). Here the road coming from north Albania to Tirana center meets with two local deviations, and the rail-line Tirana-Durres. We chose to continue walking along railway line. In the first 100 meters walk we had to stop as the train passed. It was bad, slow, primitive. Totally neglected and forgotten. Shaking left and right and using a lousy horn. I could say it was dangerous. Such an experience… Than we continued again to walk. Along the rail-line we saw non-sense high-rise building in the middle of nowhere, and of a pure agricultural area. Who the fuck is going to live here, asked someone? A pure real estate speculation. But not only that. Mountains of garbage a thrown all over along railway. It is a total despair! Tragedy! This is the most pressing problem in Albania. It is already a national emergency! Few really understand the degree of problem, even that would agree with it.

Along rail-line we could see the signs of former fish farms that we could see in the childhood while using the train. I have almost 20 years not using it any more unfortunately, so I have forgotten the farms. Today they are dry empty but strangely not polluted by garbage. Few cows eat the grass there. Some students asked me: what are such strange shapes. I joked with them: UFO landed during communism here… So the scale of interventions in the nature at that time has been also extremely huge. In 2-3 kilometers walk we are behind coca-cola production plant, and that is the turning point to deviate towards the new venue of Polis University. After 200 meters we are at the campus area. Students that came for the first time to the new building go for a tour with Sotir and Eranda. The transport busses of Polis are getting the new design. I am tired and prefer to sit and watch others…

Again I am glad we did that. Like in 1997 we were working in Breglumasi to experiment participatory planning, while society was struggling and fighting with Kalashnikovs. At that time community protected the project as it felt clear ownership. More than one decade after we did the same. Politicians now fight alone. Most of people keep distance. They seem to learn the lesson even that 3 people died. In 1997 were much more: 3,000 victims. But it is the same when someone losses the life. No matter the figures! It is sad! Meanwhile we are again doing something constructive: walking the city, and reflecting over the same neighborhoods, about the change. Yes, change is the main thing this city and country deserves. I am glad we did the third walk. We didn’t fear. If more people would do like us, probably no people will be killed by corrupted grid politicians. Let’s hope! The city is a much better inspiration… than this kind of policymaking.

Article by: Besnik Aliaj
Photos by: Eranda Janku, Eduina Jaupi & Sonia Jojic


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