Producing the Contemporary City

24 May - 2 September 2007

PowerNotes #03

Re-inventing the Wheel / When colours become politics...


Edi Rama, the mayor of Tirana, about the Power of colours. 


When looking up the word "innovation" in the encyclopaedia Britannica, I found the following interpretation:

Innovation: a) the introduction of something new; b) a new idea, method or de­vice.


A little bit further down a comment attracted my attention. A hyperlinked phrase: innovation - effect on social change, was explained as follows: "Some social changes result from the innovations that are adopted in a society. These can include technological inventions, new scientific knowledge, new beliefs, or a new fashion in the sphere of leisure. Diffusion is not automatic but selective; an innovation is adopted only by people who are motivated to do so".


Around the year 2000, some scaffolding appeared on the facade of a living block in Rruga e Durresit in Tirana. A renovation process had earlier involved several governmental buildings in the centre of the city, all of architectural value representing a landmark of rational architecture in Tirana. All buildings were built by Italian architects in the 30's but their facades had degraded after long years of forgetfulness or sporadic rennovation of a "free style", totally disconnected to the original colours of the buildings. However, the rest of the city was still the dull grey of blighted communist architecture, mortar falling apart, windows and balconies changed as people liked and could.

A couple of weeks later, when the scaffolding was removed, some strong, blithefulll colours painted in square shapes and different forms, were revealed.


This was the first building painted by Edi Rama, the newly elected mayor of Ti­rana, and it marked the beginning of his project to transforml the ruined facades of the city into fascinating paintings. In the following days more scaffolding ap­peared and more squares or colours covered other facades of that street. In the months to come, all the streets of the city centre were one by one covered by scaffolding and then reappearing with new, sparkling colours. Alongside with the painting, at the crossroad at Rruga e Durresit, the first street lights were installed, causing an unusual sensation during the first nights, as no part of the city had never before been fully lit.


On other sides of the city there was an immense amount of rubbish being accu­mulated, as numerous illegal kiosks and barracks that had invaded all the green areas of the city centre (including the main park and the riversides) were being torn down. The remains of this informal city, a safe heaven for informality, shady businesses and drug dealers, was step by step being replaced by a green carpet, making the city brighter and more attractive.


Howeyer, let me go back to my initial point. As one can see from the dictionary, innovation is understood as introduction of something new, a new idea or method. Here one can wonder what is new (read innovative) with making a public garden, or fixing street lights, or even with painting a facade?

Well, it is here that one can get help of the larger definition of the word innovation - seen as a social change: "Some social changes result from the innovations that are adopted in a society, "

When asking how the painting of facades can bring social changes, one must step out of the aesthetic realm of colours and forms and remember that one of the main problems of post communist Albanian society was the loss of collective responsi­bility towards a shared public space/domain. Private property used to rule; every­one had become very individualistic and refused to take responsibility for what­ever existed outside the doorstep of their house. They would go as far as changing everything they could inside their old houses, without bothering at all about how it would affect the outside. This example also reflects the attitude towards public space, which was regarded as a space tor pure personal profits.

As soon as the first colourful compositions had been painted on the facades, people started to react. Some didn't like what was happening, some enjoyed it very much, but most felt unsure and started to talk and discuss the phenomena. For the first time there was a sense of a shared public space, and the feeling of collective re­sponsibility crept out from the historical abyss "here Albanians had condemned it. Besides painting the facades, sidewalks were being repaired, lights were being put up, and the amount of geenery was increased. Instead of only men in leather jackets smoking slim cigarettes, women and children, old people and young couples slowly started to reclaim the space that earlier had been socially denied to them. The sun seemed to shine differently from the reflection on colours and fresh green grass. Tirana started to change.



"Albanian organised crime has become a point a/reference for all criminal activity. Everything passes via the Albanians. The road for drugs arms and people -meaning illegal immigrants destined for Europe - is in Albanian hands." Cattaldo Motta, Italian public prosecutor, 2000


"When the world's media shipped out in 1999, Tirana looked like a huge sink estate with some self-important government buildings in it ... Tirana now looks like it has been assembled from giant Liquorice Allsorts. This fresh coat is the work of Tirana's mayor and principal topic of conversation ... There is a palpable sense of the rise of a generation that sees what needs to be done as more challenging than the swim to ItalY ... Albania dind't join the 20th century until 1990. By 1997, it had collapsed into anarchy. Six years later, Tirana is the kind o/place where simple people want to raise their children ... I fly home contemplating something which, five days previously would have struck me as utterly risible. One day, I'm going back to Albaija. Of my own accord. On holiday ... " (Andrew Mueller, the Guardian)


Is there a need to comment on these two different quotes, written only 3 years ago apart from each other? Not longer than a few years ago. Albania was still identified with a country of anarchy, thieves, prostitutes and civil war. Only at the beginning of the second mandate of Rama as mayor of Tirana. more and more journalists started to visit the country, first attracted by and then fascinated with the facade painting project No need to say that the sort of "filter" international media uses to represent different realities was taken away from the scrutinizing binoculars of the journalists. The painting and the greenery was by now functioning not only to fascinate the curious western eyes, but as the quote from the Guardian shows, it was helping the VIsitor to see the reality through the eyes of Albanians. After all, this was not merely an aesthetic gesture, a nice painterly act. It was at the same time a pure political act, a gesture of departure with the past, a gesture of hope, a reflection of the energetic drive of a country striving towards the future. At the same time, jobs ,were being created, more public works being realized, streets were being enlarged and repaved and lights were slowly entering all the dark corners of the city. The project materialized the economic growth of the country. Forgotten group ages, as the elders and children, were increasingly finding more and more public space to inhabit. Afier the inutial scepticism, not only citizens. but also businesses along the painted facades agreed to contribute financially to the repaving and improvement of the shared intrastructure of the city.


Where light lit the streets, shadows withdrew, and Tirana became a safer city to walk through at any our of day and night People started to feel more secure and less sceptical about paying taxes (very unacceptable untill the late 90s), because they felt their money was well invested. The Town Hall managed to raise the tax revenue in 2005, six times compared to year 2000 and as a consequence, increase the number of investments in public development projects. Also, the number of businesses was increased by three times during the period 2000-2005.


"Some social changes result from the innovations that are adopted in a society ... Diffilsion is not automatic but selective; an innovation is adopted only by people who are motivated to do so"



"The key point is how colours, amongst other things, are helping to change the contact between the people and the city; how you can change a city in which people are condemned to live by destiny into a city of choice. (from Anri Sala's interview with Hans Obrist in the catalogue of Tirana Biennale 2).


Alongside the economic growth, the painting of facades and the enlargement of green areas in the city, Tirana had started to get more and more involved in con­temporary art. In 2003, the second edition of the Tirana Biennale was held in the city, representing works by more than 120 artists from all over the world and collaborating with a number of international curators. It was inevitable that the painted city would catch the attention of the invited collaborators. Thus, an entire section of the Biennial, curated by Hans Ulrich Obrist and the Albanian artist Anri Sala, was dedicated to the continuation of the facade treatment project.


Inspired by the drive of change that the project had proven, the two curators de­cided to take it out of Rama's hands and give it over to a number of internationally established artists, whose artistic practices express ambitions for social change precisely through the construction of visual or environmental experience.


As artist Carsten Holler pointed out: 'The political impact of this project lies in the visualization of signs of change ... thereby inducing transformation, the social milieu changes as a result of the 'colourification '. The sign alone can be trigger enough.


As a result of the project, international artists turned whole living blocks in central Tirana into unique works of contemporary art. This turn of the project attracted an immense amount of attention trom the international art scene. And it attracted an ever growing number of local artists too that started to react and make works influenced by or commenting on the social phenomena caused by the colours.

And there's more. The city is now open to taking the project even one step further ahead. A larger number of both Albanian and international artists will be invited to turn blocks of buildings into art works. New ways of involving and working together with the different communities are being prepared.

Tirana is an open source to contemporary art, offering an unprecedented interac­tion between artists and public, attracting an ever growing number of visitors and tourists. As the city continues its strive on the way towards the future, the spectacle of colours, already turned into a political investment for development, unfolds everyday and lies in wait for its continuation.



Is it or is it not worth (read innovative) to reinvent the wheel after all? Well, after having experienced what social changes colours can cause, what improvement of life quality the increased greenery brings, and how hope and security is restored by repared and newly lit roads, I think YES reinventing the wheel CAN BE an innovation, a pure introduction of new ideas and methods that causes significant social changes, and this, must be continued!


Edi Rama


see images...

“The perpetuation and increase in the empowerment of the INFORMAL communities, gives them permanent ownership of their destiny.” (Alfredo Brillembourg, 2007)