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  • Foto van schrijverMira Kaloshi

A Tale of Two Cities: Brussels and Tirana

Nearly a quarter-century ago, my family made the leap from Tirana to Brussels, part of a trend that has remained largely hidden behind the facade of Albania’s modernising capital. In contrast stands Brussels, approaching solutions to contemporary challenges at a more measured pace. Is it odd to draw parallels between a capital that is still in its EU infancy, and the actual ‘capital’ of the EU? Perhaps, it is the cities with the starkest contrasts that hold the richest lessons for one another.


To the conventional urban planner, Tirana may be a nightmare; to the visionary, it's a canvas of opportunity. In its urban tapestry, which emerged from post-communist chaos, lies the unique possibility for architects to bring their most ambitious visions to life. The city is being redrawn both figuratively and literally - acting as a showcase for numerous architects while also serving as a personal canvas for the former mayor and now Prime Minister Edi Rama, whose mural work adorns various buildings across the capital. It appears the beloved capital of my kin has given both Rama and architects carte blanche with the message: here is a city, make of it what you will.


Today, Tirana’s urban landscape is characterised by ambition and a touch of arrogance. 'Atelier Albania', an urban planning initiative by the Albanian government, aims to elevate Tirana's profile on the global stage and attract international attention. The transformation of Skanderbeg Square, overseen by the Brussels-based firm 51N4E, received recognition with the EUMiesAward2019, signifying its architectural excellence. Further underlining this international collaboration is the contribution from the British architect, Sir Nicholas Grimshaw, who is renowned for his design of the city's bus and train stations.


In the European capital brimming with talented architects, the urban planning process evolves à la Belge: modestly. Recently, a friend in Brussels faced a tough decision while considering buying and renovating an old, charming maison maitre. The house featured unique windows protected by heritage laws, but environmental regulations required these windows to have double glazing for energy efficiency. He was caught in a dilemma: preserving the heritage of the old windows or complying with environmental standards by altering them. Either way, he’d be breaking a law.

Under the name ‘Good Living’, the Brussels Government favours the refurbishment of existing buildings over the demolishment of their energy-consuming structures or the endorsement of alternative housing. The plan however, received only a lukewarm reception from civil society and majority parties. How much longer can Brussels cling to its past in the face of the increasing demand for sustainable housing? In contrast, in Tirana, the question arises as to who will fill the towers sprouting up like mushrooms, sustainable as they may.

The Brussels impasse manifests itself in all policy areas, from urban development to mobility. The concept of reducing cars in favour of increasing bicycle use is finding it difficult to penetrate municipal frameworks. For Albanians, the reliance on cars is of a more political nature. Albanians, previously restricted to bicycles due to Hoxha's ban on private car ownership, embraced cars in the 1990’s as emblems of freedom following the regime's fall. The car remains for many a powerful symbol of the capitalism that freed them from Hoxha's authoritarian grip. With the (re)construction of railways, bus networks, and cycling paths, Tirana has today understood that multimodality, not the Mercedes, is the real luxury - a lesson drawn from rooted European capitals like Brussels.  However, even Brussels must not become complacent and continually promote multimodality if it doesn’t want to govern itself into an eternal traffic jam. 

While in Brussels, it seems as if every citizen has their personal government official, in Tirana, only a few chosen ones have the privilege of using the city as their personal canvas. Nonetheless, Brussels’ surrealistic nature continues being a home for many because life in the city is affected by much more than what happens on the architects' drawing boards. For Tirana, the question remains whether colourful murals and skyscrapers are enough to truly convince Albanians to stay.

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