Housing – DEA Studio – Albania

Fresh urban injection in Tirana – Saimir Kristo – Photography: Joana Dhiamandi, Lisiena Dimo

Albania, and in particular its capital city, Tirana, has overcome an enormous development in the last 25 years, following the reinstatement of democracy, which expelled the authoritarian regime that had ruled the country for 45 years. During the regime, urban development was controlled, and individuals were not allowed to migrate within the country. An emergent need surfaced, raising the demand for numerous residential buildings in the city that would blend with existing buildings developed over time, influenced by Italian, Bulgarian, Russian, and of course Albanian architects. This architectural palimpsest had created an amorphous, ambiguous mixture impacting the city’s skyline, but also its everyday image. Included are attempts to design and develop ‘original’ ideas, to respond to emerging needs of investors and clients, and a few outcomes of international competitions that were either implemented or ‘pending’ completion.

 

In fact, the biggest market for architects was in the field of residential housing, which for many reasons was not the platform to design and develop quality projects in Tirana in the end, due to the low capacity and budget of investors and the lack of clear architectural constraints. There have nevertheless been a few attempts in the last decade by both foreign and Albanian architects in residential housing, such as Artan Raça, Atena Studio, Bolles + Wilson, and Studio B&L, showcasing design, material, and detail quality in implementation, and making a difference not only visually, but also in terms of the city’s long-term sustainability.

A similar case is the residential and commercial building by DEA Studio, an architectural practice with fifteen years of experience, led by architects Ervin Taçi, Alket Meslani and Klodiana Emiri. It is located in the beginning of Elbasani Street, between the historic area of villas designed by the Italians prior to World War II and the historic bridge of Tabak near the Lana stream, connecting the northern and southern parts of Tirana.

The building is developed on a corner lot, with two main facades defined by Elbasani Street and Fatmir Haxhiu Street. Because the building stands in a hybrid relationship with the site, from its western part towards an historical area with villas and its eastern part facing the newly developed Tirana, it is fragmented in its facade, creating a space in between its volume.

In this case the southern part of the residential complex is limited up to five floors, taking a clear reference from the adjacent five-storey residential units developed during the communist era, while its northern part forms a rotated L-shape in its facade, extending up to nine storeys and referencing the French masterplan for Tirana’s city centre developed by Architecture Studio in 2003.

Articulating this fragmentation also in the materiality, the architects use transparent glass in order to highlight it, developing a naturally lighted staircase and elevator corridor in the centre of the volume. This placement allows for a very rational organization of the apartments, taking maximum advantage of the plot’s size.

Moreover, in contrast with the fragility and transparency of the glass, dark grey to black ceramic tiles are used along the facade, emphasizing this new urban intervention and contrasting it with the neighbouring existing old brick buildings. Yellow functional voids, contouring the apartment loggias, appear to add a more playful tone in the three-dimensionality of the building’s mass. Since the project facilitates both residential and service functions, in order to respond into the demand of the investor, the same glass extends to the retail and services areas, both on the street and second-floor levels, in this way increasing the value of the ground floors.

The impact of this new residential block can be clearly understood not only by creating an elegant silhouette serving as an urban landmark for the area, but also for the quality of the architectural space and materials used, articulating an architectural language without exaggerations and unnecessary additions. These qualities will ensure a more sustainable image that will keep the building’s appearance intact, in comparison with the majority of the existing residential units currently being developed, where plain plaster and paint are the only means of expression.

It is a sign for understanding that superficiality is no longer an effective means to transform the image of Tirana, a strategy that was used successfully in 2001 by the former mayor, Edi Rama, in his project to colour the grey facades of the city. The challenge now is much more fundamental, a search for effective and long-term strategies to remedy the existing marks of unplanned urbanity and to develop qualitative architecture in the future, not only for the people that reside in such buildings, but also for the rest of the city and its citizens.