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Framework for Participation

Formerly a parade ground in the Hoxhas regime, today the favourite place of Tirana’s citizens. How 51N4E from Brussels transformed Skanderbeg Square into a place for people.





Skanderbeg Square, the economic centre of Tirana and a place of great symbolic value for the whole of Albania, is the result of the 1939 urban renewal plan under the occupation of Italy. During the dictatorship Enver Hoxhas, it was a parade ground and a busy traffic square in the 1990s. Its name goes back to the national hero Gjergj Kastri, who still today represents identity, integrity and national independence for many Albanians against the background of centuries of oppression in the country. Its redesign also has a long history, accompanied by controversial discussions.

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“A ‘no’ in many countries signals the end of a discussion. In Albania it can herald the start of a negotiation.” (Alan Andoni in The Xenophobe’s Guide to the Albanians)

What does it mean today, to make a 15 million euro project in the center of a country where an experienced construction worker earns around 25 euro per day? If the duty of the state is to offer its citizens security, would it not be better to invest in a welfare system, in social housing, in infrastructure in peripheral areas … instead of investing in such a symbolic space? Although it is hard to argue against these claims—who could be against a welfare state?—the recent history of Europe makes a case for not neglecting the power of symbolism, for a clear narrative of togetherness, for the need to represent, in a tangible way, what we aspire to be. If we look at Belgium, we see that similar investments—I think for instance about the Stadshal in Ghent—have raised similar discussions, with similar arguments. It only goes to show that this debate—all differences considered—goes beyond Albania.

Redefine community relations by confronting them

The question of Skanderbeg Square is a political and a personal one: it is not about what Albania is today; it is a project about what the people who will use the square would like to become. And it is exactly in this “becoming” that the physical aspect of Skanderbeg plays its role: as a space where the tensions between “what is” and “what could be” are played out. It is about making spaces that make it possible to organize the big events in life, as well as to perform daily, in many small ways. Spaces that are not reduced to a set of predefined functions but focus on producing a broad range of possible situations that invite you to relate to people, to redefine community relations by confronting them, even just through contemplation while watching how people react and connect in such a wide-open emptiness and its multiple borders.

Architecture not as a spectacle, but as a stage

Skanderbeg Square is a place to be, to become aware of yourself, and also to look back and reflect. It creates a ground, as a background, a common ground. Its openness generates a tension, with a center that is not occupied yet, but that issues an invitation, even a challenge, to be occupied. An empty center, creating a sense of infinity. A sense of belonging, as a choice. Architecture not as a spectacle, but as a stage, creating conditions to perform public life. A common space, with a multiplicity of situations, of possible actions. This range of spatial situations is necessary to produce a common world, whether on the scale of a house, a building, a square, a city.

Context as a resource

Designing a space with this ambition starts with acknowledging the fact that Skanderbeg Square—in its 2008 state—already contained these qualities. It was a place that inspired a sense of awe, and that had a lack of definition that inspired a feeling of openness. In this sense, the task at hand was to look closely at what was already there, and to do so with the eyes of the foreigner, who can look beyond what things have ended up meaning. To discover how things were put together, what remains of them when you take them apart, and then to put them back together again, in a new set of relationships, appealing to evolving sensibilities.
Designing in such a space, laden with history and aspirations, is to reframe and reveal, like creating a new image that contains the previous ones. It is about not placing yourself in a binary opposition of old versus new, but about seeing history and the heritage that it has produced as a long sequence of ideas and interventions, and seeing the current intervention as simply one of many, which have come and which are still to come. Inscribing yourself in this long history is also considering context as a resource. Like a palimpsest, it contains a story that has been written and will be rewritten many times. It is a living thing that needs to transform to stay alive.

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Contrast between timeless frame and chaos and proliferation of life

In the case of Skanderbeg Square, the intervention consists of inserting a new form—a square that is also a pyramid—and surrounding it with a green belt. These two together create a frame that is also a spatial sequence, and a decision on how things relate to each other. Setting the frame is setting the stage, the general hierarchy; deciding what can be dominant, and what cannot be; deciding what is changeable and what is not. The decision to see the center as empty is also to see it as a civic space, not serving a commercial logic, instead allowing all remnants of history to be equally present, together creating a pantheon of beliefs and ideologies. The decision to access this center through a dense belt that equalizes buildings and nature, is also to imagine how people will go through that sequence, and how it will structure their experience, affect their bodies and mind. To set the frame implies to structure life and to use the autonomy of architecture to create a sense of timelessness, a structure that will survive in time. The project derives its character from the contrast between this timeless frame and the chaos and proliferation of life.

Creating a frame

This is a quality that architecture can offer, a quality that is so easily forgotten: to step out of a permanent present. It is something that we deeply crave, that we long for: to live with a reference to the past and an outlook towards the future. A society where this time horizon is not created, where nothing is institutionalized, is scary and gives rise to fear and populism. It is this frame that creates the possibility for engagement, as a starting point for a negotiation, an activation. The goal of this frame is not to give a definite order: it should just give enough structure for freedom to cling onto. The frame is only an opportunity to reset or to unsettle, not an end in itself. Fixing the frame is indeed dealing with things past, but is equally looking towards the future, and taking the responsibility to prescribe it, acknowledging that fixing something is the necessary condition to structure the future. By offering resistance, new liberties appear. In that sense, creating a frame is also to claim a certain safety, a safety that gives us the comfort to feel connected and be free.
Paradoxically, to design such a frame only works if the focus is not on the frame itself. It is a concept that has to be liberated from an all too aesthetical debate. It is important to realize that the project does not stop with setting the frame. The project is not in the form, more in the tension it creates. Especially with a project on such a scale, the decision to “let life arrange itself” would not amount to much. With the frame, a new set of rules also has to be set; opening up to and inventing “new ways to play.” After setting that frame and making the decision as to what is negotiable and what is not, the afterlife of the project and the conditions and practices that make it bloom, can and should be actively shaped.

Shape the afterlife in two different ways

In hindsight, the huge opportunity we had was that the process of designing the square was interrupted due to municipal elections. When we picked the design back up five years later, we saw to our own astonishment that the gardens we had imagined were actually very sterile: they were conceived only to support the idea of framing the void, but did not have a real quality and logic of their own. Also, the ease with which the design had been cancelled made us realize that the design had no real ownership beyond the closed circle of politicians and municipal technicians we had been dealing with. It was a wake-up call, to start thinking beyond the frame and to organize and design the tension it generates. When the project restarted, we took up to shape the afterlife in roughly two different ways.
First of all, we started seeing the design of the square as an opportunity to intervene in the metabolism of the context: to look at the conditions that shape it, and to set up the conditions that will allow it to stay alive. In the case of the square, this meant caring as much about the car traffic that has been expelled from the square as about the pedestrian zone that was freed up by this move. It also meant getting deeply involved in the resource management: how and where to get the stones, the plants – what kind of stones, what kind of plants? This resource management is an approach in which interdependencies come to play a big role: imagining how the plants will stand changing climate conditions, and how they can start to become a system of their own, both functional and resilient.

The space as an urban ecosystem

We designed the space as an urban ecosystem: something that protects us from the climate by creating a new climate, fusing natural and artificial elements, and beyond that, to also see human beings as part of the equation, which in turn puts the focus on creating an ecology of practices. Designing these systems comes with setting up new ways of doing things, even if it is as simple as avoiding pesticides. These mentality shifts are challenges that are, by default, complex and multidisciplinary, requiring a discussion between fields that use vastly different vocabularies. Here, the frame merely serves as a starting point. It is the beginning that is set to generate an open-ended system that has economic and cultural impact, and that can grow beyond what the project is today.

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Designing for empowerment

A second way we started to activate the frame is by imagining how it will allow others to contribute. We could call this designing for empowerment, be it in the dialogue process during the design or in the opportunities for appropriation generated on site.
We organized an intense three-month period of interaction, activating different stakeholders who in previous conditions would only have heard about the square once the elections came up. Setting up the space and the time to discuss, critique and intervene in the project was a very rewarding experience. New ideas came out of it, and new investments were also triggered. The idea to thematize a garden and link it with the rehabilitation of the national library is just one example that is a direct result of opening up the design process to so many different voices. One of the new investments that was triggered was the integration of the entry zone of the Tirana International Hotel.

A place for appropriation

The energy that we felt during these discussions inspired us to design the square even more than before as a place for appropriation. We developed the architecture so that limits provoke productive moments. Designing a chair that is 80 centimeters wide produces a proximity that can be annoying or comfortable, depending on the person you are sitting with. In providing that “obstacle,” using something suddenly provokes a choice, a choice that makes an encounter meaningful. Designing for empowerment also means that you become aware that these things make a difference, because what they reveal (or enable) touches on every single person in an equal way. Seeing the square as this multitude of touch points is seeing the frame as a system that produces a rich and complex environment with a very simple set of basic elements. And to produce with those elements a space that produces a memory because of all the actions that it has triggered, the encounters that have happened, that have been performed. What we can wish for is that this type of space will go beyond the symbolic with its infinite capacity to trigger new practices. This is what we imagine when we talk about frame.

Multiple-design approach

During a learning curve that took us nine years, designing the frame has come to stand for managing different design logics at once, from designing the form over designing the metabolism to designing for empowerment. By now, the combination of these three logics allows us to manage the often contradictory forces a project is dealing with. This approach helps to structure complexity, while still allowing it to remain fully and forcefully present.
We have learned to use the tension between these different logics as enriching rather than limiting; this multiple-design approach allows us to conceptualize the multiple ways needed to produce a common world. It requires a process with points where one needs to say no—as architects have been trained to do—but even more points where it is much more interesting to say “yes, but.” It is an attitude that sees tension or conflict as an opportunity to provoke different realities, and to see these realities not as something that should be reduced, but as situations that can be revealed and can even surpass themselves. Like in a good improvisation, a “yes but” attitude is a way to deal with conflict as a source of innovation, or as a provocation for more creativity and imagination. The Skanderbeg Square project has thought us to see “a good plan” as a way to structure our awareness to be able to react to different circumstances in a diversified way; design as a method to prepare ourselves for the opportunities hidden in the process.

Intentions that go beyond the square

Skanderbeg Square acts as a proof that we—everyone involved in the process—can go for results that are very rich, engaging, and qualitative. Overall it also shows that the Albanian context can be “taken seriously.” In that sense, it is a display of the capabilities of the context, of its capacity to make things happen and produce excellent results when activated in the right way, when people work together as they did for the square. The result of Skanderbeg should not be presented as an end or a conclusion, but rather as the start of a new dynamic, a first step inaugurating a string of projects aiming at improving the urban condition of Tirana. The project was a first attempt at defining leading intentions that go beyond the square, that have a longer time span.

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An opportunity to produce themselves

During the opening ceremony, the point of reference was still the statue of Skanderbeg. Let us hope for Albania that it will eventually be the openness of the square. This is also how we can imagine the role of architecture and public space today: not as the confirmation of a solid identity, but as the frame to investigate and offer means to construct an open and fluid one, offering the test zone for the citizens we would like to become. Public space can be a space for potential, a platform.
In the end, the project has delivered not a fixed frame, but a set of situations, potentially there, ready to be embodied. With boundaries as places, as possible point of connections that generate openness, at once orchestrated and by chance. The goal is that this openness will invite others to take over: to use the stage as an opportunity to produce themselves. But the truth is: this is something that one cannot really plan, but only hope for.
The inherent problem of a space is indeed that it is nothing but space. The potential it offers only exists when brought to life: performed and used by the people that believe in it, that make it happen every day. Witnessing the beginning of a renewed ecosystem grow in the heart of your city. Looking at historical buildings you cannot relate to, but still accept as part of your history. Walking barefoot in the center of the capital, using space as if it were private. Creating this possibility is a strong sign that an institution, a city, a state can give.

It is a striking fact that 25 percent of Albania’s population lives in a 2.5 km radius of this square. If they decide to, they can use Skanderbeg Square as part of their daily urban system. If they do so, it will not be the space, but their common practices that can have a lasting impact.

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