Inclusivity and the Character of a City: An Interview with Saimir Kristo

In January 2023, Copenhagen Architecture Festival carried out a film and architecture workshop in collaboration with Barleti University and Tirana Architecture Triennale, exploring inclusivity in Albania’s capital city. In this interview, professor Saimir Kristo shares his thoughts about his booming city and the potential of film to narrate its true character.

Pauline Panetta: Tirana is a city undergoing great transformations. Can you tell us a bit about the city of Tirana and why it is an interesting place to explore issues of inclusivity in architecture and urban planning?

Saimir Kristo: Tirana is a dynamic city, characterized by a particular energy of its citizens. During the last century as the capital of Albania, it has faced a series of moments where its image has been transformed. As a city of oriental morphology initially, to the development of the main boulevard and rationalist architecture in the fascist period, its closure during the Hoxha dictatorship, and its continuous transformations after the 90s, until today. During the last three decades, the private initiative has been the main driving force for the development of the city. Chaotic, spontaneous, creatively, or even intuitively, the city is welcoming and hospitable, not only towards Albanians from all parts of the country due to massive urbanization, but also towards foreign visitors.

Here, architecture and architects follow a similar rhythm. In the early 2000s, the first international competitions to develop the new image of Tirana were organized, creating plans for a new capital that ought to be pro-actively responsive to new global developments, which gave a new vibrant, bizarre and particular image to the city. The effect of such rapid transition is responsible for the massive formal and informal urbanization of the landscape around the city, but also for the popularity of the city internationally, known to be a laboratory of urban experimentation. As a result, there is still a continuous urge for urban development and new experiments, which in fact are still challenged by a precarious and developing infrastructure.

After three decades, this territory, new to the paradigm of a free market economy, is able to welcome new urban experiments, but yet still again finds itself in a struggle to fully embrace social sustainability. As such, exploring issues of inclusivity in architecture and urban planning, sometimes is part of planning and designing the new development of the city, but most of the time is a case of [re]appropriation of public space, urban provo[c]a(c)tions and active citizen participation.

PP: In our workshop, we used the notion of ‘inclusive design’ to encompass all the material and immaterial spatial practices that make our cities more welcoming, safe, healthy and accessible. Are Tirana’s inclusive design elements found in the built environment or in the social relations uniting its people?

SK: Both! Tirana is physical and virtual. People are locals but also “new” locals. Visitors, tourists, temporary and permanent residents. Everyone’s experience can be addressed in many ways, and this was one of the elements that made the workshop so successful. The films developed were so well articulated, not only because the artists and creatives that participated in the workshop had a lot of time to research, produce and edit their work, but also because they had the right lenses to study the city, set from the very first day we conceptualized this film and architecture workshop together. Participants learned to find inclusivity in objects, public spaces, clothes hanging in yards, bottles set in the street and chairs placed on the sidewalks. In the way people communicate, play, entertain themselves, provoke, protect, and demonstrate their sense of “belonging” and “sense of ownership” in the city of Tirana.

PP: During the workshop, participants were guided by film experts and editors who helped them craft powerful shorts. Can you share some thoughts on the potential of film to disseminate architectural and urban matters? 

SK: Well, the impact of an image is 1000 words, of a movie I would say at least a million! It can create an incredible impact, even independently from a particular geographical context. Film can disseminate a message to everyone, locals, foreigners, and visitors. It uses sound, light, nature, the cityscape, an urban problem, a design solution, an answer and even a question. We saw such an impact in the aftermath of the project, from screening events of the films around the city, on the national tv stations, online, in partner festivals, Tirana Architecture Triennale, BARLETI University, and even provoking roundtable discussion about the city’s future inside COD - Center for Openness and Dialogue at the Prime Minister's office.

The debate produced by the films was enriched with frames, emotions, feelings, and perceptions; they were able to create and disseminate the particular character of the city of Tirana. As you are able to run a film, you are also able to pause it, and many images froze in our minds, became static, created a lasting impact, became food for thought, and were brought into further discussion in some new projects we are developing now.

PP: Tirana is a city with a huge presence of foreign architectural projects. What should foreign architects learn from and about Tirana before intervening in its transformation?

SK: Tirana is a palimpsest of different cultures in a very short historic period, and as such this palimpsest is neither fully maintained nor properly articulated. It is complex like the process of writing very fast on a piece of paper and quickly erasing words: the rapid accumulation of written words does not make sense, and in some cases, erased sentences can still be seen on paper. As easy as it might sound to be able to read the city’s character through its palimpsest, exploring the main facades of the city where the new foreign architectural projects are in development—it is not. You can really understand the city only by exploring its inner core, and the life of its inhabitants where they really live. The lively neighborhoods, the small shops; the “gjelltore”, which were very well depicted in the movie “Gjelltor-ism” produced by Sabrina Morreale and Anja Troelenberg during our film and architecture workshop; the ways that the locals have transformed their apartments and public space. This unique character takes time to explore, analyze and understand before one becomes able to propose new interventions that result from embracing the true nature of the city.

PP: Throughout this project and in your daily work at Barleti University, you are in contact with young activists, architecture students, and aspiring space practitioners. What do you think is the future of Tirana? 

SK: I think the future of the city is bright. Early in my life, I had the opportunity to grow and live in Athens, Greece. When I returned to Tirana almost two decades ago, the city was incredibly dynamic then also, in different nuances but with the same character. Mistakes have been made, but many good things have also happened. I consider myself lucky to work with students, young professionals, institutions, and people everyday, as I’ve understood that it is always very important to create constructive debates inclusively. Set layers seem invisible at first, in the beginning, they create no physical impact, but they are fundamental to providing articulated arguments, critical masses, constructive criticism, and developing a sense of “public ownership” for the city. The city reflects our behavior, and I see incredible energy from the youth of Tirana, who want to become pro-active citizens of this city and project a bright sustainable future.

This interview is part of an article series on film and inclusive design developed around the Film Mosaic project. The Film Mosaic: Leave No One Behind is Copenhagen Architecture Festival’s short film competition documenting inclusive design solutions found in the built, grown, and planned environment.

You can access all films in the competition on the dedicated platform and participate in the final Film Mosaic Award Ceremony on 3 July 2023 in Copenhagen, Denmark.

About this author
Cite: Pauline Panetta. "Inclusivity and the Character of a City: An Interview with Saimir Kristo" 30 May 2023. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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