THE CITY AND ITS DEMO(N)S

The Private Lives of Public Numbers: PPP and Its Demo(n)s

 

Each grain of sand has its architecture, but a desert displays the structure of the wind.
 Keith Waldrop, Proposition II

 

PART I

[pro:logue]

My intent, and consequent thoughts in conveying it here, aims to engage the latent interdependencies that recent discussions on the city overlook – the “dark matter” from which these arguments emerge, the complicated and invisible medium that produces them, as well as the objects and actions they describe – their content and form, and the organizational forces that rationalize them. It is the matter of the elephant in the room that I hope to steer the debate towards, in order to navigate and bring into focus the medium that produces the “official” message: the weak(ness) (of the) state argument disguised with numbers, the indeterminacy of their “apolitical” role, the false claim (and assumption) that this interpretation of “facts” works on behalf of the public – to help “reclaim” its right to (use) the city even as it monetizes their experience in it. These are (some of) the hidden costs of a now quantified public culture. These are the private lives of public numbers, and they lay bare a simple fact: the city gets the type of demo(n)s it designs for.

 

[in:tro_a reflection]

Albanians – it seems – forcefully desire and simultaneously resist a city that is quite unlike itself, as well as one that is too much like itself. This is the paradox at the center of the public debate on the city. The urban phenomenon is intrinsic to its social condition, violently so, when political agendas shape public discussion and neoliberal forms of governing annex spatial democracy, only to then (if not already) offer it to the highest (and often private and only) bidder. Thus, it is my intent to unpack, ever so slightly, this paradox, which I think is rooted in at least two things here: the manipulation of language which fails to clearly define, communicate and materialize the information it has access to and works with, hence its abstraction of publics (from culture to market, from people to numbers); and, the tainted context in which public decisions are systematically made, approved and enforced. I intend to pick apart the former in order to articulate the latter, to show (how) they are both molded into an “official” narrative of public design.

Public design is in itself a paradox – public implies collaboration, an opening up of the design process to all, a practice which is traditionally viewed as a behind closed doors activity, as a “skillset” or “capability” of trained experts only. Hence, (and this is just an example where) language fails because it misleads. It ambiguously outlines the public’s role and agency in shaping their city, which ultimately it is left in the hands of those few “experts” to determine its wider engagement and participation.

Nowadays, the public is provided with a “solution” to such dilemma in the form of Public Private Partnership or PPP, both as product and a collaboration, a way out (as it were), but that may possibly consist of yet another puzzle (the market) that has to be confronted and figured out, thus deepening its rot. Neither the term, nor its current application help people understand what PPP is, let alone what it does. So, close attention must be paid to the new rules of engagement and participation this unbridled “solution” offers, in that it might just gentrify (thus alienate) the social process of public design. For this reason, the main questions and concerns in my remarks on the urban debate in Albania reside with the public, its continued existence and impending transformation.

 

[few thoughts on one (such) debate]

[point of departure]

This essay started as a short response to the points argued during a televised panel conversation about the newly approved towers in what’s dubbed Tirana’s ‘downtown’ district (one of the many proposed economic lucrative nodes; if not its main node – its most public and profitable, no doubt), and as a way to contribute a few (and long overdue) thoughts to the overall discussion on the urban (re)development plan of the city (the TR-030 masterplan) – but, somewhere in the course of considering and then rehearsing its many questions, the text takes a life (and position) of its own. Unable to participate (in this talk or any at all), it decides to crash the party instead, in spirit and after the fact, for two reasons: first, because I thought the question “Towers: Phobia or Development?” (“Kullat: Fobi Apo Zhvillim?”) that framed the issue presented by the moderator was right to hint at the urban predicament as a social crisis (even though it failed to develop beyond that), but incorrect (and reductive) in projecting the false binary of “one vs. the other”; and second, again along similar lines of the urban regeneration as social restoration, I thought the conversation disappointed because it didn’t follow through on it. It evaded the severity of such a public condition altogether – a dismissal, I could only assume, was engineered to make it inconsequential; to strategically shift the focus to the official argument that had worked out its numbers but not their (social) value system – an official claim asserted in “facts” (Whose facts?) in order to reassure their apolitical application, which in the end only reinforced the same logical fallacy of “this or that”, “us vs. them”, “our new city vs. their old city” and “our city as these other cities.”

As with any of the debates I’ve followed recently, where there is an “official” voice or representation, this one too turned out to be just another confrontation on how little or how much the city is and should be commodified. There was no useful synthesis on the hidden costs (i.e. social practices) of these facts or on the qualitative value of its (proposed) public life and civic worth. The conversation only offered (yet again) the indisputable fact that the development of the city is planned on the account of the market, and in the process, it failed to communicate with the rest of its public, abstracting it rather than directly engaging the embedded polyphony of voices, expressions and intimacies of their language in the city. The democracy at the core of any such exchange came undone here, bringing the conversation to a standstill.

 

[take-away]

To say that we need a new and inclusive approach to the old and divisive binary thinking (this vs. that, us vs. them, the left vs. the right, the old vs. the new), as well as a language of multitudes to the proposed mono-dimensional (i.e. monetary dimension) redesign of the public (by way of PPPs and POPs), that specifically depicts the essence, complexity and difficulty of the things we talk about as we intend them in order to make a point, is to state the obvious. And to confront the obvious, that which is rendered visible but is often meant to lessen or distract, especially when speaking about an ambitious project such as the building of a city, is as constructive as “stroking a vicious circle” and as practical as “reinventing the wheel.”

I admit it was hard watching the segment all the way through. It took me a few sittings to finish it and a lot longer to absorb it. I still am not quite sure what the general hope was – to inform the public? To give people a platform to voice their resistance? To give the experts a chance to defend their choices and the decisions made? To finally dig into and work out the proposed masterplan? To investigate the exact nature and role of the private-public partnership? To finally expose the logistics of the matrix they’re all a part of? – in the end, it wound up being another red herring.

But I am glad it happened because it helped me further reflect on these issues – and hopefully, over time, it might even produce a wider, longer and difficult conversation that needs to happen (in tandem with the development of the city) not only between the state institutions and their public, but amongst all the experts: architects, urbanists, artists, critics, policymakers, private developers and other publics that are or might be involved (directly or not) in such a massive and ambitious project as master-planning a city; to design and implement a certain future for it. Who’s future? That still remains unclear.

But that’s the everlasting hope – in what might be possible, or in what can be imagined and even speculated – though time and again reality has proved to be a great deal more difficult and a lot greedier. I am not only talking about the years of spatial and civic abuse at the hands of bureaucracy and corruption, but of that continued context in which such decisions are still made; of quick fixes and fast cash incentives that have won more campaigns (and produced more plans from “masters”) than (public) votes cast. In the end, everyone loves a payday more than the city they build their lives in and that other public they share it with.

 

[a short response to its framing]

The title of the debate hints at “a merging of aesthetic and psychological criteria in order to judge the qualities of [the newly proposed] urban space,”* – at least that’s how I read it. And even though it failed to develop it, I decided to stay on the issue with the hope of making sense of it myself.

If public space is thought of as a spatial and psychological buffer, where external and internal forces not only clash (Simmel), but rearrange each other in a way that suggests a coping with their new form of existence, then both phobia and development are as much spatial as they are mental. Hence, the aim of any conversation should not be to single out one or the other, but to find clues of one through the other. It should be about understanding and trying to make sense of how intimately they are connected and expressed in the city.

What can the new spatial redevelopment plan tell us about the social conditions of today? What about their collective memory? And on the other hand, how might phobia, as a psychological state and spatial fear, warn us about the spatial estrangement and social alienation this plan proposes?

If the masterplan aims to intensify the built environment, to densify it (by erecting towers), then why hasn’t it acknowledged the intensification of fear it might cause? The fear of the changes it proposes doesn’t only manifest in the various misconceptions that are currently circulating around it, but also in the actual physical and psychological anxiety and paranoia that is felt by many – of losing their sense of bearings; of losing their place in the new city; of being isolated by what is no longer public (theirs); of their physical, social and economic alienation, and the subsequent inequality that threatens to consume them. In my opinion, the opportunity to talk about the proposed towers through the lense of “phobia or development” (that the title led to believe) was sadly missed here. Using this media platform to finally talk about; to actually describe these spatial and mental sensibilities; and to communicate them to a larger audience, was the true potential of the debate.

Nonetheless, such is (indeed) the aesthetic of the quickly developing and privately developed city – and much like it, the conversation exercised similar forms of spatial attention and social distraction, indeed confirming the blasé attitude toward the “given” fact that a city simply changes. I think that the second part of that answer should have also been included to say that what is indeed happening in the city is a “systemized and enforced alienation,” and as such, unnatural to its organic evolution.

After 25 years, I would say that Albanians are quite familiar with (but do not necessarily grasp) the “pathology” of the city, of the social distance (alienation) and spatial relations (estrangement) it advances – thus I want to reiterate (once more) the general definition of it: “the estrangement of the inhabitant of a city too rapidly changing and enlarging to comprehend in traditional terms; the estrangement of classes from each other, of individual from individual, of individual from self, of workers from work.” (Vidler)

How can we unfold these relationships in the city as we see it change by the PPPs? How does the new redevelopment create (new) or bring back (old) phobias? How does it develop a phobia toward the public?

Embedded in redevelopment, there is a phobia of history too, evident by the selection of what is demolished, rehabilitated and expropriated.

The phobia toward the informal is one (that follows the current “official” aesthetic), which for what is worth, should be (widely) approached as evidence (manifestation and materialization) of the cultural chaos and corrupt political context that produced it. This informality, often designated as a transitional and unsanctioned “operation” and dismissed as a mindless product of a time “out of joint”; an immediate and intensive collapse of one reality with another – in its disfigurement of the city, it confirms a public phobia toward bureaucratic corruption. Is this informality (this time out of joint, collapse of one reality with another, transition) a phobia because it has disfigured and still disorientates? Or is it a phobia because it was an unprecedented “public” opportunity for anyone to permanently occupy other publics and in the end, the city itself? Unregulated and lawless – what does it say about the long history of improper decision-making cultures of the state? It seems like the state (then and now) takes advantage of its power to develop phobias of the political other, of what their nemesis may or may not have done. So phobias continue to be replaced and displaced, and in the process have left a disoriented public.

If we were to study and diagnose a quarter-century long informality caused by both sides of the political pendulum, we would have a better understanding of the relationship between “phobia” and “development” and their continued consequences. We would be able to exercise a lot more empathy toward such a fractured but resilient public. How? Well, for starters, through what we propose and implement now. Has the new masterplan done that?

A few times during the discussion I heard that “something is always sacrificed” – a resignation that was surprisingly one of consensus amongst all participants. (One of the few things they agreed on.) Now, we know who and how – my aim below is to figure out why?

 

[a response to the debate]

A little humility goes a long way, sadly not in this case.

Before I respond to the conversation at hand, I want to reiterate that the problem the city faces (and has for a long time) is not a technical problem, it is political. Violently so! Everything that concerns the public is political. The city itself cannot be anything without being political first, because it is (understood as) public.

If the informal development of the city during transition is considered extra-legal, then the proposed redevelopment plan (TR-030), at this stage, is definitely extra-terminological (extra-lingual?). I say this, because if the last two decades have distributed the city in unforeseen ways, the new masterplan definitely moves in the other direction of rezoning via themes – it has thematized its language. Some examples include: “the orbital forest”, “the faith park”, “the culture quartet”, “the polycenter as the new neighborhood”, “the plaza as forest”, and so on. The character of these “landmarks” has been thus (far) pre-conceived in name only. We will have to wait if the public life they propose to bring to the city follows suit. We will have to wait and see if (and hope that it won’t be to late for) their architecture finds actionable public meaning beyond the numbers (it throws around now) and the rendered images (which only abstract public space without engaging its public in their design) it presents. Let’s hope that their (re)development doesn’t lead to the dissolution of the public.

I mention this because many misperceptions surround the new masterplan and some of them did find their way in the aforementioned debate. They were noticeable in how the language shifted when different proposals were presented and argued, more specifically in the action or passivity of the verbs to describe it – from “the plaza is a forest”, “towers will be built”, “some things have already been sacrificed”, to “people should drive less and bike more”, “we ought to be more patient for water and public transportation to be fixed”, “as a global city, it needs better (private) landmarks”. An interesting phenomenon that, intentionally or not, clearly suggests some form of public alienation.

Part of the public misperception (I think) lies with what Georg Simmel calls the “blasé attitude” – the (state’s) incapacity to respond to and engage with (new) public issues appropriately because its intellect is consumed by stronger stimuli (money) that accelerate its nerves into exhaustion, thus leaving no room for much else. This lack of concern has led to an antipathy for the other and a dismissal of accountability. As the “official” planning expert, the state has appropriated this attitude, unapologetically and rather frequently as of late (which was obvious here). It is not that it cannot perceive its public, it just isn’t in its interest to do so (it doesn’t want to) because it sees the meaning and value of their resistance as “insubstantial”– its experiential quality only quantifiable by “how much.” By asserting such a bias, or flat out chauvinism, the state thus confirms its preoccupation with stronger stimuli and its subjectivity of “a completely internalized money economy.” As a result, misperception is only one symptom of (and that in fact confirms) a larger concern for public discrimination – money – “the common denominator of all values; irreparably hollowing the core of things, their individuality, their specific value, and their incomparability.” (More on this later.)

I also question the speed in which the densification of the center is proposed and swiftly approved. The towers are of concern because they mark not only the physical threshold of a central public space but also its economic barrier – a public asset turned real estate haven for private developers. Hence, this move isolates the rest of the public; it turns their right to (use) the city into a privilege to be afforded. Their program as hotels or offices implies these towers will cater to a different public or a public to come, not the one that is there already. Who’s this public? A tourist, a visitor – a consumer that can afford to access it.

Tourism (like art) has been touted as a form of transformation, even cannibalism – the consumption of other places, other cultures, or the digestion of their powers.
Lucy Lippard

Another concern about the speed of approving and implementing projects is the fact that these towers take priority over, let’s say, the water system and other much needed updates on existing dilapidated infrastructures. One of the reasons we are talking about the towers (and why they are stirring up so much angst) is because their erection is imminent, already a go from the municipality. The reason why water remains as a background noise thus only a public concern is because the officials in charge dodge the issue quite abruptly or they give vague and abstract answers to it. So, yes, this inquiry on the “official” language and how it is used to conform to the “official” narrative is important, critical even.

Coming back to the densification thread of the conversation, the plan proposes an increase of building mass in the center to encourage people to walk and bike more outside of the big and newly redesigned plaza. That is all fine, but it’s not new. Albanians were a biking society before they were consumed by the car culture. They know how to do it already, but how are they supposed to choose alternative modes of transport if nothing is being said or done about first fixing public transportation? More buildings with a lot more parking garages to place the cars they won’t need anymore, only so they can walk around this proposed densification in the most sought after real estate doesn’t quite make sense to me, at least not from these arguments.

The debate was adamant to compare the city with others, which I get – but it missed a very crucial point, that of its own history (beyond the transition period), and that most of the “sustainable” behaviors that developed cities have fostered over the years or that are now reintroducing for a cleaner city (walking, biking, picnicking, playing at the park, etc.) have already been part of Albanian life at one point, and for a long time before the chaos of the ‘90s. So, a better way of presenting these design interventions might not be through an external comparison to others but from a relearning from within, from the social behaviors embedded in the city’s history.

Haussmannization was brought up too – the glory of such an ambitious project. Let’s not forget that when we focus on such glorious spatial aesthetics, we undermine the unfathomable social cleansing, displacement and discrimination that built such a place. Also, Haussmann did a complete revamp of all the infrastructures running through the city. Can this be said about the new masterplan yet? What can be said is that just like Bosio’s plan a hundred years prior (for whom Haussmann was an influence), this masterplan suggests a clearing of the city (of all the halfassed, informal, some official and some not constructions), of the aesthetic and social processes that came before it (similar to Bosio with the Ottoman influenced dwellings) – a proposed public displacement not unlike that of Paris (before the Commune), one that continues to be fought and deeply felt by those still living in the banlieues.

*

I bring up public displacement because the new masterplan of Tirana proposes to do just that through private-public partnerships [PPP]. What kind of public space does such partnership offer?

The municipality insists that for each building permit they approve for a privately built environment, the city and its public gets half of it back (I believe the number is close to 55-65%). My question, then, is what kind of public space does this become? The numbers don’t tell me that. They may quantify it exactly but they fail to qualify it. From looking at other such practices around town, I can only assume this space will be appropriated as street parking (for private cars) or as some type of storefront (cafe, restaurant, market, or business), thus a mixed-use program that might serve the residential units and provide an economic boost to the neighborhood. That makes a lot of sense. However, this space cannot be called a proper (in a no-strings-attached kind of way) public space in the sense that children continue to play in the streets, the elderly cannot afford the accessibility this quasi-public space might provide to the consumer, the garbage still pills over onto the commons, and the minimal greenery it might add to somehow balance all the pollution from such a concrete island. Is the private owner even incentivized to build more greenery? Thus, I ask the question, what kind of public space does the city sanction outside of what the owner might decide to actually build? What other kinds can there be?

The city continues to witness a certain ingenious creativity from those that cannot afford or are expelled by such private-public partnerships. All over the city, time and again, they decide to make their own public space outside of the restrictions of city authority and private interests, wherever and however they want (a real sign of democracy no?). These public-initiated disruptions remind me of the informal and community driven tactical urbanism, whose power is that of hacking the city. In this case though, their makeshift redesign is an act of survival; of not disappearing, of being heard and seen; of reclaiming public space as their right to (use) the city.

The Albanian public has been very creative with very little for a long time. Brought on by the lack of state imagination or their inaccessibility to the kind of activity and public space it sanctions, the possibilities such clever adaptability affords could be endless. Sadly, they’re not. They are shut down as quickly as they appear – dismissed and marked as informal (“against the official state aesthetic”), even fined as illegal – which goes to show that the city punishes the individual, its public, for expressing their right to (use) it (outside what it provides for them and without even considering why they were excluded to begin with) however temporary these expressions might be. What these countermeasures reveal is the city’s own failure (and lack of decency) in doing its civic duty. The city shows the limits of its power, thus its true irrelevance.

This is how I would qualify the privately-owned public spaces (POPS) and the true value (and meaning) of a permit that ‘gives back’ to the public what it takes from it in the first place. This is how I understand the overall well-being intent of a masterplan.

Privately-owned public spaces (or POPS) are generated through the construction of private architectural projects and have often been negotiated to allow an increased overall floorspace in the development. They have the appearance of being ordinary public spaces attached to a prominent building, but they are not subject to local authority’s bylaws and regulations. Rather, what the public may do in these sites is subject to the landowners’ whim, and enforced by private security guards. . . Civic uses of these spaces may face stringent restrictions in terms of photography, political protest, artistic expression, journalistic activity, sitting, sleeping, or even merely looking “scruffy.”
— Jack Shenker [More on POPS here.]

 

The value of a proper public space is measured by how the city designs for and treats its most disadvantaged public, be it the poor, the homeless, the elderly, children, or anyone who cannot afford nor provide an economic incentive for it in return. It is the ones whose citizenship has been muted that become the most inventive in revealing their expulsion from the city. Lately, this phenomenon has been quite common – the poor or the elderly selling knick-knacks in the streets and being fined for it. The picture it draws is truly bleak. We’ve all seen it. One quasi-able person surrounded by a police squad dispatched to enforce public order – an intimidation that some might call police (state) brutality.

To summarize then, these are the sort of spaces and behaviors the public will get in return from each approved permit. The PPP sanctioned POPS will infiltrate, own and push out the public. And, if anyone thinks the street is what’s left that is still public, they better think again, because if one does occupy it, even if for a fleeting moment, the police will show up to fine or arrest for loitering, for just being there. Somehow the proposed public spaces in the city seem to refute the necessity for stillness and similar basic human sensibilities.

For all the above reasons (and others to follow), it is more than correct to say that the problem of the city, and the struggle its public faces for recognition, is not so much technical as it is political (and economic). People face eviction from the city simply because they won’t be able to afford it much longer. The proposed changes will continue to increase the cost of life thus intensifying in-e-quality. If it is actively talked about the physical decentralization of the city through polycenters and networks, then why the silence in regards to how it plans to redistribute its resources and opportunities equitably to all that inhabit it?

*

If this masterplan is indeed a market-oriented plan of the city, then it is critical to inquire again and again about the new kind of social space it proposes and for whom. Below, I will focus on two of them (city-wide scale) because I want to demonstrate how such economic redesign will profoundly alter public space and correspondingly restructure its social body.

Firstly, its language (at least in the key words it bolds in the presentation) suggests a new concept of multitudes; it proposes a new communal space – the polycenter – which I read as a new spatial (thus social) characterization (in definition, meaning, value) of the traditional neighborhood, hence, for all intents and purposes, the polycenter will become the new “neighborhood” supersized. The old understanding and disposition of the “neighborhood” (for what it’s worth) might not be completely replaced by the “polycenter” (per se) but it will definitely be reorganized to serve it – accordingly, moving it down the list of experiences that identify life in Tirana. Following this logic, the “center” will then become the new “block” and the “poly” the new “mega-block.” So, how does this reorganization of community restructures social order? What kind of super-community will it create?

Scale is important here because the polycenter will not just facilitate and magnify the city’s economic flow, but it will significantly distort the architecture/human scale proportions in a way that brings up serious concerns about spatial and social inequality, as well as psychological (e.g. phobia) and cognitive dissociation in its publics. Another thing that warrants attention is the type or the kind of block the center will be. From what we know about the block, the center, and even the hub – they are different architectural typologies both spatially and socially, and of different consequence to the public. With the block being the most public of all three, the question of how “public” the center will be by comparison, is of similar concern.

Secondly, all public spaces (roads) will lead to the polycenter. The masterplan proposes an ambitious mobility and connectivity strategy that will seamlessly and publicly stitch together the disjointed city – by way of the polycenter – to form a “public network.” I bring this up, not because I want to, again, debate the terminology of what will remain or become public in the city but what will now comprise its public “realm” (is it a network, a platform, a place?) – and, also to note (yet again) how each term designation proposes a specific spatial and social typology, whose implications change drastically from one another (as do their consequences).

The suggestion that public space will be developed as a means to get to the polycenter is similar to that of the neighborhood – redesigned with the only purpose of accommodating and serving it. In a way, today’s meandering public (How do they dare walk aimlessly!) will be tomorrow’s purposeful consumers, well-entertained and taken care of – well, that is, if they can afford it. Today’s public will be tomorrow’s user. Today’s community will be tomorrow’s privileged colony.

The intensification of these “privatized public” nodes and network is a physical materialization of monetary flow and dimension. Money won’t have to find people anymore nor obey their organization of the city; now they will come to it, they will live in/through it. This is the stimuli of the blasé attitude – to hollow out the city and the public’s right to it, so it can reconfigure it anew for the privilege to serve another and probably the only dimension of it – the money culture.

By being the equivalent to all the manifold things in one and the same way, money becomes the most frightful leveler. […] All things float with equal specific gravity in the constantly moving stream of money.
Georg Simmel, The Metropolis and Mental Life

Therefore, my concern doesn’t question if the city will change, but how soon and how much. This last quarter century alone, it has changed quite drastically. The last five years have seen a tremendous transformation toward this trend (i.e. intent). I question how fast it is changing in order to understand the criteria of change. According to whom?

As a critique, my inquiry here has more to do with the privatized state’s search for stimuli and how it is and will affect not only the quality of public life, but its citizenship in the city. It is about those who are at a disadvantage because the city refuses to plan and design for diversity (e.g. people that are not part of the work force and cannot afford credit or any kind of monetary exchange to use public amenities).

Who speaks? Money. Who listens? The City.

(As proposed) Money is the only value and dimension that will speak (in) the future city.

This search for stimuli originates in the money economy with the fading of all specific values into a mere mediating value. We have here one of those interesting cases in which the disease determines its own form of the cure. A money culture signifies such an enslavement of life in its means, that release from its weariness is also evidently sought in a mere means which conceals its final significance – in the fact of ‘stimulation’ as such.
— James C. Scott, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes To Improve The Human Condition Have Failed

*

Architects and urban planners, especially those who are working directly for or within the institutions in charge of planning and rebuilding a city, should have some knowledge of who sits at the decision-making table, otherwise all these arguments and conversations would be for nothing. To ground a masterplan, to promote it, to build it, to see it grow or fail – they should at least be aware of the others they are collaborating with (policymakers, financial backers, developers, politicians, other stakeholders, the public too, etc.) and of the general intent and consensus behind this thing, otherwise how do they know if the project will be realized or why are they working so hard to make it happen? As spatial (thus social) planners and designers, they should be aware of the problems, conflicts (of interest), needs on the ground, the big picture, the infrastructure and the overall architecture that keeps the wheel turning – otherwise who and what are they designing for, and to what end? So, to say that “professionally and technically this is what I recommend” is not enough. To say that “I stay away from politics” or “It is above my pay grade” is a bit naïve in the sense that questions the intent, the relevance and efficacy of the work produced.

Personally, I would be a bit frustrated, to be isolated like that, only to see that what you’ve proposed becomes a front for what it actually is implemented and moves to the back burner with all the other ‘hard but irrelevant’ efforts? If as an expert working in a public institution, you are not aware of what’s going on around you, or if you’re not consulted properly or didn’t make the decision-making team, then what agency do urbanists, architects and designers really have in masterplanning the future of the city? How can the expertise, creativity, and independence of the architects be preserved and flourish without repercussions from the political power that hires them? And, as such, how can they best serve the public they design for?

 


 

PART II

 

[a history of contested masterplans & TR_030]

“We expect too much of our buildings and not enough of ourselves.”
— 
Jane Jacobs

Needless to say that organizing and composing a master-plan, a pertinent one, is not about a tower or two or four or seven – well, in a way it is now, because that’s all the public has seen materialize in the past year – but not just. It is about establishing a working architecture of how the city is kept alive and well (through all its publics, human or not), in addition to how it will change or how the changes proposed (even those not yet imagined) will affect what’s already there and what consequences they will bring along or back for that matter. It is about preserving what’s left in it and of it that is good, be that its skyline, its historic or cultural district, the character of its neighborhoods or the integrity of its public spaces (if any). It is about taking seriously the impeding risks of climate change and the colossal man-made damage done to its territory and biodiversity. It is about restoring what has been depleted and destroyed, its natural resources and historic heritage. It is about preserving and developing the multitude of these languages in the city – ultimately, ensuring spatial democracy and the well-being of future publics.

Undoubtedly, these are issues that any masterplan takes into consideration, and TR-030 certainly does, however, and this is my personal opinion, at first glance – in its public presentation and a year after its approval – the masterplan misses a much needed sensibility of an inquiry rooted in and informed by what is already there. In it, issues come off as assertions, stated in a generic language that can be about any given future city, thus suspending any reality and history of the city at hand (Tirana), past and present.

Almost a hundred years after the Italian plan of Gherardo Bosio (mentioned in TR-030) a lot has happened to and in the city. How does this masterplan position itself within the often violent folds of the fragmented histories and legacies of its (many) predecessors, the plurality of their languages? How does it transition the spatial, social and political overlap from one reality to another?

Just these past 25 years, the extra-legal building boom has informally shaped the entirety of the city. It has already intensified and distributed the city. Whatever its designation – informal, vernacular, turbo architecture, an anti-masterplan even – it has been ingrained in the DNA of the city; an undeniable fact which often falls into the cracks of the history of the city’s “official” masterplans, as if whatever happened between the fascist plan and the current proposed masterplan for the future does not count.

It is also curious how “official” plans of development (a succession of them, really) have used the prefix re-, as in redevelopment, while, in fact, they have been just a(nother) development. They may have been partial for a number of reasons, but it is the way of their concept(ualizat)ion and description as a re-development effort that makes me question not the potential of their new life, but the departure from their previous one. In the relatively short history of Tirana, this (spatial and social) practice is significant in that it views and approaches (the city’s) continuity not as a form of growth (or trans-form-a(c)tion) but as continuous re-birth (perpetual re-forms), which implies a certain death, the end of something – as if the present can be simply erased, leveled (tabula rasa-d) and sacrificed by the promise of what’s to come – a better (mythical even) narrative of history I am sure. Such misguidance, insensitivity and hubris have amounted to a disjointed city, both spatially and cognitively.

What can Tirana’s new masterplan learn from the spatial psychopathology of (such) previous developments? How does it propose to repair, maintain, integrate and develop the uncanniness that is already there? How does it question the reality in which it is produced, other than taking on the making of its future? Ironically, it is not the kaleidoscopic design of its panoptic vision that might render it unbelievable, nor its inaccessibility to what’s there, but its neoliberal principles of governance that will ultimately jeopardize its credibility. Such mono(polis)t(h)ic imprint can be attributed to the political context in which it is strategized, to the capital powers that commissioned it and to the privately owned public forces that will eventually shape it, (and that are) already manipulating its seemingly autonomous and apolitical narrative of the future. It is no doubt hard (even improbable) to masterplan in a tainted political climate.

 

[mastering a plan]

Political power has known for a long time already how to produce narratives for its own use. The media has done even better. Living is narrativizing.
— Michel de Certeau, Ghosts in the City

As one of many in only a few years, the (TR-030) masterplan has taken a lot of heat (and rightfully so); it has been mythicized from the start (by the state) and scapegoat-ed, even scarecrow-ed (by the public). Why? Well, maybe because of how it perceives the public city; how it is (made to be) perceived by it; and how it receives this public in return.

As a “conceptual proposal,” the TR-030 masterplan envisions an “intensive and polycentric” city but it outlines (what it actually proposes is) a “PPP-gentrified spatial equality” – a monopoly of governing (a public-private partnership, where its public is the state not the people) that opens itself up to the plurality of private interests, not to the social and cultural currency of the public. A city conceptualized as a metropolis and proposed as a monopolis.

As a “working document” and “design strategy” for future forms of governance (not as a “conceptual proposal” anymore but operational – we should again be mindful of the language used to describe intention), it doesn’t clearly communicate how it intends to operate not on, but within the city; to integrate with, not impose on the existing fabric, and to activate, not just intensify its public realm (activation here implies intensification plus something more, agency).

The disappearance of spatial limits announces the end of legal limits.
 Michel Serres, Malfeasance

How does it anticipate changing the life of the city, the behaviors in and of it? How does it propose to politically mobilize (give voice and form to) the many publics that inhabit it, and that it will eventually own or become? And, according to what criteria?

The different take(s) on it – that distance between what it proposes and what we see promoted by official institutions – has made clear the fact that it “conceals from users what it presents to observers.” Thus, the issue no longer involves the making of future objects but the beneficiaries of this future city.

 

[unmastering a plan]

I leave it to you to find your own instrument […] for combat.
— Gilles Deleuze, quoting Marcel Proust

Swift approval of “downtown” towers, demolitions (or expropriations) of cultural buildings (e.g. National Theater) and rezoning of existing ecologies (e.g. Great Park of Tirana), prove this masterplan is already functioning that way, thus the public is right to question its credibility and to take the fight to the streets, since it cannot in the court of law. People now understand that the masterplan will not rescue them into or from the future. In this case, it might even be an enabler, a means to legitimize their powerlessness and undermine their political resistance and struggle to express their right to (use) the city.

On the other hand, a masterplan is important and necessary for any city to have. The current public debate can make use of this momentum as an opportunity and responsibility to fundamentally unlearn the systematic corruption that has conditioned the Albanian context for so long – to redesign a proper and inclusive, and a more flexible form of governing. A masterplan can be a useful “tool-box” when it functions not just for itself, but when it is used by everyone as an instrument (a means) to redesign old ways of decision-making, new ways of critical thinking and public collaboration, in a manner that assures democratic progress, not incessant resurrections (i.e. redevelopments).

 

[out-of-joint: context]

[masterplanning (as) public design]

The Culture of Public decision-making is the design challenge. You have to transform the context. Designing better cities means designing how we make better decisions.
 Dan Hill, Dark Matter and Trojan Horses: A Vocabulary

To understand the form of the disjointed city and the formation of its incoherent parts (beyond just good and evil), we must take a closer look at the manner in which masterplanning stitches together or intensifies spatial division and social differences – not just in what it has been already designed but in how this design has come to be and the life it has now taken. I am talking about the distance between the writing on the wall (in this case, the drawing on the paper or the image campaign on social media) and the committed act, that space-time abyss (“dark matter”) in which an idea might be thought out, written about and spoken of – a process, I think, both the masterplan and those that have made it need to address first and then pull off in an inclusive and democratic way. Ultimately, this should be the task of public design. Unfortunately, it isn’t just yet.

In Albania, the collaboration implied by the term public and its integration in the design process still idle at the opposite ends of that distance. The many misconceptions surrounding the current development of the city confirm its failure as a public design project. People don’t feel connected to it as users – merely as observers, disengaged and disadvantaged. Their expulsion from the decision-making process thus not only hurts the city by deepening misconceptions about the trustworthiness of any masterplan, but it also severs the design process itself. The inconsistencies of how the project is being performed (acted on) by “official” experts in the media clearly show that it alienates both public and designers. It is in this blasé attitude of the state that we see masterplanning unfold and reveal itself as an undemocratic process and unpublic practice.

In order to fight the inequality of such manners, it is the masterplan itself that must now be occupied – publicly. If, as a “public image”, it hides the culture of its own making (by whom? and, for what purpose?) then as “public form” (i.e. agency), it has the potential to multiply civic acti(vati)on – to be mobilized as a cultural act that can disrupt and transform such “culture of public decision-making.”

 

[myth-breaking as form-making]

Rather than showing something external to the picture, it perhaps shows the body of the image itself. It shows the construction of the image… It reminds us that the image itself has a body, both expressed by its construction and material composition, and that this body may be inanimate and material.
  Hito Steyerl, Ripping Reality: Blind Spots and Wrecked Data in 3D

As a cultural act, public design can challenge the “official” narrative by working within its “public image” – to subvert the culture behind its construction and to deconstruct the exhausted fallacy of “the left vs. the right” context of its decision-making process, thus revealing its (even) larger design practice – corruption. As such, public design has a chance to not only discover the extent of state’s governance as “public business” (i.e. the surface of its image) but to further scrutinize the form (i.e. depth) that (un)designs its democracy.

For decades now, state institutions have carried on “civic service” as “public business” – following the ever lucrative practice of corruption as design model to develop “private interests” not “public prosperity.” This act of “civic failure” has not only been narrativized as an image of “civic-building,” but it has turned the public form of “civic-breaking” into a public image of “myth-making” – redesigning governance by undesigning its democracy. Hence, a culturally activated public design will then be able to subvert the “public business of myth-making” (from within) by practicing myth-breaking as a new (public) form-making; to break the surface of its myth in order to discover and transform the depth (body) of its image.

 

[porosity over transparency] 

[T]he surface offers the least resistance because it is least consolidated. […] Depth is created by folding this surface.
 Hito Steyerl, Ripping Reality: Blind Spots and Wrecked Data in 3D

It is better to demand porosity in the image than transparency in numbers. Transparency has become the spectacle of a spectral public.

To understand this institutional “myth-making” let’s examine one instant of it and turn to social media as the largest platform where this “public business” is conducted. (I should say the largest “virtual” platform – I will return to the city shortly.) The online world is even more of a dark matter than the city – consisting of neither fake nor real representations of it. It is the largest screen (surface) of representation, both as a place and abyss where physical spaces and psychological states of the public rally, and where the “official” narrative twists “civic failure” into “representative worth.”

If we look closely at the public posts and images of state institutions “at work” shared by their official online accounts – everything in them, the content of the photos, the aesthetic of the images, their framing and cropping, the timing too – we will notice that the act of “working” performed in them only strengthens the myth of the official “public image.” Contrary to what most people see in them, or what they might think of them, or not even think twice about any of them, my concern here is with the act of sharing itself. In fact, I am having a hard time believing it, especially when what is actually happening to the city persistently refutes it. Hence, I don’t consider it an act of public-making but one of public-breaking.

I see this act of being “at work” as a failure of civic service – thus an active breaking of the law. The misguided hubris in sharing such (unlawful) civic disservice is baffling, in that the act of sharing itself is intended to be further shared and engaged by an exponentially multiplying public, which will then not only magnify this violation of the law but it will normalize it. If we think of breaking the law as violation of public contract, then the act itself imparts violence toward this public – violence that every time a post or image is clicked or seen or liked or shared, the deeper it is internalized.

Such is the “official” business of public-breaking and myth-making. It manipulates public confidence into individual resignation. It turns the public into a spectator with a passive citizenship – and the higher its virtual participating confidence, the bigger our concern for its physical exclusion should be, of public right turning into privilege.

Therefore, it is not a stretch to say that institutional myth-making undesigns public form(s) of governing – its social and spatial democracy – by redesigning the plurality it depends on. I use undesign here to mean violation of public form and redesign as bending its means to absorb diversity into spectatorship (a leveling act). But, then again, state propaganda is not new, nor was it ever gone – it is now better designed (ubiquitously and accelerated, thanks to the internet) with the user in mind, to willingly make the public participate in their own civic irrelevance.

The virtual participation of the public in this manner only solidifies the surface of the image by extending its flatness to cover more territory. Instead it ought to fold it to discover its depth (the dark matter behind its propaganda); to follow through on how its physical body “at work” actually materializes in the city.

 

[from perception to meaning]

What if [these images] transformed into the objects they claim to represent? [A]n uprising of images, against an architecture of representation that holds them in servitude and subjects them.
 Hito Steyerl, Ripping Reality: Blind Spots and Wrecked Data in 3D

It is quite vital to activate this “public” image by mobilizing public design as a cultural act, in order to instigate “an uprising of images against representation”; to discover and publicly occupy the institutional body so it can break its myth-making culture (to unlearn it as a way of learning it anew). Porosity then can be a useful design instrument for combat because it encourages the public to weave its own plot (i.e. occupation and meaning). It forges new types of collaboration and agency by means of subtraction not reproduction. It discovers, thus it begins to shape the “dark matter”. It does not replicate its cultural abyss by extending the surface (flatness) of its image; instead it provides an instructive datum within its depth, a shared meaning of public existence and active transformation.

The same can be said about the (re)development of the city. Rebuilding by addition (e.g. big box monumental architecture that reinforces its spatial pathology) only reproduces (repeats) the corrupt culture of its existing (privatized) context at the point of normalization. We might want to start thinking about unbuilding instead or rebuilding through subtraction. As a design practice of unlearning this culture, it has the potential to rebuild the public form of its spatial context (i.e. new governing forms of democracy).

 

[ex:tro_a position]

The reason I bring up the many facets of the elephant in the room – the dark matter where things (can) come together but fall out-of-joint, the medium in which public decisions are crafted into an official message, the depth of institutionalized images (their public uprising against representation) – is to widen the (public’s and my) understanding of the life of this masterplan; to grasp the rationale behind its myth and to navigate the changing relationships between its fragments – as a cultural act, as a multidimensional verb, as a mindset, as an organizational approach, as a moving horizon, as a living organism, as an active form always in formation, and as public agency & equity builder.

What other lives could the masterplan take?

As a design tool-box, it could adopt a (necessary) paradoxical life, one that is simultaneously both multidimensional and “out of joint”, and whose growth (porous to both intensification and subtraction) would depend on its ability to overlap one reality with another. It could become agile enough to both haunt and create anew – to haunt and to be haunted by what is already there as well as by the prospect of what it proposes but doesn’t realize. Embedded in its language would be both past ghosts and future hopes – demo(n)s – which it could then continue to absorb and design for, in all their forms, as demos and demons.

As a game-plan, it could be plotted out with enough craft and craftiness to intelligently and sensibly engage the question “What kind of future and for whom?” – now!

I am merely peeking at the difficult task of rebuilding the city here, in order to make sense of (and for those who remain skeptical of) the struggling public and the escalating social unrest that are met by an ineffective (idle but volatile) debate on the (right to use) the city. Surprisingly (or not), this debate has been played out on the streets and in the media, and not enough on the drawing board and in town halls meetings.

 

[public:s_the city as tool of representation]

Nurturing such a masterplan has been impossible in Albania. The disparities between political parties in charge at any given time and the lifespan a masterplan would require to fully come into its own (to break free from the forces that might have made it), have been frequent and devastatingly consequential to Tirana – the capital has been the most profitable playground to the most ridiculous and ruthless of them – thus leaving a fragmented city and disoriented public. Its time has remained persistently “out of joint” (to quote Hamlet) – its spatial and social condition perpetually disputed. (I have speculated elsewhere about its comatose lives as a corpse, a weak personality, and a tyrant’s shadow.)

How can its mending then be entrusted to this masterplan – to any masterplan produced in such a fractured context with such a corrupt culture? The spatial pathology of the city brought on by the privatization of public space has estranged the public from power and people from citizenship. What then remains of the civic dimension in the city? How can the masterplan mediate the line of demarcation between dimensions of inclusion and exclusion in the city, between capital and inhabitant? What other narrative arcs can be threaded to stitch its pieces together?

For whom does the city speak?

 

[public:s_the people are the city]

Political dissensus is not a discussion between speaking people who would confront their interests and values. It is a conflict about who speaks and who does not speak, about what has to be heard as the voice of pain and what has to be heard as an argument on justice.
 Jacques Ranciere, Dissensus: On Politics and Aesthetics

Who speaks? (Who designs? Who decides? Who profits?) The experts.

What is the role and agency of the architects, designers, planners, historians, anthropologists, artists, engineers, and other experts whose hard work (be it internal or external to the masterplan) is at once commended and undermined by the same institutions that they take control over it? How can these design professionals independently communicate and engage (work with) the public(s) they design for?

Who speaks out? (Who counts? Who questions? Who endures?) The public.

The public’s right to (use) the city is disappearing with its public spaces. People are literally being pushed out on the street. So, the street has become their weapon to not only protest their eviction from the city, but to reveal the limits of power that design it (the illegality and inequality of the current culture and context of official (institutional) decision-making). The aesthetic of protest is thus disrupting the aesthetic of power. As an act of myth-breaking it is in fact exercising new forms of civic-making.

Who listens? Who gives in? The Masterplan?!

As a synthesis of public design, the masterplan is able to listen only if and when it recognizes all in the city.

Ideally, we would need an independent decision-making body that mediates the involvement and interdependencies of the state, public, and private interests, in order to plan and implement a project such as the building of the city.

Realistically, we know it is impossible for such mediation, oversight and grounding to happen because there are no laws and policies in place to protect the interest of those that are at a disadvantage (i.e. the public) and to preserve the role and agency of the experts independently. Who would bankroll it then? Hence, the task and value of any master-plan(ig) remains embedded in and dependent on the political and private forces that commission it.

Among many other reasons, urban futurology itself requires the unrecognized […] to regain their authorship in the city. A democratization of […] expression must correspond to this democratization of techniques. How can one expand the latter if one censors the former? It wastes the true capital of a nation or a city because its national heritage is not made up of objects it has created but of creative capacities and of the inventive style that articulates […]. In the end, national heritage is made up of all of these “ways of operating.”
Michel de Certeau, Ghosts in the City


[epi:logue]

Probably no one (or only few) can grasp the totality of the broken and fragmented context in which the country finds itself. Hence, when we speak of it, “in this context” or “in that context”, we should ask ourselves what “context” really consists of and not take it for granted – not as a given truth that simply is, nor as an abstracted form that simply does. Instead, we should inquire about how it comes to influence all that (intentionally or not) is done in its name. Context is the dark matter where forces beyond our grasp and out of our control coll(u/i)de – and the public is its collateral damage.

Thus, the public is tasked to recognize context as such and to push back against the myth of its panoptical image (i.e. to intercept it); to activate its own agency (in it) through subtraction (i.e. to reveal the form of its darkness); to occupy its matter by threading a shared meaning, a grounding datum of existence and transformation, so it doesn’t continue to fall in its bottomless pit. It doesn’t do much good to argue about what to build or demolish in the city, without first addressing the corrupt and deeply rotten culture of the decision-making forces that build it. People should be wary of any conversation that uses the word “context” just to make a point (by association) or to validate an argument without truly understanding that, in fact, “context” is the root of all the angst these arguments so forcefully race to articulate.

Due diligence is needed, desperately. It is high time the public debate lays bare the medium that designs the context in which everything else (that is fought about) comes out of. Tirana hasn’t been a city of the people for a long time. But, now there is an opportunity to redesign their role in it, to reintegrate this public force into its future. However, what has been approved (thus far) is (only) their further alienation. Tirana has become a developer-driven city. The public will have to fight harder to get back mere crumbs of it. Between the ghosts of its past and future monsters, the public continues to search for itself (in its city). The question thus remains: Which public are we talking about in what (type of) city?


(c) 2018, autorja.

Shënim: Na vjen keq që, për arsye mirëfilli financiare, nuk jemi në gjendje ta përkthejmë këtë ese kaq të vlefshme, për t’ua dhënë lexuesve tanë në shqip. Normalisht, duhej të ishim në gjendje edhe që t’i paguanim autores një honorar të bollshëm. Shpresojmë se kemi mirëkuptimin tuaj për këto vështirësi.

Lini një Përgjigje

Adresa juaj email s’do të bëhet publike. Fushat e domosdoshme janë shënuar me një *

Ky sajt përdor Akismet-in për të pakësuar numrin e mesazheve të padëshiruara. Mësoni se si përpunohen të dhënat e komentit tuaj.