Tirana, this chair with three legs

Like everything else concerning very little politics mixed with pity business interests in Albania, also the unrealistic predictions about the Scanderbeg Square redevelopment are getting out of control. In a recent meeting ( April 27, 2008 ) discussing the future of the historic center in Tirana, the Minister of Tourism, Culture, Youth and Sports, according to Top-Channel News, proposed, for the newly discovered walls of an old medieval structure called “kalaja” and the surrounding area, a glass structure similar to Acropolis in Athens, that would cover it and turn it to a pedestrian area. It seems that the idea was fully embraced by the only representative of the City in the meeting and by other participants close to the city and the mayor, who went even further saying that they are looking at the possibility of attaching all that with the pedestrian area to the center recently planned. Before I can say anything whether this is a good idea or not, which probably it is, I can’t help but be amazed by the speed this kind of proposals take shape without any consideration for practical solutions. Knowing that the “walls” were discovered only last month, and also knowing that most of the archaeological sites far more important than this one suffer from the lack of founds and have been deteriorating badly, as it is the case with Butrinti and Durrës, not to mention Berat, Gjirokastër, Krujë and other emergency calls on our archaeological, architectural and cultural heritage sites, makes this kind of proposals even more suspicious. But for anyone who knows something on how the historic sites are being managed in Albania during most recent years it shouldn’t come as a surprise. To their managers, as far as they are concerned, they hold only commercial value. It is understandable that nowhere is this commercial value for these sites higher than in the center of Tirana, in spite of their relative historical insignificance. And, it is already in the tradition of the Ministry of Tourism, Culture, Youth and Sports to use the public properties and founds to further the interests of private business – a model that had its peak when the same Ministry was headed by the actual Mayor of Tirana. The protagonist of all this history, I am sure, remain all the same; media, construction, and real-estate businesses connected to the Mayor.

But more important than all these is the impact these proposals have on the city, and more precisely the negative impact on the public transportation and traffic. Although in this case might not necessary be a bad idea to turn it into a pedestrian area, since it is a little bit detached from the main traffic crossroad, one cannot help but wonder what will be the implications of this latest mode to redesigning every public space of some significance, and turn it into a pedestrian area. In the case of the city center, how is this idea going to work in a site of  150 hectares without cars and any sort of traffic but pedestrians?

According to a recent report from Koha Jonë that was based on specialized insider opinion from the city offices, the traffic scheme as proposed would not work. According to the same report several segments of the so called “small ring” – a road around the main center devised to hold the traffic, as this one is taken out of the main square – in spite of not being finished even before the construction begins in the square, has other problems as well. Some of the segments that exist already hold significant amount of traffic and congestion, despite being one way traffic, while another considerable amount of trafic passes thru city center (soon to be turned pedestrian). One can only imagine what will happen when the load of the traffic will more than double in those segments, and still they will have to turn them into “both ways” traffic.

Yet, this is not all. The unimaginable comes when one considers the necessary changes  to the public transportation scheme as result of these proposals, with major implications not only in the center, but throughout the city. The old scheme of north-south and east-west directions going through the center will cease to function, because the way the square is designed on the recent proposal in the project of 51n4e, which does not live any room for traffic, although this was something panned already by Architecture Studio in a master-plan.

As a matter of fact in the 1800 words of 51n4e description of the project, and another 500 words by Anri Sala entitled “supplementary reflections”, the word traffic is nowhere to be found. Nor is there any drawing to show such a thing. On the contrary, there were almost no plans besides the ones that show conceptual hand drawings with no information whatsoever, and the renderings are filled with people only – no cars, buses, or trams that would suggest that any of these components were taken into consideration. Even a photo of the boulevard is shown full of people without cars, which is in reality such a rare occasion.

Coming back to the argument of public transportation: can anyone imagine how this “small ring” and its segments will hold more than double of the traffic they actually carrying with the addition or the extra load of public transportation? Or, as an alternative, can we imagine that we have to cut and reduce on our public transportation usage, which is already one of the least developed among any Eastern European major cities?

Are we missing something on this entire story, while we advance with such proposals?

Yes, we are forgetting, or ignoring the fact that this square, more than a space surrounded by buildings, is for the most part a crossroad. The main axes of exit and entry to the city on the east and west side – streets of Kavaja, Durrësi, Elbasani, Dibra – all meet on the center. And, on the north-south side, the boulevard crosses with the rest of them as well. The square more than an “exhibition” space, is a space of traffic and transition from one part of the city to the other.

Yes, it is possible that the crossroads can be modified into highway loops outside of city centers in rural areas, but it doesn’t work the same in the historic ones, where things have established reasons, and the flexibility on the traffic adjustments is very limited. In the historic centers different elements are correlated to each-other, and they take specific meanings because of that. Certain traffic segments might have different roles based on the part of the armature (public institutions) of the city they are supporting; they might have transitional role; or on the contrary, supporting and distributional role – as the case might be. But, any modification on those roles must be thought out and reasonably justified before anything else is done or justified conceptually in ignoring practical reasons.

II understand that people outside of the profession of urban design or architecture and civil engineering might have difficulty understanding the reasoning behind the traffic in the center. But the closest I can think of to explain the nature of the traffic in the centre of Tirana in simple terms, will be through a metaphor that elaborates the logic behind a basic structural scheme that I assume everyone can understand.

Theoretically and practically every structure should be able to stand in three points, although most of the structures encounter in everyday life are supported at least on four or more points. And the reason behind the fact that we like to use more points of support than just the bare minimum (3) is because it gives our structure additional rigidity and makes them more secure. At the moment one of the points fails, we are still sure that the structure would not collapse entirely, because we are not relying simply on the minimum support. For example it was found that the minimal structure was the reason of collapse on the World Trade Center, since it was the shell taking the entire load without any bracing. Once the shell failed the whole building fails. Similarly, the traffic in the main square in Tirana is not only one of the most important arteries (columns) that support the load of the traffic on center, but is also  vital to the overall support of the traffic load. Trying to take that load away through secondary roads already congested, simply won’t do it.

If I take the structure metaphor further again, I would compare the operation distributing the load of the traffic to secondary roads with the replacement of a column (vertical member) by a beam (horizontal member), which, as a structural engineer would tell you, not always works unless is supported with unquestionable calculations. Yet, it is my opinion that there is no column to replace, since the traffic in the center of Tirana is already a chair standing in three legs. Any modification of cutting instead of adding will lead to collapse of the person sitting on it.

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