- The Washington Times - Monday, August 29, 2005

TIRANA, Albania - This capital of a country that shut itself off to the world for more than 50 years under xenophobic communist rule is becoming an open-space contemporary art gallery under the direction of its eccentric mayor, Edi Rama.

Mr. Rama, a painter, took over city management in 2000, with one immediate goal in mind: to reclaim Tirana’s public space.

He began tearing down illegally built flimsy shacks along the Lana River and makeshift cafes and kiosks from Tirana’s parks. He brought streetlights and efficient garbage collection to the city and widened narrow roads.

And he began painting Tirana.

“It was not out of an artistic or aesthetic need, but out of a political need to immediately catch the attention of people,” said Mr. Rama, who won a second term in 2003. “We took some colors and decided to paint to try to penetrate this very gray curtain of communist buildings. We needed to create an event that would really change the way people look at their city.”

The first building was bright orange.

“It was a scandal, but a scandal that I wanted,” Mr. Rama said.

Now dozens of buildings are colored. There is a dark green one with bright yellow arrows pointing right.

There are camouflage patterns, bold red or purple geometric figures splashed over blue buildings. People’s balconies, front doors and windows might be inside a circle, near a painted leaf or trapped between shades of overlapping, pastel colors.

“For months, we had a discussion on colors,” said Mr. Rama, the son of a beloved sculptor, now deceased, and one of the country’s first female dentists.

“It was amazing to see one of the poorest countries in Europe talking about colors, as a national debate.”

Mr. Rama designed the color schemes for the first buildings, and the city hired contractors to perform the face-lift.

Over time, he recruited artists and architects, including Olafur Eliasson of Denmark, to create designs. Student volunteers helped paint buildings.

Three years ago, Mr. Rama’s work was honored by the United Nations. Today, a famed French architectural studio leads the designing of future towers and shopping malls for Tirana.

“I am not a normal mayor, and Tirana is not a normal city,” Mr. Rama said. “I’m not somebody who would be mayor in a city in which things are already fixed. I’d never go for it. I went for it because Tirana was a city where nothing was fixed.”

It has been a long time since Tirana was a normal city. Shut off by xenophobic ruler Enver Hoxha since the end of World War II, Albania was completely isolated from the world until 1991.

Its only friend was China. Mr. Hoxha was so worried about foreign invasion that he built thousands of massive concrete bunkers that still pepper the countryside.

In the mid-1990s, fake investment schemes took hold of Albania, only to collapse in 1997 and leave the country in poverty and chaos. About 50 percent of the country’s gross domestic product was lost in the pyramid schemes, according to the World Bank.

The government of Fatos Nano was elected to clean up the mess, and Mr. Rama, who had left his life as a painter in Paris to attend his father’s funeral in Albania, was offered the position of culture minister.

He held the job for three years, before becoming Tirana’s mayor.

Since then, the city has flourished. Parks have more land, about 4,000 new trees line the streets, and the banks of the Lana River are green and clean — a favorite spot for families to stroll along on weekends.

Mr. Rama’s critics charge that he focused too much on cosmetic changes without fixing the city’s major problems, such as shortages of drinking water and electricity.

But the United Nations seemed to think otherwise when it granted Mr. Rama its Poverty Eradication Award three years ago, crediting him with bringing street lights and trees to Tirana and reducing unemployment along the way.

The progress has brought problems of its own. In the communist days, Mr. Rama estimates, there were only about 1,000 cars on Tirana’s streets, all of them owned by politicians.

When communist rule ended, people began buying cars, and suddenly roads became too tight and potholed, and dozens of new street and traffic signs had to be installed. Tirana is now one of Europe’s most polluted cities.

Mr. Rama says he’s working on it.

“The city is like a person — the challenges never end,” he said.

“The more you want, the more you have; the more you have, the more you want. We need to improve the quality of life, that’s key. But we need time and money.”

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