No subject has hitherto been so much neglected by the profession
to which the author has the honour to belong.
~Higgins, The House Painter, 1841
When we move into a new home or apartment, oftentimes the first thing we do (except for setting up the stereo) is to give most every surface a fresh coat of paint. This accomplishes several things. Obviously, there is the satisfaction of meting out a wholesale revisionism – the permanent occlusion, by the thinnest and yet most opaque and decisive means, of the previous inhabitants’ history or even presence. Paint fumes are redolent of fresh beginnings; their smell creates an almost Pavlovian reaction, celebrating a new start, or at least the thorough dismissal of what went before.
But in another sense, it is the first articulation of an implied contract between our new dwelling and ourselves. It is almost as if we are saying to all those empty rooms, “I will take care of you, and you will take care of me. As proof, here is my act of good will.” For those of us who like to paint before even moving in, it is our first, truly physical interaction with the space. We take its measure in a painstaking and intimate way, appreciating the true height of the ceilings, the idiosyncrasies (or shoddy workmanship) that has gone into correctly reconciling floors with walls. We wonder, too, when confronted with a vague and knobby detail, how many times it has been painted over by people, perhaps not dissimilar from ourselves. Inevitably, we leave spatters of paint that will haunt us for the remainder of our time there. But in the end, this act of tabula rasa is meant to broadcast our ownership of the place, in a way that is thorough, satisfying, and simultaneously public and private.
If these are the outcomes of a simple and oft-repeated ritual, then why not apply this kind of thinking to larger scales? It may seem to be a trivial suggestion, when one considers the fact that run-down urban neighborhoods are contending with extreme and persistent problems of economic degeneration, crime and social fragmentation. Budget cuts lead to curtailed services, and potholes, broken street lights and shuttered storefronts pile up in a seemingly irreversible, slow-motion car wreck. What could a few coats of fresh paint possibly do? Isn’t this just another elaborate form of denial, an almost literal act of whitewashing?
On the other hand, consider what would be a guiding principle of anyone attempting a revitalization of a beaten-down neighborhood: What is the smallest action that I can take that will have the greatest effect? There has been much discussion and praise of the movement towards DIY urbanism, or bootstrapping. I have written previously about strivers like Marcus Westbury in Newcastle, Australia, who are bringing nearly abandoned downtowns back to life using innovative financing schemes with virtually zero seed capital. And recently, interesting work has been done establishing the possibility that the simplest way to kick-start economic development in informal neighborhoods is to pave the streets. Conducted in the Mexican city of Acayucan, the study’s central finding noted that “while the price of paving the 28 streets in Acayucan came to roughly 11 million pesos, the land value increased roughly 12 million pesos — or 109 percent of the original investment.” While this is a great multiplier, paving streets is a complex business, costly to organize and prone to corruption. The idea here is to be even simpler than that – and what could be simpler than a few cans of paint? Yet, this story is as much about what paint can obscure, as what it can expose.
Edi Rama had been pursuing a career as an artist until his election as mayor of Tirana. Well, this is the short version, but it will suffice for now. One of his first edicts as mayor was to begin painting the city’s Soviet-era architecture with bright colors. Rama’s bold insight was to avoid committees, master plans or almost any planning at all. Crews would show up and paint a building with wild colors, following simple geometric schemes. Residents were rarely told that these crews were coming, and were certainly not asked for their permission, let alone the opportunity to choose colors.
In a 2006 documentary, Rama describes the problem with consensus: “It is not a matter of what color you may want to have the balcony; it is not a matter of what color you may want this or that building, because that would be a question of trying to add up all the tastes, and then finding the golden mean, which would be grey.”
The result, as told by Rama in a longer interview at the Tate Modern, was one of initial bewilderment. But over time, the scheme took hold. A two-question poll taken at the time illustrates the sentiment wonderfully. Asked whether they liked the initiative, 63% of the respondents said yes, and 37% said no. The second question, however, asked if respondents would want to see the initiative continue; 85% said yes, which means that roughly half of those who didn’t like the initiative didn’t mind it, in fact, continuing. People became impassioned and the painting of the city became the favorite topic of the city itself. As Rama recounts in the documentary,
There is a paradox here, because it is the poorest country in Europe, rife with problems, and I do not think there is any other country in Europe where people discuss so passionately and collectively about colors… This does not mean that it should also happen to other cities. It does not mean either that other cities should envy this city. It would make no sense for this to be in a city that establishes communications and relations with people in other ways quite natural and satisfactory for them, this is the difference.
Rama didn’t only intend to revitalize café conversation with the painting program. His was an artist’s act of provocation. The idea was to create controversy, debate, and therefore a sense of ownership, on the part of the citizenry, of the shared, lived urban condition (witness the complaint he received from a constituent and long-time anti-Communist, who objected to having his balcony painted red).
But Rama’s narrative also credits the use of paint as an essential element in the re-weaving of the urban fabric. Together with improved street lighting and newly planted trees, he recounts how shopkeepers on newly-painted blocks threw away their storefront grates, since they were no longer afraid of break-ins. And as a result of this safety, shopkeepers began paying their taxes, something previously unheard of. Additionally, they began pooling their own money to sponsor sidewalk improvements on their respective block. In the meantime, the program did not neglect its artistic roots, germinating an international conemporary art biennale. The first iteration saw international artists – not least, Olafur Eliasson – arrived to paint their very own buildings. The painting program had become successful enough to become a phenomenon worthy of its own curation.
This is a story that has found a willing audience in the international urban design community, and especially proponents of grassroots campaigns. The design community gets to tell and re-tell a story of urban revitalization against all odds, and with the unlikeliest of materials. The arts contingent gets to play with phrases such as the “avant-garde of democratization” (actually, Rama’s phrase for not asking anyone’s permission). There is no doubting the power of color, but in a certain sense this is the same power that prevents people from saying anything mean about kittens. This is because Rama had more on his plate than grey, Soviet-era architecture, and paint was only one arrow in his quiver.
What of the story of Tirana itself? Impoverished indeed, Albania nevertheless had a fairly peaceful transition from Communist rule in 1991 (it helped that its long-time dictator, Enver Hoxha, had died in 1985, and no one could credibly fill his shoes). For its part, Tirana was a city of approximately 230,000 people in 1990, but by the time Rama was elected a decade later, it had swelled to over 750,000. Much of this was due to rural-urban migration and the not-unusual narrative where the collapse of state support and/or restrictions drives much of the rural population into the city and the promise of a gray-market livelihood. The chaotic transition to democracy and a free-market economy did not at all encourage the propagation of law and order. For example, the country almost collapsed in 1996-7, as a result of Albanians’ enthusiastic discovery and embrace of savings and investment pyramid schemes.
In Tirana, the influx of migrants wreaked havoc on an already inadequate and crumbling housing stock. The result was a raging streak of illegal building. By 2000, large swathes of Tirana could be characterized as informal settlements. Part of Rama’s mayoral platform was the restoration of public space and parks, much of which had been decimated by informal building. So in addition to wielding a paintbrush, Rama also had a shovel (for planting trees) and a bulldozer (for getting rid of those settlements).
It's essential to understand that Rama did not inherit a city that had been undergoing a gentle, decades-long collapse – the usual post-Communist narrative that we often take for granted. He inherited a city that had seen its population triple in the course of a decade, on top of gently collapsing for decades. The mayor decided he had to break a few proverbial eggs in order to make an omelette, or at least a decent scramble.
One can literally see the results of this in the first documentary I cite. As the camera pans slowly across the freshly painted facades (shot, for some odd reason, in the middle of the night), there is a surprisingly deep setback between the camera, which is mounted on a car, and the buildings themselves. As the film moves into daylight footage, it is apparent that these setbacks are giant muddy bands that the citizens of Tirana have to navigate in order to go from street to shop and back. And here, in fact are where hundreds of houses and shops used to be. Except the only thing to be seen are brightly painted buildings – a small consolation indeed for those whose homes and livelihoods were summarily excised from the city. And, as is often the case when discussing clearance, where those people went is not discussed, or perhaps even known – although it’s reasonable to assume that they simply move to the periphery, where they establish a new cycle of informal settlements.
So it is somewhat ironic when Rama claims that the painting program has aesthetically unified much of the illegal building – additional floors, illicit balconies – that have sprung up over the years. This is illegal building that has been spared because it has grown from, or on top of, established building stock. Thus what is preserved is not necessarily even of better quality than what was cleared, either; it is saved simply by grace of its provenance.
Indeed, cities around the world have always had to accept this kind of building as a major characteristic of the urban fabric; Tirana is no different. But if we look past the drama and obfuscation described above, we find legislation, passed by the Albanian parliament in 2006, that provides a means by which these arrangements can indeed be formalized – and which involves the citizens themselves as key participants:
Citizens are invited to provide the government with information about their informal developments through a self declaration process. According to the legalization law, a 6-month period was given for Albanian citizens to declare their informal homes. Approximately 350,000 declarations were submitted, out of which 80,000 were multiple-dwellings, apartments and shops.
That is a significant proportion, given that the total population of the country is 3.2m. And while there is little here to inspire a bienniale, this is the slow and difficult work that needs to happen for a society to build a durable fabric.
I do not mean to cast Rama – or, by extension, other mayoral practitioners of “avant-garde democritization” – as unconditional villains in the urban drama. The just treatment of informal settlements and ensuing gentrification is a vexatious question. Mayors, as executives, make decisions that reverberate across hundreds of thousands of lives. Rama in particular had been faced with the urgent task of how to make a city livable. But even while granting the complexity of the situation, I can’t but rue that he dealt with it simply by slapping on a fresh coat of paint.