Few Western urban leaders could imagine the challenges of governing Tirana, the capital of Albania, one of Europe’s perennially poorest countries. Nestled in the heart of mountainous terrain just north of Greece, Tirana is beset with chronic double-digit unemployment, mushrooming population growth, a legacy of neglected infrastructure, and a meager municipal budget.
Enter Edi Rama, the city’s dynamic 38-year-old mayor. Rama, who was reelected to a second three-year term in October, is a rarity by any standard. He may be the world’s only painter turned municipal executive. He is certainly one of the few urban leaders whose repainted buildings inspire references to Mondrian. And he’s a rising star in Balkan politics, a world not famous for delicate sensibilities.
At the heart of Rama’s success, which earned a United Nations Poverty Eradication Award last year, is an aesthetic approach to reviving the urban landscape. “There has been an imbalance between needs and possibilities,” Rama says. “Our financial resources are pathetic, so we have to set fires in the darkness and send signals of hope to the public. Urbanism is not only about traffic and density; it is also about what is in the frame of the car window or the window of your home.” With few resources Rama’s “Return to Identity” program has refashioned the face of the city: repainting city buildings in colorful geometric patterns, cleaning garbage-strewn streets, and boldly razing illegally constructed buildings from parks and riverbanks. In the process he has created jobs and reduced poverty.
“There were at least one hundred and fifty illegal buildings in the central city,” Rama says. “We found ourselves entering a new millennium without a square meter of green space and increasingly dirty streets. We knocked the buildings down and created small gardens where drug dealers and car parks used to exist.” To date the city has replaced more than 1,000 mostly commercial buildings with 1,400,000 square feet of green space.
For nearly half a century Albania was a closed society subject to some of the world’s most brutally repressive policies. Tens of thousands of citizens were sent to labor camps, some merely for listening to forbidden music or viewing banned images. Rama first viewed modern art when a friend working in the national library covertly passed him banned art history texts.
While teaching art at the University of Tirana in 1990, Rama cofounded an organization that galvanized youth opposition to the country’s Maoist government. A year later a general strike and street demonstrations forced Albania’s autocratic regime to step down. In 1998 Rama—who had been showing his work internationally, including at the 1994 São Paulo Biennale—was asked to serve as Albania’s Minister of Culture, Youth, and Sports. The country was suffering from financial collapse and anarchy, but Rama produced quick results, opening a cinema and creating an international art exhibition and national opera festival.
Two years later Rama ran for mayor and won. With a personal style closer to Francesco Clemente than Rudolph Giuliani, he has become Albania’s most popular and effective leader—a bright light on an otherwise drab political landscape.
Today Tirana exudes a sense of momentum, with new buildings sprouting on every block. “Tirana needs a master plan,” Rama says. “We can’t stop the building process—it’s important for the economy—so we must plan and build at the same time.” This past summer the French firm Architecture Studio won a competition to plan the city center. A second competition to plan the entire city will follow. “I am also planning a competition for important international painters,” Rama adds. “I would like Tirana to become the most colorful city in the world—a living museum.”