Before and after: a block of flats in Tirana. Photo by Timo Arnall.

What to do with a city full of grim, high-rise flats? That was the dilemma that - like many post-Soviet cities - the Albanian capital of Tirana was faced with after the fall of the Iron Curtain. Its inhabitants seem to have found the answer: elect an artist as mayor.

When artist Edi Rama was elected mayor of Albania's capital in 2000, he decided to transform the city into something, aesthetically speaking, entirely different. Geometric patterns, polka dots and giant trees started appearing on the walls of the city's five-storey buildings. Today the city looks completely different from the one left by Stalinist tyrant Enver Hoxha two decades ago, even if the inside of the high-rise flats has changed very little.

After initially designing some of the drawings himself, Mayor Rama invited many foreign artists, as well as local students and children, to participate in the city's visual face-lift. Their drawings were reproduced on Tirana's facades.

Nine years on, Tirana has become a colourful and vibrant city, with a population that has grown fivefold to one million people since 1989. Rama, elected World Mayor in 2004 (the world's greatest mayor award), is now serving his third term as mayor in the capital.

Before the transformation. Posted on Flickr by Timo Arnall.

And after. Posted on Flickr by Timo Arnall.

Photo posted by Valeria Mannarelli on Flickr.

 

Photo posted byValeria Mannarelli on Flickr.

Photo posted byValeria Mannarelli on Flickr.

Photo posted by Timo Arnall on Flickr.

“It was the only option for a city with so little money, but I see the intervention as a temporary one”

Adens Borova is an architect from Tirana who has studied the city centre's transformation over the past two decades.

For 50 years Albania was a country in a box, so when it opened to the world a lot of people started breaking many of the old rules. One of the first things they did was to close their balconies to make new rooms and enlarge their apartments, altering the buildings' facades and making the city's already ugly architecture even more chaotic.

It was as the city's facades became more complicated that Rama decided to transform them. At first many people were sceptical of having their buildings painted in weird colours. My grandfather, who lives in one of the first buildings painted, was afraid of the result because residents weren't able to choose the colour. In the end, he was quite happy when he saw it painted dark red.

There is nothing special about the paintings themselves, but the effect as you're walking along the street is surprising. They turned these buildings, originally built without any taste, into something attractive. Most of the people in Tirana are happy with them; it was the only option for a city so such little money.

I cannot imagine Tirana looking like this forever though. It's like when children draw on walls: it's very nice, but it's difficult to imagine growing up with the walls remaining like that. On top of that, painting the buildings doesn't mean the living conditions inside them have changed. I hope the city will have the money for a more radical change someday, an that in 20 years' time these buildings will have been completely renovated. I see Rama's intervention as a temporary one."

Photo posted by Valeria Mannarelli on Flickr.

Photo posted by Valeria Mannarelli on Flickr.

Photo posted by Valeria Mannarelli on Flickr.

Photo posted by Timo Arnall on Flickr.

Photo posted by Valeria Mannarelli on Flickr.

Photo posted by Valeria Mannarelli on Flickr.

Photo posted by Valeria Mannarelli on Flickr.