The Colorful Houses of Tirana, Albania

One of Tirana’s colorful buildings, covered by a De Stijl mural

photography by: Omri Westmark

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When Albania’s communist era finally came to an end in 1992, the country was in shambles, striving to recover from the 41-year rule of its former tyrant. Rife with urban decay, the Albanian capital, Tirana, was desperate for a remedy to its decades-long blight. Luckily, the right person at the right time transformed the city’s rundown apartment buildings into a breathtaking mosaic of colors and shapes, and by doing so lifted the national mood to new heights.

For nearly half a century, Albania was a communist hermit kingdom, somewhat akin to North Korea. The bulk of its time as a totalitarian state was dominated by the rule of an unhinged autocrat by the name of Enver Hoxha, who for 4 decades terrorized this Balkan nation with mass purges of political opponents and extreme isolationist policy. By the time of Albania’s transition to democracy in 1992, seven years after Hoxha’s death, the country was on the brink of economic collapse, ranked as one of the world’s poorest nations.


The aforementioned hardships coupled with the country’s former fondness for socialist-style architecture left a tremendous mark on its capital, Tirana, which during the 1990’s was jam-packed with derelict, nondescript apartment blocks.


That is, until 2000, when Edi Rama was elected as the mayor of Tirana. Determined to change the city’s bleak character, Rama launched a massive beautification campaign to paint as many buildings as possible with colorful, whimsical murals. In the span of few years, the once grey town metamorphosed into a striking medley of colors and patterns.


According to Rama, who became the prime-minister of Albania in 2013, this policy yielded many fruits, most notably a significant citywide drop in the number of crimes as well as a general sense of happiness among residents. Despite its initial success, the mass painting wasn’t without controversy. As the move was partially financed by EU funds, many officials across the European Union who were not in par with Rama’s decision threatened to block further financial support. Undeterred by any challenge, Rama answered “we have enough grey to last us a lifetime”.


While there are zillions of brightly painted houses throughout the Albanian capital, each of which is an eye-catching attraction by its own right, some stand out more than others. For instance, one edifice along Tirana’s New Boulevard features motifs of De Stijl, inspired by the 20th century Dutch movement whose art centered around the three primary colors, black and white. Another playful oddity is the aptly dubbed “Rainbow Building”, the façade of which was decorated with a series of colorful stripes.