Tuesday, November 7

mushrooms

A couple of summers ago, we took a roadtrip with some good friends of ours, meeting them in Slovenia and taking a van down to Croatia and along the coast into Albania.

We saw a lot of remarkable things, and spent time with a lot of remarkable people. This isn’t really a post about most of that, though. This is a post about the Albanian built environment.

Albanian architecture is nuts. Our friend, a local by birth, described the predominant mode of building as “mushrooms”. From googling, “concrete mushrooms” is a term often applied to the pillboxes scattered paranoically all over the country during the course of the Hoxha dictatorship. In her usage, though, it was more along the lines of: These ridiculous things that grew up all over the landscape like fungus after a rain once communism collapsed.

One of the first things you notice is concrete and rebar (“the national plant”, as a friend remarked). Reinforced concrete is everywhere, and little tufts of rebar seem to protrude from every other roof and column. This is because few of the buildings started within living memory ever seem to be quite finished. It’s routine to see three or four level structures which are mostly open concrete boxes with businesses or housing built out only the first floor, the top story looking ready to serve as platform for the next layer once someone gets around to it.

I don’t have the vocabulary or the eye to describe the style, really, but there’s a kind of characteristic hodgepodge of clashing designs and types. Brutalism and weird outbursts of eclecticism coexist with a neo-classical-by-way-of-Las-Vegas vibe, sometimes in the same building. Materials will shift radically halfway through a structure. Sometimes you look over and there’s just a tiny house build on the roof of the casino-hotel next door. Multi-story coffeeshop-hotel-gas-stations with cavernous interiors are a routine feature of the landscape, as are empty shells scattered at odd angles in the middle of fields.

Anyway, I took some pictures, thinking that at some point I’d try to do a kind of photo essay about this. They aren’t very good, but they catch some of the flavor and a handful seemed worth posting, even though I don’t really have the time and energy to research and write about the subject like it deserves.

(I should also say that Albania is a fascinating place for many reasons, and the buildings are probably the least of it, though they point to a lot in the history.)