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A book about how to activate the potential of the Albanian territory

The Metabolism of Albania: Book Review

Mar 9, 2022

A book about how to activate the potential of the Albanian territory
The Metabolism of Albania: Activating the Potential of the Albanian Territory

Introducing The Metabolism of Albania

In 2015, the International Architecture Biennale Rotterdam (IABR) produced The Metabolism of Albania: Activating the Potential of the Albanian Territory According to the IABR website, the book is a collaboration between IABR, the Belgian urban design office 51N4E that designed Skenderbeg Square in Tirana, Dutch design firm FABRIC, the PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency, the TU Delft Chair of Landscape Architecture. In addition, they worked alongside the National Territorial Planning Agency of Albania, known as Agjensia Kombëtare e Planifikimit të Territorit (AKPT) the Albanian Ministry of Urban Development and other ministries. Atelier masters were George Brugmans and Freek Persyn. Project managers were Marieke Francke (iabr/UP), Sotiria Kornaropoulu (51N4E) and Joni Baboçi (AKPT). Support came from the Dutch Embassy in Tirana and RVO NL/Ministry of Economic Affairs of the Netherlands.

The core thesis of the book

The authors state that Albania is potentially rich in terms of human capital and natural resources. Yet the challenges are immense when thinking of Albania catching up to the rest of Europe. But the entire world, including Albania, is faced with the same challenge, according to the book: “How to successfully make the transition to the next economy, to a green and low carbon economy in a resilient post-fossil future.” They posit the idea that Albania can leapfrog the current world economy and move directly into developing along the lines of a “next, resilient economy.” To explore these challenges, Atelier Albania was convened by the organizers.

Atelier Albania’s main ambition

The main ambition of Atelier Albania, as stated in the book, “is to design a sustainable economic development model for Next Generation Albania.” It stresses the need for Albania to activate “the treasures of the home territory” while developing its vision and strategy as much as possible on its unique characteristics, cultural values, and scenic qualities of the country, while framing all of it in a global context.

What is the metabolism methodology?

The authors use the metaphor of the human body, with its systems constantly working to provide for the needs of its occupant. The breathing, eating, sensing, and excreting functions of the body are used here to approximate the material flows in the urban landscape. I take a certain umbrage with this, primarily with the idea that the human body has an occupant, rather than being an integral, inviolable whole. Using the term occupant might suggest that this occupant could be evicted due to some violation.

Metaphors notwithstanding, the metabolism model does allow for a more encompassing view of energy flows, both material and non-material. As well, understanding these flows, their overlaps, parallels, intersections, beginning and end points, provides context to view these things within national, regional, and international scales, whether river watersheds, supply chains, legal or cultural institutions, and so much more.

“To sum up, Atelier Albania has embraced the notion that if we consider the Albanian territory as a natural ecology, a coherent ecosystem, and analyze its structure and performance to understand and be able to use the process of its material flows, we can make the territory more resilient and thus act to contribute to a more sustainably productive Next Generation Albania.”

The Metabolism of Albania, p. 09

Atelier Albania

According to IABR, Atelier Albania came about as the result of a worldwide call to designers from Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama to contribute to Next Generation Albania. In 2013, the World Bank’s Country Director for the Western Balkans, Ellen Goldstein, gave a speech entitled Next Generation Albania – Shaping a New Model for Economic Growth in which she thanked “the Honorable Prime Minister elect, Mr. Edi Rama, for this opportunity to contribute to government’s early strategizing on how to address these challenges”, referring to the challenges of the time: weak growth, anemic recovery, high unemployment, fragile financial sector and over-extended fiscal stance. In 2015, the World Bank produced a 173 page document entitled Next Generation Albania- A Systematic Country Diagnostic. Atelier Albania was established in 2014. From the IABR-Atelier Albania web page:

“Now, almost two years after its inception, Atelier Albania has developed three main parallel tracks.

First, a series of international competitions has delivered pilot projects the most promising of which are now being nurtured towards implementation. These competitions scout the territory, find out the lay of the land and collect intelligence.

Secondly, a structural dialogue between different stakeholders and international experts has been stimulated that has led to the decision to reformat the National Planning Agency and to redefine its brief, which in fact should lead to Atelier Albania taking over most roles of the National Planning Agency. (Italics mine)

Thirdly, the need for a coherent development frame, based on the ‘metabolism approach’ developed by IABR, has been advanced in order to give direction and focus to the immense challenge of spatial and urban development policies in Albania. This frame is needed to uncover, in an organic way, the leapfrog potential that the country has.”

Atelier Albania, 2016

The need for interdisciplinary designers

George Brugmans, former director of IABR spoke about the Ateliers in 2018 in an interview with Pop-Up City, an agency for urban transformation based in Amsterdam. Of them Brugmans said, “Since then (2012) we’ve been concentrating on our IABR–Ateliers, concrete research by design trajectories that effectively connect imagination to implementation, and plans to projects, and that can trigger action, the actual making of city.” He further elaborates on the interdisciplinary approach of the ateliers.

“We have to change our minds about how we change our minds, that is, how we do research, how we make decisions, how we act, invest and how we govern. Democracy itself will have to be reinvented because, obviously, in its current form it’s not up to the challenge while, just as obviously, the danger now is that more and more people turn away from politics in disgust, or worse, fall for the strong-man myth. We can’t let that happen, that’s a crucial battle we’ll have to fight. Of course, all of that goes for architecture too, it has to reinvent and reboot itself in order to be up to this interdisciplinary challenge. The IABR has always embraced an interdisciplinary approach, especially in our Ateliers and in projects like Water as Leverage, but it’s not easy for us to find the right architects to work with and connect them to the right conditions to work in. We need partners who understand this and are willing to provide us with the open conditions we need to work in. We need architects and urban designers who know how to be the choreographer of interdisciplinary research by design projects that include governance, legal and bankability issues, ecological and economic agendas, and so forth. There are simply not enough designers who can do that. This too is part of what we have identified as “the missing link” problem.” (Italics mine)

– George Brugmans, 2018

The Atelier Model

Since 2008, the IABR has initiated Ateliers in Holland and abroad, which it calls “open-minded development trajectories, driven by research by design, often spanning several years, always linked to existing urban projects in cities in Holland or abroad, and focused on finding applicable solutions.” Of its atelier methodology, IABR states, “Open and new alliances between urban designers, academics, knowledge centers, businesses, developers and local authorities form the driving forces behind these projects.” In the end, their explicit goal is to see these collaborations implemented and realized.

Water, Food, Energy, Tourism

The main body of the book thoughtfully uses photos, data, maps, charts, and illustrations to discuss water, food/agriculture, energy, and tourism as the main categories. Each discussion includes four possible development quadrants for that category. They are:

Agriculture: Regional and Export Market + Agribusiness, Regional and Export Market + Agroecology, Home Market + Agribusiness, and Home Market + Agroecology

Water Treatment: Private Parties + Sector Optimizing, Private Parties + Integral Water Chain Approach, Public Service + Sector Optimizing, and Public Service + Integral Water Chain Approach

Energy: More Centralized + Fossil, More Centralized + Renewables, More Decentralized Generation + Fossil, and More Decentralized Generation + Renewables

Tourism: International Market + Sectoral Tourism/Leisure Development, International Market + Embedded Sustainable Destination Development, Regional Market + Sectoral Tourism/Leisure Development, and Regional Market + Embedded Sustainable Destination Development

Commitment to United Nations Agenda 2030

The IABR states that it is “fully committed itself to the Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development of the United Nations and its main objective is to contribute to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals to the best of its ability.” The 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are echoed in the World Economic Forum’s 2030Vision plan, which itself is a project of the WEF’s Centre for Nature and Climate Platform. Partners in this group are the “world’s 1000 leading companies.” Given IABR’s alignment with Agenda 2030, one can develop an idea of who the designers, academics, knowledge centers, businesses, and developers might be that participate in the implementation of the their projects. The World Bank also adopted the SDGs of Agenda 2030 in 2015.


I’ve only read through the book once and again in pieces while writing this post. The lexicon of the international intelligentsia is thick and often difficult to comprehend. The book is now seven years old. I would be interested to find out what projects have been taken on as a result of this collaboration. As a person interested in Albania from a small business perspective, I found this The Metabolism of Albania to be very well thought out and informative. It provides much food for thought pertaining to possible ways to participate in the economy in a positive fashion.



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