The Building as Canvas

A German studio responds to the ubiquitous Balkan air conditioner.

In the years since Albania’s 1991 revolution, satellite dishes and air conditioners have sprouted from the sides of Tirana’s buildings like disembodied ears and noses. Last year the city’s artist-mayor Edi Rama invited German architects Bolles + Wilson to create a color scheme for a prominent apartment house between the parliament building and former dictator Enver Hoxha’s villa as part of his plan to brighten the post-Communist city—and instead of pretending the awkward appendages didn’t exist, the architects decided to incorporate them into their design.

“We got a brief that included four photographs of the facade,” says Peter Wilson, a partner in the Münster-based office. “Rather than inventing a pattern, I wanted to work with what was there. The thing one saw straightaway was that there were about fifty air conditioners on the building, so any color scheme would be contradicted unless we made them the theme.”

Wilson made an orange-and-red watercolor painting of the building with white rectangles to simulate the pattern created by the appliances as well as to suggest locations for future installations. “The orange and red stripes are a way of neutralizing, or homogenizing, the whole volume,” Wilson says. “We wanted to make the building look like a single mass.”

Bolles + Wilson’s use of watercolors was one of the things that had originally attracted Rama to the firm—which lost out to Paris-based Architecture Studio in a short-listed competition for Tirana’s master plan but has since become one of the mayor’s go-to firms for consulting work. “He likes that they’re not computer rendered and one can actually see the hand of the author. And what’s quite nice about the building is that he told the painters to make the stripes as if they are hand-painted, so it looks like a scaled-up watercolor.”

The resulting facade is in effect an artwork—entitled Virtual Air Conditioners—that combines elements of De Stijl, minimalism, and Dada. The studio is now working on another color concept with a title worthy of a fifteenth-century Flemish master. “It’s an issue in every Mediterranean country,” Wilson says. “The building is finished and looks nice, and then it gets covered in air conditioners or satellite dishes. Our most recent color concept is called A Marriage of Air Conditioners and Satellite Dishes.”

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