Observing the Architectural Stigma of Ugliness: The cases of Albania and Galicia

Activity: Talk or presentationTalk or presentation at a conference


Albania, located in the Western Balkans, and Galicia, in North-Western Spain, share striking territorial and social similarities. They have a similar surface area (around 28.000 km2) and population (roughly 2.8 million people), a peripheral position in Europe (southwest/southeast), a history of isolation due to their rugged geography and lack of efficient mobility networks. Politically speaking, both realities have experienced dictatorships, although they were ideologically rooted into opposing political poles: Galicia, as part of the Spanish State, was under a far right-wing dictatorship, whereas Albania was under a state-socialist one. In both places, emigration brings a decline of the younger population and, at the same time, outsider economical inputs have played a key role in boosting investments and shaping the built environment. Also, both territories have a unique landscape where mountains and rivers meet the sea. And finally, both places share the phenomenon of a widespread self-built built scene; all too often indicated as architectural ugliness in the everyday language.
Galicia, as part of Spain, is inside the European Union but still receives funds aimed to correct economic and social imbalances between the EU regions. Albania, in the Western Balkans, is a candidate country ‘working hard’ politically and economically to show progress to be accepted as an EU member. Both territories have gone through a transitional period where the change of regimes and the absence of the role of the state in territorial management has resulted in the unfolding of architecture of laissez-faire, when small scale self-building initiatives occupied the territory in a frenetic way. Construction companies, with their big scale speculative developments, became the strongest influencers of building policies. Galicia and Albania, both transitioned from a centrally controlled situation to developmentalist and progress-oriented economies, that influenced legal and illegal building practices.
Shëmti and feísmo are the two names given respectively in the Albanian and Galician languages to stigmatize this unruly built environment: It is considered a material expression of both constructed and internalized myth of being the underdeveloped peoples in the European periphery.
This paper aims to explore how this stigmatization has been constructed and materialized in the built environment and the political and professional discourse. The paper presents a situational but also comparative analysis of Albanian and Galician realities, drawing similarities and different local perspectives present in academia, media, politics and architectural circles. This multi-layered and hybrid observation seeks to further explore the relational, ethnographic narratives of resistance, that subvert the myth of what is commonly understood as ugliness. Did the media or the political rhetoric of beautification had an impact over the years? Did the depreciation or demolition of heritage play a role in the production of identitarian stigmas? Are self-building practices at the root of this understanding of ugliness? We aim to see these architectural expressions differently, as playing a paradigmatic role in disrupting the hygienist industrialized models of European cities which are extensively promoted as the only way of designing the built environment.
Period24 Nov 202125 Nov 2021
Held atJaap Bakema Study Center , Netherlands
Degree of RecognitionInternational