The Academy likes to take credit for the successes of alumni – it validates our efforts. We state specific data referring to job placement rates and earned income. What we do not tout is the spirit and tenacity of our students. This is because it cannot be easily measured and does not fit nicely into a statistician’s spreadsheet. As faculty members, we can only witness it through the actions of our students. This “spirit”, “entrepreneurial drive”, or even “grassroots effort” has become cliché in academia. Regardless, it is exactly what built, and continues to build, the makeLab. I was only able to succeed because I intrusted the students, gave them ownership and removed barriers when I could. The rest was their own doing.
This same energy is very much present in the students of Albania and Kosovo. Unfortunately, the economy, corruption, politics, and of course the continued aftermath of the war has slowed the support of this new-found youth and energy. There are exceptions of course, POLIS University , Urban Plus , and many others I have yet to meet, fight for what the students need. Despite the lack of formal support, the young designers are not discouraged and are pushing up ideas from below. With architecture web portals such as onupks.com , a message, and more importantly, a dialog about design is maintained. Illegal architecture, an experimental architecture network, operates in much the same way and asserts in its name that all design in Kosovo is, in one way or another, illegal. This spirit is also seen in the beautiful film Utopian Tirana by Ajmona Hoxha, Blendina Cara, Elis Vathi, and Klodiana Millona. The short film is crafted by expert technicians but it captures the beauty of Tirana while showing the suppressed imagination of the young designers that dwell within it.
I witnessed their vitality first hand in the coordination of my lecture in Kosovo. The lecture held at the University of Pristina was proposed, organized and implemented by Illegal Architecture and onupks.com (+ countless others). They requested and received funding from the US Embassy and secured the venue at the University of Pristina. They marketed the lecture on the web, print media and even a morning news show interview. My accommodations and transportation was coordinated in a way I would normally receive from an established institution. All of this was done even when met with resistance from above.
The night of the lecture the students where nervous, they wanted everything to be perfect, I was calm – it already was. The excitement they felt when the room filled to capacity and extra chairs were brought in was evident. I say all of this because the significant moment for architecture in Kosovo happened before my lecture began; what I had to say was only informational. The young designers who came together to make an event happen that they wanted was the significant event.
These students will become the future leaders and architects of the region. I will return and help when I can, but I hope one day it is just to have a salep and reminisce.