PREWAR Tirana must have been a wretched place, despite the food and gypsy music that romantic writers once described. Albania's capital city was, in fact, a huddle of some 12,000 single-floor houses, many no more than primitive shacks. Nor was quality a priority in the wave of new construction to accommodate a rapidly growing population after World War II. The shoddiness of the first hastily rebuilt postwar buildings is still here to see.
But recent improvements in quality are visible too. Design and town planning, in fact, have become priority words here, as the capital prepares for a major face lift. A strongly environmental-minded reorganization under a ``New Tirana'' plan is in the final stages of preparation.
Tirana already is an open, ``green'' city of numerous leafy public gardens and parks. It is also a city without the problems of traffic pollution, for the auto age has yet to arrive here.
``The state of Tirana's environment generally is still well below the worry levels of the developed industrial countries,'' says Klement Kolaneci, director of the city's Planning and Architecture Institute. ``But already there is enough ground for concern.
``This is our biggest industrial center, and the whole profile of the city will be changed to site industry where it cannot spoil the areas where people live,'' he says.
This absence of traffic creates an extraordinary sensation for the visitors walking across the wide central square, able to hear the play of its fountains. The only other sound is the murmur of strolling crowds in the hours before dusk. Pedestrians wait for a green traffic light while a solitary city bus or a few cyclists meander by.
In the last year or so the first motorcycles - Italian scooters, Czechoslovakian and East German bikes, and even a few Japanese Hondas have appeared. They are usually purchased with dollars, and the owners are young men with relatives in North America or Italy. Otherwise, ``motorization'' - apart from trucks for industrial uses - is still in the far future.
But the run-down plant facilities of the existing auto industry have prompted growing concern because of inadequate - or absent - safeguards against smoke and other emissions.
The Tirana Plan will serve as an example for a nationwide drive to move offending installations away from the towns and ensure that all new industrial development is carefully zoned. Some plants in the capital will be moved and new building confined to sections northwest of the city so that the prevailing winds carry air pollutants away from homes.
Several major chimneys are already being eliminated, Mr. Kolaneci said. New filter technology - from the West apparently - will be obligatory for all plants located close to towns. The new ``green belt'' will act as a ``buffer'' to keep industry and housing well apart.
Despite the fact that Albania is only now getting computerized for major undertakings like energy and mining, Kolaneci's institute has its own computers. Teams of new graduates in town planning are measuring sun and shade in order to ensure that hospitals and housing occupy the most humanly favorable areas.
Kolaneci, with an array of maps and charts, describes in detail his plans to boost the quality of life in the capital. His institute has special groups working on studies of land, hygiene, psychology, transport, and services like Tirana's central heating, to be generated in future well outside the city.
A strong sense of family unity is traditional to Albanians, and Kolaneci sees thoughtful town planning as essential to preserve it. No future building, for example, will be more than seven floors. ``Albanians have always lived close to the land,'' Kolaneci says. ``We want to keep it that way.''
Plans, designs, and sketches for the ``New Tirana'' are to be presented in the Palace of Culture for public appraisal before any final approval.
Looking at the plan encourages the hope that when the auto age at last comes to Albania, at least some of the inevitable pollution will be kept well at bay.