AiP’s team returned from Gjirokastra in early June following two weeks of nonstop documentation and videography. We want to update you on the situation we found – some of it very promising and some discouraging.
From the moment of our arrival in Gjirokastra, we could tell that something had changed since our last visit: there was a bit of a preservation buzz in the city. On our way through the old bazaar, we saw three building conservation projects underway and heard there were several more nearby.
We visited two tower houses being restored by private investors, a first in town, and several Cultural Heritage without Borders stabilization projects that will save important houses for future conservation, if funding allows. It was evident that the combined efforts of the city and NGO’s such as AiP and CHwB are beginning to make an impact.
However, given there are at least 400 other Ottoman-era houses in great need of repair, you can understand the magnitude of the crisis facing this World Heritage city.
We told you in the last report that beginning stabilization of the Kabili house was the priority of our trip. This badly damaged tower house is one of Gjirokastra’s most historically significant. Unfortunately, the owners decided against AiP and Directorate of Cultural Monuments taking on the work. They opted for quick unauthorized repairs in order to rent the space, in spite of the fact that the building will not stand for many more years.
This highlights the ongoing issue of residents finding an adequate source of income. The decision between funding immediate needs and supporting the long-term economic growth of the city will hopefully lessen as heritage tourism grows, making more jobs available.
The city requested that we shift our efforts to another badly deteriorating tower house. It is the first historic monument visitors see as they take the main road to the castle. We have accepted the challenge and hope you will continue to support our efforts to boost Gjirokastra’s economy through the growth of heritage tourism.
Community members in Gjirokastra are seeing positive results from their 15-year effort to improve the economy by welcoming tourists to their amazing World Heritage city. You’ve been part of this progress, supporting projects that have saved valuable and beautiful architectural heritage. The annual arts and culture festival is currently underway and the cobblestone streets are crowded with visitors.
Even as economic conditions are beginning to improve, the very houses that draw tourists are crumbling. In the last two years, two more tower houses suffered catastrophic collapse, and Gjirokastra’s residents fear that the Kabili house will soon suffer the same fate. Even houses, such as the Kikino and Skenduli houses, which are standing strong, are losing their decorative elements to time and weather.
With this knowledge, AiP jammers (our dedicated volunteers) are heading for Albania. They’ll be traveling from Australia, the UK, Kosovo and the US to join our local partners at the Regional Directorate of National Culture in Gjirokastra, who are anxiously awaiting our arrival.
We will all work together to complete a great deal of work in two weeks. Our team will continue decorative paint documentation at the Kikino house. Saving and restoring this art form will add to the value of each heritage tourist’s visit.
We will also be photographing and inspecting the Kabili house in preparation for stabilization. This project will begin in July, if funding efforts are successful. The Kabili house was one of the city’s largest and most important tower houses, initially damaged by bombing in WWII and slowly deteriorating over time. The collapse of one corner forced one family to evacuate, leaving their belongings behind. The other tower is still occupied, as that family has no other options for lodging.
Your support will be a great help in the Kabili stabilization efforts. Once safe, the restored house will offer affordable housing units and space for a local business, as well as several rooms for a B&B to generate income to cover ongoing maintenance.
Thank you for working together with AiP and Gjirokastra’s community members to continue their progress toward an improved future.
Ilir Rizaj, a professional photographer based in New York City, has just signed on as an AiP volunteer to help us solve a dilemma. It is very important for us to provide a quick snapshot of both existing needs and progress being made, in a format that’s easy to understand and full of information. Without this, those of you interested in helping find solutions to Gjirokastra’s problems are left thinking in the abstract. Photographs fill that bill perfectly, but we have had difficulty generating the types of powerful images we need.
After AiP’s May session in Gjirokastra, this will no longer be an issue.
Ilir has stepped up and offered his time and talents – and even his airfare – to provide you and other project supporters with new visual information on Gjirokastra’s remarkable but, sadly, endangered tower houses. He will focus on illustrating the work AiP and our volunteers have undertaken, along with that of other organizations active in the old town.
Highlights will be the decorative painting at the Skenduli and Kikino houses, and documentation of the dire situation at the Kabili house, which has suffered a partial collapse, but still has tenants. We will share his photographs and videos with you this summer. He’s even using a drone to provide a perspective of our project sites that none of us has seen.
Mr. Rizaj currently lives in New York City, but is originally from Kosovo and has a deep understanding of the conditions and problems of the region. He is currently working on a documentary of Ottoman-era architecture in Kosovo and says of his passion for photography:
My journey as a photographer began in my native Kosovo, where the exotic East meets the cool modernism of the West in both culture and architecture – a fascinating harmony of history and artistry. As I sought out ways of visually exploring them through my camera lens, photography had found me.
We can’t wait to see Ilir’s images and share them with you. We think they will inspire all of us to redouble our efforts to save the irreplaceable resource that is Gjirokastra’s key to a brighter economic future.
A house is only as strong as its roof, and a damaged roof can spell disaster for any house, new or old. Incredibly, the massive stone tower houses of Gjirokastra – 3 million stones strong – can be taken down by heavy rains in just one year if the roof is not sound.
Adventures in Preservation has been providing volunteers and technical assistance for conservation work at the Skenduli house for the past three years. Yet, the roof still has problems and there is no money available locally to complete repairs. This puts all the conservation work completed up to this point at risk. We can no longer relegate roof repair to our To Do list!
Please consider making a donation for the Skenduli house roof repair project. As the roof is repaired using traditional techniques, we will be showing other home and business owners that traditional repair is best for their historic building. This will lead to the creation of addition jobs for roofers and bring young local residents into the trade.
Crossing this item off our list will allow critical conservation work that is on hold – decorative woodwork repair, plaster repair, and the restoration of rare wall paintings – to get underway when AiP returns to the site in May of next year.
The project is already proving its worth. Tourists visit regularly, contributing to the steadily growing heritage tourism industry that is the path to improving the standard of living for this region.
Gjirokastra’s architectural heritage is vital to the people of Albania, and it is also a part of the common world heritage we all share. The loss of the Skenduli house would be a huge blow to the people of Gjirokastra and the people around the world who have worked so hard to save it.
Please donate today. One great way to make a donation AND experience the adventure of a lifetime is to join us in Gjirokastra in May! If making a donation online is best for you, we’ll keep you informed of all the great progress with photos that will make you feel like you’re there. Join our efforts!
Last week, a report came in from Deborah, an architect and one of AiP’s September session volunteers at the Skendli house in Gjirokastra.
Many groups of tourists continue to pass through the Skenduli house. Edlira (Mr. Skenduli’s daughter) gave tours all day! Her sons are the 11th generation of Skendulis to play in the courtyard. We are meeting the tourists and taking the opportunity to tell them about the project and AIP.
Debbie provided us with proof that the project is helping to create economic growth in Gjirokastra. Tourists are drawn to the site to see ongoing skills training and building conservation efforts and are eager to explore the architectural history being preserved. Your support is allowing conservation work at the Skenduli house and other historic buildings to continue, and these efforts are boosting the local economy, bringing tourist dollars and creating jobs.
In the past two weeks, eleven professional conservators from five countries completed testing, assessment and 3D laser scanning of the entire Skenduli house to detect and record any remnants of wall paintings. The group worked all weekend, and at times through the night!, to scan and assess the condition of two additional houses in danger of collapsing. All these professionals donated their time and even provided additional funding.
The May session will build on September’s results and begin conservation of the fragile remains of exterior wall paintings. Albanian students as well as international volunteers will receive training. Donations provide trainees from Albania with scholarships to cover their expenses while they learn their country’s traditions in wall painting. They will then use these old traditional skills, newly learned, to continue work at the Skenduli house and begin documentation at a nearby house.
Please continue your generous support to help us reach two goals: completion of vital roof repairs prior to the May session; and initiation of planning for the next stage of work preserving massive amounts of exterior and interior wood detailing – another tradition nearly lost.
We’re so happy to have you on board for this journey. With your support, we’ll continue to give 120% until our goals are achieved!
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