Post-Disaster Action: Crowdmapping Nepal

A guest post by Divya Jayaram

It is indeed ironic how the fury of nature, in a matter of seconds, can wipe out buildings that have stood for centuries. The recent earthquake in Nepal proved that nature just debunks the futile attempts of man trying to overpower things that don’t belong to him! The destruction and damage of buildings within the Kathmandu Valley World Heritage property  is not just cultural loss for the nation, but a loss to all mankind. Nepal,  a small picturesque country that is 0.04 times the size of India [ 1/5th  the size of Texas], has four inscribed UNESCO World heritage Sites, including three royal cities and several Hindu and Buddhist sites within the Kathmandu Valley. Most of these were severely damaged in the quake.

Durbar Square in Kathmandu before the earthquake. BBC photo.

Durbar Square in Kathmandu before the earthquake. BBC photo.

Disasters are inevitable; however reducing the risks that can cause severe impact is possible with mitigation strategies. The time immediately after a disaster is extremely crucial for cultural heritage.  Managing post-disaster conservation of heritage buildings calls for  preparation and mitigation of  impacts from disaster to heritage buildings.

As an immediate response measure to the earthquake in Nepal, a crowdmapping website – Kathmandu Cultural Emergencies –  has been created. Developed by Aparna Tandon ICCROM] and Rohit Jigyasu [ICOMOS-ICORP], its aim is to collect information on the the damage caused to cultural heritage sites and institutions in Nepal. With restricted access into the country and the ongoing rescue work, it was impossible to access the site to assess the damage for heritage sites. An appeal was made to locals, tourists and visitors, asking them to photograph the damage to traditional houses, buildings, museums, temples as well as any rubble that may contain fragments of a historic site, sculptures, sacred objects, etc., along with their location if possible. Tweetsters and Instagrammers hashtagged their  photographs ‪#‎heritagedamagenepal‬  and‪ #‎culturedamagenepal‬, tweeting pictures of earthquake-affected cultural and vernacular buildings. The information collated will be used to identify the extent of damage based on region, and will also help in planning the post-disaster recovery strategies.

Durbar Square in Kathmandu after the earthquake. BBC Photo

Durbar Square in Kathmandu after the earthquake. BBC Photo

While the initial priority is always to rescue those whose lives have been devastated in this horrific manner, there is also a sincere appeal to capture as much of the destruction as possible so that at least some of the remains can be salvaged once the human search and rescue operation is completed.

Nepal is still suffering significant aftershocks, and lack of basic facilities—food, shelter, water, electricity, communications—particularly in mountainous and remote areas. But this is what we know so far about the fate of Nepal’s World Heritage sites: Together we will work to restore the cultural heritage of a beautiful land and its beautiful people.

Divya Jayaram is a conservation architect based in California, USA.  Her interest lies in heritage documentation, urban historic cores, managing heritage during crises, and community engagements for the conservation of cultural heritage. Divya has a Bachelors degree in Architecture from Bangalore, India and a Master’s degree in architectural conservation from the University of Edinburgh, UK.

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A Letter from Gjirokastra

This is an extended version of a piece that appeared in the June issue of Destination: Preservation, Adventures in Preservation’s newsletter.

If people still wrote letters home from their travels, here’s what we would have written about our recent hands-on building conservation experience in Gjirokastra.

Dear Family,

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 to our B&B, we saw no less than three building conservation projects underway and heard that there were more projects underway in other districts of the historic area.

New roof going on at the Haderi house thanks to CHwB,

New roof going on at the Haderi house, atop a rebuilt wall, both thanks to CHwB Photo by J Broeker

Our arrival coincided with the final day of the arts and culture festival, and streets were busy with tourists visiting from around the world. We were met with warm greetings from Vita and Haxhi Kotoni, our hosts at Kotoni’s Guest House since 2008, who had a full house of tourists.

Our group of four arrived from far corners of the world: Australia, the UK and the US. Our job, which we happily took on, was to complete documentation and condition assessment of decorative paintings at the Kikino house. From our work station on the third story balcony, we overlooked a sea of historic tower houses and the river valley below. With that spectacular view and delicious cups of espresso and Turkish coffee, we dove into our work and completed our assessment in six days.

Our host at the Kikino house was the charming Vladimir, who along with his wife and two daughters came to the balcony daily to check on our progress and to bring us tasty treats. Unfortunately, none of us spoke enough Albanian to have a conversation with them, but this was to change during the second week.

Ceilidh, Jenny and Sue describing the condition of wall paintings at Kikino tower house

Ceilidh, Jenny and Sue describing the condition of wall paintings at Kikino tower house Photo by J Broeker

Even though our work didn’t really seem like work, we took time off to discover more of Albania’s cultural heritage. We went on a field trip to the Antigone archaeological site. With Kreshnik Merxhani, an architect and conservator from Gjirokastra, and Anisa Ani, a local archaeologist, as our guides, we learned and experienced much more than any “regular” visitor ever would. (Thanks AiP!)

We were also able to visit several small churches in tiny villages hidden in the shadow of the mountains. They are little used, but perfectly reflect a moment frozen in time. (Yvonne photo)

A visit - and some documentation work - in a  small village up the mountain on the other side of the river from Gjirokastra.

A visit – and some documentation work – in a small village church up the mountain on the other side of the river from Gjirokastra. Photo by J Broeker

We visited other tower houses as well Gjirokastra has over 400 of these massive structures; you can see in a single glance why it’s been designated a World Heritage site. We toured the Kore house where Cultural Heritage without Borders (CHwB) is working and met four generations of the family that built the house approximately 300 years ago. The “elderly” grandmother was so much fun to meet; at one point she kicked off her shoes and hopping up on the divan to show us how the complicated window shutter system worked.

Jenny and “Grandmother Kore” during our tour of the house

Jenny and “Grandmother Kore” during our tour of the house Photo by J Broeker

On another day, we visited the reconstruction project underway at the house of author Ishmael Kadare (his autobiographical novel Chronicle in Stone tells of his childhood in Gjirokastra and is an excellent read) which burned several years ago. We also visited the remains of the Kokolari House and Museum, which tragically burned to the ground just three weeks before we arrived. The loss of 2,500 volumes of books and numerous artifacts was a devastating blow to the city. Two other tower houses are being restored as a hotel and a hostel, with several CHwB stabilization projects saving important houses for future conservation, if funding allows.

So yes, there’s a lot of preservation happening. However, given there are at least 400 other Ottoman-era houses in great need of repair, the six projects we visited are just a drop in the bucket compared to what needs to be done. With this perspective, you begin to understand the magnitude of the crisis facing the city.

Too late for the tower house on the left, but there is still a chance of saving the one on the right Photo J Broeker

It’s too late for the tower house on the left, but there is still a chance of saving the one on the right Photo by J Broeker

The second week brought two more volunteers, an AiP board member and Ilir Rizaj, a professional photographer from NYC, who is originally from Kosovo. Photography wasn’t Ilir’s only contribution, as his fluent Albanian allowed us to visit with the residents we met as we walked the steep stone streets. Ilir translated an intriguing conversation with Vladimir at the Kikino house, detailing blood feuds in Greece, internment camps and name changes to save the family in Albania, looting of the house at the end of the Communist era, and being delegated as the caretaker of the Kikino house by the 55 remaining family members.

Ilir brought some nifty toys along with him, including a drone. He used the done to take photos and videos of houses that were difficult to access on foot. This documentation will assist the Directorate of National Cultural Monuments, which has an office in Gjirokastra, with damage assessment.

Ilir's drone he drone over the tower houses of Gjirokastra

Ilir’s drone takes flight over the tower houses of Gjirokastra Photo by J Broeker

The second week came to a close with a final excursion to Butrint archaeological site, also a UNESCO World Heritage site, followed by a fabulous farewell feast Vita prepared specially for us. As we took our final walk through the bazaar, many shopkeepers greeted us and wished us well, asking us to return soon. The warmth and hospitality we experienced will remain with us long after our departure.

We wish you could have been here to share the experience! The good news is that we will be bringing another group of conservation volunteers to Gjirokastra next year. Drop us an email if you’re interested in joining this continuing project and we will keep you up to date as plans progress.

Life is an adventure, so come with us and see more, do more and help more in 2016.


Judith, Jenny, Sue, Ceilidh, Yvonne and Ilir

Our mutli-national, all-volunteer building conservation team

Our mutli-national, all-volunteer building conservation team Photo by J Broeker


P.S. After leaving Gjirokastra, we traveled to Kosovo for five intriguing days exploring this small Balkan country. We saw a great need for help saving the heritage that survived the war. We are working on a project that might bring us back in 2016, and we’ll share any progress with you. Hope you’ll be able to add this to your calendar!

Posted in AiP Projects, Building Conservation, Cultural Heritage, Cultural Travel, Experiential Travel, Heritage Preservation, Heritage Travel, Historic Sites, Vernacular Architecture, Volunteer Opportunities | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Out of Africa: Documenting Vernacular Architecture

A Guest Post by Laura A. Macaluso based on an interview with Jon Twingi Sojkowski of African Vernacular Architecture

 Woman plastering verandah in Masasa village, Malawi.

Woman plastering verandah in Masasa village, Malawi. Photo Jon Twingi Sojkowski

This month I had the chance to speak with Jon Twingi Sojkowski, a licensed architect living in the historic area of Beaufort, South Carolina, on the Atlantic coast. Jon took an interest in African vernacular architecture, that is, architecture built out of local materials and using traditional construction techniques, and turned his passion into a project that will serve future generations, whether they are students, tourists or leaders in community development.

The problem with vernacular architecture, as Jon sees it, is that in the 21st century, many people don’t care enough about the vernacular—whether brick, mud or thatch (or any combination thereof)—especially on the continent of Africa. Caring about something comes from awareness of its value but it also creates value, and this is where Jon has chosen to direct his efforts: by designing a series of social media platforms which capture images and information about the vernacular across Africa.

This work is intended to encourage anyone with an Internet connection to see that vernacular architecture is valuable on many levels; it is long-lasting, economically effective, and beautiful. These open access platforms are designed for ease of use, and he hopes that anyone traveling, living, working or studying in Africa will participate.

Jon Twingi Sojkowski with with children in Fango village, Malawi, which he just documented.

Jon Twingi Sojkowski with with children in Fango village, Malawi, which he just documented. Photo: Jon Twingi Sojkowski

Jon came to the conclusion that the vernacular needed a champion after spending many years living in a mud hut himself. As a Peace Corps member in Zambia from 1995-1998, Jon had the opportunity to document disappearing vernacular architecture in that country while teaching at the local university. He was teaching during the moment of the “Digital Turn,” that is, when the World Wide Web and all of its software applications were bursting on the scene, creating new opportunities for learning about people and cultures that once were relegated to heavy encyclopedias and scholarly books.

For him, the appreciation of vernacular architecture is an appreciation of people and their culture, a visual and visceral understanding of other people’s lives. Adventures in Preservation, which works with local communities in places such as Albania, Nepal and Mexico, believes in this too. But, Jon noticed that vernacular architecture in Africa was little represented on the web, and he set about changing that through the creation of websites and now, an app built for the iPhone.

The app African Vernacular Architecture (available for free on the App Store) makes documenting easy.

The app African Vernacular Architecture (available for free on the App Store) makes documenting easy.

The primary website Jon created, African Vernacular Architecture, brings together his extensive African Vernacular Architecture database (which offers images and information for all 68 African countries) with his earlier designed robust websites on Zambia and Malawi. Also to be found on this primary website are links to all of his social media accounts focusing on the vernacular, including his Tumblr, Twitter, Pinterest, and Flickr feeds, as well as articles posted by newspapers and blogs.

The presentation of vernacular architecture, especially in Africa, can never be a “dry” subject because it is really about the people who live and care for these buildings. Houses and other structures such as churches and schools need a certain amount of yearly care to remain sound, and gatherings of community residents often come together to do this work before the rainy season begins.

But, while Jon and others such as myself, see local identity and community development built into each structure, many people across Africa are abandoning these traditionally built structures for more modern materials such as concrete and metal—creating buildings which Jon argues are neither appropriate for the landscapes they inhabit, nor do they provide the same insulation value that thatch provides.

Of course, against the tide of Hollywood films, where people around the world see a vision of the American Dream as a large home with multiple bathrooms, tracts of green lawn (doused with chemicals to prevent weed growth) and asphalted driveways, it is hard now to convince others to, seemingly, live with less. But this alternative to big and new is not less; it is just a now-radical and different view of the relationship to the places we live, work and play. In the post-2008 recession environment in which we now live, renewed attention to the benefits of the vernacular is a timely conversation to have, whether in the northern or southern hemisphere.

Decorated home in Kamangadazi village, Malawi

Decorated home in Kamangadazi village, Malawi. Photo: Jon Twingi Sojkowski

Jon’s project to document all of Africa’s vernacular architecture is prescient and gutsy—since very few people are engaging in this work, examples of this heritage are being lost every day, which, combined with the fact that the continent is enormous, makes the effort that much more bold. But, such are the qualities are needed to make a difference in the 21st century.

I’m hoping that Jon will find a way to continue his work and return to another country in Africa, documenting its vernacular heritage for the world. Maybe he’ll even run a future Adventures in Preservation project!

Laura A. Macaluso is a Ph.D. candidate in the Humanities at Salve Regina University in Newport, RI. She is currently completing a book about the Portrait of Cinque/Sengbe, a painting from 1840 which depicts the leader of the Amistad mutiny, one of the few successful slave revolts in western history (AASLH/Rowman & Littlefield). She was a Fulbright Scholar to Swaziland in 2008-2010 and enjoys learning and writing about cultural heritage from across the globe.

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If Photos Could Talk…

The exhibition “Zerstörung syrischen Kulturerbes” (Destruction of Syrian Cultural Heritage) opened April 29, 2015 at the town hall in Stuttgart. The exhibition, with more than 50 black and white photos from Kathleen Göbel, Prof. Mamoun Abdelkarim and Internet resources, has been organized by the non-profit association “Freunde der Altstadt von Aleppo e.V.” (Friends of the Old City of Aleppo). The exhibition documents the destruction of Aleppo and Homs, in which centuries-old cultural heritage, reflecting a time in which different ethnic and religious groups have coexisted, seems to have been irretrievably lost.

Aleppo Citadel 10 - Mosque of Abraham By Bernard Gagnon (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Aleppo Citadel 10 – Mosque of Abraham By Bernard Gagnon (Own work) via Wikimedia Commons

In his highly readable book The Monuments of Syria: a Guide, Ross Burns (2009) described the country as “an open land without doors” rather than a “fortress land” which has transmitted rather than blocked. It absorbed the first ethnic waves to the south; passed on the great themes and ideas moving between east and west; and provided a balance between the religious currents that have swept the region. Syria has been, according to Burns, “the classic buffer, though not in the sense of having little coherence of its own and thus perpetually at the mercy of others”.

However, in light of current events, Burns’ words need to be revisited.

Since 2011, Syria has transmitted refugees; absorbed diverse troops serving diverse agendas; passed on ideological conflicts moving between east and west; and created a ruthless religious, ethnic and sectarian violence. The “classical buffer” Burns once described has become today a field for proxy war(s), waiting for the “others” to achieve concrete action(s) to reach a ceasefire and to stop the bloodshed.

The exhibition “Zerstörung syrischen Kulturerbes”: Destruction of Syrian cultural heritage,  at the Town Hall in Stuttgart 29 April- 7 May 2015,  Plan of the Old City of Aleppo (Zeina Elcheikh, 2015)

The exhibition “Zerstörung syrischen Kulturerbes”: Destruction of Syrian cultural heritage,
at the Town Hall in Stuttgart 29 April- 7 May 2015,
Map of Syria showing the Syrian refugees and internally displaced persons
(Zeina Elcheikh, 2015)

Away from the complexity of the geopolitical discourses, the Syrian war is not only a military action; it involves civilians, cities and heritage.

The fighting troops have caused, deliberately or unintentionally, unconscionable damage to cultural heritage. Shelling, shooting, installation of heavy machinery in significant historical and archaeological sites, looting and illegal excavations all caused irreparable damage. Despite the efforts of the governmental bodies and many initiatives worldwide, all calling to save Syrian heritage, the damage is shocking.

Add the vast historical evidence lost via smuggled artifacts and the historical continuity broken by this destruction and you realize how great the loss it. Seeing the horror and atrocities in the photos, coming every day from Syria, one remains speechless.

Photos from the exhibition “Destruction of Syrian cultural heritage” showing the damages of Khaled Idn Al-Walid’s Mosque in Homs (Zeina Elcheikh, 2015)

Photos from the exhibition “Destruction of Syrian cultural heritage” showing the damages of Khaled Idn Al-Walid’s Mosque in Homs (Zeina Elcheikh, 2015)

Khaled Idn Al-Walid’s Mosque in Homs (Zeina Elcheikh, 2010)

Khaled Idn Al-Walid’s Mosque in Homs (Zeina Elcheikh, 2010)

Daily life in the Syrian cities amid conflict and the destruction of cultural heritage has been recorded through documentary photography. Although typically covered by professional photojournalists, activists and volunteers on site have been using interactive platforms and social media to mobilize the world around the devastation and outrages going on in Syria.

Documentary photographs, which have followed the damage and destruction of architectural sites and monuments over the four years of conflict in Syria, have heightened awareness, captured international attention, and mobilized people around the world to act on cultural heritage and human rights issues. These photographs have been taken in courageous acts, by professionals or activists who aimed not at presenting creativity, personal vision or talent, but rather the bitter reality they witnessed. Without being able to say a single word, the photos coming from Syria are saying much, and perhaps “enough”.

I just wonder, even if these photos could talk, if they could truly convey the horror of the destruction they’ve recorded.

Zeina Elcheikh, Syrian architect and planer, holds a Integrated Urbanism from Stuttgart University. She worked with German International Cooperation and the French Institute for the Near East in Syria, and the UNESCO office in Egypt. Zeina is currently a PhD student at the Institute for History of Architecture, Stuttgart University. She is also a member of AiP’s Advisory Board.


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People, Make Preservation Happen!

There’s an African proverb that says, roughly, “Many small people who in many small places do many small things can change the face of the world.” I first came across the proverb in the form of a mural painted boldly (though slightly covered in graffiti) in German at Berlin’s East Side Gallery.

The East Side Gallery is a stretch of the Berlin Wall that has been preserved in place and repurposed into an open-air art gallery. The gallery is on Mühlenstraße in former East Berlin, and the murals are on the eastern side of the wall.


The East Side Gallery. Photo: Hallie Borstel

The proverb can be applied to so many things, but I think it’s particularly fit for the East Side Gallery. One person (small, in the grand scheme of things) painted the saying on a (relatively small) cement wall, literally changing the face of it. The wall, which once stood for oppression, now stands for freedom. The artists who created the gallery preserved an important piece of history, but also altered it.

It’s fitting for historic preservation, too. People get in to historic preservation for different reasonsmaybe the technical aspect, the architectural, the economic, the sustainable, or to preserve memories and identities, or out of a desire to build continuity somewhere. Each preservationist working to save one building makes a change in one community. Just as the proverb says, small changes can transform the world.

Those changes can’t happen without the people, no matter how big or small, who push for them. People make preservation happen.

For this May, National Historic Preservation Month, we’re turning that saying into a call-to-action. People, make preservation happen! Is there a building you want saved in your community? An architectural style you always see being ignored? Then…

people make pres happen

And if you’re looking to get involved beyond your local community or trying to figure out what to do on your next vacation, Adventures in Preservation has several upcoming projects that need some people to make preservation happen.

Next month, then again later in August, AiP is partnering once more with the Fairfield Foundation, a nonprofit in Virginia dedicated to archaeology, preservation, and education. The 2015 projects will take place at the site of the 17th-century Burwell family manor house, which burned down in the late 19th century. AiP jammers will help with excavation of the site and learn techniques for preservation of brick buildings. Located near historic Jamestown and Colonial Williamsburg, the project is perfect for any American history buff. You can read more or sign up for the project here.

Further afield is the project this August in San Andrés, Ecuador. In partnership with Volunteer South America, participants will work to preserve the convent of San Andrés de Guano, a Franciscan monastery dating largely from the 17th century. In many parts of Ecuador (and the world), the knowledge of how to preserve vernacular architecture through traditional methods has been lost. The two-week AiP session will give jammers the chance to learn skills in a variety of different areas, such as carpentry, mortar, and ceiling repair. Interested? Click here to read more or sign up.

Every set of hands counts.

So, people, are we going to make preservation happen?

Posted in AiP Projects, Archaeology, Building Conservation, Cultural Travel, Experiential Travel, Heritage Preservation, Volunteer Opportunities, Volunteer Vacations | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Spring Cleaning

Spring! Leaves, flowers, birds, cute baby animals, warm weather. And cleaning.

Recently, I had the opportunity to participate in phase one of the architectural mothballing of a run-down apartment building. Early one Saturday morning a few weeks ago (though not as early as this) a friend and I headed deep into West Virginia’s coal country. Our destination: the community of Helen, population 219.


Helen, West Virginia, is in the Winding Gulf Coalfield, one of the eleven in the state. The coal camp in Helen was established in the 1910s, and homes were built in the area soon after to house the miners and coal company administrators. A boarding house was also erected to serve as additional lodging, but it is no longer standing.

Perhaps the largest building in town is the Helen Apartments, a brick eight-apartment complex dating from the 1920s. Whether it was built by the coal company remains to be seen, but it certainly housed coal company employees. With the decline of coal towns like Helen, many of the structures therein have been left to decay or been torn down.

The Helen Apartments, as seen by drone. Photo: George Bragg Photography/WeGROw Facebook Page

The Helen Apartments, in use until 2007, now fall into that category. Left empty, they served squatters for many years after they were officially shut down. However, in the past few months a number of local organizations have pulled together to save the apartment building. Because there is no funding at present to begin preservation, a team headed by Preserve West Virginia/Winding Gulf Restoration Organization (WeGROw) AmeriCorps member Tiffany Rakotz took spring cleaning to the extreme to prep the building for mothballing.

I was one of about 33 volunteers who showed up that Saturday to help. We filled bags and bags of clothing, papers, and household items that had been left in the apartments, and then filled a dumpster to the brim with the bagsover six tons worth. We pulled up carpeting. We heaved broken furniture off balconies. We piled the yard high with 18 tons of large household items and more furniture, setting aside ones that could be sold. Our goal was to rid the building of anything and everything that would make it a nice, cozy house for mold and critters until funds can be secured to preserve it.

As one team of volunteers finished cleaning, another came along behind, performing the actual mothballing process. They installed plywood panels to seal windows from weather, break-ins, and animals. And while time on Saturday ran short, there were only a few tasks left to finish in order to secure the building completely.

Photo: Tossing broken furniture off of the second-floor balcony. Brad Davis/The Register-Herald

To learn more, visit the Winding Gulf Restoration Organization’s Facebook page for updates on the project, or read the National Park Service’s Preservation Brief on mothballing.

Posted in Building Conservation, Community, Historic Buildings, Historic Preservation, Industrial heritage | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

What Do The Louvre and Fast Food Have in Common?

Adventures in Preservation:

Interesting perspective Preservation Journey readers might enjoy..

Originally posted on The Secret Knowledge of Spaces:

Burger King Seattle Your local fast food chain (Seattle).

Everything has its history, including the roofline of your closest fast food restaurant. Fast food chain architecture seems to be streamlining now, cutting out decoration until nothing but minimalist blocks remain; walls transition seamlessly to windows, and corners are crisp and unadorned. Through the latter half of the twentieth century, however, fast-food joints followed a Neoeclectic craze that Louis Napoleon couldn’t have dreamed of: a sleek, metal, parred-down adaptation of the French mansard roof. Order a fast-food roof and you’ll get it hot and ready-to-go: it may be prepackaged and there may only be three varieties, but culture and history are the ketchup packages that come with your meal whether you request them or not.

Morrill Hall UNR Morrill Hall, courtesy of UNR.

The mansard roof was popularized during Louis Napoleon’s reign, 1852-1870.  The addition to the Louvre during this period was built with an elaborate mansard roof. The ornate apartment buildings along Paris’s grand…

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