Driving into Tirana, Albania’s capital, can be both chaotic and confusing as you contend with volumes of undisciplined traffic while trying to see the unplanned mix of austere Communist era, crumbling historic and unique new architecture. We were there to help with the restoration of one of the countries distinctive forms of architecture, the Ottoman kullë, or tower, house.
The AiP team – with volunteers from Canada, Denmark, Australia, and the US – met at Hotel California and stayed in Tirana overnight before heading for the project site in Gjirokastra. We traveled by way of Berat in order to visit this beautiful Ottoman-era town which, like Gjirokastra, is on the World Heritage List. Exploring Berat castle with a local tour guide took us from 200 BC to the 13th century in a single day.
We arrived in Gjirokastra Sunday evening as the sun set behind the Gjere mountains. Monday morning we joined the Cultural Heritage without Borders (CHwB) team and twenty architecture students from Tirana’s Polis University to begin work on the Babameto House. This 3-story stone house with stone slate roof is a UNESCO Category 1 structure. It features two wings joined by a central section. We learned in one of the excellent lectures, provided each morning before work began, that the construction of one tower house requires approximately 3 million stones.
We spent our week working on two primary tasks: documenting the west wing staircase and dismantling it before beginning repair and restoration; and preparing plaster walls in two rooms for restoration and re-plastering as needed.
We divided into teams, with two working on plaster and one on wood. Local conservators, who were specialists in these two areas, demonstrated each step of the work and helped the volunteers, most with no prior experience, learn the conservation skills involved. Within several hours, everyone felt comfortable with the tasks, and work got underway with, of course, close supervision by the experts.
While not competing, each team tried to accomplish as much as possible and make the most of the time they volunteered at the project. At the end of our week there, the staircase team had documented and numbered all the pieces to allow for easy reconstruction and volunteers were carving a replacement beam to support risers and treads and removing the 20th century paint.
The plaster teams were able to remove plaster that was too damaged to retain, uncover the original paint in the kitchen, and apply the first coat of rough plaster in one of the two rooms.
One special feature of this volunteer vacation was the option of attending drawing classes each afternoon led by an amazing artist. Albert Kasi, a leading Albanian sculptor and artist, gathered the artists and artists-in-training in an open air room of the Skenduli tower house. This spectacular house, with an unbelievable view of the valley and mountains beyond, is one of the most original and best maintained kullë houses in Gjirokastra. There students sat for three hours each afternoon and learned from the master. It was a fitting way to bring together the art and architecture of Gjirokastra.