Auction Action in Austin

The National Preservation Conference begins Wednesday in Austin, Texas. One of the traditions at the conference is the Preservation Action Foundation’s annual auction and gala. This year, the theme is Mad About Mod!

In keeping with the theme, Adventures in Preservation has donated a space at our upcoming volunteer vacation project at the 1930 Edge Hill Service Station (a $1,500 value).

The winner will not only support the Preservation Action Foundation but learn how to restore historic windows while helping restore one of Virginia’s original Texaco stations.

How fab!

The Great Wall of China

Section of the Ming Dynasty Wall - Jason George

Section of the Ming Dynasty Wall

From almost any perspective, even, or particularly, that of a preservationist, it’s hard to define the Great Wall of China – is it a building, is it a structure, is it a cultural landscape? Regardless of how you define it, once you see it in person, you will have a new respect for it and a greater understanding of the enormity of the task of building it.

I recently hiked with my family along a few segments of the Wall’s 8,851 kilometer length as part of a Wild Wall Weekend, organized by William Lindesay. The trips are just one facet of the conservation and outreach efforts he conducts tirelessly.

William, as a long distance runner, got it into his head back in the 1980s to walk the distance of the Wall. It took several attempts – due to injury, arrests, and even a deportation – but in 1987 he traveled 2,470 km alone and on foot along the route of the Ming Dynasty Great Wall between Jiayuguan and Shanhaiguan. As he tells the story, his life with the Wall began as an adventure, then become focused on research and is now devoted to conservation. Since founding The International Friends of the Great Wall  in 2001, William has become the world’s most outspoken advocate for preservation of the Wall and works with an international coalition of governments, sponsors and supporters to protect it.

According to William, “wall” is a misnomer, as the “Great Wall” is actually a series of walls, some 14 of them in fact, built at various times, but all with the purpose of keeping invaders out.

Given that the Wall is built at the highest points of the land it protects, the hikes up to it and down from it were as long as the hike alongside or on top of it, but all that elevation gain was well worth it. We learned a lot about the Wall and its history, and particularly about the Ming Dynasty (1368 to 1644) section of the Wall where we hiked. The majority of the Ming Wall is built from brick on top of a stone foundation (other sections are built of rammed earth). The stones were always quarried locally; some of them can weigh a metric tonne. Using local stone not only saved transporting them but also contributed to the steepness of the slope on the “outside” of the Wall.

Tower along the Great Wall - Jason George

Detail of one of the towers, note the missing tablet above the entry way

The bricks were manufactured nearby and are uniform in dimension. The Wall is essentially an elevated road and has (or had, as the case may be) battlements along each edge. The Wall is interrupted on a regular basis by an undulating series of towers. William’s sons explained the purposed of the towers as the four “S’s: Shelter, Storage, counterSeige, and Signaling. The towers are beautifully built, filled with overlaying series of interconnected arches. Many of these arches were in excellent condition but there were also quite a few that you would not choose to walk under, just in case.

The white mortar contains lime and rice flour, which is a very strong and durable combination. While the touristy sections in Badaling and Simatai have been rebuilt and repointed, the sections we saw all still had their original mortar.

Despite the permanence of its construction, the Wall is in no way intact. For many years, the Wall was raided, by people taking the bricks for their own construction needs. Nature has also run its course – grasses, plants and even trees grow on top of the Wall. Yet despite this, the glimpse of some of these wild sections of the Wall, whether from below or from a tower looking along the length of a section, is awe inspiring.

Tower along the Great Wall - Jason George

One of the many towers along the Great Wall

The conservation of this incredible landscape is not to be taken for granted, but progress is being made.

More Reading:

Great Wall of China Wikipedia Entry

UNESCO World Heritage Listing

Keeping Tower Houses from Tumbling

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.

Babameto House, Gjirokastra Albania - Adventures in Preservation

The Babameto House, site of AiP's Albania project, September 2010

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.

a lesson in historic plaster - Babameto House, Gjirokastra, Albania - Adventures in Preservation

Training from a CHwB plaster expert

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.

Drawing the Skenduli house, Gjirokastra, Albania - Adventures in Preservation

Sketching the Skenduli House

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.

More on Muppets and Architecture

After my post about recruiting Elmo to promote historic preservation, I decided to do a bit of research. Did you know there’s an entire Wiki devoted to Muppets? Neither did I!

I.M. Pig from Sesame Street I  found a Sesame Street episode in which Big Bird asks an architect (hilariously I. M. Pig) for advice on rebuilding his nest, but after much consultation learns that his own traditional nest building skills are perfectly suited for him. A lesson for us all.