CHwB Albania: hammam’s authentic remains are preserved and the monument is back to its original function

11425206_1641946852684484_8880307610914722867_nWe usually let our work speak for us. However, this time, in the case of Kruja’s hammam, interesting debates have opened up. We understand the surprise, even anger, that you felt when you saw and compared the two photos of the hammam. Even in Germany when the Neues Museum, restored by David Chipperfield, was opened, the public had a similarly critical response. Or the Reichstag, done by Norman Foster, or Renzo Piano’s work on the J.P Morgan Library in New York. We feel as if a part of our history, or identity, is taken away from us. But is it? In these three cases all the authentic remains are there, and there were additions—clearly identifiable additions—which were made in order to put the monument back into use. The monument, when brought back to its original function, continues its life by serving the purpose for which it was built. This brings employment and development and, most importantly, it safeguards the monument.

On the other hand, seeing so many comments and so many people concerned for cultural heritage has filled our hearts; until now we thought that there were only handful of people who cared.

Because of this, we are hopeful that we can open a debate on how to work even better to protect our cultural heritage—what we need to learn, what we need to do, and how to do it better—so we can pass on our monuments as a legacy to the generations who come after us.

Now, coming to the hammam of Kruja.

The hammam was built in the 15th century. According to Valter Shtylla, it was used as a traditional Turkish-style bathhouse until sometime near the end of the 19th century. Following the turn of the century, it was used as an arms depot (xhibehane) by the Ottoman army. In the early 20th century, it was burned down and left forgotten. In 1967 it was restored by the Institute of Monuments of Culture for the 500th anniversary of the death of Skanderbeg. In photo 1, you can see the condition in which it was found back in 1967. The Institute had restored the domes and roof over the main part of the hammam, but left only the walls of the entrance part. They filled the interior with debris (intentionally, in order to safeguard it), and they changed the level of the entrance to the hammam.

We started working on the hammam in 2012. Documentation and studying lasted for 12 months. After receiving the necessary permit from the National Council of Restoration, we started the physical works. The first 6 months were only about careful cleaning and fully understanding what was left of the monument.

What was left was the whole structure of the hammam with its walls and domes, the hypocaust system (an underfloor system that provided space for the circulation of warm air), the ceramic piping in the walls and the first layering of the floor above the hypocaust. In addition, the wall plastering was evident almost everywhere, but not all of it was stable, given the constant presence of humidity in the building (due to a leaking roof). And, traces of fire were obvious all over the structure.

What was missing from the monument was the roof of the entrance room, the furniture (benches) and parts of the floor.

Hence, we had in front of us a monument with considerable base materials remaining. Some of the details informing the restoration were supported by the writings of Prof. Valter Shtylla. Others through the old photos of Ippen, where we could see that there was a roof over the entrance part, and we could determine what the angle of the roof had been. Still other details came to light through our surveys and analyses done on site and in the laboratory.

Yet, we still faced the question of whether to put the debris back on top of the hypocaust and close up the building? Or, whether to use analogical examples and make it functional?

This hammam, when it was built, was clearly functioning.

Here we made a conscious decision to safeguard the authentic remains by returning the monument to its original function. Why? Because if we merely covered it and left it in the condition that it was, then this monument would disappear, gradually destroyed by weather and time.

Maybe we should have only cleaned it, exposing the hypocaust and the burnt walls and making interpretation panels explaining how it was? Yes, this is one approach, that of a museum conservation, and one that in its essence is the most truthful to the monument. But this is also an approach that leaves the layers that were once covered exposed to atmospheric and climatic conditions. It also can give visitors the wrong impression, since the interior of the hammam looked much different when it was built.

So, in the end, we decided that the best way to preserve the building and to show people how it worked would be to return it to its original function. We have placed the floor level where it was, covering the underfloor hypocaust with exactly the same first-level floor tiles that it used to have. In addition, we have repaired all the ceramic piping in the walls and consolidated all of the traces of old plaster that were in a condition to be consolidated. The parts that had fallen off were refilled with exactly the same traditional plaster, using only lime, brick dust, sand, egg whites, etc., depending on the layer applied. Since the hammam is at the lowest part of the castle, even the transportation of all materials was done traditionally—two donkeys carried the materials up and down.

The biggest challenge was that since we had decided to proceed with the interior, we needed to give some spaces for sitting and for water-based washing.

Again, we didn’t have the remains of the original benches, but in the plaster it was clear where their level had been; hence we placed them on the same level. We found only a piece of the stone sink (kurna) in the debris, but from this we could conclude that it was 40cm x 40cm and made from local Kruja limestone. It was so damaged that we could not assess its height. However due to the preserved ceramic piping in the walls, as well as the openings for water, we knew where the position of the taps was and how they were placed.

So, in the interior, following the original floor level, we placed the sitting benches as well as stone sinks. This is the only addition made to the hammam, for which we drew analogical comparisons with similar hammams built around the same time, in order to provide the proper sitting space for its usage. The material that was used for both the benches and stone sinks was a local one. With the shape of the benches, we are not pretending that they are old—on the contrary, they are new—and they can be taken off anytime. It is completely reversible, along with the floor.

So, this hammam will be used as a hammam—and by using it, we are protecting it.

On the other hand, following the best practices of restoration, all of the interventions made are fully reversible!

Today, the Neues Museum is held up as an exemplary work, creating a usable space from a historic ruin, while preserving the authentic character of the building, as well as traces of the damage that history has caused. We hope that with time and careful maintenance, the Kruja hammam will become another example of a monument that was saved from destruction by reentering the life of the community—and that it will continue to serve as a point of discussion about how we preserve, protect and use our rich heritage.

CHwB takes this opportunity to invite all those interested to contact us, so that together we can visit the hammam, to further discuss on site the interventions that have taken place, stone by stone and brick by brick.

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