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Katie O'Meara, Architect, MLA Candidate, University of Pennsylvania, Dept of Landscape Architecture
Amy Magida, MLA Candidate, University of Pennsylvania, Dept of Landscape Architecture
Sally Gates, MLA Candidate, University of Pennsylvania, Dept of Landscape Architecture
Cora L. Olgyay, ASLA, Faculty, University of Pennsylvania, Dept of Landscape Architecture

INTRODUCTION / OVERVIEW

As a team of landscape architects from the University of Pennsylvania, we visited Gjirokastra for two weeks in early July 2008 with the general goal of improving access to, and activity around the historic castle.
In the course of our investigations, we found that these challenges were part of a larger series of landscape and urban design issues that could not and should not be addressed in isolation.
As we walked and explored the city, spoke with many international and local professionals, read many reports on the history and current conditions in Gjirokastra, we came to the clear conclusion that Gjirokastra needs a landscape architecture "Master Plan" to guide its revitalization and renewal.

Gjirokastra is an incredibly beautiful and complex town, and its unique character has been widely recognized as a treasure worth preserving.
Notably, the city was designated as an UNESCO site in 2005.
Many reports have been written about Gjirokastra in recent years, focusing on preservation of historic buildings and on the development of tourism as a vehicle to generate revenue, interest, and to revitalize the town.
These are important components, but are in themselves insufficient to ensure the revival of Gjirokastra.
Several documents have provided additional strategies that are critical to the long-term success, and indeed the very survival of the town.


The 2005 "Tourism Strategy and Action Plan" report observes that not all types of tourism can provide long-term economic and social benefits to the local community.
'Nature and culture tourism' (relatively affluent international visitors who stay in various destinations for 2-3 days, and who value direct interaction with local communities) can provide 5-10 times the amount of benefit that 'sun and sand tourism' (big group tours) can provide.
Accordingly, the 'Tourism Strategy and Action Plan' stresses the importance of the 'authentic' experience and 'discovery' interest, through which local culture can be directly experienced. Clearly, it follows that for these types of tourist experience to be successful, the local culture must be intact, understandable, and available.
The 2006 report 'Moving Forward' points out that the 'economic role of the old town must be re-invented' to ensure that Gjirokastra remains a viable, vibrant and thriving town.
The 2002 report 'The Conservation and Development of Gjirokastra' stresses the need for an urban plan and for high quality streetscapes.
Fabrizio Torresi's remarkable book, Recovery Plan for the City of Stone, provides a highly detailed analysis of Gjirokastra, based on a thorough mapping of the city's character, construction, quality, condition, and streets.


Building upon the insights and recommendations in all the reports, we propose that the following two premises guide the next steps in the revitalization of Gjirokastra:
Premise #1
The revival of the old historic town as a vital, vibrant and economically viable community is critical to the success of Gjirokastra as a tourist destination.
Therefore, priority should be given to landscape projects, improvements, and activities that will improve conditions for the entire local community, and not just the tourism sector.
Premise #2
Landscape is key to understanding the history, development patterns, and cultural richness of Gjirokastra, and also to understanding its current challenges.
The town is much more than a collection of historic buildings - it is a rich tapestry of urban settlements along ridges and adjacent slopes, sensitively settled in a way that reveals and respects the remarkable topography and preserves the green valleys and watershed systems.
The landscape can make the town's patterns, land use, and colorful history legible and inviting.

The topography is also an incredible challenge.
The steep and busy streets are not conducive to casual strolling or exploration, and public open places to pause, relax and reflect are rare.
Therefore, we propose that a series of interlinked urban paths and places be developed to provide connections and destination for local residents and visitors alike.

TOPOGRAPHY, URBAN FORM & OVERALL CIRCULATION PATTERNS

The citadel, town, and major roadways directly respond to and reveal the dramatic natural landform.
The castle is sited in a commanding position high on a ridgeline, looking out over the valley.
The town's districts are organized along descending ridges, and the main roads generally follow the centerline of the ridges, linking town and castle.
The old roads are steep, winding, and tightly constricted by buildings, leaving little room for pedestrians.
The steep valleys between the districts are left vegetated and serve as natural drainage channels for the formidable rains that rush down the steep slopes.
A series of small paths traverse the steep valley hillsides, providing a secondary pedestrian circulation system linking the roads and neighborhoods.

This circulation system is beautifully simple and clear, and likely worked very well when the town was relatively small, isolated, with little through traffic, and before automobiles.
However, conditions have changed and the current situation is not desirable or sustainable.
The revitalization of the historic Gjirokastra will bring more traffic, congestion and pollution, and thereby threaten the increasing number of pedestrians, and undermine the quality of life for both residents and visitors.
A creative and sensitive circulation solution must be found to preserve the best of Gjirokastra.
This will take time, great effort, and the process will be highly complex, volatile and potentially controversial.

Many established historic towns have developed successful compromises to manage vehicular and pedestrian traffic, and sustain a vibrant economy.
Possible strategies include: creating car parks along the perimeter of the historic district, limiting hours for business deliveries, restricting traffic to residential and official vehicles, providing low cost or free mini-bus service (especially for key tourist circuits such as linking Çerciz Topulli Square and the Castle), creating a car-free pedestrian zone in the center of town and developing alternative roadways for through-traffic.
We recommend that a traffic consultant serve as an integral part of the landscape architecture team to help determine a viable long-term strategy for traffic management.

SECTIONAL ANALYSIS

The rich relationship of the town to the topography is illustrated in a series of longitudinal and lateral sections.
These reveal proximities and separations between places in the town created by the dramatic changes in elevation.
The clear visual connections are strongest from a few distinct places as illustrated.
The best views are from new bazaar to the castle, the Orthodox Church to Seven Fountains and along the neck from Fantazia across to the new hotel and municipal building.
These high points and vistas offer great clarity in understanding the town.
In contrast, the tight winding, close-in streets and paths with limited views provide a more intimate, concealed, local experience.

PEDESTRIAN CIRCULATION

Along the main streets, pedestrians have a choice between walking on sidewalks or in the streets, and each has challenges.
The sidewalks are narrow and have many steps, and frequently interrupted by cafes, shrubs, utility poles, signs and other appurtenances of modern life.
It is easy to fall off the sidewalks, and many of the sidewalks and steps need repair. While much of this is part of the charm and scale of the old town, sidewalk restoration and improvements should be made with pedestrian ease and safety in mind.
The pocket shrubs interrupt and constrict the sidewalk space, and do not add to the sense of green in the city.
The shrubs should be removed. Non-essential posts should be relocated.
Notably in Çerciz Topulli, a large horizontal sign completely blocks the relatively wide sidewalk, forcing pedestrians into the street and also blocking long views.
Moreover, the sidewalks are not continuous, and pedestrians often have no alternative but to walk in the streets.

The old streets are strikingly paved in multicolored cobbles, arranged in geometric patterns.
The cobbles have distinct benefits in that the rough texture of the cobbles slows down storm water during the heavy rains and also slows down vehicular traffic.
However, they are difficult to walk on, and can be quite slippery.
Local residents advise walking on the black cobblestones, as they tend to be rougher and provide greater traction, whereas the white and pink wear down more quickly to become polished and slippery.
This valuable information should be made readily available to tourists. The condition of both the sidewalks and the cobble pavement is variable, and require greater maintenance to provide relatively secure footing for pedestrians.
Car traffic is hard on the cobble setting, and is undoubtedly contributing to the shifting of stones and opening of joints.
The more intense the vehicular traffic, the greater the wearing of the cobbles, and the more problematic for both cars and pedestrians.

Away from the main streets, the pedestrian experience is much more enjoyable.Local secondary roads have limited automobile traffic.
Strolling down these streets can provide delightful glimpses into the more idiosyncratic structures and spaces of the residential neighborhoods.
Beyond roads, there is a network of urban paths that meander and climb, crossing valleys and linking towns and neighborhoods.

This network of urban paths is invaluable.
Most significantly, the paths help to imitigate the traffic problem by providing attractive alternative circulation routes for pedestrians and provide short cuts linking neighborhoods and roads.
The paths provide an intriguing alternate experience for the pedestrian: the paths are narrow, twisting and turning, and provide unexpected vistas and panoramic views.
The paths also provide an intimate glimpse of historic Gjirokastra homes and lush private gardens.
The paths negotiate the steep slopes between the developed ridgelines, and reveal the potential richness of the vegetated valleys.

The historic paths will need attention in order to serve as an integral part of Gjirokastra's pedestrian circulation system.
The paths must be mapped and assessed, restored and maintained. Long time residents and volunteers could be very helpful in this inventory of existing paths.
In some areas, paths are aligned very close to existing buildings, and property rights and boundaries must be assured.
Some paths just need clearing and cleaning, and other paths will require more substantial repair and reconstruction.
Many of the paths are quite narrow, as they squeeze though the tight spaces between buildings or hug the side of a steep slope.
Wherever possible, the path width should be increased to allow two people to pass with ease.
Steps should be used to reduce the steeper slopes that easily erode, and to facilitate the climb.
The material and quality of the path construction should be commensurate with its location and degree of use, thus creating a clear hierarchy of paths.
The more heavily used paths near key spaces and town core can have materials that echo the urban streets.
More remote paths can utilize more rustic materials.

A LINKED OPEN SPACE SYSTEM TO ACTIVATE THE TOWN

The quality of urban life is greatly enhanced by open space, and this is particularly true for a town with dramatic topography.
Navigating the steep terrain is much more enjoyable when there is ample opportunity to pause, view, relax, read, and gather with friends.
The creation of a network of linked urban open spaces can help mitigate the challenges of the topography, and transform the steep walks into a more pleasant ascent.

Creating meaningful open space systems is dependent on identifying or constructing relatively level spaces for human occupation.
We have focused on identifying existing opportunities, rather than constructing new space which could require extensive and expensive earthwork, re-grading with a combination of cut and fill, and construction of retaining walls.
A number of potential sites have been identified, varying in location, size, and character.
These can be developed to accommodate a wide range of programs and activities, ranging from an open air market, weekly music performances, seasonal festivals, active and passive recreation.
While the majority of the urban spaces would primarily be paved, a number would include open green space for active and passive recreation.

LINKING THE CASTLE AND ÇERCIZ TOPULLI

Gjirokastra is fortunate that two of its most important open spaces are located very close together.
The Castle and Çerciz Topulli can be developed and linked so as to create a continuous and compelling series of public spaces that serve both the resident community and tourists.
The following serves as a description of how these spaces can be developed to expand and enrich the range of opportunities for the public, and how they can be linked through the rebuilding of a historic pedestrian path.

The Castle
The Castle is a national treasure, and is woefully underutilized.
Rather than treat it as a distant and distinct fortress, the Castle should be fully integrated into the public space and experience of the town.
Every door and gate should be open and inviting so that citizens and visitors alike move through the castle as an extension of the paths and places of the town.
It should be occupied and loved.
It should be home to concerts, festivals and performances, and also to children playing, families picnicking, students reading, and lovers hiding.
It should be developed as a series of plazas and parks, and designed to accommodate special programs that could have a local, regional, and international draw.
To be lively and successful, the Castle must become an extension of the town's open space system.

The Castle would be an ideal candidate for an international design competition, following the completion of the landscape architecture master plan.
Issues to be addressed in preparation for Castle development would include:
*Programming both for overall design and scheduling of special events to be developed in conjunction with local residents, municipal authorities, GCDO, and other associated interests.
*Detailed structural, construction and archaeological data to establish load bearing capacity, soil depth, planting parameters, which will in turn determine which areas can be developed for various activities.

The Çerciz Topulli Area
Çerciz Topulli is an important gateway.
It is the initial arrival point for tourists and marks the transition into the heart of the old historic town.
It is also a dramatic change in scale from the open landscape to the more closed intimacy of the New Bazaar.
From the Çerciz Topulli, the entire town and topography are visible and the patterns are clear: the dramatic line of the castle on the ridge, the slope of the green valley bisecting the town, and the flat farmlands of Drino Valley beyond.
Çerciz Topulli is of an ideal scale and location to serve as a gateway and major public plaza, rather than an oversized parking lot.
This could be achieved with relatively minor revisions in layout and materials, such as repaving with Gjirokastra's characteristic cobblestone pavement.
The decorative pavement would slow down traffic and provide visual/textural continuity with the old town.
The space of the plaza could be clarified with a line of trees to create clearer circulation patterns and provide a distinct place for parking and other activities.
The space could serve as a weekly farmers market, bringing in local specialty farm products for residents of both the old and new towns.
A component of the Tourist Information Office could be located there, to immediately orient and welcome visitors.
As a major public crossroad and gathering place, Topulli Square would be an ideal location for public restrooms.

The activities on Topulli Square could be enriched with complementary spaces both up and down the slope.
The upper terrace ('Topulli Terrace'), between the new Hotel Çajupi and the Municipal Building should be developed as public open space.
In contrast to the open bustling plaza below, the terrace would be a quiet place to gather under trees, rest, read, and enjoy long views out over the valley.
This could be an ideal place to hold small weekly concerts, readings, or other performances.
Gjirokastra has plans to restore the historic communist era tunnels and open them to the public, and the terrace will be the access point for these visits.

The terrace area is currently out of use since the adjacent hotel is under reconstruction, and the rear retaining wall is near collapse.
Following the completion of these projects, the terrace could function well with only minor improvements.
The existing broken pavement can be replaced with local stone.
Furnishings could be simple movable tables and chairs.
A small fountain would be delightful, and would help to soften the sounds of the traffic below.
It could be located in the retaining wall that requires reconstruction.
Topulli Terrace will become an important urban space as the pedestrian path network is developed from Topulli Square to the Castle.
Similarly, the open space below Topulii Square should be developed as a central green space for the city, 'Topulli Park'.
There are very few green spaces to gather in old town Gjirokastra, and this ideal location would attract a wide variety of citizens from the old town and new.
In addition to the direct link to the plaza above, the park is adjacent to a number of the city's pedestrian paths.
The park could be simply developed with trees, benches, and perhaps a play area for children.

North Gate Walk
The majority of the traditional paths in Gjirokastra are still in active use by local residents.
However, the old path linking Topulli Square to the Old Bazaar and the historic North Gate of the Castle is not used.
It is discontinuous, in disrepair and not accessible.
Its poor condition is likely due to a combination of factors: steep and unstable slopes, the earlier construction of the communist security system tunnels under the hillside, and the ongoing construction for the renovation of the Hotel Çajupi.
This walk should be reconfigured and reconstructed to provide a clear, easy and direct pedestrian link between these important town spaces.
Unlike many of the informal and irregular paths in Gjirokastra, the North Gate Path should be built as an elegant urban walk.
It should be designed to reflect the importance of the two public spaces that it connects, and be wide and gracious to accommodate the large number of people who will be using it.

The slope between Topulli Terrace and the Castle is very steep, and will require an accurate topographic survey as well as drainage and soils investigation before detailed design and construction can begin.
In addition to the challenge of fitting a path into the slope, construction will require sizable retaining walls above, and perhaps below, the path.
The retaining walls should be battered for both long term stability and visual effect, and may be stepped back to reduce to visual impact which could otherwise be foreboding.
Where space allows, a seat wall should be incorporated into the base of the retaining wall, so that pedestrians can stop and pause.
Considering the slope, intensity and volume of the local rainfall, and depth to impermeable bedrock, the retaining walls and path must be carefully engineered.
Local contractors should be consulted for the best methods.

The majority of the grade change will be taken up with steps and ramps at the upper and lower ends of the walk, with a long sloped path connecting the two steeper ends.
The materials should follow the traditional Gjirokastra stone palette.
At the upper end, the ramped path should be made of dark cobblestone to visually link with the historic cart ramp that leads to the North Gate.
Traditional ramp construction using intermediate bands of long raised stones performs very well to help pedestrian traction and to direct storm water.
At the lower end near Topulli Terrace, the steps can be made of a more refined stone, echoing the existing materials on the terrace.

CHALLENGES AROUND THE NEW BAZAAR

The traffic is particularly problematic around the new bazaar and the steep adjacent streets.
Traffic is heavy, sidewalks are interrupted with cafes, narrow one way streets are treated as two way streets so traffic backs up and cars navigate the tight streets in reverse.
The noise and fumes from the idling cars permeate the narrow streetscape, and cars will often gun their engines in order to propel themselves up the steep streets.
Emergency vehicles are hampered by traffic jams and parked cars.
Pedestrians share these roads at great risk.

The new bazaar is considered the heart of the business district, but is not serving as such.
The challenges are made very clear by the detailed maps included in Recovery Plan for the City of Stone.
Three key drawings map the condition of buildings, function of buildings, and number of stories.
The vast majority of the buildings in the New Bazaar are commercial, in poor condition, and only two stories tall.
The relatively small scale of the buildings and the modest floor space can make it difficult to adapt the space to modern business purposes.
A business revitalization plan is needed.
Gjirokastra may need to consider redefining the function of the historic Bazaar in order to restore the buildings and bring them to life.
If plans to bring the Eqrem Çabej University to the historic center are successful, this would be a very big step in providing new life and activity in Gjirokastra and perhaps lead the way for revitalization of the Bazaar with shops and activities oriented to youth and education.

The tight conditions and intimate scale of the Bazaar could be very attractive for pedestrians, cafes and street life.
Obviously, the current vehicular traffic is a profound problem.
In addition, the prevalence of 'man bars' (the traditionally male dominated coffee shops and bars) sets an ambience of exclusivity that is not conducive to women or couples.
Efforts should be made to create cafes and stopping places that are open, welcoming and that can be enjoyed by women and men, young and old.

Years ago, the Bazaar Street ran through the shops near the bottom of the Mosque.
Opening up shops along the street would help to activate both the street life and the businesses.
This would help to 're-create the traditional feel and look of the Bazaar area', as advocated in the report 'Moving Forward'.

VEGETATION

The planting in Gjirokastra should be clear, strong, and help reinforce the urban form and landform.
The steep slopes and valleys should be planted with native grasses, shrubs and trees, selected for the specific environmental conditions.
These conditions should be assessed and documented, and experts should advise on the selection of suitable plants.
The steep slopes around the castle are likely to be shallow to bedrock, with thin unstable soils, and prone to drought.
The valleys likely have a greater range of slopes, pockets of deeper soils, with occasional saturated conditions.
On steep, unstable banks or along areas subject to erosion, stoloniferous plants with spreading root systems can help hold the soil in place.

Unfortunately, many of the slopes are highly disturbed and have been taken over by invasive plants.
Ailanthus, an invasive tree native to Asia, has taken over the slopes and walls of the castle.
The Ailanthus should be cut down and an herbicide applied to the stump to inhibit regrowth or root sprouts.
The roots should be left in place in order to hold the soil in place.
Ailanthus is a prolific seeder and therefore the slopes must be regularly monitored and seedling ailanthus promptly removed.

The location of trees should be carefully considered to provide shade, a sense of enclosure, and frame views.
Key view sheds should be kept open.

Within the urban fabric, the few existing large trees provide an immeasurable aesthetic and environmental benefit.
They transform the city of stone. More trees should be planted after careful consideration of suitable sites.
Trees should be given adequate root run, good soils, and ongoing care to ensure long term health.
In an urban setting, it is vastly preferable to have a few large healthy trees than numerous small trees, struggling to survive in difficult conditions.
Gjirokastra should establish a long term relationship with an arborist to provide detailed recommendations on the selection and planting of suitable trees for the town, and for their long term management.

OTHER TOURISM MEASURES

There are a number of additional measures that would immediately improve the visitor experience in Gjirokastra and also help the local economy, including:
1. Bed and Breakfast Hotels: locate and develop a number of attractive local buildings to serve as Bed and Breakfast accommodations for tourists.
These would ideally be developed in a number of different locations, so that visitors could choose between their different characters, and the tourist activity could help activate these secondary town areas.
The Bead and Breakfast Hotels would be particularly appealing on the secondary streets, which are centrally located but quiet.
In particular, the Enver Hoxha hotel, down the hill from Fantasia Restaurant, seems ideally suited for restoration as a bed and breakfast.
It is large, was originally built as a hotel, and is sited in a lovely green garden setting, that isset high above and back from the road.
2. Trained Tour Guides: should be available to help interpret the rich history of Gjirokastra, Antigonea, and the Drino Valley.
To support tourism at Antigonea, selectively trained guides could use mini vans or other suitable transport to bring visitors from Gjirokastra to Asim Zeneli, where the tourists can visit the Tourism Center, the Rug Factory, and then either hike or ride to Antigonea with the guide.
Ideally, the guides would be personable and willing to talk about their community history and provide a more intimate view of Albanian culture and life.
3. Interpretive information: Visitors will care more (and talk more) about Gjirokastra if they understand the natural landscape and the historical and cultural development of the region.
A series of 4 to 5 interpretive maps showing the town development would clearly document the incremental growth of the town as it expanded along the remarkable ridges of the dramatic topography, and preserved the important drainage valleys.
The historical sequence would start with the north end of the castle in 3rd century BC, castle expansion atop the ridge, growth down and to the north along the Old Bazaar, growth along the other descending ridges and the New Bazaar, and finally the rapid expansion of the new town along the valley.
Similar to the excellent maps at Butrint, these interpretive maps would make Gjirokastra's rich natural and cultural history immediately clear.
These maps should be available as a simple handout, in addition to larger versions as interpretive displays.
4. Maps: Free maps should be available outside the tourism office and throughout the town, so that visitors can be immediately oriented and feel welcomed.

MUNICIPAL SERVICES

Gjirokastra must develop and enforce a reasonable and responsible policy for trash removal.
Litter and vast piles of accumulating trash increase daily, and give the very clear impression that the town in uncared for and is in decline.
Not only does it give tourists and funding agencies the impression of abandonment and decay, but discourages a sense of responsibility in otherwise upstanding citizens.

THE NEXT STEPS

An urban landscape master plan is the critical next step in formulating a sustainable strategy for the shaping of Gjirokastras urban and green landscape.
The plan should address 1) the role of the old town in the regional context, 2) relationship between the old and new towns to strengthen connections, and 3) the historic town.
The detailed inventory and maps compiled by Fabrizio Torresi and his team is an invaluable database for the landscape master plan.
International design competitions for some of the major public spaces could be an excellent way to generate new ideas, raise the public awareness of both Albania and Gjirokastra, and promote a sense of pride in the local residents.
Renovation of the urban path system should start immediately, as it builds upon the existing historic paths, is not directly dependent upon the landscape master plan, and will make and immediate and substantial contribution to the town.
This would also be an ideal opportunity for community involvement in the restoration efforts in Gjirokastra.

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS / REFERENCES

The findings and recommendations in this report would not have been possible without the cooperation and support of many individuals and organizations, including: Gjirokastra Conservation and Development Organization (GCDO), particularly Sadi Petrela and Elenita Roshi; Oliver Gilkes of the Butrint Foundation, Vice Mayor of Gjirokastra Vangjel Muço, and Albert Kasi.
In addition, the following reports and publications were particularly useful to our investigation:
Recovery Plan for the City of Stone, Fabrizio Torresi, 2006
'Moving Forward', Issue One, Prince Research Consultants, September 2006
'The Conservation and Development of Gjirokastra', Prince Research Consultants & John Robins Architects, June 2002
'A Key Tourism Development Project', Prince Research Consultants, October 2006
'Strategy & Action Plan for the Development of the Albanian Tourism Sector based on Cultural and Environmental Tourism' ('Tourism Strategy and Action Plan'), UNDP, December 2005
file: Gjirokastra.clo.LMP.July22.08.doc

Quote for use in report
Ishmail Kadare, Chronicle in Stone
As in other years, I found that the landscape around Grandfathers house had changed. At first glance things looked the same, but closer inspection revealed that certain paths were gone and others were slowly dying, while still others, new and frail but determined, were springing up amid the dust and grass. Pg. 213

 

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