Page B1.2 . 18 July 2001                     
ArchitectureWeek - Building Department
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Roofs of Dubrovnik


The city of Dubrovnik engaged Italian architects whose concepts (even those of the Baroque period such as the St. Blaise Cathedral and the Jesuit church) would not conflict with the existing architecture. All buildings continued to be built in hard limestone with the same pale yellow and light red roofing tiles.

Aristocratic residences and most public buildings were unadorned, and other important buildings were rendered impressive through perspective and not size, thus creating an outstanding architectural ensemble of great cohesion.

The peace and tranquility of the old city is maintained largely due to the full exclusion of vehicles. However, this peace was disturbed by the war in 1991 when the Serbs bombed the old city despite its lack of strategic importance.

In all, 382 residential structures and 29 public buildings were damaged. This represented 86 percent of the area within the city walls. The worst devastation was caused by the burning of the roofs and interiors of seven palaces from the Baroque period.

Rebuilding the Roofscape

It was the destruction of the roof tiles that hurt the most. Throughout the city, including buildings outside the old walls, 438 roofs sustained direct hits and another 314 indirect.

Clay or terracotta tiles are among the most eye-catching and characteristic roofing materials used in medieval buildings. The shapes, colors, patterns, and textures are often the most important stylistic features of the historic structures.

Although they can last for centuries, the average life span of the terracotta-tiled roof is about one hundred years. Some Dubrovnik residents viewed the Serbian bombardment as a blessing in disguise: it provided a way to get the authorities to repair already damaged roofs.

The Institute for the Restoration of Dubrovnik was founded in 1979. Its establishment coincided with an earthquake and the decision for Dubrovnik to enter UNESCO's list of World Heritage Sites.

The initial task of the organization was to restore the monuments most affected by the earthquake. However, the end of the Serbo-Croatian War in 1992 imposed new responsibilities on the institute.

Institute architect Ivanka Jemo explains: "The restoration process is much slower than the renovation of a modern structure. Probably the most painstaking part of the job is the scrupulous documentation process."

"The basic principle when restoring historic structures is maintaining respect for their authenticity. We have tried to use traditional methods and materials as much as possible but this is not always possible."

The rooftops are a classic case of the new supplanting the old. The traditional roofing material used in Dubrovnik are tiles called "Kupe Kanalice," originally hand-manufactured in the shape of the human thigh.

During the Middle Ages the thighs of human models were used to mould the tiles. In the 1950s the factory was closed down. The nearest factory that could produce such "works of art" as the Dubrovnik tiles was a factory in France.

The new tiles seem to be a patchwork of colors and shades. Jemo explains: "UNESCO donated the first batch of tiles. They had the notion that the roofs should not be one unified color. Not everyone agreed with UNESCO's point of view, but being as they were donating the tiles we had to compromise."

The Reconstruction Never Ends

At the end of the hostilities, the Institute for the Restoration of Dubrovnik estimated that it would cost $250 million just to repair the damaged houses, and $152 million to equip them.

Most of the money comes from the state budget with donations from UNESCO and other charities. In a country with a total state budget of $4.7 billion, the money allocated to the restoration of Dubrovnik is no trivial handout.

Jemo considers the Sponza Palace to be the biggest achievement of the restoration. "We have not started the actual renovation yet," she says, "but all the research and documentation is finished and work will begin on the structure when funds are made available."

The Palace was built in a mix of late Gothic and Renaissance styles. Designed by the chief architect of the Dubrovnik Republic, Paskoje Milicevic, it was constructed in 1516 as a customhouse.

As in many cases when major restoration work has to be carried out, archeologists seized on the opportunity to undertake extensive research.

Their most significant find was at the site of the Dubrovnik Cathedral. In the lower section of the building they discovered the remains of another, more ancient and previously unknown Byzantine cathedral dating from the 7th century, upon whose ruins the later cathedral had been built.

The institute's work is a never-ending battle against the forces of nature and human nature: 1979 earthquake, 1990 fire, 1991 bombardment, 1995 earthquake, 1996 series of quakes.

Explains Jemo: "Taking into consideration the high level of seismic activity in this region, we have also taken measures to reinforce the buildings to withstand an earthquake with a magnitude of VIII on the Mercalli scale."

(The Mercalli scale measures the effect of an earthquake rather than its intensity. In a level-VIII earthquake, houses that are not bolted down may shift on their foundations, and tall structures such as towers and chimneys might twist and fall.)

The restoration team has repaired over 80 percent of the roofs since the cease-fire in 1992. Even during the "troubles," the institute was working to document the damage for future reference. At any given time they are working on twenty different buildings.

Lord Byron named Dubrovnik the "Pearl of the Adriatic." The effects of war might have dulled the luster of this gem, but the Croatian people have been quick in revitalizing the city's assets.

While other cities in Europe boast elaborate Baroque and Renaissance architecture with flamboyant doorways and extravagant domed roofs, Dubrovnik's appeal lies in its well-built simplicity and functionality.

Steven Allan is a freelance photographer and writer born in London, currently living in Tel-Aviv.



ArchWeek Photo

The tile roofs of Dubrovnik, much the same as they've appeared for centuries.
Photo: Steven Allan

ArchWeek Photo

The medieval city with the courtyard of the Franciscan monastery in the foreground.
Photo: Steven Allan

ArchWeek Photo

The patchwork of old and new tiles.
Photo: Steven Allan

ArchWeek Photo

New tiles imported from France.
Photo: Steven Allan

ArchWeek Photo

Paving one of the many streets that were hit by mortar fire.
Photo: Steven Allan

ArchWeek Photo

A street in Dubrovnik.
Photo: Steven Allan

ArchWeek Photo

The walls of the old city were not damaged by the war but are in need of constant repair. Their renovation is funded by the proceeds from the fee levied for the ramparts walk.
Photo: Steven Allan

ArchWeek Photo

The Sponza Palace built in 1516 as a customhouse.
Photo: Steven Allan


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