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Preserving the beauty of Buskett

The restoration project of three scheduled farmhouses in Buskett has clinched the Din l-Art Ħelwa Award for Architectural Heritage. Architect Jean Frendo describes to Simonne Pace how the properties were painstakingly but beautifully brought back to life as part of a management plan drawn up to capitalise on the area’s tourism potential.

BeforeBefore

After: The properties, including Tal-Bagħal farmhouse, pictured before and after, were in a dilapidated and very poor state of repair. Mainly for this reason, few visitors were aware of their true historical worth.After: The properties, including Tal-Bagħal farmhouse, pictured before and after, were in a dilapidated and very poor state of repair. Mainly for this reason, few visitors were aware of their true historical worth.

Restoration of three government-owned properties in Buskett, planted by the Knights of Malta, has earned the project and the mind behind it a Din l-Art Ħelwa Award for Architectural Heritage.

“Tal-Bagħal, Tal-Ispirtu and Tal-Bosk farmhouses are surviving relics of the past. For this reason, the properties are scheduled by Mepa as Grade 1-listed buildings. Heritage protection status increased the need for such a project, aimed to restore these farmhouses and propose efficient uses to safeguard and market the historical heritage of Buskett,” points out architect Jean Frendo, who was responsible for the restoration project.

For the past 11 years, Ms Frendo, who is based at the Restoration Directorate, has been involved in various restoration projects of important buildings, wayside and village chapels and a watch tower.

The Restoration Directorate within the Tourism Ministry is the main government entity which implements and executes restoration works on public property and rehabilitation initiatives within the local historical urban contexts.

The properties were in a very poor state of repair. Mainly for this reason, few visitors were aware of their true historical worth. The walls of the courtyards of Tal-Bagħal farmhouse had disappeared and practically all the ceilings had collapsed with the exception of two small ground-floor rooms. The remaining main facade and part of an external wall were also on the verge of collapse.

Most of the internal walls of Tal-Bosk farmhouse had also collapsed and been further vandalised. The walls of its courtyard were demolished, while most of its ceilings were non-existent. A part of the ceiling had been blackened by soot and most of the stone slabs were cracked.

Tal-Ispirtu farmhouse had suffered loss of its structural roofing system and climbers covered some of its walls. Access to the building was also difficult due to collapsed building material.

Ms Frendo is involved in other works being carried out in Buskett, such as the restoration of dry rubble walls and of the arched water culvert near the entrance to Tal-Bagħal farmhouse. A management plan for Buskett has been drawn up and the restoration of the three farmhouses together with other planned works in the area, are important measures being taken to give back Buskett its deserved status.

Buskett’s natural and cultural heritage dates back to the 17th century, when the Knights embarked on the afforestation of the valley, thus creating Malta’s largest semi-natural woodland. The 16th century fortified Verdala Palace serves as the most prominent historic landmark in Buskett.

According to 1867 plans, Tal-Bagħal farmhouse consisted of three courtyards, a store room, three stables and one room on the first floor. The building was used for animal husbandry and the rooms as storehouses for crops, tools, guns and bird-watching equipment as well as temporary shelters from the rain and sun.

A management plan for Buskett has been drawn up and the restoration of the three farmhouses together with other planned works in the area are important measures being taken to give back Buskett its deserved status

Tal-Ispirtu farmhouse, a two-storey building, is the smallest of the three properties. According to historic plans, it was made up of a store room, small kitchen and an underlying stable.

Tal-Bosk farmhouse lies within a grove of mature pine trees within the holm, oak and pine woodland area on the upper boundary of Buskett. An 1867 plan shows that the farmhouse had three courtyards, a storeroom, two stables, a pigsty and an overlying room.

The first time Ms Frendo visited the three sites, they were overgrown with vegetation and fallen debris and rubble.

“The plans we had found shed little light on how the reconstruction of the damaged rooms were to take place. We looked at tell-tale signs of pockets in the walls, where timber beams had been inserted or the springing of arches jutting forlornly out of walls, the rest of the ceiling having collapsed. It was like a 3D jigsaw puzzle with missing pieces and we had to remain as faithful as possible to the original structure, the three building all being scheduled.”

Does restoration of historical buildings confine the work of an architect? Ms Frendo believes that “once one understands the spirit of a historic building, one immediately becomes faithful to its restoration. The challenge usually lies more in its rehabilitation without compromising its original identity. It is useless to preserve a relic without a function, as with time it will become uncared for and soon run again into disrepair”.

The sites were first cleared from vegetation covering a large area of the ruins. The most difficult access was that to Tal-Bosk, which was through a rocky path that had to be covered in geo-textile and stone spalls not to damage ecological features.

“As a considerable number of walls and roofs had collapsed over the years, the farmhouses were full of masonry blocks, pieces of stone and rubble. All stonework found in and around the site was carefully marked and stored for future reuse. The location where stones were found was clearly indicated on a drawing so that they could be reinstated in their original location,” the architect explains.

Only manual methods were used to remove weeds and vegetation from the buildings. The utmost was done to preserve the original masonry fabric. However, when walls were too deteriorated or structurally unstable, they had to be dismantled.

Reconstruction of fallen masonry had to be similar to traditional building techniques. Double walls were constructed with bond stones that spanned the entire wall; these matched the originals found on site.

“Stonework beyond repair was carefully removed and reinstated with stone similar to the original in material, colour, shape and configuration. Exposed surfaces were finished by traditional hand tools.”

It was like a 3D jigsaw puzzle with missing pieces and we had to remain as faithful as possible to the original structure, the three buildings all being scheduled

Old stonework was carefully brushed off using a stiff nylon brush to remove dirt, unstable layers and flaky stones. Prior to pointing/repointing, all open joints were cleaned from dust and loose materials and the surrounding stones adequately wetted by de-ionised water.

“It was crucial that any water used throughout the cleaning operation was free from salts. No chemical agents were permitted, not even the use of tap water. The aim of the exercise was primarily that of cleaning the face of the stone, removing accumulation of carbon, sulphurous compounds and other contaminants while retaining the patina of time.”

In areas where the stonework remained stained, other methods were applied, such as washing with water at low pressure and micro-sandblasting, which do not harm the stone. Roofs and timber beams in danger of collapse were dismantled and reconstructed. Reconstruction of missing ceilings was carried out using the original system of limestone arches and stone slabs (xorok).

Red deal was utilised to replace damaged timber beams. Insulation was inserted in the roof construction, which was protected by laying waterproofing membrane above a roofing screed. In keeping with the surroundings, limestone paving slabs were laid above the roof construction.

The three farmhouses will be run by the Parks and Initiatives Directorate within the Ministry for Sustainable Development, Environment and Climate Change. Electrical, water and drainage services are in the process of being brought to the three sites. Security cameras will also be installed to reduce vandalism in the area.

Being the largest farmhouse, Tal-Bagħal lends itself well as an interpretation centre for visitors.

“The intention is to use the different rooms to cater for the various target groups intent on different activities. A reception area was designed to provide information on the historical and natural features of Buskett, including aspects of geomorphology, hydrology, ecology, cultural heritage and various walks in the area. Buskett being a protected bird sanctuary, two further uses will be bird watching and astronomical observation.”

Tal-Ispirtu farmhouse will be used as a base and to provide facilities for ecological wardens, who will be employed and trained to manage day-to-day activities at Buskett and protect the site from illegal hunting and dumping of rubbish.

“The structure will be used for storage of basic equipment, including fire-fighting equipment. The lower level will act a small showcase of traditional agricultural produce derived from the locality.

The location of Tal-Bosk farmhouse is considered to be quite sensitive, given its proximity to the garrigue area of Ix-Xagħra ta’ Laroka and to the natural woodland at Il-Bosk ta’ Rapa. For this reason, it was found inadvisable to propose uses that would involve constant heavy flows of visitors.

The use being proposed is that of an atelier, a workshop space for specific science and knowledge-related events, such as biodiversity conservation, rural sciences, cultural heritage or folklore, which could be managed by educational organisations and NGOs.

The €600,764 project was co-financed by the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development and the government. Throughout all phases of the restoration, from the initial clearing of debris throughout the process and finishing works, extreme care was taken to safeguard the historic fabric of the farmhouses, together with the surrounding woodland, which is a Natura 2000 site.

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