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A History with a History

I&S chats with Beatrice Girelli of indidesign about her experience with historic preservation and the importance of proper research.


I&S chats with Beatrice Girelli of indidesign about her experience with historic preservation and the importance of proper research.

Beatrice Girelli, co-founder and design director of L.A.-based indidesign could teach the legends a thing or two. She has a master’s degree in architecture from the University of Rome, La Sapienza with a specialization in historic preservation and restoration; is both NCIDQ and Italian Architectural Board certified and licensed; and has also retained her license in the UK.

She’s worked on projects that range from a complete analysis and restoration for the “Casa del Burcardo” in Rome, a Renaissance building erected around the original Torre Argentina, that currently houses the museum of the SIAE (the Italian Writer’s Guild), to a renovation of the guestrooms and suites of the Palace Hotel—a listed landmark—in San Francisco. We sat down with her to learn more about the ins and outs of restoration work, and how she maintains the beauty of a time gone by.

I&S: What got you interested in the restoration of historical properties?
Girelli: Being born and raised in Italy, history is part of our culture and common imagery. In Italy, there are not a lot of opportunities for new builds, but there is a wealth of buildings to restore, and I saw it as the real future of the architecture in Italy and Europe.

I&S: What are some restoration projects you have worked on?
Girelli: My first project was participating in a study conducted by my university on the use of historical colors on the facades of 1700 and 1800 buildings in the Spanish Step area of Rome. The purpose was to develop a historically accurate palette for the area.

Subsequently I worked on the “Casa del Burcardo” in Rome, a renaissance building erected around the original Torre Argentina. Our research on this one was quite extensive and encompassed a very large number of items within the project. Often the research is more time consuming than the actual work because it’s about understanding the history in order to understand the correct methodology of repair.

We didn’t know we were dealing with the original tower the area was named after, and another exciting element was a painted mural scored into the original stucco. We had to read and reconstruct it, but obviously when you work in restoration you don’t just repaint it the same. You try to bring back the patches where the mural occurred and just have blank patches where the drawing was crumbled or stated out.

While living and working in the UK I worked on the conversion of two Georgian houses into a hotel in Herefordshire, and on the conversion of seven Georgian houses into a hotel in Dublin.

We are currently involved in the renovation of the Palace Hotel in San Francisco, and we hope that after the guestrooms we will be able to move ahead with the renovation of Garden Court, in the same property, which is a landmark within the landmark.

I&S: Why is it important to restore and preserve architecture?
Girelli: Because it is a testament to our history, culture, and sense of community. We do not burn literary masterpieces when they are 100 years old or throw valuable paintings away; we preserve them in libraries and museums. At the same rate, we should not walk away and abandon older buildings or neighborhoods that have shaped the fabric of our urban context and are part of our cultural heritage.

I&S: There is a special art to restoring historical properties. What is your process?
Girelli: Restoration is a pretty complex discipline, more developed in Europe (for obvious reasons) than elsewhere. It requires study and preparation, and it cannot be improvised. You really have to look at the history, at the layering, and practice common sense on what has historical value and what doesn’t. The process is also dictated by scientific parameters that regulate the discipline.

Serious projects entail an in-depth research of the history of the building, as accurate surveys and inventory are the foundation of the project. The research should extend to analysis of specific materials, compounds, setting, and building techniques used in the original building.

We study maps, drawings, and etchings, as well as historical photography. The prominence of the building is another important factor that can also hold clues. For instance, lower priority buildings in Rome were built with wood, so you know if you find anything in stone it means it had a level of formality.

I&S: How have the principles of restoration and preservation changed over time?
Girelli: In the 1800s, the common approach to restoration was to try to bring the building back to its original appearance, stripping down hundreds of layers of history. This created historical fakes, and it is no longer an accepted approach. In Italy for example, Baroque facades have been demolished to rebuild medieval or renaissance ones. However, rebuilding a new “medieval style” façade means creating a fake and not preserving the historical layering of the building.

The modern approach is to strip the building only of the non-historically relevant layers, but work to preserve the rest, with any architectural or structural addition clearly identifiable.

I&S: Who are some influential people in this historical restoration movement?
Girelli: In Italy the “modern” restoration movement was based on the
theories of Gustavo Giovannoni, and then replaced by the contemporary “case by case” theory and approach developed by Augusto Annoni. However the list of academics, historians, and architects that have contributed to shaping the image of the current restoration movement is a long one.