Giacinta Jean, Giulia Russo and Giovanni Nicoli are three experts in the conservation and restoration of decorative surfaces. The Swiss experts from the University of Applied Sciences and Arts of Southern Switzerland (SUPSI) came to Beirut in late September to assess the damages caused by the August 4th explosion on the stucco decorations of the Sursock Palace. In this interview, Professor Giacinta Jean talks about the mission, the emotions felt when entering the Palace and the academic collaborations that, with the support of RestART Beirut, could lead to a sustainable knowledge transfer and exchange.
What exactly was your mission and objective of your stay in Beirut in late September?
Giacinta Jean: Our aim is to contribute to the recovery of Sursock Palace, by activating our skills and knowledge acquired over many years in training and research for the conservation of architectural decorated surfaces. Above all, we hope that our mission in Beirut can provide concrete help in transforming an emergency situation into a cultural project, activating training activities for local professionals, collaboration with those already involved in the recovery of this precious cultural heritage at different levels (architectural, technical, interpretative and curatorial). In September we focused on the analysis of the stucco decorations, which are an important part of the cultural significance of the Sursock Palace.
[we felt] the profound desire to help in building up a sustainable and meaningful future for this place
What were your very first thoughts and emotions you had when you first stepped into the Palace and had your first walk around?
Giacinta Jean: On the one hand, a feeling of inadequacy in dealing with such a profound devastation, the sad awareness that it will not be possible to recover a pre-explosion situation in which the building showed itself to be the precious chest of a refined life, expression of the owners educated to the value of beauty. On the other hand, the profound desire to help in building up a sustainable and meaningful future for this place.
In what shape are the decorative surfaces and how badly have they have been damaged by the August 4th explosion?
Giacinta Jean: The explosion of August 4, 2020 caused very strong damages everywhere but also highlighted some intrinsic weaknesses of the plaster decoration due both to the executive techniques as well as to precedent decay phenomena. The lack of metal nails or bars anchoring the applied decorative casted elements and the lack of internal reinforcements, makes them fragile and prone to detachment. The effects of the blast were particularly severe for the ceilings of the second floor as the timber structure supporting the plaster was already weak and rotten, due to previous water infiltration from the roof.
we are considering forms of collaboration, both in terms of teaching and in a broader sense, considering what role the memory of the past can play in shaping the future
What are the specifities of these surfaces, the ancient techniques used, and what challenges you see for the upcoming restauration?
Giacinta Jean: The stucco decorations are partly handmade and partly composed of pre-casted elements mounted with a layer of plaster. They are the typical plaster decorations that can be found in the large houses of Beirut of the end of 19th century. The challenge for their preservation is to create technical and professional skills of local people able to take care of this kind of work, balancing conservation issues and the reintegration of the missing parts.
Next to the crucial next steps of the restauration, another important element will be the academic collaborations. What can you tell us about this (at this early stage)?
Giacinta Jean: During our stay, we were able to establish contacts with universities and professionals involved in the study, conservation and interpretation of the cultural heritage, with whom we are considering forms of collaboration, both in terms of teaching (technical and professional training) and in a broader sense, considering what role the memory of the past (in this case, a very tragic one) can play in shaping the future.
We are planning to start this winter, offering a workshop on the emergency and safety measures to be taken to secure the damaged architectural decorations, in which Swiss and Lebanese students will participate.
You can find some press reviews on the Swiss mission in our Press section.
All pictures by Giulia Russo