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The Glimpse Series: Beatriz del Cueto Examines Ancient Technologies and Modern Interventions to Preserve Buildings Back Home

Dicembre 7, 2011
Traditional Roman building technology at the Acqua Claudia, Parco degli Acquedotti, Rome.
Beatriz del Cueto in front of a house built within the arches of the Acquedotto Alessandrino along Via del Mandrione in Rome.
Structural retrofit and restoration of the historic vaults and roofs of the Basilica di San Francesco in Assisi. View from within the hanging scaffold.
Conserved state of the concrete structure for the Paul VI Audience Hall at the Vatican designed by Pierluigi Nervi during the 1960s.

The “Glimpse Series” offers a closer view of the AAR community’s current Rome Prize winners by delving further into their studios or studies, their daily routines or work in progress. The scholarly and artistic work being pursued continues to be as varied as the fellowship recipients themselves. The following “Glimpse” focuses on Beatriz del Cueto, FAIA, principal at Pantel del Cueto & Associates, an historic preservation consulting firm in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and the National Endowment for the Arts Fellow in Historic Preservation and Conservation.

Describe a particularly inspiring moment or location you've experienced in Rome thus far.

Inspiring, by far, has been the generosity of the Italian professionals I have had the pleasure and privilege to meet (mostly architects, engineers and archaeologists). They have willingly shared details of their professional work, taken me on site visits to discuss their projects, and provided copies of their publications and investigative work. No one has ever refused to collaborate once requested, and the Academy’s Programs Office has been very helpful and efficient in obtaining access to specific sites and interviews. One-on-one professional exchange of ideas and concepts (even in my version of “Spanglo-Italian” language which includes extensive use of hand gestures) has been truly inspiring and essential for my research.

Many inspiring moments also occur during meal times at the Academy. Fellow colleagues from very different professions to mine (literature, history, art, music, film, and poetry, among others) make up the community and I’ve found that their particular perceptions of an historic site or place have made specific details more relevant and different understandings possible. Resident scholars have also provided invaluable advice and different points of view from their professional perspectives, not only personally, but also through their exemplary presentations.

To what extent, if any, has your proposed project changed since your arrival?

Visiting completed or ongoing conservation projects (such as those in Pozzuoli, Baiae, Ercolano, Ostia Antica, etc.) over the course of my six months here was, from the start, an important aspect of my research as I am re-documenting traditional Roman building technologies that form the basis of Spanish-influenced colonial structures in the Caribbean. I also intended to document all types of Italian intervention procedures into the historic fabric, specifically related to masonry structures, since Italians are known experts in the field. Masonry buildings make up most of the built patrimony that has survived through time in the Spanish Caribbean region, the main subject of my project. I anticipated that these site experiences would enrich the historic preservation and conservation practices, which form the basis of my professional practice. 

As a result of these site visits, the publication I am working on has expanded and evolved to include topics, which I’ve found to be of utmost relevance in the protection and conservation of the cultural heritage sites and structures in general. These themes were not unknown to me, yet have become more important as I have become aware of their significance within a successful architectural conservation project.

Among these topics are: the use of appropriate and design-compatible covers to protect and help maintain historic sites – such as those deployed at Ercolano in Napoli; the use of high-tech, digital and contemporary technologies and materials to help interpret and explain an historic place – like those used at the Temple of Apollo at Veio; innovative repair materials and techniques for earthquake retrofit situations – witnessed at the Basilica di San Francesco at Assisi and at the Mercati di Traiano in Rome; as well as prevention and model programs to protect cultural heritage sites exposed to natural or man-made crises.

This last topic was the subject of an international conference which took place at the Academy this fall entitled Saving Cultural Heritage in Crisis Areas. Guest speakers and participants included representatives from the military, academia, government and non-governmental organizations and gave me a better grasp of the way these crises are interpreted and, in some instances, resolved and had a profound effect on me personally.

What aspect of your project are you most looking forward to?

Cement and reinforced concrete are among the building technologies that I have been investigating and most of the structures built utilizing them between the 1910s to the 1950s, require preservation world-wide. This is certainly true in Puerto Rico where a large part of the building stock is, and has traditionally relied on reinforced concrete since the early 1900s. And this is why it’s important for me to visit and document more recent buildings produced by such important Italian designers as Pierluigi Nervi, Enrico Del Debbio, Luigi Moretti, and Riccardo Morandi who took concrete technologies to new heights.

In particular I will be looking at structures built utilizing modified technologies of traditional reinforced concrete. These were mostly erected during the Second World War period when steel was very scarce or unavailable. Some key sites in Rome have been accessible on the tours given by T. Corey Brennan, AAR Andrew W. Mellon Professor (like those to the Foro Italico and the Vatican Audience Hall), but I am just starting this part of my research and look forward to visiting the Foro Olimpico, EUR, and the buildings at La Sapienza’s Cittá Universitaria. It will be very interesting to document the present state of these structures, to assess how they have survived through time, and to see any contemporary repairs or conservation work that may serve as models.

How do you anticipate your Rome Prize Fellowship will influence future work?

Returning to Rome with my husband Dr. Agamemnon Pantel after having lived and studied together at the International Center for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property (ICCROM) in 1984, has provided important answers and experiences during this phase of my architectural conservation career. After 28 years as a professional in the Caribbean, my approach and our practice were in need of re-assessment and renewal.

Rome, which is somehow different (more exuberant and beautiful), and yet the same (full of secrets, still), and the other Italian cities and projects visited, have provided a fresh look at everyday historic preservation matters. If nothing more, the AAR fellowship has provided the opportunity to revisit and the time to reaffirm the professional concepts we are pursuing in our projects and teaching work back home. These unique re-encounters with a varied form of my initial questions will undoubtedly enrich and refresh my future work in the Spanish Caribbean and particularly in Puerto Rico -- or wherever destiny takes me.