Neus Zapata: "We discover amazing things during each restoration at Casa Batlló"

Neus Zapata has been working in the restoration field for 32 years. Since the 1990s she has been the co-owner of a conservation and restoration company (ECRA S.L.) and she is currently facing one of the most exciting challenges of her career: restoring the Noble Floor at Casa Batlló.

What does working as a restorer at Casa Batlló mean to you?At the moment it is a great challenge. My company has been working at Casa Batlló for several years and at present we have several ongoing projects. Besides which, I am particularly fond of the House. When I was small, I used to drive by in the car with my parents and the façade always fascinated me. It was like a toy to me. The balconies used to be black and it had a phantasmagoric appearance. It used to hypnotise me.

What is your working day like?I usually work on the practical side of things. Although I have a company and we work with other collaborators, I almost always carry out restoration work. It is extremely important to be present at the site: it enables you to establish work patterns, plan everything carefully, resolve unexpected incidents… Everything runs more smoothly this way.

What is the usual restoration process?The first step is research: finding information, taking photos of the area and creating a mapping of alterations, in other words, a plan specifying all of the pathologies suffered by the surface or object subject to the restoration.

And then what?We diagnose the pathologies suffered by the building on an ornamental level and then we draw up an intervention proposal. It is usually necessary to conduct analyses, but you have to know what you are looking for. An analysis is an answer to a question. Therefore, you first need to think about what your doubt is, your hypothesis.

Detective work.Yes, it is! And then the cleaning process starts. We have to clean the surfaces that have been sullied over time. In the case of façades this is particularly important because we are in Barcelona, a city with a high level of pollution and which is close to the sea. Bear in mind that our priority is to preserve rather than to restore, and that implies preventive conservation. The material must be in good condition, and cleaning prevents deterioration. Something as simple as removing the superficial dust preserves materials in better conditions.

And the next step?After that, when necessary, we perform volumetric restoration. This means that we have to recover the existing volumes that have been lost over time. The final step is chromatic restoration. Often the colour is not consistent with the original, so you have to adjust it. And then there is consolidation and protection. It is sometimes necessary to protect the restored object with specific products to prevent the deterioration of the original.

Our priority is to preserve rather than to restore

And what are you doing now at Casa Batlló?At the moment we are restoring the stucco on the Noble Floor. After taking several samples, we discovered the original stucco hidden below several coats of paint. The walls talk. When you remove the paint you find hidden information.

Can you tell us more about stucco?Stucco is a wall plaster that can have many different types of finishes. It is usually done by hand and has 2 coats. The first is formed by lime, sand and it sometimes contains some marble dust. The second is usually formed by lime and very fine marble dust. But the stucco on the Noble Floor is special: it is not homogeneous, it has subtle colour gradations and it is different in each room. The rooms to the side of the house have more earthy and pinkish colours. By contrast, in the main room, which looks out onto Passeig de Gràcia, blues and greys prevail. In reality, the original walls were much lighter than the current ones.

And which steps do you take to restore it?Firstly, a scalpel is used to carry out a mechanical stripping, and then a chemical stripping is performed. We then clean the surface to remove residues. And finally the restoration work can take place, although different tests must be carried out before the original stucco can be replicated. It has been analysed by stucco experts and the application technique is still a mystery, although we can imagine.

What other challenges does this restoration entail?Mainly to minimise the impact on cultural visits and coordinate with the works. The House is still open and there are other works in progress, so we really have to pay particular attention to the implementation time and follow an extremely precise planning.

And you also work in a very small space.Yes! Sometimes there are 6 of us working in a small room, which is not easy. Luckily we are all very dedicated, and we are extremely familiar with Gaudí and have worked on other restorations. We really enjoy our job. It is a real vocation, although very tiring! Those of us who are dedicated to heritage have a very difficult job but with many rewards. It is extremely gratifying.

Had you worked on any of Gaudí’s creations before?Yes, on several of them: Palau Güell, Colonia Güell, Park Güell… I have also worked on the Mercè Pavilion at the Hospital de Sant Pau and on Puig i Cadafalch’s summer house in Argentona, among many others. But this House is really something special. I really enjoy working here. We discover amazing things during each restoration at Casa Batlló, there is always something new, hidden things… I have worked on many of Gaudí’s creations but at this House they gave him free reign to do what he wanted, and you can tell that he really had fun with it. It is apparent wherever you look: in the colours, the shapes, the light… If you compare it to his other creations this one is really different. Gaudí was happy here!