Howard J. Backen, FAIA
principal, founding partner
After completing his education at the School of Architecture at the University of Oregon in 1961, Howard J. Backen, FAIA, along with fellow graduate, Robert V. Arrigoni, FAIA, decided they wanted to launch their careers in the city of San Francisco. In 1967 the two of them along with another University of Oregon graduate, Edgar B. Ross, FAIA, started their own practice called Backen Arrigoni and Ross (BAR). Howard remained in the highly successful firm for 35 years and saw it grow from the three of them to a staff of over 100.
The firm developed both small and large scale housing projects, high and low density, high and low income housing, student housing, and senior housing. Design also included urban, suburban, rural, and wilderness housing. In the 1980’s BAR designed high-profile projects for the entertainment industry, which included Robert Redford’s Sundance Institute, MGM Studios Theme Park, Disney’s Sound Studios in Burbank, and a score of other theaters. In the mid 80’s Howard had the privilege to design the headquarters for the Delancey Street Foundation in San Francisco, an innovative and highly successful rehabilitation institute for former convicts and drug abusers. That project has not only won many awards for the humanitarian services it provides, but has also been recognized for the beauty and unique design it offers to the city of San Francisco. Most of Howard’s work on the project was pro bono as a service to the community. He was awarded the 1992 Award of Excellence by the Urban Land Institute for Delancey Street. The project’s success has been featured on ‘60 Minutes’ and numerous other TV programs and publications. Also during this time, Howard designed the Aspen Institute for Humanistic Studies in Aspen, Colorado, a Graduate Student Housing project on the Stanford campus in Palo Alto, and the Thoreau Hall Student Residence complex at the University of California, Davis campus. While at BAR, Howard designed a number of prototype stores for a then new store called Pottery Barn. The international projects Howard has designed include a ski resort in Korea, the Teacher’s Training Institute in Tehran, Iran, and Stars Restaurant in Singapore. The firm won a large number of AIA, HUD, and building industry awards, and has been published in numerous magazine articles and books.
In 1996 Howard made the decision to take his career in a slightly different direction and started an entirely new firm with offices in Sausalito, St. Helena & Beverly Hills. That decision proved to be one of the most exciting decisions of his life and he remains 100 percent engaged in this current firm, Backen & Gillam Architects.
In 2013, From The Land was published. The monograph is the first volume showcasing 38 of the firm’s projects from the last 22 years. We are currently in production of the second and third volumes.
Jim Gillam, AIA
Principal, Founding Partner
After receiving his Bachelor of Architecture degree from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, James Gillam began his career in 1968 with The Architects’ Collaborative, a firm founded by Walter Gropius. Jim was awarded the Rotch Travelling Scholarship Prize in Architecture by the Boston Society of Architects, and through it was able to study the architecture of Southeast Asia, India, and Western Asia first-hand. Jim went on to receive a graduate degree from the prestigious Architectural Association School of Architecture in London. Jim entered private practice in 1978, offering design services to both corporate and private clients.
As a founding principal of Backen & Gillam Architects, Jim has been involved with the design of many hospitality and retail clients. He is the Lead Designer for all new Restoration Hardware Galleries. The most significant Galleries currently under construction include the Galleries in Upper Lake Shore, Chicago, and in the Meat Packing District in New York (close to the Whitney Museum and to the High Line). In the last couple of years, several notable RH Galleries have been completed, including ones in the former Historic Museum of Natural Science in Boston, the Historic Post Office in Greenwich, Connecticut, Melrose Avenue in West Hollywood, and in Buckhead, Atlanta.
In addition to Restoration Hardware, Jim has designed and is involved in numerous ongoing projects for the Santa Catalina Island Company, including the Avalon Grill, Descanso Beach Club, re-design of the Pavilion Hotel, and El Encanto Spa. Many of Jim’s restaurant clients include Coast Restaurant at Shutters-on-the-Beach, and Catch Restaurant at Hotel Casa Del Mar in Santa Monica, which won the Best Restaurant Design Award in Angeleno magazine.
All of Jim’s designs reflect great care and respect for environmental context. His love of architecture has always centered on his desire to create responsive and compelling spatial relationships that inspire and are therefore valuable.
Jim’s work has been published in various publications, including Progressive Architecture, Brava Casa, Architectura / Madrid, San Francisco Focus, Hospitality Design, San Francisco After the Fire, The San Francisco Guide to Recent Architecture and The New Architecture of San Francisco. Jim has taught as a Visiting Lecturer at the College of Environmental Design at U.C. Berkeley, and he was a juror for the ASLA Annual Design Awards.
With over 25 years of architecture experience, John worked on commercial, institutional, and residential projects for firms in Los Angeles and San Diego, including several years with Charles Moore prior to joining Backen & Gillam. John holds a bachelor of architecture degree from the University of Southern California and is a licensed architect in the state of California.
John joined Backen & Gillam Architects in 1998 and has been involved in winery, restaurant, resort, and residential projects. In collaboration with Howard Backen, John has worked on the design of many of the firm’s winery projects, including Dana Estates Winery, MacMurray Ranch, Larkmead Winery, Marciano Winery, and Continuum Winery. John was also involved in Cyrus Restaurant, which won the Michelin Guide’s two-star award, as well as other restaurant, resort and residential projects.
Luca Pignata, AIA
After completing his education in Architecture and Urban Design at the University of Florence, Italy, Luca started his career at architecture firms in Milan and Florence, where he worked on residential and retail projects, as well as exhibition halls throughout Italy and parts of Europe.
Luca joined the firm in 2000, he was promoted to Associate in 2005 and Principal in 2016. In collaboration with Howard Backen, Luca has designed and managed a wide variety of projects, ranging from private residences and restaurants, to resorts and wineries.
Some of Luca’s most notable projects include Ram’s Gate Winery in Sonoma, which has been published in many newspapers and magazines, numerous residential projects throughout the Bay Area, two resorts just outside of Yosemite National Park for the First Light Destination group, and wineries in Casole d’Elsa, Tuscany (Italy), Patagonia (Argentina) and Shanghai (China). He is currently working on several residences in Carmel by the Sea, Portola Valley, Malibu and Saint Helena as well as resorts in South Carolina, Napa and Woodinville, WA.
Silvia Nobili is a Principal in our St. Helena office. Silvia joined the firm in 2002 and worked as a Senior Project Manager in both the St. Helena and Sausalito offices and became a Principal in 2016. She works closely with Howard Backen on many of the firm’s large residential and high profile winery projects.
Born in a town near Lake Como, Italy, Silvia attended the Politecnico di Milano, Italy where she graduated with a Masters in Architecture. She received a scholarship at Universidad de Valladolid, Spain, where she studied for a year. She is fluent in Italian, English and Spanish.
Kirby Lee, AIA
Kirby joined Backen & Gillam Architects in 2006 and quickly demonstrated the quality of design and client engagement that the company has become renowned for. As a Principal of the firm, she leads some of the most innovative and bespoke projects that have set the industry standard for high-end architectural design. Her clients value not only her design sensibility and sensitivity but her ability to collaborate closely with them to transform their vision into reality.
Her projects are notably diverse and include a 2,500-acre hospitality and cattle ranch in Dallas|Fort Worth, Texas; a Wine Country family farm estate; an Italian-style villa compound in Montecito; and, a boutique hotel, restaurant and luxury housing development in Monterrey, Mexico, amongst many others. While all distinctive in design, they all share a high level of attention to detail and client satisfaction.
Backen & Gillam’s philosophy of designing from “what is given” is at the core of Kirby’s creative process. Although each project is unique and responds to its own client, site, and program, all have a strong sense of place and remain honest to the local materials and vernacular. Thus, Kirby prefers not to be defined by a singular aesthetic, rather characterized by her understanding of proportion and scale, connection and response to nature, and intentional restraint.
Born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area, Kirby received her Bachelor of Arts in Architecture degree from the University of California, Berkeley. Her theoretical education, in concert with her interest in problem-solving through inventive, tangible solutions, fueled her architectural pursuits. She is a registered architect in the State of California and a member of the American Institute of Architects (AIA).
Marta Alabau, AIA
Director of Operations
Marta joined Backen & Gillam Architects in 2011 and during her time here she has successfully led multiple residential and commercial projects and developed best practices in the areas of project management. As the Director of Operations Marta places her focus on the business of architecture at Backen & Gillam. She is passionate about “the design of practice” and collaborates closely with the Principals and the business operations team in developing and implementing systems and standards that, at the project level, support the firms values and goals. In addition to being involved in architectural projects, mentorship and training, and she has created novel approaches to client development, workflow and staffing strategies and project budgeting for the firm.
Marta earned her Masters’ Degree in Architecture from the Polytechnic University in Valencia, Spain and is licensed to practice architecture in both California and Spain. Marta has also earned Certificates in Project Management and in Leadership Management through UC Berkeley Extension. Prior to moving to San Francisco, she practiced architecture in Dublin, Ireland, and in London, England. Besides her deep passion for her work, Marta enjoys travel, riding her motorcycle and scuba diving.