News | Sunday, 07 December 2008

Piano’s ‘allegro non troppo’

The resuscitation of the Renzo Piano plan for City Gate and the Opera House has been cautiously welcomed, but controversy is never too far behind a project that has waited in the wings for 60 years

Raphael Vassallo
Former tourism minister Francis Zammit Dimech once quipped that if we took any longer to rebuild the Royal Opera House – which has been a gaping wound in the architectural fabric of Valletta ever since it was bombed in World War II, and dismantled shortly afterwards – the site itself would have to be scheduled for its archaeological value.
To date no one has actually recommended preserving what little remains of the once imposing structure; but nonetheless, it seems the site itself somehow continues to touch a nerve among the population at large – including the vast majority who have no memory at all of either the building itself, or the tradition for high culture it once embodied.
It seems that Edward Barry’s celebrated Theatre Royal – criticised when first built as out of synch with the city’s Baroque character – has survived in spirit, if not in substance, to become a symbol of all that Malta once cherished, but has since lost. From this perspective – and at the risk of doing a well-worn cliché to death – it seems we can truly talk of a “phantom of the Opera House”. It is perhaps for this reason, too, that all talk of rebuilding the theatre to a new design has to date been mired in controversy.

Reversing history
Among the institutions to cautiously welcome the project was the Kamra Tal-Periti: an important boost for the government’s plans, as the decision to unilaterally appoint the world-renowned Italian architect could conceivably have ruffled his local equivalents’ feathers.
The chamber’s current president, David Felice, dismisses any notion of professional jealousy out of hand.
“This could be the most important thing that has happened to our sector in recent times,” he explains. “It takes a great architect to design the entrance to a great city...”
Few, in fact, now doubt Renzo Piano’s credentials for the job. Even Prof. Richard England – the architect once commissioned for the same project – gallantly claimed it was an “honour to make way for a Master of such calibre”.
But like the former Opera House itself, Piano’s original designs for both gate and theatre have since entered the collective consciousness as almost the stuff of legend.
“Even among architects today, there is this sensation that we may have missed out on a unique opportunity 20 years ago,” David Felice observes, with reference to the enormous controversy elicited by Renzo Piano’s first designs, submitted in 1988. “How often do you get a chance to reverse history...?”
Felice now admits to a certain surprise that the resuscitation of Piano’s involvement, so controversial in the past, has caused hardly a tremor this time round.
“There has been very little discussion that I have noticed,” he points out, “What little there was, focused mainly on the choice of Piano, and even then, it was mostly positive... evidently not many have noticed that this implies that the original design is now definitely a thing of the past.”
Asked to account for this apparent national change of heart, Felice suggests that “the original plans may simply have been 20 years ahead of their time.”
For David Felice, however, this project may prove a catalyst to bring Malta’s architecture forward as a whole.
“We desperately need a design project that breaks new ground and sets new standards,” he says. “It may become an inspiration for architects, for architecture students... and certainly, Valletta itself deserves no less.”
Significantly, however, while the chamber of architects is thoroughly behind the choice of Renzo Piano as architect, it has to date reserved judgement on the Prime Minister’s intention to relocate Parliament to the old theatre site.
“We have so far limited our opinions to the overall plan, and have not passed any comment regarding the intended use,” Felice explains.

Facebook outrage
The intended use appears to have now taken over from design issues as the bone of contention number one. Most vociferous of the critics is theatre producer Adrian Buckle, of Unifaun Productions, whose response to the proposal was to launch a Facebook crusade against the Parliament relocation.
Entitled “No to House of Parliament instead of Opera House”, his group attracted over 1,500 members in just two days.
As Buckle bluntly puts it: “Instead of investing in culture, this government is giving culture a kick in the ass.” And from a cursory glance at the comments on his site, it seems that Malta’s tightly-knit theatre community generally agrees.
While stressing that the objection has nothing to do with Piano himself (“He’s welcome to come here and design a theatre”, he commented on the website), Adrian Buckle rubbishes the oft-raised arguments that the local demand for drama is already well serviced by existing Valletta theatres such as the Manoel, MITP and the Mediterranean Conference Centre.
“If that is what they (politicians) think, they should be ashamed of themselves,” he declares. “It is a shameful admission, which reveals the extent of the authorities’ disregard for culture. Of course Valletta needs more theatres, and the old Opera House site is ideal for one. It is just across the road from St James, and could be an extension of the existing creativity centre...”
Inviting a comparison with London, Buckle adds that Valletta has the potential to become another West End.
“There aren’t theatres all over London, and not all over the UK either,” he remarks. “They are concentrated in specific districts. Besides, I think the government is unaware of the business and commercial potential that cultural activities and initiatives have to offer. It should take a look at what’s happening all over Europe, and see that whenever governments invest in culture, they also create jobs and revenue...”
But as things stand, this project will not contribute anything to the people at large, but only for the parliamentarians themselves.
“Instead of the public enjoying something for themselves, it will only be some 65 MPs who will benefit from this project,” Buckle ruefully adds. “It goes to show where the country’s real priorities are...”
A similar sentiment is echoed by former Din l-Art Helwa activist Miriam Cremona, herself a Valletta stalwart. Not exactly the type to pull punches, Mrs Cremona describes the dismantling of all culture nodes, to make way for commerce and political structures, as a case of “cultural genocide”.
“To suggest that Valletta is saturated with theatres is sheer nonsense,” she says emphatically. “We might not need an Opera House of the type we had before the war, and I would understand if it was combined with some other cultural use, but to claim that a new theatre is unnecessary is nothing less than an insult.”
Pointing out that we have just elevated our National Orchestra to Philharmonic level, Mrs Cremona argues that by ditching the Opera House for a new Parliament, Malta’s politicians are only betraying the “high esteem in which they hold themselves.”
“There are 101 other places Parliament can be moved to,” she adds. “Like for example Fort St Elmo, which is crying out for renovation anyway.”
However, while Miriam Cremona fought valiantly to have the original Barry design rebuilt in the 1980s, she now concedes that the time may have come to move on.
“I don’t have the memories my mother had of the Theatre Royal, although I played in the ruins as a child and have an affinity with the space. As for City Gate, I certainly wasn’t around when the original was built (in the 16th century); but I remember the British-built gate which was eventually demolished in the 1960s, and even if it was different from the original, it was certainly complementary to the surroundings.”
Today, Miriam Cremona is willing to scale back her previous insistence on a faithful historic reconstruction.
“I can understand that times have changed,” she says. “I feel the new building should be a modern structure that blends in with the unique environment of Valletta.”

Integrated approach
Nonetheless the Parliament idea also has its defenders. Heritage Malta’s Ray Bondin, formerly of the Valletta Rehabilitation Committee, argues that a meaningful regeneration of Valletta can never happen without a comprehensive solution to the problems facing its entrance area.
“In my first speech in Parliament in 1987, I stated that the Opera House site should house Parliament,” he recalls. “Then, in 1990, I very much supported the idea of a National Arts Centre, as I also much believe that Valletta needs more cultural space.”
This argument, however, has since been superseded by the rehabilitation of the St James Cavalier as a centre for creativity, including a theatre.
But Dr Bondin disagrees with the idea of moving Parliament to St Elmo. “Fort St Elmo can only be a heritage, cultural and museum area,” he explains. “Nothing else would be appropriate... except maybe a small boutique hotel.”
Above all, though, what attracts Ray Bondin to this project is the fact that finally, Valletta will be given the holistic, integrated approach it deserves.
“Once you redevelop the Opera House site, you have to do City Gate and Freedom Square together,” he claims, adding that Renzo Piano is the right person for the job.
“Piano will bring great prestige to Valletta,” Dr Bondin asserts. “Valletta needs him.”
Meanwhile, for artist and theatre director Dr Giuseppe Schembri Bonaci, the the Opera House site also has a special, personal significance.
Schembri was born and bred in Valletta, and remembers the Barry edifice as a child. But he is also the founder of Teatru Strada Stretta, and his production of Marlowe’s Dr Faustus in the early 1990s marked the first time the “Teatru Mwaqqa’” – as it is suggestively known in Maltese – was used as a theatre since 1940.
“I agree with the need for this project in general,” Dr Schembri Bonaci says today about the concept of a Master Plan for the entrance to Valletta. “But I can’t comment on the actual project itself, because I haven’t seen the plans.”
Schembri Bonaci, however, is altogether less enthusiastic about the idea of using the former theatre to house a new Parliament.
“I don’t doubt Parliament should move from where it is today,” he explains, “but for me, to place it at the very entrance to the capital city imparts a strange message. I’m not sure I’d want to see Parliament as the first thing upon entering Valletta; but I admit this is a premature reaction, because we have yet to see what Piano has in mind...”
According to Schembri, the idea could work, but only if incorporated into a wider conceptual project, which also involves Floriana.
“I don’t mean to interfere with Piano’s designs, but I have always thought it would make more sense to re-design City Gate as part of a plan which also includes the Mall of Floriana.”
Referring to the mile-long public garden that stretches from the Gothic former Anglican church (today the Robert Samut Hall) to the Triton’s Fountain, the Mall is exactly aligned with Republic Street, and as such was clearly intended to lead up to the erstwhile Putirjal in a gradual procession – an effect which has since been shattered by the creation of a bus terminus in between.
“If the new Piano design can manage to reintegrate City Gate with the Floriana garden leading up to it, then it wouldn’t be so jarring to relocate Parliament to the Opera House site,” Schembri points out. “Either way, personally I think the project should also take Floriana into account.”

Footnotes on an Opera House
• Contrary to widespread misconception, the Theatre Royal was not exactly destroyed by enemy action in April 1942. It is true that a single bomb tore through the roof and caused serious structural damage upon detonation inside. But much of the building survived the explosion, and was slowly dismantled in the decade after the war, as the ruins posed a danger to pedestrians and motorists alike.
• Shortly after the war, a group of German POWs, awaiting repatriation, suggested rebuilding the Opera House as a token gesture of conciliation. The government of the time was willing to consider this proposal, but the General Workers’ Union objected, arguing that the job should be entrusted to Maltese workers. Needless to add, the theatre was never rebuilt.
• All that remains of the original building today is the front stairwell leading to the portico. Ironically, this was not actually designed by Barry at all. Barry had sent his original designs form abroad without ever visiting the site in person. The original designs were intended for a flat surface, but the actual site was (and still is) on a slight incline. The Barry plans therefore had to be assembled on top of a structure to level the surface: this structure, which is still visible today, is believed to have been the work of a British army engineer.


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