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Anna Mallia | Wednesday, 28 January 2009

We do not need Piano, yet

We do not need Renzo Piano to resurrect City Gate: all we have to do is bring back City Gate to its former splendour. The Knights of Malta left us this heritage: the Germans destroyed the Opera House and the Maltese followed suit by destroying the entrance to Valletta in order to accommodate carnival floats.
In 1988, Piano presented the guidelines for the master plan for Valletta with conceptual designs for the urban space of Freedom Square, including the old Opera House, and detailed plans down to materials for its own entrance; but his idea that Valletta no longer needed closed doors in the 20th century but an invitation into it, did not go down too well with the Maltese public, and although the Nationalist Cabinet had originally approved the project in 1990, it had to drop it due to growing criticism.
Now 19 years later, the same party in government thinks we have a short memory, and not only have we paid Piano for his services in 1990 (and rightly so), but we are once again commissioning him to do the same job without national consensus, so that history will most likely repeat itself – Renzo will present his plans, we pay for them and ditch like we did in 1990.
I say that we do not need Piano yet precisely for this point: before assigning anything to Piano, the government must first of all secure national consensus. The survey carried out by this newspaper last Sunday showed that the majority of the Maltese want the Opera House back and rightly so. We cannot change the face of Valletta but improve on it.
We have to build Valletta’s entrance exactly as it was when it was built by the Knights of Malta, because only in that way can we reassure ourselves that our Capital City will be restored to its previous grandeur. Only after we do this will Piano be invited to intervene, and his role will be to add to, and not to replace. In fact, Piano was always invited to do this in major old cities. And when he was commissioned to do new buildings these were on new sites which had no architectural or historical value whatsoever.
It is a shame how the Order of St John is keeping silent on the matter when it owes it to its founders and to the knights who left this architectural gem which we are so proud of. As we know, were it not for the Knights of Malta, we would be able to boast of only of our prehistoric temples and nothing more. So what is the position of the Order of St John on this matter and what does the Grandmaster has to say about this, may I ask?
We want the Opera House and we want the City Gate entrance exactly how the knights left it to us. I agree with the suggestions made on the local newspapers that we build a Foundation or a trust entrusted with this project. I am sure that the Maltese will contribute towards the building of the Opera House. All the foundation has to do is to tell us how much a stone slab will cost and just like the Church, we will build the Opera House from private and public funds.
All these discussions about the Opera House have been going on for years and I remember attending one of the meetings which the group Friends of the Opera held at the Old University in Valletta. The late Farsons founder, Mr Miceli Farrugia (is-Sur Nene as he was affectionately known), was adamant that the Opera House had to be rebuilt to its former glory and it is a pity that his family is not following their father’s footsteps.
If the Prime Minister wants bigger premises for Parliament, it has two options: either re-organise the space it has at the Palace, or find alternative premises. St Elmo is an ideal site and I am sure that if the Minister of Finance makes a serious drive to collect all his dues, he will find the money for the project. Otherwise, how can one explain how any bonds that are issued are always over-subscribed and at the same time the business community complains about a liquidity problem?
I am sorry to say I do not trust the Maltese in any development project: they tend to destroy and not embellish this country. Take Tigné, take the tent covering the temples, take the Valletta skyline, take the Vittoriosa development: they are all a scar in our heritage.
We are the only country in Europe which does not have an Opera House and if the Opera House was viable in 1866 when it was built, why shouldn’t it be viable now? Opera lovers are on the increase and if the productions are good, tourists will come as they did come to Malta more than 200 years ago when the Opera House opened. Mind you, even the Maltese loved going to the opera at that time, and still do. Gozo is an example how the people still love opera and one has to admire the two organising band clubs for their courage.
The Valletta Royal Opera House, as it was formally called, was an opera house and performing arts venue in Valletta. It was designed by the English architect Edward Middleton Barry and was erected in 1866. The Opera House had a seating capacity of 1095 and 200 standing.
In 1873 its interior was extensively damaged by fire but was eventually restored by 1877. The theatre was bombed to the ground during on April 1942 and it is a shame how we never made any attempt with the Germans or with our supposed ‘war allies’ to help us in the rebuilding of our Opera House. However, history tells us that in 1946 German prisoners-of-war in Malta offered to rebuild the theatre for a nominal charge and the government declined to accept the offer, bowing to union pressure for job protection.
In 1953, six renowned architects submitted designs for the new theatre. The committee chose Zavellani-Rossi’s project and recommended its acceptance by government, subject to certain alterations but the project was stopped by Labour when it was re-elected, contending that it was not in a position so spend so much money on a theatre when so many other projects needed attention.
In 1990 came Piano’s project and then we also had the Maltese architect Richard’s England’s design for the redevelopment of the Opera House site. Both proposals were found to be controversial.
Then we also had the designs submitted by the local entrepreneur Anglu Xuereb but nobody took any cognizance of them.
Now we are again trusting Piano.
With all these proposals and waste of money, why don’t we have an exhibition with all these projects including the original ones, and stop wasting the taxpayers’ money?
Instead of Piano, why don’t they tell us how much it costs to build the Opera House and to restore City Gate to how it was? When the figures are published, I am sure that the opera lovers and the Maltese who treasure our heritage will unite and start the fund raising work.
Why is the government opting for a blunder?


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