Flimkien għal Ambjent Aħjar (FAA) has studied the Renzo Piano plans for Valletta’s City Gate area, aspects of which are worthy of merit.
Regretfully for the City Gate project, many are ready to accept anything that would be better than the present ugliness for fear that government might withdraw its plans to improve the entrance to Valletta and to rebuild the Opera House site.
FAA emphasises that this is an opportunity not to be missed and that the country cannot afford to get it wrong again. It appears that the brief given to Architect Renzo Piano was to design a Parliament Building and return to the entrance of the city the dignity it lost when the present entrance was constructed. FAA therefore invites government to make public the brief since this would indicate what government had requested of and the limitations imposed on the architect. Furthermore FAA notes with great concern the utter lack of consultation and the total indifference to the wishes of the people who were repeatedly led to believe that the theatre would be rebuilt.
In other countries major projects are handled differently, with project proposals presented to the public in time for meaningful discussion, to avoid controversy upon presentation of the architect’s project. The public wanted a theatre and the reconstruction of the City Gate area, it never asked for a new parliament. This idea was mooted some five years ago and dropped following a public outcry against the building of Parliament on the Opera House site. The Parliament building is being foisted on the general public which will be paying for a parliament through its taxes at a time when Malta can ill afford a project of these dimensions, having just passed through the worst six months of the nation’s economy. This project gives the impression that the Opera House site will be given a face lift because the bombed site ‘has acquired historical merit’ however the emphasis of the brief given to Renzo Piano seems to have focussed on the Parliament, rather than the theatre.
CITY GATE: Whilst recognising the difficulty of redesigning City Gate, FAA maintains that a bare gap in the bastions is not suitable as the main entrance to a fortified city, especially since continuity of the bastion line was essential for its function and ethos. The plans as submitted do not reflect the particular character of our fortified capital. Has this been studied and accepted, or is it an individual interpretation? This action contradicts the measures being planned to restore the continuity of the fortifications by re-closing the breaches by the Siege Bell Memorial in Valletta and at St John’s Cavalier, Birgu.
The conversion of the ditch and Yellow Garage into a garden area and access point is a creative integration of this space into the rest of the project. Piano’s proposal to hold open-air performances in this garden should be explored as it might prove to be more protected from noise and wind than a theatre without a roof.
The lift also integrates well into the setting however it is not clear from the models and the elevations presented how much of the original bastion will be removed to accommodate the lift breach.
THE THEATRE: Despite claims that a roofless theatre is needed to boost cultural life, this budgetary compromise will limit its use in winter as well as when Valletta is subjected to festa noise four days a week throughout summer. Performances would be disturbed by private functions held in public gardens, the summer festival at the Argotti gardens, the Isle of MTV and other concerts on the granaries, the Jazz Festival and 21 September celebrations. It is worth noting that the Ta’ Qali open theatre is no longer used because of noise created by the flight path above, which disrupts performances. Inclement weather in winter will make the theatre unusable, leaving only a narrow time-frame to generate a return on the capital investment and to cover year-round maintenance. We therefore cannot but question the cost-effectiveness of the €40 million investment in a theatre that can only be used during a few months when the weather is mild and even then will be disturbed by noise.
Another disadvantage of a roofless theatre is that it will exclude schoolchildren from attending performances or listening to Malta’s homeless Philharmonic orchestra since schools are closed in summer and schoolchildren cannot be expected to sit through performances on wet or chilly winter days. FAA suggests that Malta could tap EU funds for the rebuilding of a proper national theatre in Malta.
Piano has produced a very interesting concept in his flexible interior layout and use of the latest technology. The creation of backstage space under the police station site is also an excellent maximisation of space. However the ruins remain a performance space rather than a theatre equipped with rehearsal rooms and other facilities that would foster cultural life, something that goes far beyond a physical space.
While FAA does not enter into the merits of rebuilding of the original designs, it deplores the scorn being poured on public requests for this. Theatres rebuilt in the original architectural style include La Scala in Milan, La Fenice in Venice as well as the theatres of Bari, Messina and Frankfurt even though the latter was rebuilt after a considerable number of years.
The public is being given conflicting messages, that the rebuilding of a destroyed structure is valid at Manoel Island, but will be a fake in Valletta. It is also being told that the style of the Barry Opera House did not match Valletta’s Baroque buildings but that a modern parliament on stilts will be suitable in this same context.
FAA adds that the symbolic preservation of ruins usually relates to structures which are thousands of years old. Later scars, especially war damage, was and is still being rebuilt.
PARLIAMENT: Whilst it is true that the rebuilding of the opera house has been discussed intermittently since its destruction, the idea of a parliament building was merely mentioned to the public and the discussion was never revived in spite of the fact that architect Piano has been working on the project for the past three years. The parliament building has now been presented as a fait accompli to be built irrespective of citizens’ wishes. This €80 million project is being launched at a time when the country has a huge deficit, is facing an economic downturn including another bad year for tourism and is also facing sanctions from the EU related to its deficit.
It is not within FAA’s remit to give an opinion on the architectural merit since the project does not conflict with what FAA stands for, however FAA is seriously concerned about the bulk and mass of the Parliament building which risks overwhelming the surrounding structures. Moreover the elevation drawings of the Parliament building on display in Valletta are misleading; although the model shows Parliament exactly as high as St James Cavalier, the architectural elevation gives the layman the impression that the top of St James Cavalier will be visible from Republic Street. This is not the case as the Parliament building will for the most part obliterate St James Cavalier.
Leading heritage cities such as Italian citadels similar to Valletta, as well as the historic cores of cities such as Prague and St Petersburg, do not allow modern or high structures within their historic perimeters and only time will tell whether this modern building on stilts immediately inside the bastions will blend harmoniously with Valletta’s architecture.
One cannot discount the security needs of Parliament. Set in central positions easily accessible to vehicular access, the role of theatres and museums is to draw people in, while the security needs of a parliament dictate that the public is kept out. How will the two requirements be married on one site, when even today traffic is re-routed when parliament is in session?
Parliaments in other European capitals such as London, Paris and Rome are not set on busy shopping streets; the siting of Parliament facing the shopping arcade of Freedom Square is undignified and lacking in prestige. FAA draws attention to the fact that in the late 1920s, plans were drawn up for a larger, two-chamber parliament to be accommodated above the Main Guard and flanking buildings. This site would be a far more dignified and politically significant location for Parliament facing the Palace across an upgraded St. George’s Square. Alternatively the Sacra Infermeria, which is one of the most important buildings in Valletta alongside the Palace and St John’s Co-Cathedral, would also be a suitable place for Parliament and plans are already available for the conversion of its auditorium into a non-confrontational parliamentary chamber. By virtue of its size, beauty and outstanding position, the Auberge de Baviere was until recently being actively considered as an alternative site for Parliament, with restoration works well under way.
Instead of Parliament, Freedom Square might, with the help of EU funding, be used for cultural complex including a much-needed, easily accessible public library, a contemporary art gallery and an exhibition space for the collections so painstakingly put together by Foundation Patrimonju Malti and then dispersed for lack of exhibition space. This would really establish the area as a cultural magnet, boost our cultural tourism and benefit all Malta.
TRANSPORT: The reorganisation of the public transport service launched today has still to be discussed and problems solved, however it is hoped that the positive changes created by the Piano project will not be compromised by the continuing existence of the shabby kiosks and disorganised bus terminus which was not included in Renzo Piano’s brief. The ferry connections should also be increased on both sides of the peninsula.
The main challenge is that the opening of City Gate will sever the main artery into Valletta with the result that access from one side to another of Valletta will require drivers to exit and re-enter the city. All of Valletta from City Gate to St Dominic Street and from Old Bakery Street to St Paul’s Street will become a pedestrian area. This is a positive measure, reducing pollution in the city, however access for residents, the business community and its suppliers has to be studied and integrated in the Local Plan. This will need to evaluate the proposed rerouting of heavy traffic through narrow St Mark Street and the change of direction of traffic through Old Bakery Street. Traffic which at present drives down, will now have to turn upwards towards St John’s Cavalier at the road’s steepest point. Because of this sharp corner, cars will have to rev up powerfully, emitting exhaust fumes, blackening recently restored buildings and increasing the rate of asthma among city dwellers.
Before eliminating over 2,000 parking spaces, alternative arrangements should also have been planned. The social impact on Valletta’s elderly residents is of particular concern.
FAA has always maintained that plans should be presented holistically, an approach which is essential to the long-term success of any major Valletta project. Government has commissioned a Valletta management plan, a first draft of which is about to be published; this should be consulted before any decision is taken on the construction of a Parliament building which can be located elsewhere in Valletta.
Malta has very few resources but has a surfeit of large under-used palaces which cannot all be converted to museums. In view of the recent announcement that the St Elmo project is largely stalled for lack of funds, the above alternatives would allow Government to save on a €40 million parliament project that has no touristic, employment or social regeneration benefit, and use a large part of those funds to realise lower Valletta’s potential as a ‘centro storico’ that would be the pride of any nation.
Miriam Cremona, FAA’s heritage committee spokesperson, contributed to this article