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Poised for an architectural revolution | Chris Mintoff

Chris Mintoff, chairman of the KTP [Chamber of Architects], welcomes high-rise development as a challenge to architects, but warns against a short-termist approach

Raphael Vassallo
29 June 2015, 10:05am
Christopher Mintoff
Christopher Mintoff
Cat Stevens once sang that: “Scrapers fill the air… will we keep on building higher, ‘till there’s no more room up there?”

The question seems highly relevant to ask in Malta in 2015, as the country braces itself for a new, unprecedented and far-reaching culture change in its approach to architecture and the construction industry.

At present, there are some five applications for developments that can only be described as skyscrapers. Sliema looks set to receive two tower blocks of 30 and 40 storeys apiece, to add to other blocks already going up in Tigne and Qui Si Sana. Skyscrapers of comparable heights are awaiting a permit to go up in Mriehel; and two tower blocks of 30 storeys are projected for Gzira.

In brief, Malta appears set to experience ‘multiple erections’ along the lines of a little New York or (dare I say it) Dubai. Public reactions have so far been critical – if not downright hostile – and given the enormity of the change that Malta is about to experience, surely people have good reason to be concerned.

Or do they? Chris Mintoff, an architect and president of the Kamra Tal-Periti, sounds like the right person to ask. Over a coffee at his Blata l-Bajda office, we discuss the imminence of the high-rise and all its implications.

Starting with the negative reactions. What does he make of the criticism so far?

“In any project, change is by default seen negatively,” he begins. “And thank goodness for that. It’s a good thing that there are concerns about landscape and views. Like last Saturday’s demonstration… I welcome it. That people show they care about the environment – that it’s no longer a non-issue, as was previously thought – that’s positive. But there are two sides to any argument. There are those who say ‘enough’ to construction as a whole; there are others who argue that construction is beneficial to the industry and the economy, so we should continue. These views are both wrong up to a certain extent. There is definitely a middle road…”

Let’s take those arguments one by one. Is it true that we’re building beyond our means? There are roughly 40,000 vacant properties in Malta, yet the Malta Environment and Planning Authority continues to dish out permits for large-scale projects involving (mostly) residential apartments. How sustainable is this approach?

“I see there is an unsustainability issue, but somehow it works. There are 4,000 vacant properties, but if a developer builds 10 new apartments, he still manages to sell them all in a year. How does he do it? To be frank, I don’t know. But somehow it still works…”

Isn’t there a risk of creating a massive oversupply of residential units, with the result that eventually – according to the law of supply and demand – the property market will one day crash?

“Yes, but for some reason the law of supply and demand doesn’t work in this scenario. Young couples still spend years looking for the right property. There is still a demand, and it is increasing. I don’t know why the 40,000 vacant properties argument doesn’t really hold on the economic front. Perhaps it will when our standards go down… maybe it’s just that the vacant properties are in the most part substandard…”

But it’s not just the existing glut of vacant properties that is posing a threat. Look at some of the projects currently in the pipeline. A 40-storey tower block in Sliema, for instance…

“I was surprised by that, in fact. There are three topics to be discussed here… the infrastructure, the impact of a 40-storey building in Malta, and the supply and demand argument. Taking the latter, this is one for economists to tackle…”

But what is his own view about it? I would imagine architects in general would be concerned at the possibility of a slump in demand for properties, seeing as they make a living designing them…

“My own view is that as long as supply exists, demand is fuelled by the contractors and developers themselves. I know it doesn’t make sense on paper, but in reality it works. And there is some sense in it, too. Most of the vacant properties we are talking about are abandoned and derelict. My issue with them is not so much the impact on demand, but that they make the streetscape ugly. As long as there is demand for property, there is a chance that these abandoned properties will get picked up, renovated and put back on the market. This would improve the urban space…”

Meanwhile public concerns are not limited only to the oversupply issue. We are also talking about a culture change with far-reaching implications. I imagine it was much the same in New York at the turn of the 20th century, when the Woolworth Tower fired the starting pistol for a mad scramble to the skies…

“I would go further back. It’s like Bologna in the 1500s. It was called the ‘city of a thousand towers’… though only two or three survive to this day…”

But there was a difference: those ‘towers’ were mainly belfries and steeples, not apartment blocks…

“Yes, but if they had our technology, they would definitely have made them habitable. But they had limited space, and in that limited footprint, they fought for height because it was a status symbol. Those towers were mainly built for ego… which, in a way…”

Mintoff’s sentence trails away, but it is easy to see where he was heading. Isn’t today’s high-rise craze in Malta also about ego? Sigmund Freud, for instance, might have had a thing to say about a predominantly male construction sector getting its kicks out of erecting massive phalluses all over the place…

“When you see one application after another, one for 30 storeys, another for 40… it’s a little like the [Donald] Trump mentality, yes. We’re heading in that direction. So yes, it is a culture change. It is a new architectural direction, but it has its restrictions, too. In our profession we are limited by a number of constraints. In the case of high-rise, it’s floor-to-area ratio that matters. You can only build 50% of the footprint, the rest must be given up as public space…”

One would expect there to be constraints. But what about the long-term implications: the effect on infrastructure, on the landscape, on surrounding buildings, etc.?

“Let’s start with the landscape concerns. I think it would help the environment. Sliema, for instance, is a mess. The skyline looks like a bad grin full of missing teeth. One of the biggest plagues of the Maltese urban environment is the support wall [hajt tal-appogg]: blank walls separating buildings of different heights, with no windows or features. They’re hideous. Xemxija, for instance, is full of them. You won’t have that with tower blocks. And high-rise also puts more pressure on architects to come up with good designs…”

What about the physical effects? Wind-funnelling, for instance, which is known to wreak havoc in the surrounding areas. Or the shade cast by tall buildings, which has already ruined the Sliema promenade (where most buildings are only eight or so storeys)…

“We are definitely going to have new phenomena. With regard to shade, we will see fast-moving shade in these areas. The properties furthest away from the tower will experience shade moving unusually fast. This type of architecture will entail new problems that have to be designed for. As for wind: at 40 storeys, I have no idea what the wind-loads are. It is interesting even from a structural perspective. And there may be other problems to contend with. In London they had that tower which acted like a large magnifying glass, concentrated sunlight on cars and setting them on fire. It’s an unforeseen phenomenon. But these are problems that have to be solved by engineers…”

So aren’t we rushing into something that may have disastrous unforeseen consequences here, too?

“I don’t see it as rushing. We have a talented pool of architects here. It all boils down to the quality of design. Le Corbusier once said that ‘a doctor buries his mistakes: an architect can only grow vines to cover his’. You can tell a design is good because you won’t feel the problems…”

But that just assumes the design will be good. Going on experience, isn’t that a little optimistic? What if the design turns out to be bad? It would take an awful lot of vines to cover a 40-storey eyesore…

“I sincerely hope the design will be good. If you’re going to have a 40-storey tower block, the design had better be good from the outset. But today, the margin of error for bad design is being closed off. We’ve learnt from our mistakes. In Malta we know that buildings can be ugly. We know that our urban environment is already mostly ruined. I think this is a possible solution. If done right, it will improve our urban environment…”

OK, but isn’t there a slight contradiction here? Malta’s urban landscape is already ruined, as Mintoff himself admits… and (no offence, or anything) it was all designed by architects. So now we’re being asked to trust these same architects who were responsible for ruining the landscape, with projects that have the potential to cause much more serious problems….

“The question is slightly incorrect, because Malta’s urban landscape was ruined by the policies we have in place. We have very strict policies: they tell you, in this area, you can have four floors… the recess has to be so big, etc. In brief, you have a step-by-step formula you have to follow. Now, Malta has highly talented architects. If you give them a proper challenge, the talent is there: all they need is the opportunity.”

But they’ve had so much opportunity already. We’ve already mentioned the Sliema seafront (sorry for the bias, but it’s my home-town)… and just look what they did with that opportunity. To embroider Mintoff’s analogy, they punched Sliema in the mouth and broke all its teeth…

“The Sliema seafront was a real estate opportunity. The buildings are all adjacent, so you only had the façade to play with…”

And because the policies permitted different heights at different times, he goes on, the result was mismatching heights interspersed with plenty of ugly support walls.

“With tower blocks it’s different. You’re not just designing a façade, but a standalone building.”

Meanwhile, people are also worried about the infrastructural impact on their neighbourhoods. If you’re going to build skyscrapers in already densely populated areas, you will also dramatically multiply existing problems concerning traffic, parking, etc., while increasing local demand for services such as garbage collection, water and electricity provision, drainage, etc. All this places a considerable strain on the local community…

“All true. The trouble is, we are designing from the pavement inwards. We are not looking beyond the pavement into the street…”

But can the areas earmarked for high-rise take this added pressure?

“No, they clearly can’t…”

So… aren’t we creating a recipe for disaster here?

“Yes, we are. I can’t argue with that… unfortunately in Malta we have a reactive attitude towards such things. When we see that the Kappara roundabout isn’t working, we say: ‘let’s see how we can solve it.’ Then we draw up plans, then we allocate the money, and eventually we do something about it. Now: coming back to Sliema: it’s already a problem today. Call me optimistic, but I think that if it becomes an even bigger problem, maybe we’ll start thinking about how to solve it. I know it’s not an ideal situation; I’d love it if things were different….”

I somehow doubt that Sliema residents will warm to that particular view. Starting with the local council, which has insisted that the town cannot go high-rise without an underground transport system…

Mintoff nods. “I understand their position completely. If we have the money in this country to build skyscrapers, there has to be a little investment in this huge infrastructural project to try and start mitigating the problems. So yes, we have to start thinking outside the box. And we have to start thinking longer term…”

And yet, we seem to be doing precisely the opposite. The government has just launched a revised ‘Strategic Plan for Environment and Development’ (SPED), and Chris Mintoff expresses doubts regarding the time-frames.

“SPED will be reviewed in five years’ time,” he tells me. “What sort of strategic plan is that? Five years is how long it takes you to complete a project. So by the time your project is up and running, SPED will already be redundant…”

All this only compounds the view that, even at policy level, the attitude seems to be ‘build now, address problems later’. By Mintoff’s own admission this is a flawed approach. So shouldn’t KTP be talking about this more, seeing as the move towards high-rise seems to already be taken as fact?

“We do talk about it. We don’t manage to get 3,000 marching in Valletta about it; ‘lack of foresight’ might not be a very sexy issue to protest about. But we do push for it: our reaction to SPED was that we need a longer-term policy…”

Meanwhile, there are a few issues that might attract crowds for a demonstration. One frequently disregarded impact on high-rise is the effect on the skyline in other areas. Today, the upper part of Fort Cambridge is already visible from the other side of the Grand Harbour. It can be seen jutting above the Valletta skyline from the Three Cities. 40 storeys are more than double the height of Fort of Cambridge. So wouldn’t the new tower be twice as visible, rising up directly above Valletta… overshadowing it, humiliating the 16th century fortifications… and that’s not to mention the view of Mdina from the south and east of Malta, when three skyscrapers go up in Mriehel.

Is this the sort of architectural vision we want for Malta?

Mintoff acknowledges once again that the situation is not ideal. “These priorities have never been discussed. We haven’t drawn up proper policies to protect the view of Valletta… like we haven’t addressed the infrastructural impact of high-rise buildings. We have to put this reactive attitude behind us…”

So wouldn’t opposing the new high-rise direction – at least until we get these policies together – be a good start? After all, those buildings haven’t gone up yet. There is still a chance to stop what even Chris Mintoff argues is an architectural direction that hasn’t been properly thought through…

“It is an option. We could have a capping on the height in order to safeguard the view of Valletta. I haven’t discussed it with anyone. Should we look into it? Yes, definitely…”

I would rephrase that question slightly: should we look into it before giving people permits to go up 40 storeys?

“Yes. Ideally we should try to break this reactive approach. But we have to deal with the situation as it is, not as we would like it to be. From an architectural point of view, I welcome the challenge of high-rise. I think it will elevate the standards of architecture in Malta. But that’s only from an architectural point of view. As for the infrastructural problems: I wouldn’t want to touch those with a barge-pole”

Somebody will have to, however…

He nods. “Yes. And perhaps going high-rise will force us to address those issues we have to date ignored.”