Raphael Vassallo

A bridge too far...

Things we criticise or deplore today, may well become the iconic cultural reference points of the future

Raphael Vassallo
24 August 2017, 7:30am
'The Romans are ruining the landscape with their modern architecture'
'The Romans are ruining the landscape with their modern architecture'
With hindsight – and plenty of it, too – one of the things that I find most impressive about Asterix is the subtlety of its satire.

Consider the above picture, taken from ‘Asterix and the Golden Sickle’ (Goscinny and Uderzo, 1960).  A 21st century reader will have no difficulty recognising it as the Pont du Gard aqueduct in southern France: a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and one of France’s top five tourist attractions (visited by around 1.5 million tourists each year). Ask anyone today whether it ‘ruins the landscape’, and you will most likely get a funny look. What do you mean, ‘ruins the landscape’? It IS the landscape... it is part of the rich cultural heritage of France, to be preserved and protected with the same assiduity as an endangered species or an irreplaceable natural habitat.

To a Gaul living in 50BC, however – or at least, a fictitious Gaul endowed with 20th century environmental sensibilities – it was an eyesore.

If that were the extent of the satirical thrust, it would already be enough to make a fundamental point about our constantly changing perspectives on history. Things we criticise or deplore today, may well become the iconic cultural reference points of the future. Much the same could be said for the Eiffel Tower in Paris, or the Sydney Opera House in... um... Sydney.  Both are examples of ‘modern architecture’ that were greeted with indignation and outrage in their own day; both have gone on to become instantly recognisable landmarks, without which their respective cities would struggle to forge a unique cultural identity of their own.   

There is even a small hint of hypocrisy in the proceedings. Obelix, for instance – a ‘menhir-delivery man’ by profession – is carrying his menhir, as always. Along with dolmens, menhirs were the basic building blocks of Druidic-era temples such as Stonehenge. It represents an architectural breakthrough that was just as pivotal (ahem) in its time... but which, by 50BC, was already as old to the Romans as the Romans are to us.

So if we apply the same anachronistic approach to the building of Stonehenge in around 2000BC... you could argue that it ‘ruined the Salisbury landscape’, too.

But that is only a tiny part of the sweeping satirical statement made by Goscinny (and drawn by Uderzo) in that classic Asterix adventure. It is more than just our cultural sensibilities that have evolved since 50BC. Our attitude towards the Romans have changed a little too... since the days when they were regarded as perfectly legitimate targets for violent assault and battery, under the influence of performance-enhancing drugs (or ‘magic potions’, to use the lingo of the day).

Asterix, it will be remembered, made that remark at a time when “all Gaul was entirely occupied by the Romans”. Wait, did I say ‘all Gaul’? Pas du tout! “One small village of indomitable Gauls still held out against the invaders”... and, of course, Asterix was their unquestioned champion.

He was therefore just slightly biased against those foreign upstarts who had conquered and subjugated his entire people. (And not just the Romans, either. What emerges from all his adventures is a certain latent xenophobia, whereby all other peoples and cultures are – as Obelix repeatedly observes – ‘crazy’). Asterix is certainly not in any position to objectively judge the Romans’ architectural or engineering feats. He hates them too much to make a dispassionate assessment of their impact of the Gallic environment.

How true is that of similar sentiments today? Let’s take a small example that surfaced in the press this week. As with the Pont du Gard, it also concerns the building of a bridge: this time, a pedestrian crossing between Tigne Point and Valletta.

Wait, no need to panic... yet. At this stage, we are only talking about a proposal, made by a local architect, without (as far as I can see) any actual firm commitment to try and actualise it. No application has been submitted; for now, it is just an idea being floated in our general direction.

Even so, the initial reaction was for the most part one of indignation and outrage. Like Asterix, many feel that a bridge across the mouth of Marsamxett harbour would ‘ruin the view’. Others questioned the motive: as though the idea of creating a walkway connecting Sliema and Valletta was not, in itself, justification enough. Others still highlighted the expense (by the architect’s estimate, it would cost €7 or €8 million).

Aren’t we all getting slightly ahead of ourselves here? For starters, we haven’t even seen any plans or designs yet. How, then, have so many people pre-emptively decided that it would perforce ‘ruin the view’? Is it so inconceivable that a man-made bridge might actually enhance that view? (It would certainly give us the possibility of admiring the panorama from a different angle... something that is currently only possible from a boat).

Apply the same reasoning to, say, the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco... and Godzilla would have had nothing to destroy in the 2014 reboot. The nay-sayers would have got there first, and the entire project would have been vetoed a priori – without seeing the plans – on the basis of its ‘possible’ aesthetic impact.

As for the motive: well, it’s roughly the equivalent of questioning the motive for an aqueduct delivering precious water to a place which sorely needs a water-source. OK, here I’ll admit to a bias on my part. I live in the Marsamxett area, and would very willingly walk to Valletta instead of being forced to drive or catch a bus... were the distance not so forbidding. That bridge would turn a currently unfeasible possibility (though not impossible, for someone fitter than I) into one that is entirely doable... not to mention very pleasant, to someone who actually likes walking.

Meanwhile, the way things are shaping up with regard to traffic... I reckon it will very soon be an attractive prospect even for people who like walking as much as they like contracting gonorrhoea: the type who would use their car even to drive to the nearest grocery store.

In case nobody’s noticed yet, ‘driving a car’ in this country has become a daily dice with death. Even without safety concerns (it is a fact that our roads are considered the most dangerous in Europe), driving has simply become unbearable. Apart from traffic congestion, there is road-rage, exhaust fumes, dust, endless detours caused by inexplicable construction projects... and of course the time factor. It is no exaggeration to say that I can get to Sliema faster on foot than by car (‘feet’ being somewhat easier to ‘park’ once you get there).

Oh, and there’s also a small consideration called ‘health’. How much was that bridge going to cost? €7 or €8 million? We spend a lot more than that each year to treat conditions related to obesity.

All things told, then, we should be encouraging more people to walk instead of using their cars... but to achieve this in practice, we also have to come up with ideas to turn currently unwalkable distances into walkable ones.

So yes, I am all in favour of a pedestrian bridge between Sliema and Valletta. I think it’s a fabulous idea, actually.

But that doesn’t mean I don’t share some of the concerns outlined above. The objectors may be a little biased in their criticism... but like Asterix, they have good reason to be biased. They have seen too many cases where shoddy architectural projects have indeed ruined great tracts of the landscape. And Maltese architects have certainly brought some of that prejudice onto their own heads... a stroll down the nearby Sliema seafront would be enough to illustrate precisely how and why.

All this, I would say, points in a certain direction. Environmentalists may need to be less inflexible in their pre-emptive objections to any kind of infrastructural project. But architects, too, need to up their game. Any construction project undertaken in sensitive areas should ideally be conceived with the same foresight and sensitivity displayed by the Romans in building the Pont-du-Gard. 

If an empire that predates the ‘environmentalist movement’ by 2,000 years could do it... I fail to see why it should be beyond our capabilities today.