Malta’s most beautiful street? Most unchanged, more like it...

Until now, that is: when a street finally gets singled out for the sheer beauty of its architectural impact… instead of (as is so much more often the case) for how utterly and irremediably it has been ruined, over the past 20 years, in the name of greed and short-sightedness

A few months ago, The Guardian ran a small ‘interactive’ caption story, under the headline: ‘Unchanging Oxford High Street’.

It featured an early 19th century painting of the street in question, which - upon being ‘clicked’ - melts away into a contemporary photograph, showing the same view from (roughly) the same perspective… only more than 200 years later.

Even if you never saw the news item in question, you will probably guess why those two pictures were given so much media prominence: and, separately, why the same feature was widely shared on local social media networks at the time.

As the accompanying caption put it: ‘Give or take a few road signs and the clumps of bicycles, the High Street in Oxford is startlingly unchanged from the view, sleepy in dusty golden afternoon light, painted by JMW Turner in 1810…’

And considering that a few of the buildings in that Turner painting date back to the early part of the first millennium (Carfax Tower, barely visible in the far distance, was erected in 1122) it is safe to assume that Oxford’s High Street hasn’t changed much in a lot more than just two centuries.

It has arguably remained ‘unchanged’ for at least 1,000 years…

Now: from my own end, I have to admit to personal reasons for being drawn to this (otherwise pointless) little story about ‘urban conservation in another country’. I spent a fair part of my own childhood in Oxford, as it happens; and I still retain pleasant, nostalgic memories of walking down the very same street… like, for instance, to go and watch ‘Star Wars’, when it first came out in 1977, at a cinema at St Giles (just around the corner from where the street ends, in both painting and photo)…

And you know how it is, with the places you lived in as a child. There is a small corner of my mind which will always – irrationally, perhaps - somehow regard Oxford as ‘home’… though I never lived there beyond the age of seven; and only ever revisited the place twice in the intervening 40 years.

So, just as it would have pained me to read a news story about the 21st century destruction of Oxford’s urban heritage… I found it gratifying (if not an actual relief) to see that at least one of my two childhood homes had been spared the cultural rape experienced by the other.

And I don’t just mean Sliema, by the way – which was ‘home’ for a much larger part of my childhood: and which has changed beyond recognition in the past few weeks alone (let alone over the past three or four decades)… but pretty much every other part of Malta, too.

Indeed, if I mention ‘Unchanging Oxford’ at all, it is only because – and I suspect this is why that story also resonated with so many other Maltese readers – the successful conservation of its High Street also forces us to confront just how much of our own urban heritage has been irretrievably lost over the past 30 or so years.

With the exception of such obvious historical conservation areas as, say, Mdina, or Valletta, or maybe The Three Cities… there is barely a single Maltese urban streetscape where the superimposition of ‘old’ and ‘new’ will not reveal at least some level of uglification in the transaction.

Not only will rows of elegantly-uniform townhouses – designed in a forgotten age, when Maltese architects actually possessed something called ‘a sense of aesthetics’ - have given away to an unsightly conglomeration of haphazard, uneven and often ghastly apartment blocks (and showrooms, supermarkets, petrol stations, etc.)… but somewhere, somehow, we also seem to have lost everything we once knew about holistic urban design: for instance, how different buildings interact with each other, to produce a certain symmetry that is pleasing to the eye…

Then again, however, there are exceptions.  Take Triq is-Santwarju in Zabbar, for instance: which has just earned itself the accolade, ‘Most Beautiful Street in Malta’.

Personally, I am too ignorant about Maltese art history to know whether the same streetscape was ever the subject of a well-known historical painting or not… but there is certainly no shortage of old photographs which can be used to achieve the same ‘montage’ effect used by the Guardian. (Indeed, there are now entire websites dedicated to hoarding these images of lost beauty-spots… usually named ‘Forgotten Malta’, or something along those lines).

Even in the absence of any earlier image whatsoever, though… you can still tell at a glance exactly why Triq Is-Santwarju in Zabbar – which, let’s face it, might not be the first name to spring to mind, in a beauty contest between Maltese urban settings - was so successful in fighting off all other contenders, to come away with the coveted prize.

It’s not so much that the streetscape itself is particularly dramatic, or characterised by any particularly imposing building or monument (even though it must be said that the long approach to the Zabbar Church – framed by symmetrical Baroque palazzos on either side - does give Triq is-Santwarju a certain stately grandeur…).

No, what really makes that streetscape stand out so much is that – unlike virtually anywhere else in Malta I can think of, off-hand – you can still get a sense of the original street-plan, as drawn up by architects and engineers who (unlike today’s crop, it would seem) actually gave a toss about the aesthetic impact of the buildings they designed and constructed.

And this brings home another truth about the urban uglification our country has experienced in recent years. It’s not just a question of preserving old buildings for its own sake… something Zabbar has had enough civic pride to actually appreciate, where most other towns clearly don’t… but also a question of what we replace old buildings with today.

In theory, is no particular reason why a building designed in the 21st century should not be every bit as beautiful, or worthy of preservation, as one dating back to the nineteenth, eighteenth or seventeenth centuries.

So even if developers were to suddenly take an interest in Zabbar – or some other relatively ‘unspoilt’ urban location – there is technically nothing to stop them from putting just a little passion into their handiwork; and replacing those stately, elegant old buildings with something just as suitable for the urban context… and that is just as likely to withstand the test of time.

Yet even the simple fact that Triq is-Santwarju was identified as ‘Malta’s Most Beautiful Street’ – and even then, only because it hasn’t (yet) been ruined by 21st century architectural interventions – is already enough to confirm that what is possible in theory, is simply unattainable in practice.

For one thing, because the developers themselves (who are not, as a rule, motivated by artistic concerns) simply can’t be trusted not to turn everything they touch into an instant eyesore… and for another, because today’s generation of architects today have clearly lost that ‘aesthetic touch’ (not to mention professional pride) that seemed to always came so naturally to their predecessors.

But I would say the overwhelming reason why Malta’s urban spaces are so very much uglier today, is that Malta’s entire urban planning process itself departs from the premise that ‘development’ is an end in itself. And from there, it follows that the only important thing will not be the quality of the resulting urban design… but rather, that new development simply continues to take place (and as much of it as possible) in all places, and at all times: for its own sake, and regardless of all other considerations.

And this also means that – unlike the case with Oxford’s High Street - there simply isn’t the corresponding civic pride, which views urban conservation as an important enough matter to actually highlight in the press.

Until now, that is: when a street finally gets singled out for the sheer beauty of its architectural impact… instead of (as is so much more often the case) for how utterly and irremediably it has been ruined, over the past 20 years, in the name of greed and short-sightedness.

But when you also pause to consider that we could – with different planning policies in place - be praising other conservation efforts, in other parts of Malta … and when you try and imagine what places like Spinola Bay – or Xlendi, or even Marsalforn – might look like today, if only our urban planners possessed just a fraction of their forbears’ artistic sensitivity…

.. I don’t know. Let’s be thankful, I suppose, that there is at least one, single, solitary street in Malta, that hasn’t been disfigured beyond recognition by greedy developers. And while we’re at it… let’s just hope that we’ll still be saying the same thing about Zabbar’s Triq is-Santwarju: when, in around 200 years’ time, the same streetscape is once again compared with photographs taken today…