The cost of ‘culture’

Aesthetics are not, and should not be the only consideration when redeveloping public space. There is also the question of impact on the surrounding community’s quality of life

Our pride in Valletta has so swollen that we cannot even endure the sight of a hot dog kiosk in the shadow of ‘Piano-gate’
Our pride in Valletta has so swollen that we cannot even endure the sight of a hot dog kiosk in the shadow of ‘Piano-gate’

As a child brought up in Sliema, I remember the area now known as ‘Independence Gardens’ – a terraced public park/walkway commanding a wide view of St Julian’s Bay – before it was landscaped into its present form.

These gardens are often cited as an example of tasteful and elegant urban regeneration… as opposed to the extremely tasteless example that overlooks them from above, in the form of the horrendously redeveloped Sliema seafront. If aesthetics were the only consideration, I would be the first to agree with that assessment. Independence Gardens are indeed beautiful… certainly they constitute a vast improvement over what they replaced in the early 1990s: which was shabby, derelict and mostly empty.

But aesthetics are not, and should not be the only consideration when redeveloping public space. There is also the question of impact on the surrounding community’s quality of life. And in at least this sense, the people of Sliema (and all other parts of Malta, as they converge on that locality for their summer evening ‘passiggjata’) have also been short-changed by the transformation. 

In the days when these ‘gardens’ were merely fields… outrageously overgrown with weeds, and egregiously treated as a dumpsite by all inhabitants within a radius of half a mile… they were also the only place a child could go and actually play undisturbed in the open air. Unlike the adjacent seafront promenade, there were no other people to get in the way of a bicycle or skateboard. And in the great age of BMX-ing – circa 1980s – it was precisely to this unsightly, ramshackle and largely disused patch of earth that the children of Sliema and beyond would descend on their bicycles: scrambling up and down the ramps that separated the terraced fields, or churning through mud and puddles after a winter storm. 

It was also the only place for miles around that you could take a dog and let it off the lead for a good run-around. I know, because I used to take my dog there in the days when I had one to take. (I have a particular memory of losing sight of Beppe – an overweight and over-exuberant mutt with delusions of Labrador-ness – and then seeing only his tail as it meandered upright like a periscope in a sea of green…). 

Alas, poor Beppe. Another sad victim of leishmaniasis, in the days before proper treatment existed… but I digress. 

Back to the Pre-Independence gardens. Admittedly, the place did not lend itself to the sport of football (the weeds were too high and the undergrowth too thick) but there was nothing to stop you from taking a ball there and knocking it about if you wanted to. And many children did just that. In fact, dozens of irretrievably lost footballs were later unearthed when the place was eventually bulldozed. Some of them had lain there undiscovered for decades. 

Frisbees were another story. Many a time have I emulated the pose of Myron’s discobolus amid that tangled and untidy scrub. The large carob tree on a mound in the middle – and which still stands there today, the sole botanical survivor of that former wilderness – served as a living target for generations of juvenile discus-throwers.

Well, all that is finished now. Go to Independence Gardens today, and… yes, you can marvel at the aesthetic improvement all you like. You can savour the sight and fragrance of sculpted hedges, cascading fronds of jasmine and honey-suckle, and rows upon rows of neatly regimented flower-beds. 

But the first thing you’ll see as you enter the place is a great big sign with icons to signify the following ‘rules’:

No footballs.

No bicycles.

No dogs.

No Frisbees.

You’ll find the same signs in practically every other public garden in Malta, too. It seems we have redefined the word ‘public’ to mean a place which the public can quietly admire from a distance… but woe betide that public if it tries to actually claim that space as its own. ‘Public space’ is very evidently not intended for the public to use for public purposes. It exists only for an increasingly insufferable coterie of self-appointed cultural torch-bearers – the ‘taste brigade’, for want of a better word – to smugly congratulate itself on having single-handedly elevated Malta’s cultural and artistic standards.

And if elevating those standards entails banishing all human activity from any particular venue… well, so be it. The aesthetic sensitivities of the complacent must after all take precedence over such trifling considerations as ‘people’ and their daily needs. As for children… pah! What could be more culturally insignificant than a whiny little brat crying because there’s nowhere to ride his wretched bicycle?

At the rate we’re going, we may as well just replace all those signs with one bigger one saying ‘No Entry’. That means you, Mr General Public. You’re not welcome here. Now run along and play somewhere else…

Ah, but that’s precisely the trouble. As Cat Stevens once pointed out, we’ve come along so far that there isn’t anywhere left for children to play. They may be raised in a much more aesthetically pleasing environment than the one I mucked around in when I was little; but the cost of all this embellishment has been high. It has cost today’s children their ability to actually enjoy childhood. 

Can anyone be surprised, then, that the same children would much rather switch off from this world altogether, and lose themselves in a universe of Gameboys and Ipads? It’s not as though we’ve given them much of an alternative.

Meanwhile, the cost of this dubious transaction is consistently getting higher all the time: and not just for children and child-play, either. It seems that the same pattern that transformed a glorious (albeit wild and dirty) Sliema play area into a beautiful (but sanitised, sterile and forbidding) garden, is slowly seeping into our cities and townscapes, too.

Take the entranceway to Valletta, for instance. The above pattern applies perfectly: once an ugly, decrepit but much-utilised stretch of urban landscape, the former City Gate has now been incorporated into the grand schemes of the most famous architect in the world. No more the ‘Putirjal’ which stank of piss and doubled up as a car-park and extended taxi-stand. Oh no. It is now the Eighth Wonder of the World.

Is it more beautiful? Oh, sure. Even I, who think Piano’s parliament is ugly, will concede that the overall design far surpasses its predecessor… on an aesthetic level alone. But just look how far we have now swung towards the opposite extreme. Suddenly, our national pride in the great architectural jewel that is Valletta has swollen to such farcical proportions, that we cannot even endure the sight of a hot dog kiosk in the shadow of ‘Piano-gate’ (note: I own the copyright to that name) for the grand total of five days in a year. 

My, how we’ve progressed. It seems a temporary ‘gabbana’ set up for Carnival days – of the sort you will see in every village festa, anywhere else in Malta – has become just too darn offensive to our newfound sense of cultural erudition and artistic appreciation. So it has to go… even if it had been given a permit to set up in ‘De Valette Square’ by the Valletta Arts Council.

What the hell has happened to us? Last I looked, we were the fattest and most junk food-addicted population in Europe. Now, our culinary tastes have grown so precious and exquisitely refined that we swoon at the mere thought that grease from a hot dog might spill onto the paved flagstones of Renzo Piano’s masterpiece…

And who’s it going to be tomorrow, I wonder? What other activity that has taken place in Valletta since time immemorial – selling street food at a festa, for instance, or peddling wares at a makeshift market stall – will we wake up one morning and decide is just not good enough for our capital city anymore?

For let’s face it: the list of people evicted from Valletta to accommodate Renzo Piano’s otherworldly vision is forever getting longer. First it was shops. Never mind that an entire shopping arcade still nestles in the bowels of a housing estate just across the road from the Parliament: when city gate was given up to Piano for re-development, the shops it once housed had to clear out. Where to? Oh, it doesn’t matter. Like those pesky kids with their dratted bicycles and skateboards. Who cares where they go, so long as they don’t get in the way of the taste brigade’s delusions of grandeur?

The same could be said for any of a dozen little stalls that once sold bread, confectionary products and imqaret right under city gate. Even the Valletta police station had to make way for a ‘square’ that was nowhere envisaged in the original street plans for the city. A square named after the founder of Valletta – a French nobleman so obscure and nebulous in our cultural mindset, that no one can even agree on the spelling of his frigging name– and which has suddenly become altogether too upmarket for such slovenly things as ‘hamburgers’ and ‘chips’ to be sold on its hallowed ground.

Again, why not just erect a massive ‘No Entry’ sign outside the city while we’re at it? If people didn’t actually walk into Valletta every day, there wouldn’t be anyone to sell burgers and chips to. Or to buy cheap, tacky Chinese goods from a garishly designed market stall. Or to demean the sublime symmetry of Renzo Piano’s artistic vision with their mere presence alone. 

And what, then, would remain to enjoy this ‘public space’, so generously bequeathed to us by the world’s greatest architect? A bunch of bedraggled pigeons… which would be fitting, I suppose, seeing as the new House of Parliament has already been likened to an outsized dovecote (‘barumbara’) anyway.

Ah, but wait. There will be something else left even after all the people – with their dripping hot dogs, their unsightly shopping bags, and the garish clothes they buy from the monti – have gone.

There’ll be this thing called ‘culture’, which everyone suddenly seems to know so much about. A culture of exclusivity; a culture which discriminates on grounds of ‘taste’ and ‘aesthetics’; a culture that now shouts at the top of its voice, day in, day out: ‘WE know better than YOU… so YOU have to go.’

Call me uncultured… but if you ask me the cost of all this cultural elevation is far too high.