Let’s not allow greed and cynicism to destroy Malta

The Archbishop is right to sound to sound the alarm on this issue; for there may yet come a time when we do finally understand the value of all that we are currently throwing away

Oscar Wilde once famously defined a ‘cynic’ as “a man who knows the price of everything, and the value of nothing.”

It is an oft-quoted aphorism: recently used by Prof. Richard England, during an interview in which the eminent architect lambasted Malta’s current approach to construction and development.

“Sadly, I don’t think we are going to leave any heritage and legacy that is in any way equivalent to that left by our forefathers […] We know the price of everything and the value of nothing…”

And while Archbishop Charles Scicluna stopped short of actually quoting Oscar Wilde in his Independence Day homily, the sentiment he expressed was indistinguishable from Prof. England’s.

“If we look around us at the city of Mdina, the bastions of Valletta and Cottonera, we do not only see functional buildings but also harmonious and captivating architecture,” the Archbishop said. “Can we say the same thing about the buildings through which we are destroying the sense of beauty in our country?”

Taking a look around us today – and especially, comparing with the wealth of architectural heritage bequeathed to us by our forefathers – it is hard not to sympathise with that sentiment.

To be fair, there has always been the impression that ‘development’ was to be pursued as an ‘end in itself’: one of the few ways Maltese entrepreneurs could even generate a profit, in a country with such limited resources.

But with the recent explosion in construction and development projects on the island, it seems we have finally lost all sense of proportion and taste. So cynical has the development drive become, of late, that we now even have individual developers such as Joseph Portelli candidly admitting that ‘money’ – in and of itself – is now the only consideration.   

Defending the recent uglification of Xlendi, for instance, he argued that “In Xlendi, the authorities have been permitting high buildings for a long time. We only did what the policy permitted us and many others before us to do. […] If you were in my position and you could build seven storeys, would you build just three or four? It makes no sense.”

Clearly, then, the only real concern seems to be with how much can possibly be developed, on any given footprint, within the planning regulation constraints. And with such a mentality in place, it is hardly surprising that today’s generation of architects often manifestly ignore all other considerations: including aesthetics, and also the impact of their buildings on communities.

As such, it seems to validate the Archbishop’s point that “the craving for easy money” is “destroying the moral backbone of our country.” But it doesn’t have to be this way: either from the perspective of the developers themselves; or the regulatory authorities.

At all these stages, there is nothing stopping us from giving greater importance to the bigger picture: the collective memories of localities or communities; for instance… or even such purely aesthetic considerations, as the impact of any project on the skyline.

But when deciding to replace an existing building; or to upgrade an area in a locality; or to tear down an existing structure… how much consideration is given to what the locality means to the surrounding community? Is any importance at all, attached to the sentimental impact that certain buildings – or views – may have for the people of the vicinity?

This is an issue that demands more sensitivity from developers. There are, to be fair, rare moments when developers do relent, in the face of public pressure – the redesign of Manoel Island is a case in point – but all too often, what we are confronted with is the churlish arrogance of people whose only valuation system remains money (and only money) for its own sake.

Nonetheless, it would be a mistake to place the blame only on developers. It is not just the ‘Joe Portellis’ who are diminishing the values of this collective attachment to our communities: even if they undeniably have the greatest means to damage this feeling of community, through the sheer size and scale of most of their projects.

But the authorities, too, must recognise the need to safeguard and nurture the memories cherished by the collective. And even individuals should shoulder their own responsibilities.

What of the private home-owner who decides to demolish an old townhouse to build a five-storey apartment block instead? What of the owner deciding to tear down a garden, to replace it with a multi-garage complex?

Do even these humble ‘developers’ take account of the impact of their projects may have on the surrounding community? Or do we all, at the end of the day, gravitate towards the same old cynical position: whereby we all know ‘the price of everything, but the value of nothing’?

The Archbishop is right to sound to sound the alarm on this issue; for there may yet come a time when we do finally understand the value of all that we are currently throwing away.

And it would be regrettable, to say the least, if this realisation comes too late in the day, to save this country from greed and cynicism.