Only ‘discrete’ height for Wembley factory, PA design panel tells architect

The architects tasked with the redevelopment of Gzira’s Wembley ice-cream factory into a seven-storey office block have been told to submit alterative designs for the building. The PA’s design advisory panel said the Wembley factory should have a discrete height

Not wanted: the PA design panel told the architect it wanted an alternative design
Not wanted: the PA design panel told the architect it wanted an alternative design

The architects tasked with the redevelopment of Gzira’s Wembley ice-cream factory into a seven-storey office block have been told to submit alterative designs for the building.

Demicoli & Associates have submitted two designs, one proposing a simple height extension and another one – Ray Demicoli’s preferred option – which includes a higher ‘Wurlitzer jukebox themed’ central feature. The Planning Authority board will take a final decision on Thursday.

The case officer referred to the “architect’s preferred design option” as one which introduces “a higher central feature as an integral icon of the Wurlitzer jukebox and Art Deco style”. The feature would serve merely like a sign for aesthetic reasons with the aim of preserving the art deco style. “The architect insists that the architectural design requires a central vertical element, and if this is eliminated the whole scope of such an iconic façade will be jeopardised.”

The preferred option
The preferred option

But both the PA’s planning directorate and the design advisory committee, of which Demicoli was a former member, raised concerns that the central feature was too prominent. The DAC, chaired by architect David Mallia, said the feature would dominate not only the building but also the surrounding area, noting that the neighbouring Muscat Motors showroom was also a modest Art Deco structure that only incorporates “a simple vertical feature as a central element.”

The planning directorate concluded the design should respect the original facade without any “overpowering design features”. Moreover, it warned that dismantling and reconstructing the facade into a more central position, carries a risk of losing an important architectural building.

The option preferred by the planning directorate was developed by the architect in consultation with the DAC, and was described as a “discrete extension” which “does not compete with the original façade”.

Demicoli’s preferred option, however, partly tallies with the recommendation by the Superintendence of Cultural Heritage to dismantle and reconstruct the façade and construct the additional floors in the Art Deco style.

The new Wembley development, proposed by Emil Bonello Ghio, will include 10,764 sq.m of office space and 209 parking spaces on four basement levels. The development was originally proposed as an 18-storey high-rise but was downscaled to seven floors since the Floor Area Ratio policy stipulates that half the site has to be converted to open space.

The Wembley factory was completed in 1937 by architect Antonio Grech Dimech. The building is described as one of “the best examples of pre-war industrial architecture in Malta” by architect Edward Said. According to Said, the symmetrical façade includes subtle features which reflect the eclectic style used in dwellings at the time. The pilasters which divide the façade are expressed in the Art Deco style, “give a sense of haute verticality to the squat two-storey building”.

Said had called on the PA to schedule the building and protect it from suffering the same fate suffered by the Mira Building opposite to the factory, which has made way for a gaping hole that has yet to be developed into the Metropolis high-rise.

More in Townscapes