The buildings that make us | Konrad Buhagiar

Architect Konrad Buhagiar of Architecture Project speaks about A Printed Thing, a freewheeling and playful anthology of writings, photographs and illustrations orbiting around the cultural space created by local architecture.

Konrad Buhagiar: “It’s only when you start building that you realise how things change over time.”
Konrad Buhagiar: “It’s only when you start building that you realise how things change over time.”


A Printed Thing, a collection of writings, photographs and illustrations published by Architecture Project, is a journalist's worst nightmare.

It's a journalist's worst nightmare because the beautifully designed hardcover book is maddeningly difficult to box in and summarise.

At first glance, its 12 playful essays, embellished by photographs, diagrams and illustrations, seem to be dealing with local architecture, and the more cynical among us might assume that the 160-page volume is really just a glorified PR exercise for the local architecture practice.

But if you were to actually tuck into the coffee-table-friendly literary collage, you might be surprised by the variety of writing styles, and perspectives, on display.

"The idea was to create something... inclusive," architect, lecturer and founding partner of Architecture Project Konrad Buhagiar says as we chat about the book. He seems to struggle to find the word himself, hinting that perhaps A Printed Thing was never all that easy an object to classify, even at conception stage.

In fact, it takes a journey through Buhagiar's own academic and professional background to get to disentangle the true origins of the book.

"A lot of the initial ideas about the book came from the realisation that we spend most of our lives living in buildings built by people who came long, long before you. So it gets you thinking about old buildings, and how architectural developments are intrinsically tied to the economy - when there's a boom, people build.

"The rest of the time there's a lull and architecture is left to languish, and the fact is that most of us live in times when there is more of a lull than a boom... the Victorian writer John Ruskin described Rome - where I studied - as a place in which 'thousands of people lived in ruins'. Valletta was exactly like that in the 70s, when I was growing up!"

But a keener understanding of one's surroundings does not develop overnight. In fact, Buhagiar describes it as a very deliberate process: "When you're young, buildings are like clouds and trees - they're just there, and they appear to be unchangeable. But when you start building, you begin to realise just how things shift and change over the years."

It's that subtle - and sometimes tricky - relationship between people and the physical spaces they occupy which serves as the thematic core of A Printed Thing (such as it is). Buhagiar flags up the then-trendy modernist milieu which coloured his architectural education to contrast it with the more freewheeling contemporary cultural atmosphere.

"I have to keep reminding my students that I was born in the modern era, when everything was about contrasts: East vs West, socialist vs capitalist... as the spy novels which were also popular at the time would illustrate: if you cross the border, you'll get shot! But the postmodern world is all about being in-between. So the binary distinctions I grew up with began to seem less and less relevant..."

The contemporary instinct towards playfulness and irreverence is very much apparent in the construction of A Printed Thing.

Anthropologist and Sunday Times columnist Mark-Anthony Falzon pens a digressive 'divertissement' that plays around with the implications of concealed spaces within houses - like attics and hard-to-find nooks. Architect and architecture historian Timothy Brittain-Catlin paints a time-hopping romp through a version of Valletta that appears to exist simultaneously in nearly every period of history since the Renaissance. Berlin-and-Malta based mixed media artist Bettina Hutschek describes Valletta - in a letter to a German grandmother - as a city 'jammed into its corset of fortifications, only fireworks extend its limits, transmitting the feeling of being part of the whole universe' (the loose interplay between fiction and fact is teased at frequently throughout the book).

Hutschek was also responsible for the short documentary film 'City Gate - diary of a demolition' - screened last March under AP's auspices. The clue to its content is in the title, of course, and the 30-minute film (now available online), is perhaps another illustration of the kind of endeavour that lies behind projects like A Printed Thing.

"Watching it felt a bit like watching the climactic moments of a bullfight - you get the cranes piercing at the lumbering structure, and then it collapses in one big thud, just like a bull..."

Seen in this way, the architecture becomes a poetic repository of cultural meaning.

But just as appreciating the historical processes that go into our architectural surroundings may not come naturally, it might take some squinting to be fully aware of the deeper implications of our buildings. So does Buhagiar believe that A Printed Thing will be palatable to the general public?

"Well, we tried to be as accessible as we could be," he says with a sheepish smile.

"The thing is that in today's world, people are tight for time and therefore need to take short cuts, and the academic world isn't immune to this either. I remember being invited to present a lecture at New York University. I called it: 'Valletta: Heritage, Climate and Identity', but the head of department advised that I change it to 'Valletta: From Renaissance to Renzo Piano', because it was more catchy and more likely to attract the attention of the students who were familiar with all the key words. She also advised me not to use the brown on the flyer - but to go for blue! She assured me that if I listened to this advice, the students will show up. And she was right..."

Perhaps it's no coincidence, then, that A Printed Thing is drenched in sea-blue, from its hard-bound cover down to its font...

The last paragraph spoils it all. Marketing above all else.