Stuck in a cultural rut | Alex Torpiano

Architect and dean of the University’s Faculty for the Built Environment, Alex Torpiano, vents his frustration that Malta is stuck in a cultural rut

Architect Alex Torpiano
Architect Alex Torpiano

If you have tears, prepare to shed them now. I’ve always wanted to start an interview with that quote: and Prof. Alex Torpiano gave me the perfect opportunity this week, when he joined a chorus of disapproval at the proposed relocation of the Valletta monti [market] to Ordnance Street.

“Why I am crying for Valletta”, his opinion piece was headlined in The Times this week: though he will soon inform me that the choice of headline was not his, but the editor’s.

Either way, few can deny that responses to this proposal were somewhat emotional on both sides. Project architect Antonio Belvedere ‘cried’ when he heard of the proposed desecration of Piano’s masterpiece; one monti hawker’s wife reportedly ‘cried’ when her husband was called a hamallu on the social media. 

Valletta, it seems, has become a vale of tears. So my first question for Prof. Torpiano concerns what it is, exactly, that makes this particular space – the entranceway to our capital city – such an emotional venue for so many people. How does he account for such sentimental reactions to this issue?

“I think I’ll go back a couple of steps. There is an issue regarding the design of the [market] stalls and an issue about where to place the market, and I disagree with both. However, I think there is a much more serious issue which I’m not sure we’re addressing at all…”

Torpiano’s article quoted well-known industrialist Joseph FX Zahra, who expressed concern that: “We are back on the road of populism and traditionalism, with fear of breaking boundaries…”

“I referred to Zahra’s comment because I think it’s the first time I’ve seen it written anywhere: we have many exhibitions, but what are we exhibiting? Are we kidding ourselves? We have lots of budding artists... but are we really moving forward? Do we have an appreciation for art? Is it just about making pictures or statues, or is there more to it than that? What worries me is our approach to such issues. We were talking about the stalls as if… ‘OK, we have a structure, now let’s just put any old wrapping over it, and it will be fine’… I think we have a serious problem in our foundation. It starts at school: how we perceive things like ‘culture’…”

But isn’t culture notoriously subjective? One could argue that the Valletta monti is part of our culture, too…

Torpiano concedes that it is a very difficult word to define. “One can even say, if I go bare-chested in my home village, that’s part of my culture… so yes, you could argue that. But there are certain levels of sophistication in culture as well…”

Torpiano turns to experience to illustrate his point: “I remember very clearly a conversation I had with a taxi driver in Florence, on what was probably my second visit there. He decided to give me an architectural tour of the city. And… you know, he was a taxi driver. He wasn’t a scholar, or an academic, or even a rich businessman. But he was proud of his city’s heritage. And he was knowledgeable, too. He wasn’t talking rubbish…”

This reminds me of a (supposedly true) anecdote about a Maltese taxi-driver on his first day at work. He picked up an Italian tourist at the airport, who said: “Albergo”. So he drove him to Birgu…

I have a bad habit of laughing at my own jokes, but luckily Torpiano laughs with me. “That’s a good one, but I can tell you another: here at the department, we have restructured the course and included what we call a ‘diploma in design foundation’, where we get students who come from a science background (our course requires science). One lecturer gives a course on 20th century cultural movements; and obviously this includes references to events such as the Russian revolution. In the discussion, the name ‘Lenin’ cropped up. The lecturer saw a number of blank faces. ‘Surely you’ve all heard of Lenin?’ she asked… and one student piped up – perhaps tongue-in-cheek – ‘Ah, yes, he used to play with The Beatles’…” 

Joking apart, Torpiano admits to being worried at this apparent lacuna in our cultural formation, and sees much the same lack of awareness in the monti relocation decision, too.

“Now: whether you like the design of Renzo Piano’s parliament or not… when people start equating the design of that building with the monti, and ask which is the ‘better’ of the two… I say, hold on a minute, what are we comparing here? It’s in that sense that I became ‘emotional’… It hurts me that people put these things on the same level.”

Inevitably, talk turns to criticism of Piano’s design for the entrance to Valletta. Like most commentators to date, Torpiano affirms his own admiration for the Parliament building on the former Freedom Square. 

“The decision was taken, whether you like the idea of the parliament being there or not… whether you admire Renzo Piano or not; whether you think it’s a masterpiece or a cheese-grater. I happen to admire Piano, because compared to other contemporary architects, I find that he is more contextual. If you compare with Zaha Hadid, for instance… when she was criticised for her building in Rome, she said: ‘I don’t care about context: that’s my building…”

Torpiano argues that the Piano project represents the opposite approach: his design for Valletta was planned with the context in mind all along.

“Renzo Piano is a different type of architect whom I admire. He is a master, whether we like it or not. In a sense, it’s as if we are continuing the tradition that we had in the time of the Knights, of getting the best engineers and architects from Europe. We didn’t understand the layout of cities when Valletta was built; we didn’t understand fortifications. Maybe we even criticised their work at the time; but now we admire the palaces, the bastions, the architecture…”

But what some people question is precisely the vision behind this project as the entranceway to a capital city. When we suddenly hear opinions to the effect that there shouldn’t be any activity at all in the vicinity of this building, because it would jar with the artistic vision of some architectural grandee... I for one say, hang on: is this a city, or an architect’s playground? It’s as if we’ve created this great monument only to be observed respectfully from a distance…

“That is certainly not what I was saying: what I said was that the sort of activity in question – selling cheap ware from China… is that what we want? I’ve been to cities where there are stalls even in main squares; but they sell good foods, and things like that. The scale is different; even the character is different …” He cites the example of an artisan market he once visited in Lithuania. “The stalls were modest, tasteful, and they sold beautiful things made in Lithuania…”

So, to follow this reasoning… if the Valletta market sold goods of superior quality instead of what has been described as ‘cheap, tacky tat’, would it be considered OK to relocate it to Ordnance Street? If so, it is difficult to escape the notion that what underpins these objections is ultimately just a matter of class. It’s as though the monti is objectionable merely because it appeals to a lower social denomination…

Torpiano vehemently shakes his head. “It’s not a question of class. It’s a question of culture, ultimately. Understanding the vision…”

What if, I put it to him – and I’m not saying this was the actual intention – that the ‘vision’ behind relocating the monti was in fact to breathe life into the city entranceway, by installing a commercial activity that is ultimately part of the ‘sights and sounds’ of any living city anywhere? And if so, the flipside would surely be that removing all such activity may also condemn Valletta to die a gradual death…

“I perfectly agree with you. But the decision doesn’t seem to have been based on that. If there was that kind of logic, and… take the Lithuania market again. That sort of market does breathe life into a city. It generates commercial activity, boosts tourism, etc. There was a plan. But quite frankly, don’t tell me that this is what we’re doing in Valletta. There isn’t any comparable vision….”

Perhaps not, but let me throw another idea into the cauldron. What if, by moving these stalls to such a prominent location, we are actually encouraging the local monti to pull its socks up? For example: one frequent criticism is that the Valletta market sells fake [pirated] DVDs. Certainly it has done so in the past, as attested by several police raids. But surely it would be harder for them to get away with that, if they’re breaking copyright law right under the noses of 71 MPs?

“True. But that’s exactly why I was annoyed. If that was the intention, I would have subscribed to it. But that would have meant starting out by using a higher quality stall, for example. It starts from there…” 

Torpiano insists that his main objection was to the way things were done. “There wasn’t a plan to have commercial activity of a certain quality, constrained by these limits, etc. Nothing you could call a vision. Let’s be blunt: what there was, was an electoral promise made to the monti hawkers.”

Here he imagines how the promise was carried out: “It was almost mathematical: ‘There are 75 of them, where can we fit them?… Can we fit them there? Yes… so… let’s put them there.’ That’s not a plan. Certainly I don’t believe it was in any way studied… it was just a promise they had to fulfil. And it annoys me. Not because it’s one party or the other, either. It has been said, I’m not sure by whom, that the same promise had been made before, under the previous administration. I don’t know if it’s true, but… what right do these politicians have, to promise this on public space? We elect them to power… and then we don’t have a say in any of these decisions? I object to that.”

At the same time, however, isn’t there a bit of hypocrisy at work behind the scenes? The Kamra tal-Periti came out with a statement against the monti relocation on the basis of ‘good taste’. Yet one could argue – provocatively, I admit – that Maltese architects as a whole should be the very last people to comment about poor taste in others. Some of us remember, for instance, what the Sliema seafront looked like before the 1980s; what went up since then seems to fit in perfectly with Torpiano’s own complaints about lack of taste, planning and long-term vision. The same could be said for much of Malta’s built-up environment. 

Doesn’t this make the Kamra tal-Periti guilty of the same flaws it now complains about?  

“No. I agree with you on the question of taste, but not on the rest. When these developments start, they are not driven by architects; they’re driven by the owners. The Sliema front started to be developed because the owners of the houses perceived that they could demolish their properties and rebuild…”

But what they built instead was designed for them by architects…

“Yes, that’s where taste comes into it. Some architects – not all are of the same quality – will say: ‘OK, you want to drop it down? Looking at the planning rules, I can give you four floors… maybe we’ll try for five…”

Torpiano pre-empts a rather obvious next question on my part, by acknowledging criticism of his own efforts as the main architect of the Midi project at Tigne point. “I don’t want to bring in my own personal experience, but when I was involved in a project that was planned holistically…” [as opposed to the aforementioned style of development, which had been criticised as ‘piecemeal’] “… I was criticised because it was a ‘mega-project’. But if you have a mega-project, you can control…”

People are welcome to criticise, he adds… but in his own defence he argues that there was at least an effort to create something of quality.

“If there is not even an attempt at quality, how can you compare? You can complain about my elevation or the visual impact of the project, but at least I tried… I’m not as good as Renzo Piano, but I tried. Did they even try when it came to the design of the market stalls? Did they study alternatives? That is what I think is wrong here.”

Torpiano also reminds me that the present furore concerns a decision taken, not by a private developer, but by the State. “The State took this decision at the same time as it declared it will be promoting culture, with V18 coming up, and all that. So they have this vision, and then…” he raps his desk. “They break it. This is what I can’t understand…”

Meanwhile, if I may broaden the scope of this interview slightly… there is now talk of a general amnesty on past planning infringements, which may result in the sanctioning of illegally-built properties in ODZ areas. This seems to reinforce an existing perception that it’s OK to break the rules, because sooner or later you will always get a chance to legitimise your past ‘mistakes’. 

How does Torpiano view the decision to grant an amnesty for illegal development?

“I’m very nervous about it. I appreciate that there are many small things that add up to I don’t know how many thousands of infringements; and I’m sure that a good chunk of those infringements concern silly things… the sort of planning infringements that are wrong, yes, but on a very small scale. In theory, I think we should clear out the small infringements and get them out of the way. But if we’re going to extend this principle to sanctioning illegal development – I’m not sure of the full details yet – I’m very nervous. Even in terms of social justice: so if I play by the rules… let’s say I have a piece of land outside the scheme, and I didn’t want to play the cowboy and build… and then, somebody else does precisely that… is he going to get it sanctioned? And then be able to sell it? That’s really unjust, irrespective of architectural issues. If you break the law, you can gain from it…”

Torpiano sees a correlation with the monti stalls issue: if nothing else, because justification of both issues seems to stem from a cultural acquiescence to mediocrity.

“The message that is being sent out is that everything is OK, because this is all part of our ‘culture’. We have a culture of ‘arranging’ things, too. I’ve even had foreign clients asking me ‘whom to speak to’ to get things done. I told them ‘whom do you speak to in England?’ They replied: ‘You can’t speak to people in England, but we’re told that in Malta, that’s what you do.’

Hold on a minute. Is that what we are? Is that our culture? And do we celebrate it because that’s our culture? I think that’s a very weak argument. I think there ARE values: you can say ‘this’ is better than ‘that’. By accepting everything as ‘culture’, all we’ve done is get ourselves stuck in a rut. We’re not acknowledging that we have a problem. So we’re not getting out of the rut.”