Not part of a masterplan | Conrad Thake

Architect Conrad Thake argues that decisions to go high-rise should be preceded by a masterplan, not vice-versa

Architect Conrad Thake - Photo: Chris Mangion
Architect Conrad Thake - Photo: Chris Mangion

It has undeniably been a ‘landmark’ week for Malta’s Planning Authority.

‘Landmark’ was in fact the word used by two architects to describe the twin high-rise projects that were contentiously approved at a public hearing last Thursday. One involves four towers at Mriehel, ranging from 10 to 16 storeys; the other, a single skyscraper rising 38 storeys from the heart of Sliema.

It is hard to conceive of a more appropriate term than ‘landmark’ to describe these projects. Both (for better or worse) will have irreversible effects on the landscape and skyline of the Maltese islands; and both will certainly ‘mark’ the surrounding ‘land’ with all the stress and inconvenience inevitably caused by construction projects lasting several years.

More pertinently, however, the decision to grant permits for projects of such unprecedented magnitude  – at a time when Malta does not yet possess anything resembling a ‘masterplan’, to address any of the environmental and infrastructural issues associated with high-rise buildings – is also ‘landmark’ in the sense that it ushers in a whole new dimension to the planning process.

As architect Conrad Thake will put it later in this interview, the decision represents something of a bold dash into ‘uncharted territory’.

But that is later. Right now, we have only just met at a small café outside the University, where Dr Thake lectures in the Faculty of Architecture.

“This is a bit of a déjà vu,” he begins over a coffee. “The debate about high-rise has been experienced by countless cultures and peoples; it is a bit passé compared with what others have been through. What troubles me a bit, though, is that we tend to go for a rather superficial and simplistic argumentation. We can’t expand horizontally, we can’t go into ODZ… so, thinking in a linear way, the only solution is to go up. Even then, however: to what degree do we go up? Are we talking about medium-rise – five to 10 floors – or are we talking 38, 40+?”

Judging by the first high-rise permits to be approved, the answer seems to be both at once: in different parts of Malta, and on the basis of studies and impact assessments that were actually carried out in 2007 – almost 10 years ago.

Dr Thake admits he finds this concept disturbing.

“This is a race against time. The first fundamental question to ask concerns the law of supply and demand. What forces are instigating the need for high-rise in Malta? It is not an architectural question, of course. But for whom are these projects being designed? It is definitely not for the ordinary man in the street, or the general population. Are they intended primarily for commercial purposes, to cater for a demand for office space? If so, fine: we could carry out studies to determine how many square metres are needed, then designate an area to build two or three towers. One could argue that way…”

Projects of the kind approved last Thursday, he suggests, appear to be aimed at attracting foreign, high-end corporate firms to relocate to Malta.

“Let’s be honest: these are for the super-rich. They’re not for lesser mortals. This in turn means they also generate high rental income, so it is quite a lucrative business. But there is an element of speculation. It’s like going to a Casino: you might win, but you might also lose. And it is also uncharted territory for Malta: we have simply never played in this league or at this level before. The first two projects to get off the ground might well succeed. But for all we know, the rest might be flops. In the past six or seven months, there have been… how many? Around 10 applications for high-rise projects? The probability of all of them succeeding is a big question mark…”

Speaking of question marks, there were several raised during Thursday’s meeting. The Mriehel project, for instance, was approved even if it didn’t meet the minimum number of parking spaces necessitated by the Traffic Impact Assessment report. The land allocated for the project had been included in the draft policy after consultations had ended. In the case of the Sliema Townsquare project, a leading geologist (Dr Peter Gatt) even warned that the stratum of rock under Qui Si Sana might not be strong enough to support a 38-storey tower.

Yet the PA waved all objections aside, and granted the permits anyway…

“The PA board, as you know, is composed of some government appointees, who I presume are there to represent the government’s official policy. And government policy is determined by MPs, who presumably vote according to what their party affiliation requires of them. There are also independent members, one opposition representative, a representative for NGOs...”

The latter two categories did in fact vote against, though it was not enough to halt the permits. Doesn’t this suggest that the planning process itself is skewed in favour of the government?

“That depends: do the government appointees vote in their own personal capacity, according to how they think… or do they vote according to the views of the government which appointed them?”

This in turn raises another question: why should the government even be involved, in a decision taken by a supposedly autonomous, independent authority, on an application filed by a private entrepreneur?

“I would take it one step further back: what do we, as a nation, actually want? What is our vision for the next 30, 40 years? Do we want to be a Dubai or a Singapore in the Mediterranean? The government never makes official statements to this effect, but the impression you get is that no surplus of business is bad for the country. So it’s all about maximising space…”

Clearly missing from the equation is any corresponding concern with the environmental impact of such projects, not to mention the quality of life of surrounding residential areas.

“I wouldn’t say it is a ‘leap in the dark’; but for us, it is a bit of a leap into uncharted territory. We have to tread very cautiously, because we can’t afford to make mistakes. In medicine, when your patient dies, you bury both the patient and your mistakes. But in architecture, the mistakes remain there for many, many years. My own personal belief is that it would have been much better if there was – sadly, I now have to say ‘was’, not ‘is’ – a masterplan, which identified the best possible location where to concentrate a number of medium to high-rise buildings; and then tested the area for 10 or 20 years to see how the market reacts. At the end of the day, what is fuelling the need for high-rise is very ambiguous…”

The pressures and requirements of this new form of architecture are likewise untested, he adds. “Our infrastructure is going to have to rise to match, all of a sudden, this quantum leap we are making: underground public transport systems, issues related to civil protection… basically, if there is an emergency or fire at greater heights than our firefighting capability can reach… then there are municipal services like waste and garbage collection. All very basic issues. I think there is a great disparity, at present, between the level of development of our infrastructure and public transport systems, in relation to what we are aspiring to build…” 

All this, Dr Thake continues, must be seen in the context of a more holistic vision. “As a nation, what kind of urban environment do we want to live in? I think there should be a general discussion, as an island state in the Mediterranean which is experiencing a certain degree of affluence… is this the direction we want to go? Is it just about economics, or is it also about our quality of life? I’m asking these questions, because at the end of the day there has to be some form of consensus among the population about the kind of environment we want for ourselves, our children, and our grandchildren.”

Earlier, Dr Thake cited the lack of a ‘masterplan’. The word admittedly has a certain grandiose air about it… one is instantly reminded of a certain Oasis song with rather pretentious lyrics. But in this particular context: what is a masterplan, anyway? What sort of document does he envisage?

Here Dr Thake produces a copy of a report entitled ‘High-Rise Buildings in Vienna’. “This is basically a handbook, issued by the city of Vienna, which documents the main issues of how high-rise should be tackled. The reason I chose Vienna is that I didn’t want to compare to Dubai or Singapore… Vienna is a historic European city, and its conservation issues are more comparable to ours. I have highlighted a few of the main points…

He reads a few excerpts aloud: “’Good accessibility by public transport is a prerequisite, as is compliance with ecological aspects’;… ‘In keeping with international models, citizens are to be involved in the planning process for large-scale projects […] even before commencement of the land allocation’;… ‘In order to ensure compatibility with the transport situation, the share of private car traffic must not exceed a maximum of 25% of the overall volume engendered by a high-rise project’…”

He breaks off with a shrug. “You can see the difference in approach. This is a masterplan. Vienna has one of the most efficient public mass-transport systems in Europe. Even so, they still designated an area for high-rise only on one side of the Danube, at a distance from the historical centre…”

Giving an example from the opposite angle, Dr Thake turns to another European town which went about things the clean opposite way. “On my Facebook wall I posted a picture of Benidorm. Is this the direction we are heading? From a small fishing village on the coast of Spain, Benidorm has been transformed, via a series of mismatching high-rise towers, into one of the ugliest places on earth. So ugly, that you just want to leave…”

From this perspective, the decision to emulate the worse of the two approaches can only be described as problematic.

“The very idea that the prime minister would say ‘we don’t need a masterplan’ stupefies me. You cannot not have a masterplan for something which is going to have such an impact. A masterplan provides a structure, a framework, within which to operate. Meanwhile, another thing we seem to be forgetting is that we don’t have the know-how for any of this. All the expertise, even at construction stage, will have to be imported… as will the materials. Are we talking about steel and glass, or concrete? Either way, we don’t have the necessary materials, because we’ve never tried our hand at anything like this before…”

If I might add another, seemingly overlooked consideration: what about the impact of long construction projects on the quality of life of nearby residents? Sliema, for instance, has already endured an almost endless series of inconveniences due to construction works: dust, noise, roads blocked due to cranes, etc. When approving the Townsquare project, the PA estimated that construction works would last 54 months… that’s roughly four years. Considering that Portomaso, which is just over half the height, took much longer… isn’t this at best a conservative estimate?

“It is certainly optimistic. Four years, as a rule, means six. It’s going to be hell for the residents, no doubt about that. I also think we have a situation where the level of infrastructure is nowhere near what is necessitated by these high-rise buildings. We have to plug them into an efficient public transport service…”

Again, this highlights an issue that has long been pointed out. When originally drafting a ‘tall buildings’ policy (which was eventually shelved by the former Nationalist administration, and resurrected under Labour) MEPA hired a foreign consultant from Chicago. His recommendations were never made public, but the consultant was quoted as saying that high-rise should not even be considered without a mass public transport system already in place.

Nor is this the only infrastructural deficit. Among the issues the non-existent masterplan would certainly have addressed are those concerning health, safety and civil protection

“Does the CPD have the necessary equipment and knowhow to deal with a fire on the 27th floor?” Will we just have to wait and see?” Dr Thake shakes his head. “Technically, it is going to be an extreme challenge. First of all, there are major environmental issues, infrastructural and technical issues. Now:  I am not saying, let’s not do anything and just quit. I’m not saying that at all. But you cannot just ignore these challenges, and then face them when they crop up.  Yet this, unfortunately, tends to be our national approach to most things. ‘Imbaghad naraw’… we just improvise as we go along…”

Apart from the obvious problem with this haphazard, piecemeal approach, there is also an underlying economic concern.

“Cass Gilbert was the architect of the Woolworth Building in New York: which, between 1913 and 1930, was the tallest building in the world [a record it ceded to the Empire State Building]. This is how he defined high-rise: ‘A skyscraper is a machine that makes the land pay.’ It’s a way of generating revenue that is self-perpetuating: you could almost compare it to a nuclear reactor. From a very concentrated use of land, you can generate so much revenue. And OK: an economist might argue that that’s a good thing. What I’m trying to say is: we are facing high-rise in Mriehel and Sliema; later it will be St Julian’s. Where is the buck going to stop? I don’t want to use the expression ‘fools rush in where angels fear to tread’… but you cannot just rush headlong into the storm, and then improvise when problems arise.”