‘Architecture is limping behind construction’ | Edward Said

There is a lot of construction happening in Malta today: but are we building anything that is comparable to the architectural jewels of yesteryear? Not just in aesthetic terms... but also in terms of their impact on the quality of life in surrounding areas? Architect Edward Said maintains that Maltese architecture may have some catching up to do with the sheer pace of construction

Let me start this off with a random observation. If – for argument’s sake – a nation’s architecture says something about the character of that nation: what does Maltese architecture say about Malta? What impression would someone get about our culture, heritage, and so on... arriving here for the first time, and basing judgment only on the visual impact of our buildings?

There is something to be said about the difference between arriving in Malta by sea, or by plane. Those two approaches offer very different perspectives on our built environment. For centuries, the only way to get to Malta was by ship: and what a sight to behold. The ‘Grand Tourists’ who came to Malta left some lovely descriptions of the Grand Harbour, and their ingress into Valletta, or to the Lazaretto [on Manoel Island]. And the recurring comment about our architecture was primarily concerned with the material: limestone. In the past, limestone was a continuous hallmark, or idiosyncrasy, of Maltese architecture. Nonetheless, the material does have its limitations. If we’re talking about buildings of a certain height, or to certain specifications... with limestone, one would need to have a certain thickness of walls, and so on. Today, that translates into loss of space. Also, limestone is much harder to handle than what we call ‘bricks’... i.e, hollow concrete blocks. Hence, its loss of popularity in recent years. But with the decline of limestone, Maltese architecture has become truly what one calls the international style: buildings in Malta, built in the last 20 years, could have come from anywhere, really. Richard England exploited Maltese limestone in many of his buildings. He used styles which were continental European: however, they became what we define as ‘regional modernism’, or words to that effect. That makes it identifiably Maltese.

Would you say that limestone is what distinguishes Malta’s built environment from others, just at a glance?

It is one of the most identifiable features, certainly. I remember a lecturer at University, when I was a first-year architecture student, telling us: ‘When in doubt, just use limestone... and let Mother Nature do the rest’. Whatever you create will somehow ‘homogenise’ with the environment. There are, of course, also certain architectural elements that, definitely, in our vernacular architecture – starting with the early 16th century, all the way until the mid 20th – were completely Maltese. Probably the most identifiable of these would be the Maltese balcony. Some of these elements might be common to other places, like North Africa, and of course Sicily... and uncannily, they look as though they were ‘borrowed’ from a typically Maltese townscape, when viewed in that context. But in truth, it’s the other way round. That is the beauty of architecture; and today, in a larger sense, the same thing is happening. Before, distances were much greater; today, distances are almost non-existent. So to return to your earlier question, about someone coming to Malta to appreciate our built environment... I would say – and this brings us to the critical situation we are in today – that the appeal lies in the ensemble. The streetscape, the skyline... rather than buildings in isolation. Of course, these might have an impact. And to possibly anticipate a question, I would say that today, we have construction... and then we have architecture slowly limping behind.

That does anticipate a question, regarding the difference between those two terms. There’s an awful lot of construction going on in Malta right now, but much of it (in my humble opinion, naturally) seems devoid of any particular architectural consideration. We don’t seem to be building anything that can be compared to the architectural legacy we seem to be simultaneously destroying in the process...

Up to a point, there was always a certain amount of construction for its own sake: warehouses, for example. Buildings viewed as ‘machines’. And of course, there is the school of thought that says: ‘Look, we don’t build just to have pretty things to look at. This isn’t sculpture; it’s architecture. Buildings ARE machines...’Even Le Corbusier, the father of modernist architecture, looked at buildings as machines. However, in the same breath, he also said, ‘It goes without saying that this is a public service we’re providing: architecture is something that is imposed on the public domain, and it is our duty as architects to create something that is beautiful...’

But didn’t someone else also say that ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’?

It might not be possible to build something everyone will agree is beautiful... but there are certain universally accepted conventions. Beauty, in a building, is not just about colour, or material... but also about proportion. These are things you learn in first-year architecture. There are forms which look beautiful to us, even if we don’t know anything about ‘proportion’, or the ‘Golden Section/Ratio’ [a basic design principle]. Like a seashell, for instanec: why do children pick up seashells on the beach? Nobody tells them, ’that is beautiful, but an ordinary pebble isn’t’. It has a certain appeal of its own. The spiral of a shell is, in fact, the basis of the Golden Section. In a nutshell, that’s how one can define ‘beauty’, in this context. But with Malta, because of our size, I think the main appeal of our built environment would have to be the wider context. Of course, Mdina is still there... it is still very much a Maltese icon. Valletta, perhaps, too. But the greater context is under threat, and has been for a while. Now, it is reaching an alarming scale...

Speaking of Valletta and Mdina: both are historic cities: one very ancient, the other around 500 years old... and yet they seem to have been designed with far more of an aesthetic sense than anything going up today. In Valletta, buildings taper in height downwards towards sea-level: resulting in a gracefully inclining skyline, and views (and sunlight) for everyone. In Sliema, it is the opposite. How, then, did we lose touch with these basic planning principles?

Sliema does, of course, spring to mind. And much of the development you refer to happened very recently. The older Sliema, however – and there are still parts of Sliema which have been preserved – was also built that way: so that everybody enjoyed some form of prospect, view, fresh air, sunlight, and so on. But up to a point, what happened to Sliema had also happened to Valletta. This is perhaps a little-known aspect of our capital city: when I was doing research for the restoration of Fort Manoel, I came across many paintings and views of Valletta from Manoel Island. It is extremely interesting to observe how Valletta grew vertically... especially between around 1850, and 1930. There was a sudden growth in population, fuelled by economic booms, and Valletta was in huge demand. At the turn of the century, Valletta had a resident population of 24,000. Today, it has barely 8,000.... despite the whole Valletta renewal brouhaha. At the time, many old palaces were either demolished, or severely altered, to be turned into apartment blocks. From a heritage preservation point of view, it would naturally be considered scandalous today. I imagine that if I myself was alive back then, I would have had fits...

I take it that concern with environmental/aesthetic impact was less vocal back then...

Less than today, yes; but those concerns were still taken into consideration. When all this was happening, places like Sliema and Hamrun – the suburbs – came into being. And as the Knights had done before them with Floriana, the planners went for something that offered a slightly better quality of life: wider streets, lower buildings heights, open spaces, etc. Of course there was also this very British notion of having ‘seaside residences’... and the advantage offered by topography in places like Sliema, is that you have a gentle slope going down to sea-level. The contours allowed for the possibility of stepped rows of houses.  Sliema grew that way; then St Julian’s, Gzira... and the demand for residences in these new areas started growing. First because Sliema was close to Valletta, later because it became a commercial hub in its own right. And it has remained popular ever since. But when it comes to recent construction, it has to be seen as part of a process. For example, in the 1920s and 30s, a number of apartment blocks went up on Tower Road, facing St Julian’s...

Balluta Buildings are from that era, and they’re right on the seafront, too...

Precisely: late 1920s. But it was also a time when ‘having an apartment’ also implied certain conditions. The idea was, if you’re going to share your living space with other people, you had to have decent common areas... there were no lifts, so the top floor was the cheapest... everyone had a washroom... sanitary law was taken very seriously... and above all, everything was done with gusto. Balluta Buildings is a case in point. But what happened later, in the post-war boom... and, dare I say it, with Independence: when suddenly, ‘votes’ became the talk of a town... an imbalance crept into the picture. Perhaps the planning authorities or boards of the time had less administrative clout to impose restrictions. And today, all that seems to have gone...

That is also highly ironic, when you consider that there was no central regulatory body like the Planning Authority back then. It seems that we were better at planning towns when there was less in the way of a planning infrastructure... wouldn’t you agree?

Well, there was planning infrastructure at the time, too: even the way, for instance, an economic boom was so to speak ‘managed’. The post-war period is a good example of this. WW2 brought with it an opportunity to do away with areas like the Manderaggio in Valletta. Today, we look at those buildings – especially now that limestone has become highly endangered in our architecture – as being Maltese: they might be inspired by British post-war social housing, but they have an unmistakable Maltese hallmark about them. They also have consideration for the immediate surroundings... probably as a reaction to what was there before. At the same time, places like Santa Lucija and San Gwann were being built; then, later, lots of different housing estates in various parts of the island. Suddenly you had a lot of different typologies of dwelling on offer: terraced houses, condominia, with lots of green areas in between. I’ve spoken to some of the architects involved in some of those projects. Whilst they are proud to have contributed substantially to the Maltese urban fabric, their attitude is: ‘It stands to reason that, if you’re going to build an apartment block... there should be nothing too close to it. There should be open areas. Garages should be kept low, etc.’ One architect in particular told me he drew a lot of inspiration from Pembroke: a British military town. And in the 1960s in the particular, there was a trend to plant trees, and thickets of greenery, in urban areas...

The tendency today, on the other hand, seems to be to uproot trees wherever possible, and build up every available square inch. All the considerations you mention seem to have fallen by the wayside. What happened in the meantime? And... perhaps more urgently... what can be done to return to a better planning regime?

Part of what happened was that Malta, left to our own devices, translated into a situation where, to retain power, you have to appease people. In practice, it ultimately meant that people could end up doing just about whatever they wanted within their own little ‘kingdoms’, as it were. Regarding what can be done... I would say we need to look at this from a national level. The first thing to do – with all the experts on board, naturally, is to take stock of the crisis. To define this crisis, and prioritise strategies to tackle it. One aspect of it concerns identifying which areas need to be preserved, and whether action can be taken in time...

Fair enough, but there is another dimension to the issue. Preservation of historically or culturally significant buildings is naturally important; but isn’t it also important to build new buildings that might one day be considered significant enough to also preserve in their turn? This consideration seemed to come to us naturally in years gone by. Why is it now relegated to an afterthought?

To be fair, there are new projects which may well one day be worth preserving. Some modern buildings are stunning, at least in my view. I wouldn’t want to generalise too much. But I see your point, and I would say the overarching problem is a question of urban design. Ultimately, it is the Planning Authority that has to impose planning policies. The reality is that the political will is to make more real estate available, in the smallest places possible.  There has to be someone, somewhere, to lay down the parameters. That is where we’ve moved away from the previous approach to urban planning, which involved a sense of harmony.

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