Planning is one thing, design is another | Simone Vella Lenicker

Construction is booming, development permits are flowing out of the Planning Authority, with no end in sight… yet it is debatable how much thought is being given to the quality of what we’re building: either in terms of aesthetics, or infrastructural impact. SIMONE VELLA LENICKER, chair of the Chamber of Architects and Civil Engineers, calls for a more holistic approach to urban design in Malta

Chair of the Chamber of Architects and Civil Engineers, Simone Vella Lenicker
Chair of the Chamber of Architects and Civil Engineers, Simone Vella Lenicker

Time and again, we have seen governments resorting to a relaxation of building restrictions to ‘kick-start’ the economy… building zones are extended, and re-extended… and Malta, as an island, is not getting any bigger. Is the Chamber concerned that we may be building more than our geographical restrictions can accommodate?

I think it would be naïve to try and sell the story that we, as architects and civil engineers, are ‘against development’. Our livelihood does, after all, depend on the construction industry. What concerns me, however, is not so much the amount of development going on… but the haphazardness of how it happens in practice. If we had a situation where the Planning Authority – or some other entity, but let’s stick to the PA as an example – identified certain areas, and encouraged development to take place in those areas first… I think things would be different. But what’s been happening over the past few years is that one development goes up, say, four storeys in a particular street; then, three years later, someone else decides to go up five floors in the same street; and there’s no consistency, even in the design of the two facades. So, all of a sudden, instead of the largely homogenous streetscapes we had prior to around 2006, you have very individualist styles, not necessarily complementing their surroundings. The results can only be termed as chaotic…

But wasn’t the whole point of the Local Plans to ‘identify certain areas’ for development? And aren’t there already supposed to be ‘height restrictions’ within the established zones?

The local plans were published in 2006, and originally they established allowable heights on the basis of the number of floors. You could have, for instance, three floors in an urban area, and maybe a receded penthouse. But in 2015, a new policy guideline was issued, which established that ‘three floors’ was the equivalent of 13.5 metres. So, what was previously measured by the number of floors, suddenly became measured in metres instead. The problem is that, as any architect will tell you, you can actually fit four floors in 13.5 metres. So with the new policy in place, it is now possible to cram four-storey buildings into three-storey areas…

I imagine the new flats must have much lower ceilings…

Yes: in fact it was in 2016 – the following year – that a decision was taken to lower the earlier internal minimum height restrictions.

Good thing, I suppose, that we’re such a short nation. All the same, however: if the objection is specifically to the height of buildings, it shouldn’t really matter how many floors you divide that height into. 13.5 metres remains 13.5 metres, whether there are three or four floors…

True, but in terms of streetscape, you end up with four storey buildings, adjacent to three-storey buildings of the same height which had been built according to the previous policies. It’s a bit of a mess, really…

Meanwhile there are other concerns apart from building heights. Such as building width, for instance. One widely circulated photo shows an unfinished block of flats, sandwiched between townhouses, with a façade spanning literally just a couple of metres. How do these projects even get approved in the first place?

My concern, about that kind of thing, is that the building in question would have ticked off all the right boxes, as far as the PA is concerned. I am quite sure of that, as otherwise it would never have been approved. But in terms of the quality of life of the people eventually living in those apartments; the amount of space they actually live in, for instance… I shudder to even imagine. At the same time, however, there is pressure for the PA to reduce the minimum size of dwellings. If the current size of a one-bedroom apartment is supposed to be 55sq.m, the developers are lobbying for that to be further reduced… naturally, so that they can fit more units into the same space; and they also claim that it would reduce the cost of property, as the units would be cheaper to build. But what effect would that have on the quality of life of the people living on those spaces? It’s not necessarily clear-cut, by the way: you could have a couple living in a tiny one-bedroomed apartment as their primary residence; and from their perspective, it could be problematic. But you also have a single foreign tenant, living and working in Malta only for a short time… and the same apartment would meet his or her requirements quite comfortably. So, there is room to discuss these things; but I do think we need to broaden the discussion. If there is a demand for smaller units, we could identify areas and zone them specifically for that purpose. Because all these different developments are going up in the same areas; and it’s not just new buildings. We constantly hear of garages, and even boathouses, being converted into apartments these days…

It also explains the phenomenon often described as ‘uglification’. If you look at Malta’s architectural evolution, you will discern recognisable design patterns, unique to their age, and with considerable emphasis on aesthetics – going all the way back to the Neolithic temples, built 7,000 years ago. Today, on the other hand, we seem capable of building only identical blocks of entirely faceless, featureless, pokey little apartments. Have we lost contact with our architectural legacy? 

We, as the Chamber, believe and insist that anything that is built today, should speak the language of today. But what is actually happening is that, when older buildings in urban conservation areas – and not just in those areas – are extended, perhaps by adding an extra floor or two… the PA’s directions have always been: ‘copy what there is below’. And this might not always be the right thing to do. It may be a valid approach in some cases; but it shouldn’t be a blanket policy.

I imagine it would limit the creative input of the architect slightly…

That’s one consideration, yes; but very often, it also just looks fake. That building would not have been meant to look like that; and it shows. And in recent years, we have been approached by more and more architects who are trying to propose innovative solutions, in particular where extensions are concerned… only to see them shot down during the planning process. This happens for a number of reasons: one, because there is no specific policy regarding ‘how to design’; and two, because possibly, the people at the PA are not trained in architectural design. They are planners; and those are two distinct professions…

And yet, while it might sound obvious that something called the ‘Planning Authority’ would be composed chiefly of planners… shouldn’t architects also be prominent in the decision-making process? After all, it is an architect who can tell you whether a building is structurally sound, or if there is a risk of collapse, etc…

Not necessarily, no. I think we need to make a distinction between the role of the PA, and the role of architect. There is the planning stage, and then the construction stage. Issues related to energy efficiency, construction methods, safety for third parties, whether you can or can’t block a street – in a nutshell, all the issues that bother people more than the planning stage – should, in our opinion, be handled entirely by the current Building Regulation Office.  Government has meanwhile proposed the establishment of a new regulatory entity, the Building and Construction Authority; and we agree with that 100%. Our opinion is that the planners should take care of the planning stage, and the Building Authority takes over the moment the developer hits the ground.

It doesn’t sound like there’d be very much left for the PA to actually do, though….

The Planning Authority decides on the parameters: they will tell you, in the first instance, whether you can or can’t have a building in that particular area; then they will you, it can’t be more than so high; it can be used for this purpose, but not for that… and to my mind, that is all the PA has to do. It doesn’t have to go into anything else.

But doesn’t it also regulate the appearance of the resulting buildings? Surely, the aesthetic impact is also part of the planning process…

All I can answer to that is… have you seen what sort of buildings the PA has been approving recently? Do they all look like they were approved on the basis of their aesthetic impact?

No, granted: but that is precisely why I asked whether aesthetics should be the PA’s responsibility…

In my opinion – and it’s also the Chamber’s position – no, the assessment of the aesthetic quality of buildings should not be part of the PA’s remit. Nowhere is it written in the regulations that the PA should judge on the basis of aesthetics: which, is any case, is ultimately a subjective matter. We’re not saying that there should be no rules, or checks and balances, naturally. But as the Chamber, we feel that the onus for design quality should always rest with the architect.

Sticking to aesthetics for now… could there be other reasons why contemporary architecture seems to be (no offence) so unimaginative? To cite one example: a recent proposal to recreate the Azure Window in stainless steel provoked an instant outcry. Without entering the merits of that particular proposal: I get the impression that there is considerable public resistance to anything that is ‘modern’, or ‘daring’… or just generally different…

There is, undeniably, a resistance to change. I think that a lot of what is architecturally already out there, Is the result of a reluctance to experiment; to look into different ways of doing things. It’s very easy to say that an architectural design is ‘good’, because it’s exactly like what we built 50 years ago…

To be fair, however, you can’t blame people for being so sceptical. Some past ‘experiments’ have been known to go horribly wrong…

There have been examples of things going wrong, yes; but all the same, I think we haven’t allowed ourselves to explore enough… to try and come up with an architectural approach that makes sense in today’s world. We have to bear in mind, for instance, that building materials have changed. We don’t build in ‘franka’ [hardstone] anymore.  In the case of commercial buildings, in particular, we often see steel structures, glass facades…

This raises other considerations. A structure featuring a lot of glass, in Malta, would surely also require a lot more energy to cool in summer, and heat in winter. Is enough thought being given to these considerations at planning level? Are we building structures that are actually poorly suited to our climate?

My concern there is that we have already transposed the EU Energy Directive, which requires buildings to achieve a certain set of standards; but unfortunately, there is no system in place to ensure that all those standards are being met. The onus has so far always been placed on the architect… but the stumbling block is that there are no accepted guidelines on how to measure the impact of certain specific materials. For example: you can have a policy in place to limit the use of glazing, in a building facade, to ‘X’ amount. An architect can either abide by that restriction… or else use more glazing, and then justify the extra glazing by ensuring that the internal conditions remain the same as if it were ‘X’: by providing additional shading, or more insulation, depending on the particular circumstances. The problem is that there is no research into how to achieve those standards in the first place; no studies have been conducted into the thermal properties of building materials, within Malta’s specific context.

But given that we are, in fact, already using these materials… shouldn’t this research be carried out before granting development permits?

Ideally, yes. Research should be carried out, at government level, and the data passed on to the industry. But it isn’t happening; so, unless the manufacturer informs you what the insulating properties of this type of glass are… there is no way of knowing, until you actually use it.

Earlier, you mentioned that ‘the onus for design should rest with the architect’. Yet it remains a fact that an architect’s hands will often be tied by his or her client’s demands or wishes. So, if otherwise talented architects end up designing hideous buildings…  they can always claim that the building reflects their client’s tastes, and not their own. Doesn’t that let architects off the hook slightly? Do you think that Maltese architects are too subservient to the owners of the buildings they design?

I think there’s a mix of factors at work there. Very often, it boils down to the very simple and crass fact that many people are just not prepared to pay for design. There isn’t necessarily the understanding that design is an entire process: it’s not something you sit down, and just ‘do’. There are a lot of iterations involved: you have to go back and forth, to and from the client…  it is much easier to just put together a basic, standard, formulaic plan, and go with that. It’s less time- and labour-intensive, and therefore the cost to the client is less. Ultimately, if the client is not willing to invest in architectural design… it’s not going to happen. But that tends to be more true of developers who build properties to sell. And to be fair, today’s developers are more concerned with the quality of finish than ever before: the materials they use, the internal furnishings, and so on. But not so much when it comes to external design. The approach among clients who want to build their own homes, for their own residential use, is however very often different.  Today, I think there is much more consciousness from the clients’ side. But to answer you about whether an architect should ‘put his foot down’ with certain client requests… it depends on the architect. The analogy might not be perfect… but some lawyers will defend criminals, even if they know they are guilty, on the basis that everyone has the right to a defence. Other lawyers might not take up the case. In our profession, things are sometimes similar.

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