Valletta’s dead heart

On the eve of an ‘architectural exhibition’ proposing that the once vibrant ‘Suq’ in Valletta be turned into an art museum, we speak to the architect behind the initiative… and puzzled shop owners who ask: what will become of us?

Former glories: The Covered Market in Valletta before the present day accretions were built.
Former glories: The Covered Market in Valletta before the present day accretions were built.

"I can't sleep without a radio by my ear. Why, you ask? Well, I grew up in St Dominic's Street here in Valletta, and I would fall asleep to the sounds of Strait Street late at night. I got used to the music. I could recite every single soul song to you by heart," a visibly emotional Charles Xuereb tells me as we sit in his nephew's bar - the Al Mercato Café, which is right next door to Xuereb's butcher shop at Is-Suq - Valletta's covered market in Merchants Street.

To say that the sight in front of us justifies Xuereb's nostalgia for a livelier, rowdier Valletta - during the 60s and 70s - would be an understatement. The beautiful colonial structure of the Suq, previously a hub of life and community, is now dirty and dilapidated.

A disused escalator - one of the first things Xuereb flags up as an example of the site's increasing marginalisation - which sits just in front of the cafe appears as an embodiment of all the Suq's problems.

It is broken. It has been broken for quite some time. And nobody's is doing anything about it.

But the reason I'm speaking to Xuereb, along with some of his resilient colleagues who operate at the market, is because another initiative to resuscitate the place as a relevant cultural meeting point has appeared on the scene.

The architect Chris Briffa will be putting together a visual proposal to transform the site into the 'Valletta Art Museum'. The proposal will be presented as an 'architectural exhibition', open to the public at Lily Agius Gallery, Sliema from 22 March to 14 April.

Briffa was inspired by a presentation on Valletta's candidature as European Capital for Culture 2018 - "where the importance of cultural infrastructure and the need for a contemporary exhibition space were high on the agenda" - as well as concurrent plans to turn the Suq into a food court.

"Both these events got me thinking, and we formed a group of architects and students to research which sites would be ideal for the contemporary art space, and if a food market at the Suq would actually work.

"After a year of research and discussions with artists, curators, historians, academics, ministers and operators of food stores and outlets, we concluded that a clever combination of a flexible art spaces with independent outlets would be a sustainable solution," Briffa says.

The proposal involves the extensive rehabilitation of the roof structure, which would house what Briffa and his team are calling the 'Upper Galleries'. The reinstatement of the original ground floor space is also being proposed, which has been christened the 'Market Hall': a 1,200-square-metre room, centrally 12 metres high.

A lightweight insertion behind the front end of the building would allow the various levels to operate independently while encasing all services and ancillary spaces.

"Perhaps the most interesting part of our proposal happens outside, around the VAM; where the urban spaces have been redefined to function as a 24-hour social and cultural gathering point. This is where we are proposing a number of independent commercial and food outlets, possibly even housing the current tenants," Briffa adds.

It appears, however, that nobody ran the proposal by the shop owners at the Suq itself. Xuereb claims he did hear about it, but only through the media. Like some of his other fellow shop owners I spoke to, he is sceptical about how the project would work... and concerned about the potential danger it poses to the current occupants of the Suq.

"I have absolutely nothing against art," Xuereb, a self-confessed opera fan, tells me. "But do they know what an idea like this means? It means putting the livelihood of 30 families at risk..."

Xuereb has seen many similar proposals come and go over the years, having sat through many endless committee meetings which, despite aiming to improve the condition of the Suq, came to nothing.

Given this, his benign scepticism about Briffa's project is understandable.

"Look, I'm willing to work with anyone, and if this project will make good use of the disused spaces at the Suq and pull more people in, all the better. As long as I still have my shop, I'm happy."

The fact that Xuereb could step into his nephew's café and leave his shop for the better part of half an hour to chat to a journalist is perhaps a testament to how slow business at the Suq is these days.

He has an effortless way with storytelling though - maybe it's a skill that naturally develops as the years go by - and his recollection of a more vibrant Valletta makes a single fact abundantly clear: the Suq's problems stem from a far more wide-ranging concerns.

"I don't really want to say that Valletta is becoming a 'museum piece' like Mdina... but it seems to be getting there. Why doesn't the government issue more permits for nightclubs, for example? It's like we only want to attract elderly tourists. Compared to how it was before, Valletta is dead, which is ridiculous. A capital city should never be dead!"

Another butcher I speak to - Paul Brincat of Tony's Butcher - also believes that turning the Suq into an exhibition space will not solve any fundamental issues.

"They need to fix the streets... and the buses need to go back to the way they used to be," Brincat tells me, after rattling off the usual worries: what spaces would they take up for their artwork? Where would we go... and how can you just kick people out to accommodate others?

Briffa explains that everyone will be able to pitch in their comments while the exhibition is ongoing.

"We will be collecting visitors' comments, which we will present, together with the VAM schematics, to the responsible authorities. What we expect is a reaction from the general public to our proposal, and a serious consideration by the concerned authorities."

Whatever the outcome of the exhibition - and if feedback on Facebook is anything to go by, Briffa's proposal will not go uncontested - one thing above all remains certain as I walk out of the once-glorious structure.

Further stagnation is not an option.


Jurgen Cachia
F'Settembru li għadda żort Malta għall-ewwel darba f'25 sena. Il-Belt ħassejtha diferenti. Mhux biss għax tneħħew il-bankini; ħassejtha mhix ħajja bil-Maltin infushom - iktar bit-turisti. Issa forsi ħassejtni hekk għax kont ili nieqes daqs dawn snin. Jew forsi għax jiena wkoll did-darba kont turist. Imbagħad żort is-Suq. Fi tfuliti dan kien bini imbullat bin-nies jagħmlu x-xirja tagħhom. Kull nhar ta' Sibt kont immur il-Belt mal-ġenituri u n-nanniet. Konna nilbsu għall-okkażjoni. U dejjem , wara żjara lil Camilleri tal-ħelu, konna mmorru s-Suq fejn konna nagħmlu x-xirja ewlenija tal-ġimgħa. Illum hemm biss ftit ħwienet, 'escalator' ikrah u li ma jaħdimx, u l-post battal. Minn naħa ħassejt il-gost tan-nostalġija, u minn oħra diżappunt kbir. Nittama li tittejjeb il-qagħda ta' dal-bini u tal-Belt kollha.
Luke Camilleri
Qatlu il-Pulmun tal-Belt billi fgaw l-entratura tal Belt u nehhew Pjazza Helsien, issa qedin jattakaw il-Qalb tal-Belt ......zgur biex ipaxxu xi Bazuzlu jaghtuh din il-binja biex taparsi issir"muzew" ...u tispicca Cafeterria jew xi restaurant! U addio dak li hu tippikament Kultura Maltija , Is-Suq fil-qalba tal-Belt, imdawwar bil-Monti u lok fejn jiltaqghu il-Beltin ma ta' Barra mill- Belt! Dawn x'hasbu li hua b'din l'arroganza jaghaddu min fuq kullhadd biex ipaxxu xi bazzuzlu jew tnejn?????
The market should be upgraded and restored to its former use.
ALL of Valletta is dead. Every time I've been there over the past year or so in the afternoon, half the shops are closed and the streets are almost deserted. The removal of parking has turned the city almost into a ghost town.