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category: Architecture,Culture

Rock, Paper, City

Saturday, September 6, 2014 by

With the City Gate and new Parliament building well underway, Renzo Piano’s mission to give Valletta a facelift has attracted all sorts of criticism. However, whether being about the blue party/red party political faction issues or urban planning points of contention that have surrounded the project, the dialogue has only been going around in circles, with plenty of speculation and disdain in play. PATRON decided to take a snapshot of society to find out the roots of the negativity expressed by the public towards the project, and attempt to understand why a world renowned architect’s work in Malta has been received so badly.

 

Building a New Parliament  by Joanna Demarco
Building a New Parliament by Joanna Demarco

Besides just being a problem that city dwellers have to face, the City Gate affair has planted itself in all four corners of Malta, namely because the renovations are taking place in an interactive space, therefore affecting all those who engage with it. With a new contemporary element injected into society, the general public has started to notice that this will not only change how we interact with the city, but will also essentially promote a cultural shift, and, to an extent, social change.

A sense of fear of change definitely comes through while conversing with members of the public about the Renzo Piano Project, with the issues being threefold – the misuse of public space, the aesthetic of the contemporary, and the functionality of the actual buildings. Taking a closer look at each area of concern, it surfaces that the public has actually become aware that the wants of the 1% are being implemented even lacking the consensus of the 99%, sparking off an aggressively negative attitude and an outcry against the realisation of elitist interests in times of austerity for many households.

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Use of Public Space

The criticism earned by Piano’s planning of urban space was one of the very first issues to crop up, even before the actual renovations started taking place. Outlining the V18 objectives, its Chairman, Jason Micallef, stated that one aim of Valletta as a European Capital of Culture is to invest in tools to widen the artistic and cultural sectors. One such tool used was the Cultural Mapping Project which was to advise the government on the best cultural infrastructure for Valletta. Despite this, when applying the map to the Renzo Piano Project, which was due to occur regardless of Valletta’s title, one had to wonder if and how this was being implemented.

The main qualm of the public in this affair is, unarguably, the new Parliament Building. Angela Rickett, a city dweller who also works in Valletta and thus has had ample time to examine the project, voices her concern. ‘The facilities of any kind of parliament building only benefits the people who work in it, namely the parliamentarians and their staff.’

This notion of a previously public platform being, to an extent, ‘stolen’ by the elitist few has evidently been playing up in the Maltese people’s psyche, and, while most have resorted to simply blaming this inadequacy on the previous government, a noticeable amount of people have started realising that this would have happened under either party. If the Renzo Piano Project was, in any way, a political move to awe the people, it has backfired miserably.

Turning to the new Opera House, which was definitely intended as a public space, Jason Bonnici, who is himself working on the site, echoes the popular opinion that, as ‘it is without a roof, it will not be in use all year.’ Besides the ongoing (and presumably endless) debate of whether the ruins should have been left or removed, one can easily discern that the building of the new Opera House was doomed to failure as a prominent platform for the development of art from its very conception.

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Aesthetics

Criticism has also been earned by the new kind of aesthetic introduced into Valletta, with the issues being twofold; the amount of space occupied, and the architectural style. Marthese Formosa, a philosophy and International Relations student at university, also voices the general opinion that ‘we are tight on space and the buildings cramp it even more.’ This, alongside the architectural style chosen, has been enough to earn widespread public disdain. While the need for refurbishment of the capital was called for, Angela insists that ‘it should have been rebuilt in the typical style of the period it was originally built in.’

Keeping in mind that a structural change is the harbinger of cultural change, one has to question how healthy this refusal to let go of traditions and embrace the new actually is. This clinging on to a sense of nostalgia speaks for wider cultural and social problems where the conservative Maltese mentality constantly shrinks away from inviting the new and the different, and the talk of ‘restoring to former glory’ in lieu of renovating and rebuilding is one such case where the public is being separated from its safety blanket and made to step forward, voluntarily or otherwise.

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Functionality

Justifying the Renzo Piano Project as a heritage-aware urban plan, the architect Antonio Belvedere from Piano’s office stated that, to respect the heritage element of Valletta as a UNESCO site, an element of functionality had to be compromised in order to fully respect the site. While this was all very well-meaning, its translation to the public acquired a political edge when the new Parliament was deemed insufficient in housing all the parliamentarians and staff because of its size, hence being seen in the public eye as yet another worthless splurge of funds that could have gone elsewhere.

Even before this announcement, the Parliament was already being seen as an extravagant government indulgence which was not welcome by the public, with Angela confirming the idea that ‘it could have been rehoused in one of the many existing beautiful buildings in Valletta.’

Marthese also insists that ‘there are many things that are more important than architecture when speaking of a European culture’, which also corroborates the public disillusionment with the whole City Gate Project as a step towards a more European Malta. While, perhaps, such a project would have received less criticism in the past, this contempt shows that the public refuses to be alienated by material manifestations of the alluring European identity when much more pressing issues, such as the state of the economy, are at hand.

Talking to the Experts

While the conservative general public has voiced its antipathy towards the Renzo Piano Project and, consequently, its preference to conventionally beautiful aesthetics, the Maltese artistic community has maintained its progressive outlook on art whilst addressing the project. Following the outcry for patience and an open mind expressed by the cultural circle, PATRON also asked Maltese architects and artists for their personal and professional thoughts on the City Gate scheme.

A Holistic Approach

With the pressing issue of whether the renovations are keeping in with the UNESCO Venice Convention principle that ‘the new must be in sympathy with the old’ at hand, Dr.Antoine Zammit, an architecture lecturer at the University of Malta, lends his professional insight. He outwardly rejects the conservative public inclination towards building in the traditional Baroque style, stating that ‘we cannot simply recreate the past… instead, while being of course sympathetic with the built and unbuilt spaces in the city, we need to produce something that speaks of our time, and that can remain as a legacy of our time.’

This introduction of a new historical cycle must also be taken outside the confines of architecture and implanted into the Maltese psyche if we are to move forward in any cultural and social domain. However, while this has been stated over and over by many a politician, its implementation is arguably an age-old process where the public must come into its own without the pushing and prodding of its leaders. Julian Vassallo, an architecture student and photographer, promotes the innovative idea that the new built environment can indeed be the very vehicle we need to challenge the Maltese mindset. ‘If Valletta wants to be prepared for the V18 project, people need to change their attitudes and their perspective regarding contemporary culture in Malta, and the Renzo Piano project is kickstarting that change.’

So what exactly has to be done for the Maltese to harmonise the City Gate Project with what they are already comfortable with?

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Dr. Zammit calls for a holistic approach which is sensitive to the scale and urban design of the city while also planning the parts in accordance with the whole. ‘As much as the entrance to the city is important, the links that commence from here and the connections to other parts of the city right down to St. Elmo need to be seen holistically.’ Dr. Zammit’s main qualm is that this is not being done in the case of Valletta, where the Renzo Piano Project is being considered in isolation and thus not effectively nor aesthetically linked with the rest of the city.

This presents an engulfing crux; the UNESCO commission sent over to assess the City Gate has recently approved of the renovations taking place, yet no evidence of plans for this holistic kind of linking have surfaced, and, indeed, not even a clear vision of how the contemporary style is to integrate with the traditional has been presented to the public. If such a vision does exist, and one must be optimistic that an architect of this scale has actually considered the surrounding built environment, we have seen no indication of it yet, a fact which inevitably plagues the public’s opinion on the entire project.

How Significant is the Renzo Piano Project to V18?

While bearing in mind that the renovations coincide with Valletta as a Cultural Capital in 2018, Mario Vella, frontman of Brikkuni and a plausible mouthpiece for Maltese artists, voices his hopes for the Opera House.

‘Logistically, the venue will stand or fall depending on its administration’s foresight, or lack of, and artist participation.’ Confirming the Opera House as a platform for the potential fruition of many a project, Vella also sees this as an attracting force for people towards the city, which, thus far, has hardly been the liveliest place in Malta in terms of entertainment.

However, while this is indeed very optimistic and one can only hope that it does provide the myriad opportunities that Vella speaks of, again, the fact that it is at the mercy of the weather and noise pollution points to the fact that, while the idea of a public performing space might have been well-meaning, its execution has thus far proved poorly. Eric Attard, an active member of the artistic community who exhibits his paintings in groupshows held around Malta, confirms that ‘anything new will attract people but I do not see it as being as sustainable as its potential first lent itself to be.’

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Indeed, as Eric also states, ‘on paper it looks very interesting but to achieve so much seems to insinuate that the public needs to change its disposition towards art in the first place.’ The move from blaming one party or another for the seeming monstrosity that is taking place to the scrutiny of the actual work-in-progress lends a positive note even if only in the idea that we are moving past the narrow mindset shrouded by politics and entering a phase of thinking for ourselves as a public.

However, problems still linger in the fact that no holistic plan for the whole city has surfaced as of yet, pushing the public into judging the Renzo Piano Project in isolation. Seen in this dimension, the reality remains that, despite the UNESCO assurance that the project is sensitive to its surroundings, it simply does not seem to be working. The four years ahead until the completion of Valletta as a Cultural Capital need to see some sort of plan to rehabilitate Valletta as a whole, or the City Gate buildings will continue sticking out like a sore thumb not only in the fabric of the capital, but also as an anchor of culture thrown in the wrong sea.

Until a very strong and socio-cultural friendly scheme of how the new is to be in sympathy with the old is constructed, an even more hostile attitude towards the new will breed among the public, ultimately threatening more than just the way we interact with the capital city. The public needs to be met with solid reasons as to why this project was needed from both aesthetic and cultural dimensions, with the latter especially being more clearly communicated to encompass the whole of the V18 project in Valletta’s, and Malta’s, step forward in a revival of culture as tied with the introduction of a new architectural style.

Before the public is convinced that the Renzo Piano Project and V18 can work hand in hand, an understanding that can only be reached if those involved take the time and effort to explain effectively, the project will find a difficult, if not dead-ended, path to being accepted.

Photography by Matthew Grech

Category Architecture,Culture

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