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category: Architecture,Gazette

Thoughts on an Architectural Condition

Thursday, September 11, 2014 by

Does Malta have an architecture that is representative of our time? Malta is saturated with architecture. Building sites have become a permanent visual feature within our collective perception. Yet with all that is being built and modified, we are rarely ever permitted the time to stop and comprehend what is developing before us, why certain architecture exists and how it is determined. We grabbed five young architects who had an awareness of national architectural history and it’s contemporary state, and sat them around a table to, hopefully, shed some light on the art of construction in Malta.

Mark Sullivan is an architect working with Architecture Project (AP) in Valletta (MS)

Sean Buttigieg recently completed a Masters in Advanced Architecture and Performative Design at the Städelschule in Frankfurt and is currently working for Architecture Project (AP), Valletta (SB)

Richard Borg is director at Archiplus Architects’ Studio; a multi disciplined studio focusing on project management, interior design and civil engineering (RB)

Anthea Ellul, has spent 4 formative years working at Architecture Project (Malta) and is now lead design architect at Archiplus Architects’ Studio (AE)

Mark Peregin spent a couple of years working as an architect at QP Management and is currently self-employed as an architectural designer and interior spatial planner (MP)

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MS – It can be stated that the earliest known man-made structures happened in Malta. Since then, incredible places have been created for the most part by people who cared and questioned thoroughly what they were doing. They had the strength to go against the preconceptions and formulae that existed within their time, thus creating architecture and places that were truly responsive to their environment and the people that lived within it.

MS – Then again over the years, the Island of Malta has seen many cultures pass through, and most have left their mark on our built environment. In today’s globalized society, we are better positioned to draw inspiration from different cultures and adapt them locally.

Unfortunately over the past four decades, Malta has experienced a peculiar situation which was predicted by architect Quentin Hughes in the Architectural Review of 1969,

…the whole island will be obliterated by buildings. And this will take very little time. It will happen unless planners, architects and legislators take action very soon. Malta could lead Europe into a new era of environmental and cultural re-evaluation, or it could become through a laissez-faire attitude, just another blighted area of exploitation. (Architectural Review 1969 – MALTA FUTURE)

MP – And so the question arises: is the confused state of our built environment a reflection of the isolated society of our time? New technologies and the sense of immediacy that we have grown accustomed to have left society out of breath trying to catch up. Life has left little time to be in touch with inspirational concepts or to contemplate a more spiritual dimension.

MS – We cannot even at times decipher between villages as they have become laced with repetitive, mundane, and poorly executed buildings.

SB – My perception of local architecture is also split. The ‘attractive’ is generally made up of buildings erected before the war. Whereas the ‘less-attractive’ is made up of speculative development – development carried out with the sole purpose of being rented out or sold, sometimes even to its completion.

RB – Sight is definitely the sense, which we put at the forefront for analyzing and categorizing any of the buildings around us. The socioeconomic circumstances and events that have given us our own identity have also identified what we today call architecture. This cannot be negated. What were once quaint villages having the church as the epicenter of all activities have been reduced to a blanket of buildings, which rip away at the identity of such villages. We no longer conceive our spaces in recognition of the fact that these will occupy the same area for decades. We now plan and develop with irrational speed.

SB  – Malta has no room for errors.

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So what are we saying here? Malta has no sense of Place? PATRON interject and link the previous thread with the next thread. Conversation style.

MS – Architecture is a phenomenon, which exists in everything. Everything is made of mass that is structured in some sort of way. This way or process in which it is carefully connected and constructed – is what architecture essentially is.  It is everywhere – from the way in which the thoughts and chemicals in our brain are bound to the design and composition of the components of a bicycle.

MS – Place is essentially space with physical dimensions and meaning attached to it. Meaning in terms of cognition and function. Place is our environment, the spaces we move through every day. Our perception of, and reaction to place has a tremendous effect on our lives.

RB  – ‘Nothing revives the past so completely as a smell that was once associated with it’ – Vladimir Nobokov.  With architecture being essentially visual, the experience of moving through a space remains essentially, and first of all, a spectacle of vision. On the other hand even if not thought of, each space evokes a unique olfactory signature, which, if strong enough, forms part of the space and without such, experiencing the space would not be the same. The enjoyment of a stay in an apartment along the coast would not be the same without the scent of the sea. Take for example a visit to one’s grandmother; the smell is as much part of its identity as the actual visual experience.

AE – Of all my childhood memories, few are striking. Walking through Valletta, head tilted upward, I remember the red, blue and green balconies. The memory is renewed and the detail becomes more intricate with every visit. We also went to Buġibba as kids; the bumping cars, and to High Street Ħamrun to buy a Christmas tree. The memories of these environments are chaotic and blurred – I choose not to renew.

AE – Selective memories are what keep us sane in the environment we have created (or have been lumped with). Yet how do we control and how do we create bright vivid memories for those to come? Let us first consider what our predecessors have left us.

AE – The heart of old villages is consistently the church. The heart that veins into streets, shops, communal places, playgrounds, homes – place. As architecture gradually proliferates and disperses into today’s blurred village boundaries, so does activity. Has this central core shifted elsewhere?

MP – Gone are the days where neighbors sat on their doorstep and engaged in conversation. We no longer have time for a chat with our local grocer as we pick our daily ingredients for tonight’s dinner. Instead today we drive home from work into our underground car park, are shot up into our isolated apartment on the 7th floor and stare at our ‘black mirrors’. We no longer feel that sense of ownership and pride with our urban surroundings.

RB – Our experience and ultimately our amusement with place cannot but be layered by the senses, which, unexpectedly yet deliberately, feed all our experiences.

SB – I believe that it is inherent provision for unplanned or circumstantial events that make place. The same way the nooks and crannies in a house make a home. Spaces that unintentionally conceal and randomly reveal both artifacts or events. Those same spaces we refer to when we describe ‘a house of character’. These elements are completely overlooked in today’s fast paced construction techniques. Ultimately it is the juxtaposition and composition of these intricate details that make up architecture over mere building.

AE – Quality in design is generally very high on the agenda in all of our individual homes. Clients pay much attention to details that will assist their lifestyle and that to the individual are beautiful. What happens outside of their doorsteps is directed by different standards, if any.

MP – Precisely; Modern day society is centered upon the individual. This concern of the individual is evident in most forms of art, and architecture is by no means an exception. The sort of development that society has demanded shows little concern with the effect on the public realm and hence the effect on the observer or the rest of society.

MP – The architect is no longer celebrated and respected for being able to create good architecture – we are now being used as puppets to help a handful become rich by designing cheap blocks of apartments with no regard for the building’s responsibility to the public realm. Architects should be more proactive and willingly propose projects with the betterment of a particular place in mind.

It may be difficult to objectively describe what it is that renders an object beautiful, but it is easy to recognize when beauty is absent.  (Architecture and Quality of Life, Architects’ Council of Europe, 2004, p27)

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RB – Vernacular architecture is a celebration of intricate details formed by the individual building blocks cut from the earth’s layers. With the passage of time such decorations weather naturally and holistically to give the building fabric a historical context. Most contemporary buildings adopt a maintenance regime in order to stop this same weathering, giving the fabric a clinical feel throughout its lifetime.

AE – What is beautiful to me may not be to you and while it is somewhat fine to do things to one’s taste in our own space, a balance of all things orderly and beautiful is much desired beyond. Order is the rule of the day in our baroque endowed areas, as it is in our British colonial architectural pieces. A set of stringent rules is the basis of a language that becomes translated into orderly pieces. As a few of our spaces have been raped, perhaps it is time to react with an eye for an eye attitude, because for some there is no hope but that of extreme measures. Strip off that gold aluminum and to hell with your salmon pink façade. We want order.

MP – More rules and standards might prevent further tragic buildings from being built. My concern is that more stringent rules and regulations are likely to ensure more mediocrity. Architects will no longer have the ability to take certain necessary decisions. In the long run this lack of trust and freedom is likely to chip away at the architect’s skill and will not lead to create good architecture.

MS – The issue of beauty does not seem of importance when compared to the sincere malfunctions that exist within the infrastructure of our island. It will take big moves to solve the problems that we are facing. Maybe our quest and search for beauty is blinding us. Or maybe beautiful architecture and the place of the future will come about by solving these big problems.

RB – Truth to materials in local architecture has been diffused in a way and manner that the relationship between it and the built fabric is next to non-existent. Our methods of construction have become so fast-paced that, most of the time, details that should be accentuated and celebrated, are hidden by rendering in view of them being untidy and disordered.

SB – The reason behind our generic awe with past construction is in the detail. In typically old construction, buildings took longer to be built thus lending a sense of time to the act of construction itself. For example building blocks were carried manually, piece by piece – embedding walls with a whole new phenomenological dimension over the rapidly erected walls of today. Age, expressed through the extrinsic factor of time, does not fulfill the notion of character alone, but it is the intrinsic factors of age such as signs of weathering, erosion or decay translated materially through ‘surface effects’ that visually express ‘character’.

The time taken to erect a building was significantly longer and therefore patience and thought become synonymous with the process of construction. On many occasions buildings were ‘designed’ during the act of construction itself. Hence the variation, intricacy and playfulness we find synonymous with traditional construction is a reflection of time passed on one project. As a material art form, architecture is celebrated through the assemblages and tectonics of the variety of building blocks we have available to us. This for me is Architectural Design.

ALL: As we come to terms with the saturation of Malta’s built environment, we cannot but think of an alternative way with which we deal with our building fabric.  We have to move from a quantitative approach to a qualitative one, realizing that sometimes, the variable that is most lacking is the one most needed: time.  We need time to stand idle and think. We need time to think about the space surrounding a place, think about the sun’s path, think about the tactility of materials to be used, think about the transition from one material to another and also think about the sentiment that we want to portray throughout the building’s lifetime.  

This time of reflection and thought is what will distinguish the mass produced “prints” from the prototypes. We need time to think about every minute detail – details that are driven by a rational urge to create beautiful architecture that has a purpose. Details that when pieced together will create a phenomenal machine that listens, acts, reacts and stirs emotion.It is with this emotion that the machine is therefore transformed into architecture.

 

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