Maltatoday, 3rd September 2008 –

Heritage Malta yesterday defended itself over accusations by the Labour Party on the huge impact the new visitors’ centre at Ħaġar Qim will have on the UNESCO world heritage site.
Labour’s spokesperson for planning Roderick Galdes yesterday criticised the lack of aesthetic safeguards in the construction of the Ħaġar Qim visitors’ centre.
Ħaġar Qim is practically being dwarfed by a visitors’ centre that should have been built in the Maghlaq quarry in the vicinity of Mnajdra, and not in the car park next to the temples, according to MEPA’s own heritage watchdog in its observations on the project.
Last Sunday, MaltaToday revealed that in April 2008, just a few days before the MEPA board approved the latest amendments to the project, the Cultural Heritage Advisory Committee (CHAC) declared that it was not “in a position to make any further recommendations because the project was approved against its recommendation” and that the “visitor centre should be constructed in the Maghlaq Quarry.”
The committee also asked MEPA to seek the approval of world heritage organisation UNESCO, which designated Ħaġar Qim a world heritage site.
Roderick Galdes said that the centre would generate a huge visual impact on the temples, showing a lack of planning that will result in a great aesthetic impact. “There is no doubt that Labour recognized the need of a visitors’ centre due to the importance of offering services to visitors. But it is unacceptable that no aesthetic consideration on this building and its visual impact was taken.
“What is even more unacceptable is that other planning alternatives were completely ignored during the approval of the project at MEPA. Both MEPA and Heritage Malta must explain to the Maltese public on how they will mitigate the visual impact of this project.”

In a statement, Heritage Malta yesterday said the project had evolved over a number of years and the plans for the building had been widely publicised, with many opportunities for the public to participate in the consultation process namely.
It mentioned the launch in November 2003 by the then Ministry for Youth and the Arts Jesmond Mugliett in collaboration with the International Union of Architects (UIA) of the brief for an International Design Competition for Ħaġar Qim and Mnajdra; the publication by Heritage Malta of the Project Description Statement in 2004, giving full details of the project; and the lengthy consultation process conducted by MEPA throughout 2005.

In April 2004, an international jury awarded first prize to Architect Walter Hunziker (of Berne, Switzerland), whose designs and design philosophy are being implemented.
“The international jury recommended that one building and not two, as originally proposed, should be built to house visitor services, and that this building be located in the existing car park at Ħaġar Qim.

“Heritage Malta concurred with these recommendations, also noting that building a visitor centre in the quarries would require a new access road wide enough for coaches and a new parking area. This would have presented considerable engineering difficulties and environmental concerns; the duplication of access roads and parking facilities would have created a confused experience at Ħaġar Qim and Mnajdra.

“Heritage Malta therefore implemented a downscaled version of the building planned for the existing car park. This site has the further advantage that, as it is already heavily disturbed, the building does not have a new material impact on the surrounding agricultural land or on the undiscovered archaeology that may lie beneath it,” the heritage watchdog said.

Heritage Malta added that as for the visual impact of the building, no rock-cutting is permitted on this site. “Approval for some very minimal rock-cutting was obtained from the relevant authorities, in order to ensure that the building does not rise higher than the apparent horizon when observed from Ħaġar Qim. The final design is therefore a careful balance between physical and visual impact. The building is at its most visible when approaching the car park. To a viewer at Ħaġar Qim, the building has a much lower profile than the existing restaurant. As one begins to proceed towards Mnajdra, the building disappears completely from view.

“Another, less visible environmental impact that every building has is the carbon footprint required to operate it. The visitor centre is designed to make maximum use of natural light and to have passive climate control, ensuring low energy bills and a low carbon footprint.”

Heritage Malta said the new visitor centre will offer a comprehensive service to the 130,000 visitors who visit these two sites annually. It will allow for a permanent display on the relevance of the temples, including the display of artefacts discovered at these two sites. The new fully accessible centre will also include an audio-visual room, an educational area for children, a small cafeteria/shop and toilets.

“Heritage Malta is confident that once the visitor centre is completed and opened to the public, public perception will review this project favourably.”