Din l-Art Helwa Annual General Meeting 27th February 2010
at 133 Melita Street, Valletta
Address by Dr Petra Bianchi, Executive President
Heritage and environmental organisations such as Din l-Art Helwa operate in a scenario where many conflicting interests and divergent viewpoints battle to make their voices heard. The entrance to Valletta is an example of a project where consensus appears impossible. However nowhere is this difficulty more persistently apparent than at the Malta Environment and Planning Authority (Mepa), where different stakeholders are constantly arguing about issues to do with planning and the environment.
Din l-Art Helwa is closely monitoring the ongoing reform of Mepa, and we have met with the authorities to put forward our proposals. We are willing to offer our assistance wherever possible as the process moves forward.
Our environment is in shambles. The countryside is scarred with development everywhere and enforcement on illegal buildings is wholly inadequate. Little progress has been made with alternative energy or the control of emissions. Our coastline and marine environment are under huge pressure, and our water resources are endangered. Important historic sites such as Fort St Angelo and Fort St Elmo are crumbling to pieces.
The government speaks of the need for sustainable development which balances environmental and economic goals. However so far there has been absolutely nothing sustainable about development in Malta from an environmental point of view.
We welcome the fact that Parliamentary Secretary Mario de Marco has recently committed himself to drawing up a national policy and strategy for the environment. Din l-Art Helwa now looks to Dr de Marco to work towards solutions to the country’s environmental disaster without further delay, and to establish the proper environmental priorities in decision-making at all levels.
At this year’s Annual General Meeting Din l-Art Helwa has proposed four resolutions, which focus on the urgent need to protect our dwindling natural resources including water, limestone and fish stocks, and to reduce air pollution from harmful emissions. It cannot be stressed enough how critical and precarious all these issues are.
Last year Din l-Art Helwa reviewed architect Renzo Piano’s new designs for Valletta’s city gate and the opera house ruins. Plans for this area have been characterised by a lack of agreement and heated arguments for over 60 years. The situation continues to this day, and Din l-Art Helwa is once again engaging in this debate.
If I asked each person present today for their opinion on the details of the project, I might get as many answers as there are people in the room. Essentially, Din l-Art Helwa with its leadership role in the field of cultural heritage is a reflection of the community. And likewise our views on this complex project are not going to be uniformly identical. However, we come together as Din l-Art Helwa because we love our heritage and we have a responsibility to ensure that what is done in this field enhances, not weakens, our built cultural heritage.
Nowhere is this responsibility more important than in Valletta, this outstanding World Heritage city. Our responsibilities here stretch to safeguarding our heritage not only for ourselves, but also for the benefit of people all over the world. Din l-Art Helwa has therefore discussed this project in Council, to the best of our knowledge and abilities, conscious that what we decide may have an impact on public opinion and on the final decisions reached.
The whole entrance to Valletta, from the bus terminus to the opera house ruins, is unworthy of a historic city which aspires to the status of a World Heritage site, as well as being the capital of our country. A decision on how to radically improve the entrance to this great city has been long overdue.
Din l-Art Helwa believes that any decision taken must respect the principles in the Venice Charter of 1964, which lays down guidelines for the conservation and restoration of historic monuments. The Venice Charter is neither restrictive nor prescriptive, but sets the concept of sensitivity to the old while allowing the new alongside it. It encourages respect for the original design and materials.
Unity of style is not the overriding aim of restoration. Rather, it is in line with good heritage restoration principles to harmonise and blend the new with the old. In this spirit, Din l-Art Helwa is not opposed to having a contemporary design of high quality in Valletta.
I believe we can agree on the world class reputation of architect Renzo Piano. When he was reassigned this project by the government in 2008, the Kamra tal-Periti supported Mr Piano’s involvement and stated that the project, “needs the contribution of the best in the world to challenge local talent and be a source of inspiration for the students of architecture who will continue to build the future of Malta.” Likewise, Din l-Art Helwa fully recognises the high standards of Renzo Piano’s buildings all over the world.
That is not to say one need necessarily agree with this particular design, but it is to acknowledge that in making our own judgements Din l-Art Helwa recognises that among his peers in the architectural profession, his are considered the work of a master of his craft with a world-wide reputation. We must weigh that in the scales accordingly. Those who admire his work will be more well-disposed to liking his proposals than others, but his works deserve the weight and respect deriving from that reputation.
There is a point at which we cannot get away from subjective judgements of architectural design – or any art-form for that matter – and so it is with Piano’s designs for Valletta. Seeing how passionately many people feel about this historic site, Din l-Art Helwa cannot therefore presume to speak for everybody on the finer points of aesthetics. What Din l-Art Helwa can do, however, is to use our judgement, based on the best guidance, experience and heritage principles, to reach an impartial and unemotional conclusion on the best way forward.
Renzo Piano was given the brief to design a parliament building in Freedom square. This site was built up in the past and only evolved into an open space after the Second World War. Din l-Art Helwa can therefore see no overriding reasons precluding the construction of a building, including a parliament, there on heritage grounds.
Din l-Art Helwa strongly supports the related plan to turn the Palace at St George’s square into a national museum once parliament moves out of that building, and we have no doubt that Valletta stands to gain enormously from having this historic Palace opened up to visitors with exhibitions of cultural artefacts.
The opera house ruins are now recognised as having a heritage value, and they have been scheduled as a protected monument by Mepa. Mr Piano’s innovative designs make use of the existing ruins to create an eye-catching and unusual outdoor performance and meeting place. The idea is intriguing however it has disappointed some people who hoped to have a new theatre capable of staging musical and theatrical productions all year round on this site. It has also been suggested that a lightweight retractable roof might be designed to enable the space to be used for productions in winter.
Din l-Art Helwa can see no obvious reasons precluding either an outdoor or an indoor theatre there on heritage grounds. However we favour one holistic vision for the entrance to Valletta following contemporary designs of the highest standard. As we all know, in the past various ideas were put forward for a new roofed theatre on that site, yet none of the designs were ever accepted and at times they engendered as much controversy as we are witnessing today about the proposed outdoor theatre.
The Prime Minister has stated that he is still open to ideas from theatre practitioners for this site, and we await the outcome with interest. However a decision must be taken and Valletta must be allowed to move on.
The city gate project will have major implications on traffic flow and parking in Valletta. A decrease in traffic pollution and increased pedestrian areas would be welcome from a conservation point of view however it is important to ensure that the city remains alive, relevant and accessible. Din l-Art Helwa is pleased to note that our recommendation to extend the project to the bus terminus outside the gate is actively being taken on board.
We are also pleased with the recent decision to extend the designs to integrate the façade of the block of flats opposite the proposed parliament. Din l-Art Helwa wishes to see one holistic vision implemented, which embraces the whole entrance to Valletta and is worthy of its status as a World Heritage city.
Debate is healthy. However there comes a point when debate must end and action has to be taken, even though we recognise that consensus is not likely to be reached. Naturally, Din l-Art Helwa has concerns about some detailed aspects of the design which we have represented to government.
However, overall, Din l-Art Helwa backs the implementation of these imaginative designs, which we regard as a major step forward in the ongoing rehabilitation of Valletta. Din l-Art Helwa believes that this is a project of an exceptionally high standard, and that the time has finally come for Valletta’s entrance to be given the attention and the expenditure that it deserves. It is a fitting prelude to Valletta’s designation as the European Capital of Culture in 2018.
On behalf of the Council, I thank our outgoing executive president Martin Galea and honorary secretary general Edward Xuereb for the service that they have given to Din l-Art Helwa over the last five years. I have worked closely with both of them, and both have given huge amounts of their time, energy and enthusiasm to the organisation during this period. We are all very pleased that both intend to continue being active in the organisation as Council Members.
Edward Xuereb has worked hard to ensure that the organisation stands on solid ground and we are grateful to him for his steady, reliable and most valuable contribution. Martin Galea has been active at Din l-Art Helwa for over 20 years. His leadership over the last five years has built on the strengths of the organisation and adapted them to keep up with a fast-changing world. Martin has successfully taken Din l-Art Helwa forward, while admirably managing the inevitable pressures and difficult decisions that we are faced with from time to time.
I welcome Ian Camilleri as the new secretary general, and Simone Mizzi as the organisation’s new vice-president. Both Ian and Simone have already been active on the Council for some years. Martin Scicluna will be continuing in his role as vice-president.
A special word of thanks must go to the other hard-working members of our executive committee – George Camilleri, Maria Grazia Cassar, Carolyn Clements, Dr Stanley Farrugia Randon, Professor Luciano Mule Stagno and our honorary treasurer Victor Rizzo, as well as the other 15 Council members and staff members who all make their own individual and valid contributions to Din l-Art Helwa and our heritage.
As always, we have many challenges ahead, and to achieve our goals we depend on the continued support of our members, both individual and corporate, and in particular on the collaboration of our many active volunteers who dedicate so much of their time to caring for the properties under our guardianship. To all of these, we extend our thanks.
I am grateful to the Council for the confidence that they have placed in me to lead this organisation for the next year, which I am greatly honoured to accept. I have four strong and impressive former presidents to match up to – Judge Maurice Caruana Curran, Professor Anthony Bonanno, Martin Scicluna and Martin Galea, all of whom are still members of our Council today. That is no easy task as anyone who knows them can imagine, however I will work hard to fulfil this role to the best of my ability, of that you can be certain.