Times of Malta, 1st December 2008, by Fiona Galea Debono

World-renowned Italian architect Renzo Piano is likely to be back to develop Valletta’s City Gate after the government resumed contact with him, The Times has learnt.

Attempts to re-establish contact with Mr Piano started during the previous legislature but the effort has recently been intensified, paving the way for the design of the city’s entrance by the “star” architect behind some of the most avant-garde contemporary architecture, including Parisian landmark Centre Georges Pompidou and Berlin’s Potsdamer Platz.

Mr Piano’s portfolio includes the New York Times building, Rome’s Parco della Musica Auditorium and Osaka’s state-of-the-art Kansai International Airport.

The design process for City Gate is expected to kick off next year, with Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi saying yesterday that capital projects should include Valletta and stating his intention for them to start as soon as possible.

Synonymous with controversy locally, Mr Piano had attracted strong objection when his contact with Malta started in 1985.

In 1988, he presented his guidelines for the master plan for Valletta, with conceptual designs for the urban space of Freedom Square, including the old Opera House, and detailed plans, down to materials, for its entrance.

His idea that Valletta no longer needed closed doors in the 20th century, but an invitation into it, did not go down too well with the public, and although the Cabinet of the day had originally approved the project in 1990, it had to drop it due to growing criticism.

The concept was simply not understood, and by 1992, the entire project had fizzled out, said the former coordinator of the Valletta Rehabilitation Project, Ray Bondin

“Kicking Mr Piano out could not have been a more stupid decision when other countries are so proud of his works, which are crowd pullers,” he said.

It would have been the most important breakthrough in the regeneration of Valletta, he continued, adding that Mr Piano was extremely enthusiastic and that his employment had been financed by the Italian government.

Architect Richard England welcomed the reactivation of the Renzo Piano connection, especially in view of Valletta being World Heritage Capital in 2018, saying he has been appointed by cities worldwide to add “a sense of class”.

Architects of that calibre, such as Santiago Calatrava, have put cities on the map, transforming them into tourist attractions with their iconic constructions, he said.

“Ditching Piano would have gone down in history the same way as had the Knights thrown out Caravaggio’s paintings!”

Valletta is a “jewel in a rubbish bin”, having “a disastrous beginning (City Gate) and an equally disastrous end (Fort St Elmo),” he continued.

In fact, the Piano project, for Prof. England, should not stop at City Gate but should be holistic, also including the other end and Grand Harbour.

“If a magnet is created between the two, the spine (of Valletta) would animate itself automatically,” he said, referring also to the nodes that would feed it from the water, creating ancillary movement into it. As it stands, the capital city ends at Palace Square.

“Renzo Piano is not some crazy guy but a serious, professional man, who respects the place and its memory, and is concerned with a sense of well-being. That is what we need!”

Speaking about the public uproar at the time, Prof. England said: “The new is always uncomfortable but going back to the past is not the answer. A city works if it has a function and reflects the Zeitgeist”.

Prof. England maintained, however, that the project required a “national” approach to kick off and hoped that NGOs would not be up in arms.

It was unlikely that Prof. Piano would fish out old plans from his shelves, Prof. England said, expecting him to go back to the drawing board and present fresh designs for City Gate.

Only last month, Mr Piano won the prestigious 2008 Sonning Prize, awarded yearly for “commendable work that befits European culture”. A Goodwill Ambassador of Unesco for Architecture, his restoration campaign of historical sites includes the ancient city of Rhodes and Genoa’s historical centre.