by Conrad Thake
The German-born British architectural historian, Nikolaus Pevsner once famously stated that “A bicycle shed is a building; Lincoln Cathedral is a piece of architecture.” His distinction between what constitutes a mere building (presumably not involving the services of an architect) from architecture was that “anything that encloses space on a scale sufficient for a human being to move in is a building”, whereas the term “architecture applies only to buildings designed with a view to aesthetic appeal.”
Now, Pevsner’s clinical differentiation of architecture and building has long since been discarded and rendered obsolete, as architectural history and criticism have evolved along more multi-cultural, inter-disciplinary and egalitarian lines. It is no longer fashionable and ‘politically-correct’ to differentiate between building construction and architecture. Even our own Faculty of Architecture and Civil Engineering at the University has been re-named as the Faculty for the Built Environment to reflect the interdisciplinary and multi-faceted nature of ‘architecture’.
Now I confess to the sin of a being rather nostalgic by subscribing to the heroic (and idealistic — again not a fashionable term this days) concept that an architect has, in his or her own way the potential (even on an infinitesimal scale) to improve the state of our environment and quality of our lives. Now that might sound like an inflated and bombastic claim, but then again why should we not aspire to be driven by grand humanistic ideals rather than succumbing to overwhelming urges to make money (now that is fashionable).
For the past decade Malta has been like a building site perpetually on heat —- an army of overhead tower cranes, concrete mixers, and boarded-up scaffolding. Lots of construction translated into buildings, but can one equate the lot with architecture. I seriously doubt it. I would say only a very small percentage (would venture to say less than 1%) of all new buildings would qualify as being truly deserving of the appellative ‘architecture’ where to borrow Pevsner’s outdated phrase buildings are ‘designed with a view to aesthetic appeal.’
Like architecture, aesthetics have become a very expendable and disposable term — everybody seems perfectly qualified at professing to have a refined sense of aesthetics, so who the heck needs an architect to ‘design a building.’ I very much suspect that in the developers’ mindset the true value and worth of an architect is today based only on two criteria – the architect’s ability to maximize monetary value from every one square centimeter of the site and his/her ability and dexterity to successfully navigate the bureaucratic planning development maze in the shortest possible time. All the rest, as they say is superfluous icing on the cake.
I very much fear than architecture has today become not much more than an exquisite corpse whilst all around us, we have (in the name of progress) willingly embraced unbridled building.
And here we go again…
In my view the main reason for the blighted Architectural / Built environment we see around us is due to poor urban planning and inappropriate land use. This is made worse of course by a very weak monitoring and enforcement procedures.
why should coaches, trucks, heavy plant e.g.bulldozer be allowed to park regularly on a main road this in the middle of a residential areas.
why should warehousing be allowed in residential area disrupting the peace of the local residents and creating a traffic mayhem as a result of semi-trailers entering the area.
For an extended or, maybe, different point of view about the distinction between architecture and building construction I would also refer to a very recent interview to Peter Eisenman that can be found in a recent issue of the Architectural Review (http://www.architectural-review.com/view/interviews/interview-peter-eisenman/8646893.article). Architecture cannot be simply limited to the manipulation of the tectonic element. It is a very complex argument and, honestly speaking, I still hold on to Pevsner’s approach.
I live on Fleur de Lys Road. For the past thirty years my husband and I have been trying at great expense to conserve our tiny morsel of early twentieth century architectural history. The sprouting of pastizzi shops and car showrooms around us makes us sometimes want to give up.
Thank you Conrad for voicing this opinion which I share 100%. The new built heritage we are leaving the next generation is disgraceful but nobody seems to mind the quality it gives our visual environment. The notion of having a Style and Design Committee must be revived and we need to keep pushing for it.
Stanley Farrugia Randon
The first concerns and problems the society faced with during the first few years of Din l-Art Helwa’s existence are very similar to the ones the association faces with today. Resolutions passed during annual general meetings, press releases, letters in the press and proposals to governments are basically repetitions of what the association still discusses 50 years after its foundation. Members were concerned with the erection of buildings which were aesthetically not compatable with the surroundings. The haphazard build-up of Buġibba and the encroachment of various lidos and restaurants too close to the coast was a bad example for everyone to see. Hotels and villas built in sensitive locations, high buildings, and the uncontrolled mixture of styles and architecture in village cores are still relevant today. Modern-design buildings were built along-side others of Maltese vernacular architecture, and many times the modern construction was built higher up. In the days before the Planning Authority was created in 1992, building permits had to go through three-stage process of approval that included the Planning Area Permits Board, the Public Health Department and the Aesthetics Board. Notwithstanding this, many towns and villages were being ruined because successive governments have allowed basic rules to be broken repeatedly. After 1992 the Aesthetics Board was absorbed by the Planning Authority (renamed MEPA in ) but the lack of regard to the relationship between a project and its surroundings remains. Who is to blame? I think that the government, the applicant and the architect all share this responsibility. Decisions are based only on policy considerations and architects are more concerned on adhering to a long list of rules and regulations. Size, proportion and style should be all considered in the formula, together with a harmonious environment where people are allowed to live a better and healthier lifestyle.