Din l-Art Helwa newsletter, August 2009

Of course any architectural project of scale within Valletta is bound to be controversial. Valletta belongs to us all and we feel deeply about it. Indeed we are united in what we don’t like about Valletta’s City Gate, but not how we want to replace it.

In choosing the world-renowned architect Renzo Piano, the government was making a statement. We would not have the old British gate reinstalled nor would we build Barry’s opera house – something Din L-Art Helwa had previously supported. We would instead be having a contemporary look to the entrance of our old city. The Council at Din l-Art Helwa discussed this for a long time. Certainly in the last 30 years there has been a move away from rebuilding structures ‘as they were’ and a shift towards contemporary architecture. Valletta has had an unhappy experience with both these trends. The GWU building, the Law Courts and City Gate itself are clear examples of modern architecture gone wrong, whilst the tourism offices in Republic Street are an attempt to recreate a baroque building. To my view none were satisfactory.

To install contemporary architecture in a historic setting, and in one as precious as ours, Valletta being a World Heritage city, takes much thought, sensitivity and inspiration. There are legal structures such as the Venice Convention which need to be observed, principally that the new must be in sympathy with the old.

Piano’s works are held up with pride in most of the major cities of the world, and much as in the same way we sell Caravaggio, cities sell their architectural monuments personifying their aspirations as leading cities of the world. They are places to be visited and experienced. This has been going on since the temple period, and continued through examples such as the pyramids through to Sydney Opera house and the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. It is true to say that some cities were defined by their architecture.

What does this mean to us? Because we have Renzo Piano, do we have to like or agree with the designs for the entrance to Valletta – certainly not. It is agreed that Renzo Piano is one of the most reputable architects around today. He is imaginative, his works are cutting edge and unique. All his works have had considerable thought gone into them, and he and his team have looked at issues from many angles and come up with many solutions before homing in on the proposals we see today. But we do not need to agree with them, and we may totally disagree with them. What we do need to do however is to debate the issue in a clear and rational way, looking carefully at the designs and avoiding knee jerk reactions at what has been a deep philosophical approach.

Rebuilding the old opera house and old gate cannot be the only solution although that may be the preference for some. Indeed Valletta has examples of architecture reaching into the late 20th century which have been successfully integrated into the fabric of the city.

The three main elements of Piano’s plan; the Gate (incorporating the bridge and ditch), the Parliament building and the Opera House, have elicited much debate, although it is true to say they are much less controversial than his previous attempt 20 years ago and indeed have gained a greater degree of acceptance even among the more conservative.

Much of the debate centres around the Opera House remaining open air. The fact that it remains a ruin I believe is accepted as a good solution but there are fears among those who frequent the live arts that the open air aspect will lead to a short season which will also be marred by noise pollution from outside. This is a valid point and the architect should see what technical solutions could be found to address these issues or minimise them. But retaining the ruins is I believe a good solution as a memory to a period of Valletta’s history, not only as an opera house which compared to its contemporaries abroad, but also to the last war when it was blitzed.

The City Gate issue was I believe very difficult to resolve. To create a new modern gate would be extremely difficult and the option of creating the old one would smack of a pastiche. Piano still wanted to create the feeling of walking into a walled city and to do this the bridge was reduced to its original width and the high blank walls replacing the gate would certainly give some feeling of how it felt when entering Valletta in the early 17th century when the main gate was more defensive than decorative. The rehabilitation of the ditch is of course most welcome, but it may prove difficult to attract people down there regularly although it may prove popular for events.

The rehabilitation of the square was more problematic. There was of course no square originally. The Prime Minister’s brief to have Parliament located at the entrance to Valletta is controversial, and the building – very light on the lower stories and solid and massive at the higher levels is both complex and simple. The interaction of the buildings with pedestrians as they enter Valletta will be nothing if not impressive. Those who like contemporary architecture will like it. The building is multifaceted, and has a three dimensional impact as one walks by, including a glimpse of a sort of pjazza on different levels behind it. The stairs leading up to the Central Bank and opposite towards Hastings will probably be a success with visitors, as stairs nowadays tend to attract people who like to sit and watch the world go by. The new small pjazza adjacent to Santa Caterina is also a good solution, restoring what once was, to the public domain.

Much of the success of this project will lie in the materials used, the architectural detail, and quality of works. This involves much thought and technical expertise which characterises Piano’s work since he is renowned for providing technological solutions to his projects – perhaps Osaka airport being the most impressive. His declaration that the Parliament will be a green building should elicit much interest in how he intends to do this.

Din l-Art Helwa has made representations to the Architect. These principally revolved around the height of the Parliament building in relation to St James cavalier and how visual this will be from outside the walls. We were also concerned that the arcade on the left as one enters Valletta, remains, as do the Government flats, which might give the impression of a partial solution or rehabilitation, greatly diminishing the overall effect. Clearly some interim measure needs to be devised, and a long term solution designed at this stage.

Further the rehabilitation of the terminus, The cleaning up of Republic Street and the principal buildings including Palazzo Ferreria needs to be taken in hand at the same time if we are not to be left with a half completed job in four years time.

Ultimately however, the Council of Din l-Art Helwa feels that the project is imaginative, and a good solution to a long-standing and festering wound. It is time to bite the bullet and decide. The entrance to Valletta deserves to be healed and we believe this may do us proud.