Sunday Times of Malta, 24 November 2008

A settlement – a conglomeration of homes set up by its community – is a living depository of cultural heritage where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Individual homes making up a settlement do not merely project a collection of distinct identities but together give rise to a collective cultural identity.

Preserving cultural identity – the identity of the whole – entails the preservation of the individual, distinct identity of the parts. Rehabilitation is a way of preserving our cultural identity through the preservation of built cultural heritage. Restoration of the built fabric is one of the first and most important stages of rehabilitation.

To physically preserve the original identity of the built heritage, traditional building techniques are important. It is for this reason that the increase in the rehabilitation of old buildings has created a need for more craftsmen who are familiar with the traditional techniques of building in limestone.

For example, the construction of a barrel vault requires great skills of stereotomy, among others. One may argue that there is little need for building barrel vaults when one can build a cover over large spans using modern and much more efficient structures in steel, concrete, polymer or other materials.

This is not the case when it comes to restoration. Many a time, a mason is required to repair or rebuild part of a collapsed barrel vault, tripartite vault or perhaps a composite arch. Unfortunately, these masonry techniques are becoming scarce so that even the correct raking of winders (tarag koreggut) in a staircase often lies beyond the skills of the average craftsman.

Knowledge of traditional building techniques, especially masonry techniques, was a sine qua non for the choice of masons to carry out the restoration of a 17th century country villa in Zejtun. This villa, better known as Villa Cagliares, was restored under the direction of Architecture Project.

The primary aim of the project was to ensure that the restoration and rehabilitation of this country villa, maintaining the integrity of the building as a whole. The architecture of this building dates back to the 17th and 18th centuries. The first part of the building was constructed in the 17th century as a fortified country villa for Archbishop Cagliares, from whom it takes its name.

A date found on one of the doorways allows us to hypothesise that the building was constructed circa 1620. This era was still characterised by raiding parties and the proximity of this building to the seashore directly contributed to its austere character. Thus, the ground floor had few windows and these were in fact musket holes. Of course, this led to difficulties when rehabilitating the ground floor, due to the lack of natural light within these rooms. However, because the fundamental guiding principle was to retain the original character of the building, only one new aperture was added at this level.

The villa was enlarged in the 18th century with the building of further structures at both ground and first floor level. The most important addition was a beautiful chapel complete with dome and lantern. It may have been designed by Andrea Belli, since stylistically it is similar to other works by this architect.

This first floor is a typical ‘piano nobile’ with beautiful three-centred arches and large high-ceiling rooms. Since the building had lain abandoned for many years, the entire first floor was in a bad state. Arches started to cave in, most of the walls were buckling outwards, timber beams were rotten, stone ceiling slabs (xorok) had either collapsed or were cracked, and the entire building was in a precarious state of preservation.

Structural repairs and restoration works required the use of traditional building skills. The preservation of the character and identity of the building required a good knowledge of history and surroundings. These two criteria played a vital role in the rehabilitation of Villa Cagliares.

Adopting traditional techniques in restoration while respecting character and identity helped only to restore the built fabric to its original pristine condition. It does not bring the building back to life. Buildings were made to be used, and only use will create long-term rehabilitation.

Putting old buildings to modern use, which satisfies the exigencies of the client without destroying character and identity, is perhaps the most arduous task the restorer faces.

Success depends not only on skilful physical work but also on striking the right compromise between these two conflicting requirements. This can only be done through imaginative and creative adaptation of existing spaces.