Times of Malta, 18 March 2010

Ever since its inception 45 years ago, Din l-Art Ħelwa’s paramount concern for the re-building of the so-called opera house site focused on the architectural heritage and aesthetic aspects of whatever has been proposed. It has not been concerned so much with what use the building should be put to, only what impact the new structure might have on the city we cherish.

In article published on March 12, an environmental lobbyist quoted three paragraphs of a piece I wrote six years ago. While I have no reason to resile on what I said then, the context and the reasons for what I wrote were quite different. My comments were directed at the unprepossessing glass and stone structure, which, it had been proposed, should be built on the opera house site.

We did not then have the benefit of the Renzo Piano designs before us, as we do today. The facts have changed. When the facts change, we change our minds. It would be a very foolish person who did not alter his position to reflect a new situation.

Din l-Art Ħelwa’s position on Mr Piano’s design for Valletta’s City Gate and the opera house has been stated unequivocally. Subject to some detailed improvements, we whole-heartedly back the implementation of this project, which we regard as imaginative, exciting, in harmony with the monumental architecture of the cavalier and a crucial step forward in the long-awaited regeneration of Valletta.

This said, we know that there are many who object to this project. The decision to build a Parliament has aroused particular anger. Din l-Art Ħelwa holds no particular brief for this decision, which was made – as is their right, duty and prerogative – by the government. In a parliamentary democracy such decisions are for our elected representatives to take, for which they receive both the bouquets and the brickbats.

Nevertheless, it has been remiss of the government not to have made the case more effectively for giving Mr Piano this particular brief and not another one, say, the building of an opera house or an art and cultural centre, as some would have wished.

This is a great pity as the argument in favour of the Parliament building is a perfectly respectable and persuasive one. The fact that most of the Maltese public holds politicians in low regard should not blind us to the merits of the decision to opt for a Parliament building on this site.

First, there can be no disagreement that our present Legislature is wholly incompatible with the rest of the Magisterial Palace as well as being cramped and inefficient for the needs of a modern Parliament. It is a trespasser and an alien appendage and it has been so ever since the days when the Assemblea Nazionale used a room in the then colonial Governor’s palace.

It should be a matter of national pride – as well as contributing towards better governance – for a thriving democracy to have its own purpose-built Legislature with proper facilities, committee rooms and offices to make its members of Parliament more accessible and more responsive to the needs of the people. (There are some who would argue that a new Parliament could have been located elsewhere in an existing building in Valletta. Perhaps. But not in some of the hare-brained proposals we have heard mooted recently.)

Secondly, there is another benefit that accrues from moving Parliament out of the Palace. This is the use to which this space will subsequently be put by re-instating it as the Knights’ Armoury within the overarching context of a grand plan for the palace, a project that has been entrusted to Judge Giovanni Bonello.

Given the design brief, Mr Piano has compromised by retaining the present opera house ruins as a form of memory for what has gone before and an open air theatre for its use. This has incensed those who had hoped to have a new theatre on this site capable of staging operatic, musical, orchestral and other artistic events in a way not currently possible anywhere in Malta.

Again, this is not a criticism of Mr Piano’s design, but of the limitations placed upon him by his brief. The government, we must surmise, opted for the new Parliament being the higher priority on the broad grounds I have just outlined.

Moreover, they may have been influenced by a sensible and hard-headed calculation that the economic case militated strongly against having another building in Valletta dedicated to music and the arts, given that its financial viability would be extremely hard to justify without incurring huge state subsidies, an issue on which most major experts in this field appear to agree.

Din l-Art Ħelwa believes that, on all-important heritage and aesthetic grounds, this is a project whose time has finally come and which is worthy of Valletta’s status as a world heritage city. We must not allow the government’s cack-handed handling of its presentation to get in the way of a good project for Valletta and for Malta. We must seize the moment and ensure that this time it happens.

Mr Scicluna is vice president of Din l-Art Ħelwa.