Times of Malta, 10 March 2010

The entrance to Valletta is unworthy of a World Heritage city. The debate about plans for this site has raged for over 60 years and it is highly unlikely that consensus will ever be reached. Any government taking decisions on this special project must therefore expect to finally go ahead without consensus. There is no other way.

Din l-Art Ħelwa’s concern is that any decisions taken should follow good heritage conservation principles. Unity of style is not the overriding aim of restoration. Sensitively blending the new with the old has long been followed as a guiding principle and was confirmed in the Venice Charter in the 1960s. Different layers of history lie visibly over one another. Din l-Art Ħelwa believes that a contemporary design of a high standard is the most desirable solution for this site.

Din l-Art Ħelwa recognises the high quality of architect Renzo Piano’s buildings all over the world and considers that Valletta is fortunate to be able to incorporate the designs of this great Italian architect in the 21st century. Opinions on aesthetics are inevitably subjective, however, the proposal is imaginative, skilled and sensitive to its context.

The designs engage with the shapes and masses of the adjacent bastion walls and the cavalier and respect the traditional stone out of which Valletta was built. The entrance will feature massive blocks of limestone, Malta’s most beautiful natural resource and the building material of our island’s historic and colossal defensive walls.

The government intends to build a new Parliament in Freedom Square. This area was built up in the past and only evolved into an open space after World War II. Constructing a building, including a Parliament, in this square is therefore perfectly acceptable on heritage conservation grounds. Valletta also stands to gain enormously from the plan to turn the Palace at St George’s Square into a national museum when Parliament moves out of that building.

It is not part of Din l-Art Ħelwa’s mission to comment on where the government’s financial priorities should lie. There will always be competing priorities. However, we would insist that when the entrance to Valletta is tackled, a budget proportionate to the importance of this site must be allocated. It is absolutely unacceptable to imagine that anything on this site should be done on the cheap.

Valletta is a World Heritage site and we owe it not only to ourselves but to the whole world to ensure that the new entrance to the city follows today’s standards of great world architecture – to which Mr Piano is no stranger. The decision to assign a budget to this site will always be a difficult one for any government. Din l-Art Ħelwa therefore welcomes the fact that a commitment has finally been made to invest substantially in our much-loved city.

The opera house ruins are recognised as having a heritage value and have been scheduled by Mepa.

Any new designs for this site should therefore incorporate them. Mr Piano has transformed the ruins into an unusual outdoor performance and meeting space, with backstage facilities beneath the adjacent area near St Catherine of Italy church.

The post-war building that now houses the police station next to the church will be demolished for the site to be turned into an open square and reveal the auberge behind it. The idea of an open and functional space within the ruins is intriguing and Din l-Art Ħelwa has no objection to this on heritage or aesthetic grounds.

Many designs have been put forward in the past for an “indoor” theatre on the ruined site, including the results of various competitions. None of these designs were ever agreed to and, at times, they engendered as much controversy as we are witnessing today about the outdoor space.

Questions about a roof and the required backstage area are under discussion and the idea of building a large theatre on a different site has also been put forward. We await the outcome of these questions with interest, however, Din l-Art Ħelwa favours one holistic vision for the entrance to the city.

When the government came forward with the idea for this project in 2008, Din l-Art Ħelwa and other stakeholders were consulted. We were consulted again in 2009 when the plans were drawn up. A large model of the proposal was exhibited last year at the Museum of Archaeology in Valletta for the public to view.

In the meantime, hundreds, if not thousands, of different comments and divergent views have been put forward through Mepa and the newspapers and in discussions, blogs and articles. Din l-Art Ħelwa is pleased to note that some of our suggestions have been taken on board, such as extending the designs to include the bus terminus and the residential block opposite the Parliament building.

Consultation and debate are healthy. However, there comes a point when debate must end and a decision must be taken. Valletta must be allowed to move on. Din l-Art Ħelwa backs the implementation of these imaginative and contemporary designs, which we regard as a major step forward in the ongoing rehabilitation of Valletta.

Din l-Art Ħelwa believes that this is a project of an exceptionally high standard and that the time has come for Valletta to receive the attention and the expenditure it deserves. It is a fitting prelude to the designation of Valletta as a European Capital of Culture in 2018.

Dr Bianchi is executive president of Din l-Art Ħelwa.