The Malta Independent 19 June 2019, Wednesday

Interview: Conserving Quaint Maltese balconies

Malta Independent Monday, 26 April 2010, 00:00 Last update: about 6 years ago

“Over €656,000 worth of balconies were restored or replaced since Mepa’s first scheme was launched. More than €250,000 have already been paid while only a small percentage applied for replacement of aluminium balconies. Most applicants opted for replacement”

Most buildings in the Maltese village cores are adorned with beautiful quaint balconies, which often go unnoticed because they are above

eye-level. Over the years, the Maltese balcony evolved

influenced by foreign tradition and cultures. Today, the Malta Environment and Planning Authority (Mepa) has schemes to support the conservation of the remaining traditional

balconies. Elaine Attard spoke with JOE ZAHRA who

together with his team manages a scheme to protect the typical Maltese balconies.

Origins of the Maltese balcony

Most probably, balconies originated from the need created by religious beliefs in the Arab world.

The earliest form of the balcony, in Malta and elsewhere, was of the open type. It provided access to external views without being seen for privacy and security. One early use was in military architecture. The balcony within the royal palaces of ancient Egypt are probably the earliest recorded balconies and were used as the locations from where rulers exhibited themselves to the public. Eventually, balconies were also incorporated within private residences of wealthy Egyptians.

Villa Diana in Ostia, Italy provides evidence that the open balcony was used for residential architecture in ancient Rome and was intended as an extension to the property.

The balcony, especially the closed balcony, satisfied the human need of a refuge and prospect.

The balcony required advances in architecture, craftsmanship and availability of people who could do that craft and material to make the balcony. Balconies served as an extension to the residence, throughout the ages.

The hot and humid Mediterranean climate may have also increased the balconies’ usefulness and spread through colonial influences and occupation, namely in Peru and South America).

The earliest documented evidence of a closed wooden balcony (gallarija) in Malta dates back to the late 17th century. The elite were the first to afford the wooden balcony to ascertain their status but eventually, balconies became more affordable and more people could have one.

Traditionally, a limited number of colours were available. Vienna green was the most popular colour though the choice was rather limited because only light colours were available at the time.

Mepa’s Maltese balconies conservation scheme

Mepa’s Maltese balconies conservation scheme aims to conserve the historical, traditional, cultural element within the Urban Conservation Areas (UCA) and scheduled properties. The idea is to enhance the streetscape and the townscape of UCAs, provide an impetus for the regeneration of the urban fabric, safeguard traditional craftsmanship of balcony construction and to encourage replacement of aluminium balconies with traditional ones.

The construction of the wooden balconies revolves around four factors: material, craftsmanship, design and finishing.

The traditional material is red deal wood which is locally known as ta’ l-ahmar. Iroko may also be used owing to its resilience to natural elements but it is more expensive. Materials such as marine plywood and other non-natural material is not considered to be a traditional material.

A very important element in the construction of traditional timber balconies is craftsmanship. This is important because it protects the traditional carpentry skills needed to make a traditional wooden balcony. Not every carpenter is able to make one and the few who are skilled have inherited their trade from their forefathers. Traditional joinery, dowels, proportions and design are all signs of the mastery. Poor quality work is not acceptable since inferior quality does not reflect the traditional craft.

Turning on the balcony’s design, a replacement of the balcony should be like with like in order to replicate the original design in all details. Design should be in harmony with the period of the property and with the streetscape. A good design also retains the traditional proportions.

Traditionally balconies had a paint finish to protect the wood from the sun. Defective wood should be treated with appropriate products. Usually a good finish should consist of two coats of primer, a coat of undercoat and two coats of paint. Varnishing is not an adequate finishing as it is not traditional and sunrays still penetrate and damage the wood if not applied properly.

Over €656,000 worth of balconies were restored or replaced since Mepa’s first scheme was launched. More than €250,000 have already been paid while only a small percentage applied for replacement of aluminium balconies. Most applicants opted for replacement.

No VAT receipt has been provided for the remaining 300 balconies, around 30 per cent, even though the deadline was extended by 10 months up to December 2009. Only a small percentage applied for replacement of aluminium balconies. Aluminium remains a favourite material because it requires little maintenance costs unlike wood. Only a small percentage applied for restoration

The scheme also aims to establish a good relationship with carpenters, to provide detailed guidelines to ensure clarity and quality control, to review process and vetting stages and propose improvements, to issue the scheme on a regular basis and to market the scheme better and where it matters most.

Mepa contacted a total of 100 carpenters or handy men. Around 25 per cent showed interest. The process to conserve the craftsmanship required to make a traditional wooden balcony is ongoing and further meetings are envisaged.

Seven principles of conservation

Mepa established seven principles of conservation. These are prevention of deterioration, preservation of existing state, consolidation of the fabric, restoration, rehabilitation, reproduction and reconstruction

Conservation of historic monuments and elements is helped by maintenance on a permanent basis and regular use and action should be taken to prevent decay.

Restoration should aim to preserve and reveal the aesthetic and historic value, respect for original material, must stop where conjecture begins, extra work must be distinct and bear a contemporary mark, preceded and followed by historical studies, use of traditional techniques, consolidation, unity of style is not the aim of restoration, replacement parts must integrate harmoniously but must be distinguishable from the original.

Precise documentation together with reports, drawings and photos prior, during and after work is necessary. Methods and materials used are to be documented while historic evidence should not be destroyed, falsified or removed. Interventions should be kept to a minimum and where necessary, should be reversible and should not prejudice future interventions.

The closed wooden balcony is a frequently occurring element within the Maltese urban and built landscape. The following are the main values of the traditional closed wooden balcony.

The balcony’s significance in Maltese culture

While it contributes to the local sense of identity, the local community assigns significant cultural values to the balcony. It enhances the streetscape and serial vision. It is a significant element within the traditional streetscapes and townscapes especially in the UCAs. It is a common element in the uniform and homogenous designs of the facades especially those within the historical core of the towns and villages they are a strong representation of Malta’s national culture and architecture.

They are also an important landmark in portraying the traditional craftsmanship, creativity, technical innovation and achievement of the Maltese people.

The balcony illustrates strong associations to past customs and cultural practices, has a presence within the Maltese literature and has a strong place in the daily live of Maltese society and contributes to the country’s touristic and educational potential.

Way forward

The balcony scheme has proved to be very popular with carpenters and applicants and all agree that it should be re-issued periodically. However, there are some issues that require attention.

More historical research and technical studies are needed to improve Mepa’s conservation guidelines. Awareness-raising activities such as exhibitions, public presentations and seminars for carpenters, are also needed. In the coming months Mepa in collaboration with local councils will organise a number of public talks on the typical Maltese balconies.

For more information on the scheme and on the public talks one may contact Mepa on telephone number 2290-0000.

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