The Malta Independent 19 November 2018, Monday

Focus Shifts to 2017, 2018

Malta Independent Sunday, 7 November 2010, 00:00 Last update: about 6 years ago

The general public might be thinking that first there was Vision 2015, then the EU came up with Vision 2020. So what’s all the excitement now about 2017 and 2018?

2017 is the year when Malta will assume the presidency of the European Union. 2018 is the year when a Maltese town or region will be the European Capital of Culture.

It is not yet certain which Maltese town or region will be chosen, but the betting is heavily in favour of Valletta. There already is an inter-ministerial commission in this regard and Parliamentary Secretary Mario de Marco said yesterday the bidding period will be launched on 17 December and close on 17 October 2011.

However, the announcement, coming as it did at the end of a seminar on Valletta, is more than an indication that it will be Valletta.

In fact, all the presentations made yesterday by the Prime Minister, Minister Gatt and Dr de Marco all emphasized heavily the investment that the government is putting in as part of its huge effort to embellish and restore Valletta to its former dignity.

The seminar entitled “Valletta – The People’s Capital: A Cultural Perspective” was organised by the Valletta Alive Foundation at the Exchange Building in Valletta.

The foundation is a non-profit voluntary organisation that works to promote interest in Valletta’s welfare. Set up in 2005, the foundation encourages more investment to improve the city’s building fabric and public spaces, lobbies government and the private sector and raises awareness on the city’s unique historic, cultural, social and commercial value.

Putting aside his prepared notes, Dr Gonzi boasted at length that, at a time of international crisis, Malta still finds the funds to carry out the Renzo Piano City Gate and Parliament project so as to get Parliament out of The Palace, which will then become a showcase of Malta’s identity with a number of permanent exhibitions on the ground floor displaying Malta’s silver, furniture and clothes heritage, while the Armoury will return to its original place.

However, it was Dr Gatt who announced that Renzo Piano has now been commissioned by the government to prepare a plan for outside City Gate. As from July, City Gate will no longer house the bus terminus with its garish colours and confusion.

Down the Valletta spine, as Dr Gatt termed Republic Street, a detailed plan for Upper St Elmo is now at Mepa. Restoration there will cost up to €25 million. However, it is still not clear what will be done about Lower St Elmo, Dr Gatt said, also hinting that the plan to turn Evans Building into a hotel have fallen through because the site is too small for a hotel. Next year will see the publication of a Development Brief to turn the old fish market into a boutique hotel on the water’s edge. Nearby Barriera Wharf will be enlarged to take cruise ships. By 2012 it is hoped that Boffa Hospital can also be turned into a hotel.

Dr Gatt, already geared for the Arriva presentation, said it is a misconception that car access is what pulls people to Valletta. A recent survey has shown that 60 per cent of people who go to Valletta go by bus, with only 35 per cent using their car. And 60 per cent of those who go by bus, go there to shop. Fifty-five per cent of those who work in Valletta take their car, so their parking takes away precious parking from shoppers. He went on to pre-announce payment for Park & Ride and announced that as from 1 January, the electric car transport system in Valletta will be liberalized.

Valletta mayor Alexiei Dingli announced a New Year’s Eve party in St George’s Square, a photographic biennale and two artistic initiatives at the Biccerija and Strait Street. With 900 shops, Valletta can be considered to be Europe’s biggest shopping centre.

Judge Giovanni Bonello pointed out that Valletta was planned top down, rather than grew naturally like other cities (rather like the top-down approach the present government is doing with Renzo Piano’s plan). He then made the interesting point that it could well have been that Valletta is not the result of the Great Siege but rather that the Great Siege was the Turks’ pre-emptive move sensing that with Valletta Malta would be impregnable.

So far, Valletta has undergone no less than five transformations, not all successful:

At first Valletta was intended to be an extended convent for the warrior-monks. This was reflected in the austere architecture of the first period. Even then, Valletta’s soft-stone streets, as they were at first, changing over to hard stone and lava in Grand Master Pietro del Monte’s time, were very clean, as visitors like John Dryden’s son remarked. Grand Master de Valette had a plan to shave off the top of Valletta’s higher reaches and dump the rubble in the lowest parts, but he had to give this plan up when he ran out of donkeys.

By Grand Master Perellos’s time, Malta was introduced to an era of luxury and exuberant baroque became the order of the day. Many houses were demolished and others changed their facades. One can still see buildings with baroque facades and earlier, austere sides.

Then, with the British came the Victorian speculators who thought nothing of pulling down palazzos and building flats instead. A case in point is nearby Palazzo Spinola with its Carapecchia baroque façade (today’s Lombard Bank) and the original austere building at the rear but in the middle there is a block of flats.

After World War II, which hugely damaged Valletta, the War Damage created more damage. Instead of doing what has been done like in Dresden – rebuilding everything as it was – instead of Palazzo Correia we now have St Albert’s School and instead of the Auberge de France we now have the GWU headquarters – two buildings in the modern style, completely out of synch with what was there before, with what was Valletta’s tissue.

Then came slum clearance, and Judge Bonello reserved his harshest criticism for what he called ‘misguided social conscience’. Contrasting what was done at Il-Mandraġġ with what Strasbourg did to its Petit France, the overpopulation and lack of sanitation in that part of Valletta could have easily been remedied. While what used to be Strasbourg’s no-go area has now became the chicest part of the town, in Valletta we now have a dreary almost-slum.

Today’s regeneration is the sixth transformation but it will only be after many years have passed that we will see whether today’s change was a real step forward. Certainly, removing cars from Palace Square was a great step forward since that square should be the main sitting room of the city.

Towards the end of the seminar, the audience heard a very interesting presentation by Professor Bill Chambers who described what Liverpool did when it was the European Capital of Culture in 2008. Having won the bid against 11 other British cities or regions in 2003, it organised itself in preparation for that event, which it saw as a way to heighten the popular image of the city. £122 million were spent from 2003 to 2008 with 61 per cent coming from the city council, others from grants, sponsorships and sale of tickets.

Regeneration of the city centre was fundamental, even though for a long time the city was known as the Big Dig, since most of the centre was dug up. Eleven new hotels were opened.

The organisers planned to bring the event down to every village, town or borough in the area, to insist on inclusion and to have as many events as possible (70 per cent) free.

The year opened in snow and cold outside City Hall on 6 January with 40,000 acclaiming Ringo Starr, continued with a huge exhibition of Gustav Klimt works at the Tate Gallery seen by 300,000, then with (Liverpudlian) Simon Rattle first directing the Liverpool Philharmonic then the famed Berliner Philharmoniker, leading then to a huge concert by Paul McCartney at Anfield.

But what at the end really brought the crowds out was something from France called La Machine, a huge mechanical spider that roamed the streets and climbed buildings and got hundreds of thousands out to watch it. That, and 125 copies of something called Superlambananas, multi-coloured statues spread around the city.

Alfred Grixti gave a lively description of what it means to be a Belti, Davinia Galea stressed that Valletta, especially in preparation for these two eventful years, needs a sustainable cultural infrastructure, Mariella Pisani Bencini pointed out the need for a National Academy of Art, and former minister Michael Refalo urged the government to provide incentives to people to restore their façades and houses, just as it has provided funds for the restoration of balconies. Architect John Ebejer, the secretary of the foundation, also supported this proposal. He pointed out that the new Parliament would be one built by the Maltese people rather than renovating a building built by a foreign power.

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