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01 August 2014

A Sense of emptiness at City Gate

 - Sunday, 01 May 2011, 00:00 , by Noel Grima

When the Renzo Piano design for City Gate, the new Parliament building and the Opera House site was revealed, it was done in a blaze of publicity: Republic Street was turned into a vast auditorium and Signor Piano himself, as well as the Prime Minister and Minister Austin Gatt made emphatic, even euphoric, speeches.

But when it came to revealing what will happen to the area outside City Gate, there was none of the razzmatazz of the previous announcement. Instead, all there was seemed to be Minister Gatt saying: “This will move from here to here and this other from here to there”.

The other time, there was at least the space of time where the public could comment (not that it changed anything). This time, it would seem, the work will be undertaken as soon as the Mepa permits are out.

Most of the public’s reaction has focused on the relocation of the Tritons’ Fountain to the side, next to the RAF monument.

There has been far less comment on the creation of a new parking space for 55 cars next to the Phoenicia Hotel, and many people do not seem to have considered that this parking space could be reserved for MPs when Parliament is in session.

However, the Traffic Impact Statement for the project spoke of other areas being reserved for the MPs’ parking and drop off points. And very recently an application has been submitted by Transport Malta to convert the steps leading to Independence Arena into open-air parking.

Besides, the Budget Speech announced the extension of the Park & Ride scheme and the fact that it will be taken over by Arriva and parking will stop being free, will presumably add more parking possibilities. And the Blata l-Bajda Park & Ride area is mostly empty even in the mornings, as it is.

A government spokesman denied, when I asked him, that the space where the fountain will be moved to had been earmarked earlier for something else.

But I distinctly remember that when Mepa was about to decide on the bus terminus plans (and there was all that flap from FAA because it could not access the Mepa website and see the plans, whereas we could) that this corner was earmarked for the 7 Giugno monument, at least that was what a pencilled scrawl said.

The Tritons’ Fountain was created in the mid-1950s when Dom Mintoff was in his first term as prime minister. Although it looks like being made of marble, it is in fact made of white cement, sources told me. That may create problems during its relocation.

Then, on Freedom Day in 1978, at a Labour Party musical event, someone had the crazy idea of driving a karozzin on the top of the platter. The result was huge damage.

This was further compounded by the remedial actions taken: although its sculptor, Ċensu Apap, proposed two dolphins to help stabilize the structure, Minister Lorry Sant ruled this out because the dolphins looked like something from the Nationalists’ coat of arms for independent Malta.

Instead, the trio of half fish half men holding up the platter is now helped by what looks like a tree trunk in the middle. The reason for this is that previously the water to the platter passed along the arms of the figures but since the restoration, as carried out by Malta Drydocks, had blocked the passage of water, there was need for another conduit for the water to reach the platter. Hence the tree.

As has recently happened with regard to the badly restored Wignacourt fountain in Freedom Square (which has now been dismantled), one should perhaps argue that while relocation is taking place, the fountains be restored to their original form.

On the one hand, however, the way the Tritons’ Fountain will be moved to, seems to be about to create an almighty jumble with the fountain, the Christ the King monument by Antonio Sciortino across the road, the RAF monument at the back, not to mention the gaping hole that is the MCP car park just a few yards away.

On the other side, the (what used to be) City Gate side, there will be openness, trees, and an empty space; while across the space there will be this huddle.

It will take a long time for us to come to terms with the empty expanse leading to the bridge.

Defenders of the Piano plan argue, as the Piano studio does (see separate story), that this will allow full vision of the line of bastions that encloses Valletta – something impossible today because of the clutter of kiosks, the Bergonzo City Gate and the fountain itself.

While this may indeed restore the vision of the bastions and the enclosed city, this will not be restoring City Gate to what it was at the time of the Knights. For the area where the Tritons’ Fountain now stands was nothing like it is today. On the contrary, as anyone remotely familiar with the systems of defence used in the times of the Knights knows, no city gate faced out on an empty space. It was covered, protected by a counterguard, a system of bastions, which included St Michael’s Bastions, now buried along with war debris underneath the Tritons Fountain.

So if we had to be purists and restore everything to how it was, not only the fountain would have to go, but the bastions would have to be dug out and restored to their former glory. Only, there is no need for a counterguard, a defensive system now.

The entrance to the city, the capital city of an EU member state, should reflect the realities of today, rather than a slavish return to the past.

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