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01 August 2014

European Capital Of Culture in 2018?

 - Sunday, 01 April 2012, 00:00 , by Pamela Hansen

Frankly, as much as I would like us to achieve that aim, not only because I was born and bred in the city, I don’t hold much hope that we shall, unless we take serious stock of changes that need to be made. Yes, much is being done in Valletta, but the trouble is that it is a piecemeal job and the major project at City Gate, to include a new parliament building, has certainly not been generally welcomed.

Since culture is far reaching and includes shared beliefs and practices that identify a particular place, we still have a way to go. My curiosity in the project was revived by an invitation to an exhibition at the Lily Agius Gallery and an accompanying Facebook page “Valletta Art Museum”, which generated much debate.

Architect Chris Briffa is proposing to transform the sad, depressing food market in Merchant’s Street into an art museum. The idea is that it would improve the chances of Valletta becoming the European Capital of Culture in 2018.

That the market has been sorely neglected and in need of a facelift for decades is undisputable. But, as much of an art lover as I am, I would rather see the market restored to a thriving food market. Besides, the proposal interferes with the architecture, which I found out of synch in the intended top floor.

My reasoning is that there are other suitable venues in Valletta for another art museum, but not for another food market. Other European cities have managed to maintain these wonderful venues, as demonstrated by many beautiful photos sent in to the FB page so why can’t we?

I agree that we need to exhibit important art collections. How about the Evans Building, or something incorporated in the St Elmo’s restoration project, I suggested on the page.

I then discovered, going back to articles I had missed, that last September saw the launch of a study commissioned by the Valletta local council and financed, to the tune of over €19,000, by Parliamentary Secretary Chris Said, which suggested, “the St Elmo area be transformed into an arts and science centre and the Evans Building area be converted into a centre of art, with a National Art School”.

I found no reference to the food market in the news story. The study took almost three years to conclude that, guess what? Valletta needed “rejuvenation and refurbishment”. Now why do I find those words disturbing?

How does one rejuvenate a city famous for its baroque architecture? But more on that study later.

In July 2008, Miriam Galea interviewed (then) Valletta mayor Paul Borg Olivier for ME magazine. This is what she had to say, “The market is the Lands Department’s responsibility, not the Valletta council’s. Borg Olivier knows of no proposal by the government to attempt the market’s renovation, and believes the problem lies with its ownership.

“It’s as though the place has no owner. The council doesn’t own it. The shop owners try to own it, but they have no title over it, nor the funds to do so. They pay rent to the Lands Department, but the Lands, in turn, don’t assume its ownership. The market is like a ship, abandoned by its captain.”

“The council has been trying to push for a serious rehabilitation project, but it’s been a struggle even to convince the authorities to change the rusting gutter that goes all round the building. We’ve had serious problems even to get its basic maintenance seen to. We’ve left such an important site to deteriorate. The council has been offered to take the market under its wing, however this requires a minimum of Lm100,000 (more than double that in €) to go towards its maintenance and rehabilitation. Basically, the government has to make the financial commitment,” said Borg Olivier.

So there you have it, the government did not make the commitment, but the much-maligned Borg Olivier had the right idea. “The space can generate economic activity. It is the gauge of a social hub, part and parcel of Valletta’s social life.

“The social spirit of the market could be revived, retaining its original function while introducing new, attractive elements. Why not introduce a florist, a newsagent, restaurants… Turn the open, central space into an atrium, where street performers and a band could play? The space can be animated, ” he had told ME.

So what is happening now? I received a pamphlet entitled V.18 with pretty pictures and pretty words that told me little, so I surfed along to the www.valletta2018.org I was invited to visit.

This is what I found, that has relevance to what I am writing about, under the “My Valletta” and “Living” headings: “It’s about supporting your local butcher or vegetable stall holder at the undercover market in Merchant Street and helping to keep their businesses alive,” a resident was quoted.

OK, enough about the market. Of course there are positive projects being carried out in Valletta. The imposing, magnificent bastions are being given a long overdue cleanup.

But again piecemeal, two huts near the House of Four Winds are still used to house pigeons, which give a more than shabby look to what should be one of Valletta’s prime sites. Besides, although that stupendous view across Marsamxetto has been enhanced by the restoration of the Manoel Island Fort the entrance to the harbour has been marred by the Tigné Point development, a fact even Albert Mizzi, responsible for both projects has admitted to in his interview with the Sunday Times.

And what about the proposed escalator in one of the plans for Valletta? Will it be accorded the same maintenance as the one at the Valletta market? God help us.

Yes, we are seeing our baroque heritage, the auberges and churches being renovated, but again unless the pigeon problem is solved in Valletta, it is money down the drain. And please, for Heaven’s sake, we should not take the study’s (mentioned earlier) suggestion that “Palazzo Ferreria in Republic Street, which houses the Social Policy Ministry, be transformed into a casino”. Why gambling generally is encouraged at anytime, let alone during a financial near meltdown, is beyond me.

The new traffic arrangements have not helped either because they have increased air and noise pollution in the streets the cars have been pushed to use. It is good that we now have pedestrianised streets, but taking away a vital access point from Castille towards Hastings Gardens, which was on the Valletta fringe, was unnecessary.

Furthermore, the entry to that area through Marsamxetto is sometimes closed, which might help with pollution along the streets leading up to Hastings, but what about the residents in that area, who need to have access?

It is no wonder that I found a quote I related to so well on the V18 website “Many associate a trip to the city as a chaotic and often stressful journey.” It is always, not often, stressful for those of us who have elderly relatives living there.

Then of course we have had the increasing removal of mature trees all over the city, which were not only beautiful, but also provided shade and oxygen. Hastings Gardens is more concrete footpaths than anything else since the ‘embellishment’.

The study also recommended “little green areas around the city”. Did we really need a study to tell us that urban areas need greenery, especially in the hot summer months? This brings me to Objective 8 of the V18 project, “Nurturing a Sustainable Relationship to Our Environment”.

“Throughout its programme, V.18 intends to celebrate and accentuate Malta’s marine and maritime characteristics by developing a respectful and healthy symbiosis between human and natural activity.”

Who writes this bumph? Symbiosis is a close association of animals or plants of different species that is often, but not always, of mutual benefit.

“By using Valletta’s infrastructural and technological means to develop an interface whereby Valletta stands to gain both physically and emotionally, we aim to discover and explore new ways of interaction between the city’s various structural components: the citizens, the architecture, and the coastal landscape of its peninsula setting. The development of a climate of well-being will interact with the dimension of our Mediterranean Sea.”

Hmm, well I hope you make sense of that because I can’t.

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