The Malta Independent 18 November 2018, Sunday

Mepa approves Manoel Theatre restoration, except for façade

Malta Independent Thursday, 15 November 2012, 15:38 Last update: about 5 years ago

The Mepa board finally gave its approval yesterday to an application for the restoration of the Manoel Theatre, Malta’s unique baroque and intimate theatre from the 18th century.

The restoration will include reinstating the boxes at ground level as they originally were along with some changes to the level of the floor and the inclusion of features that favour access.

But you would not have learned this from the two sittings the Mepa board devoted to the application, one on 11 October and one yesterday for the focus throughout was the vexed issue of the theatre’s many-times restored and changed façade.

At the heart of this issue there was a learned controversy between Architecture Project, the applicant’s architects, and Mepa’s Heritage Planning Unit.

For the Mepa bodies, including the Superintendence of Cultural Heritage (which is not a Mepa body), the restoration of the façade must be structured around what is to be found in the Cabreo de Vilhena, the priceless volume of drawings of various buildings in Valletta drawn around the time of the theatre’s opening.

This shows in very clear terms a very different façade from the one we can see today.

First of all, the entire façade is wrapped up by pilasters at the two extremes which contain the entire within a baroque line.

The architects also propose shutting up the two doors on the extreme, under this pilaster on either side, and this was pronounced acceptable by the Mepa bodies.

The Cabreo paintings also show a very different approach to the windows. There are six, three on each row on the first and second floors of the theatre but as seen now they are like holes in the building.

The Cabreo shows they are surmounted by mouldings, in the typical Baroque style as so many other buildings in Valletta. The only problem in this regard is a difference of opinion between the architects who would fashion the mouldings from hardstone and Mepa who would prefer them to be of stone as they originally were.

But the main issue regarded the central door and its immediate surroundings.

The Cabreo shows the main door with a coat of arms on top of it and also a balcony and with columns on either side.

David Drago from AP argued at length that this does not really convince them.

He pointed out that the columns are not to be seen in the painting by Gianni, which however dates from some 200 years after the theatre was built.

Mr Drago argued this is not the only case where the Cabreo is not exact. It is also mistaken in the depiction of the nearby Palazzo Correia, later the Scicluna Bank, today replaced by the St Albert the Great College.

Accordingly, the architect suggested an artificial façade or skin to cover up the central feature of the theatre until such a time when more information is found.

It was here that the proposal became a cropper for SCH was totally against the proposal since it would be accepting cladding to a Grade One building, when cladding is not allowed in UCAs, let alone in Grade One buildings.

AP retorted that it was not proposing cladding as such but a hardstone screen wall, standing independently of the wall and fixed to it with steel pins.

The Mepa Unit and the directorate replied this was unacceptable as well.

The issue clearly could not be solved unless further research was done to clarify which façade was there originally.

Mepa chairman Austin Walker thus suggested that this issue regarding the main door area is kept as a reserved matter and that the issue be studied further for six months. Later this period was extended to one year.

Then voices were heard that what if at the end, there is still no agreement on how the main door area should look? The architect said that in their intentions they wanted to remove all accretions and successive layers of paint from the façade to try and understand how it looked like, so they were eager to begin at once.

Someone then suggested that the door area is cut out from the application and a new one submitted.

Joseph Magro Conti from the Heritage Planning Unit said there are 160 Grade One buildings in Valletta alone and worried this could serve as a precedent.

So in the end, the application was approved with the area around the door left as a reserved matter to be solved within a year.

Earlier, there was a small interlude with regards to KNPD still objecting to the application, according to the notes to the Mepa board. However, an email that reached Mepa just as the sitting was about to begin reversed the objection after KNPD found out that it had a problem of internal communication and was not informed about the latest plans from the architect.

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