The Malta Independent 18 November 2018, Sunday

Valletta does not have the luxury of cities like Paris and Rome - Konrad Buhagiar

Julian Bonnici Saturday, 19 August 2017, 11:49 Last update: about 2 years ago

After city-gate and the Barrakka lift, Architecture Project (AP) has become synonymous with the regeneration of Valletta. Julian Bonnici met with Konrad Buhagiar to hear about their latest projects and get his take on development in Malta.

The Phoenicia Hotel and its surrounding grounds was the latest large scale project AP finished. Could you tell us more about it?

We always sold the project on the basis of the fact that we were recreating the lines of the fortifications in a contemporary and suggestive way. In fact, the project was delayed a number of times after discovering buried fortifications

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The Phoenicia grounds extend from City Gate all the way down to the sea, and takes up about half the width of Valletta. The biggest limitation was the fortifications - 16th and 17th century walls. It’s a particularly strong section, with two lines and two ditches.

The current plan is to convert two buildings which had been repurposed by the British into rooms and connect them to the hotel itself.

With City Gate, the Barraka Lift, St John’s Co-Cathedral, and now the Anglican Church it can be said that AP is one of the main forces behind Valletta’s regeneration.

 

We can all remember the state of disrepair Valletta had fallen into. To what do you attribute its misuse?

Up until recently the main raison d’être of Valletta was the harbour. It was the centre of operations up until World War Two. It was heavily bombed and a number of people left the city, as their survival dramatically increased once they moved into rural areas.

Valletta is very important as a symbol of Maltese society; The Knights built the city and settled here, and housed the richer classes, the intellectuals, the nobility, the professionals, and the merchants. It was an important trading post after the abolition of the slave trade, which was able to generate substantial revenue once the sea became safe for marauders and pirates following the fall of the Ottoman Empire.

While Valletta was the centre of intellectual or commercial activity, the areas outside of it, was primarily just the countryside, and there was always a distinction between the town and the country.

After the war, most of the people who moved out did not return. Lifestyles began to evolve and the area was no longer attractive for an emerging middle class, which began falling in love with American models of living; villas, drive-ins, pool-area etc.

At that point in time, areas in Sliema, Swieqi, and other suburbs began gaining popularity with housing stock based on the British and American models, because that is what Maltese architects were studying at that point. Family living, hygiene, functionality and light became obsessions that Valletta could not provide.

 

And why do you feel interest has grown once again?

Valletta is following a general trend, which is a product of globalisation, in that towns are connected by economy. Most towns were based around manufacturing, and when they began moving to markets in the east, areas in countries like France and England had to reinvent themselves.

The idea of the museum as an industry emerged. Before it was the domain of a select few, but now it has become recreation for the masses.

The same applies to Valletta - the dry docks were moved - so it had to find new ways of sustaining itself.

 

Property prices in Valletta have shot up after young professionals began buying property in the area in droves. Why do you think this is?

People are followers. Valletta is a growing trend. So since it is ‘cool’ to live here, people buy here. Most people do not understand the value of a house in the suburb, or the value of a house in Valletta. Convenience is such an important aspect. At the end of the day, no matter how beautiful a house is, you’re not going to live in it if it is very inconvenient.

Just look at the Barrakka lift. I could think of 100 reasons why a person would criticise it, given that it is a contemporary structure in historic surroundings, but people do not complain because of the convenience it provides.

 

City-gate has been a divisive subject among the Maltese public. Why were people so resistant to the project?

People in Malta love to pick sides, so there is always a divide in whether you like something or you do not. There was a question in this year’s French baccalaureate which asked whether it is possible to appreciate a work of art if you do not like it? Most Maltese people would probably say no, but we should be able to not like something but be able critically examine the technical aspects of the piece and notice its value

 

A project of AP and Jens Bruenslow, Villa Castro was nominated for an award at World Architecture Festival. Could you tell us about the project?

The main element was the addition of new volumes to an existing country house after one side got sold off and was converted into a block of flats that over looked the garden, which is a typical situation in Malta.

The design has been nominated for an award in the ‘Old and New’ category at the World Architecture Festival, which is one of the most important international awards in architecture. Two years ago, the Barraka Lift won the Transport category.

 

It appears that modern structures are quickly replacing older ones. Do you believe they can coexist?

It all depends on the vision we have for Malta. Anything which has heritage value is important for national identity. Unfortunately, in Malta, as is the case in other countries around the world, people value profit above anything else. How can we devise a long term vision for a sustainable economy if profit is the most important thing?

We used to want to leave something for generations to come; now we just want sustainability for ourselves. We need to start setting the tone for younger generations.

I guess it can be said that sustainability depends on the perspective. Some situations may seem sustainable for myself but not for the nation. For example, the Eiffel tower, look at it, it’s the biggest symbol of the most useless thing. We have to a have a vision to build things that seem useless but will last and give joy and money to future generations.

 

It can be said that city planning in Malta has not been done properly, with the architecture suffering as a result. Do you agree?

I think the problem is that we are individualist and do not share a sense of civic community and pride, which is an issue throughout Europe. I’ve been in France, in England, in Spain, and it is the same everywhere. I am not saying that it is a good thing, but it is a common phenomenon. A well planned urban space is the magic of architecture, since it is conducive to good living and healthy lifestyles within communities.

I also think we need to realise that we do not have the same luxury that was afforded to cities like Paris and Rome, which had the will of Napoleon or the Papacy to hire the greatest architects or artists of their time to design the cities.

 

There also appears to be a creative drain within the artistic community in Malta, with the public showing little interest in the local scene. What can be done to rectify this?

If you have an exhibition, with a nice party, all the cool people go - they can come in contact with it. There is an understanding that culture was an elitist thing, which separated people. Internationally, social anthropology conquered the artistic terrain, and said that what we did, how we ate, folklore, and crafts were culture. I feel we’ve gone too far in this direction and have forgotten the aesthetic of art.

Then again, look at the Venice Biennale. Our pavilion focused on the kind of culture we are talking about, and it was critically acclaimed.

 

But our skyline, especially in areas like Sliema, St Julian’s and Bugibba looks like a mess. What can we do to solve this?

You can have different designs but you have to have some kind of unifying principle that keeps them all together, whereas a Malta does not necessarily have it. If you look at the old houses in Sliema, they were all different, but had a unifying look.

Unfortunately, our Individualism, along with our mercantile mentality, which can prove to be a positive in certain circumstances, can create a recipe for disaster.

We need to stop thinking about ourselves, but about our community, that is sustainable.

AP is lucky because we have projects that require infrastructural projects in precious surrounding, so we have to be precious. But I guess people can ask how much have we contributed to the suburbs?

 

And what about the future of our towns?

St Julian’s and Sliema, for all their issues with overdevelopment, are alive with activity and people. We cannot always expect Malta to remain a village, we need to move forward, and over the last couple of years we have done some great infrastructural projects, like the Kappara Junction, which has been a great exercise in planning. I just hope that these will continue once the EU funds stop, which will be soon.

It is an indicator that Malta is evolving, when I was a student, apart from Richard England, nothing was happening. This is why we called it Architecture Projects back in the early 90s, to start a project to introduce architecture to Malta. Students now come to talk to us about our work.

 

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