The Malta Independent 19 September 2020, Saturday

Renzo Piano’s 1989 City Gate Project

Malta Independent Sunday, 4 January 2009, 00:00 Last update: about 7 years ago

Renzo Piano’s 1989 Valletta City Gate Project was presented to the public in an exhibition organised by the Valletta Rehabilitation Committee at the National Museum of Archaeology. It was publicly stated that the eventual final decision would ‘perforce’ entail the demolition of the present entrance and the building of a new one. In an exclusive report published on 19 August 1989, The Democrat (an English-language paper issued by the Nationalist Party) interviewed Michael Falzon, then Minister for the Development of the Infrastructure about this project.

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In its electoral manifesto, the Nationalist Party now in government, pledged to give new life to Valletta. What prompted this need?

Valletta had long been neglected. Its population has dwindled since many have left the city in search of new and modern accommodation elsewhere. Many old residences were not put to good use, such as in Merchants Street, where most houses were converted into shops at street level, using the upper floors as stores. Valletta after 7pm is a dead city. Valletta urgently needs a new lease of life.

Currently, a great deal of restoration is being carried out in Valletta. Last Monday you inaugurated an exhibition of the City Gate Project. What is the concept behind the new design proposed by architect Renzo Piano?

In my opinion, a project of this type will inevitably create controversy. What Piano is proposing is perhaps somewhat different from what many expected. His is not an academic solution with an impressive gate that will be admired by all.

When the present gate is pulled down, we will be left with an opening in the surrounding bastions. It is by utilising this breach that Piano’s proposal attempts to emphasise the majesty of the fortifications and the ditch below.

On entering Valletta today, hardly anybody notices that one is on a bridge spanning a ditch. The ‘’bridge’ is so wide, one would think that it is just another road.

The concept behind Renzo Piano’s project is aimed at making one actually experience the transition of entry over the bridge, through the walls and into the city. His design is subordinate to the original ditch and fortifications.

Those expecting an ornately designed gate will be disappointed. City Gate has been changed four times and it is impractical to determine which was the best, or to restore it.

How was Mr Piano chosen as a consultant on this project and what are his professional credentials?

Architect Renzo Piano was not chosen by the present administration. He was recommended to the previous administration, which also drafted a contract for him but it was never signed.

His professional credentials are known to everyone. He is considered to be one of the world’s leading architects. His work is spread around the world and is acclaimed by all. Also, he recently won a competition launched by the British Institute of Architects. Surely one cannot find fault with his credentials.

We felt that we should avail ourselves of this opportunity for the services of this world-renowned architect. The draft contract prepared by the previous administration was modified and for the same fee as that proposed by the Labour government for the City Gate Project, Renzo Piano also offered his services on the Valletta Master Plan.

Apart from pulling down the present gate what does the whole project designed by Mr Piano entail?

There will be a public garden in the ditch, underneath which a two-storey car park will be built to take about 500 cars. The bus terminus will be moved further out into the two ditches surrounding Valletta. The area leading to Valletta will have to be completely reorganised.

The project also envisages a building to be erected in place of the area known as Freedom Square. At present, this is a square immediately within Valletta Gate and does not blend with the character of a fortified city.

Some people who have seen Piano’s proposal for City Gate commented that his project was not a gate at all. What would you say to this?

It must be said that Architect Renzo Piano’s proposals can never be reconciled with the stand indicated by those who want a traditional ‘Gate’.

Piano is starting out from the very fact that the gate as originally conceived no longer exists and that if one removes the present gate one is left with a breach in the fortifications of the city of Valletta.

Some people seem to have an idée fixe, that of erecting a gate which is a replica of a 17th century gate. Piano feels that this is a purely academic solution which would simply be an architectural deception – similar to the building of a replica of a 17th century palazzo today, and then pretending it was an authentic building.

In doing this we would be ignoring the fact that this project is being undertaken in the last decade of the 21st century. Moreover, it would have been unnecessary to employ the services of a world-leading architect of Renzo Piano’s calibre. It would have been the simplest thing to lift a suitable gate from some reference book on 17th century military architecture.

But since the process of history is continuous, the new gate should be an expression of the architecture of its time. Once the original gate no longer exists, this can never be a restoration project. We are not merely restoring a badly deteriorated gate.

Piano’s point of departure is not some gate or other but the breach in the fortification walls.

He considers the creation of a new formal gate designed on the principles of 17th century military architecture as anachronistic.

What about the proposed bridge? Isn’t this a drawbridge that goes too far inside the city? Will it take heavy traffic?

The same point could be made about the bridge. Piano is not attempting to recreate a 17th century bridge; he is attempting to introduce an element that will emphasise the grandeur of the walls and the depth of the ditch.

The drawbridge idea only serves as the inspiration for this concept, but it is obvious that it is not Piano’s intention to reconstruct a drawbridge. Nor is it his intention that the bridge gives access to the front of the fortifications as the 17th century one did.

The new bridge is intended to penetrate the walls from the other side of the ditch to well within the city, giving the possibility to anyone crossing it to sense the dimensions of the width and depth of the ditch and the thickness of the fortifications.

The comments about the amount of traffic the bridge will take are, to say the least, premature. At this stage of the project it is doubtful whether any calculations have actually been done. But, in any case, it has been specified to Piano that the bridge should be one that is able to take heavy traffic during national festivities and other occasions.

But don’t you think that the materials used for the bridge are somewhat alien to Maltese building traditions?

Although it is essential that we conserve our national identity and traditions, the time is ripe for Malta to look forward to the future with a wider perspective.

It is imperative therefore to shed such provincial obsessions such as ‘the unique use of Maltese limestone’ as the only acceptable material for Maltese architecture. In truth, the use of stone as our sole building material has been exaggerated and blown to unreasonable propositions.

It is fairly obvious that timber has been used as a structural material in Malta for a long time and this was later replaced by steel.

In fact, we have just roofed over the yard of what was the Hospital of the Order of St John and is now the Mediterranean Conference Centre, using steel structural elements.

To say that wood and steel is alien to Maltese architecture is absolutely untrue. This can be seen from any photograph of any streetscape of Valletta where wood and steel have been used profusely.

The original drawbridge was in fact made of wood and steel and therefore the obsession that the new bridge should be built in stone arches is inexplicable.

Piano’s design in fact, develops a logical and clean-cut play of materials exploiting the contrast between the stone piers and the steel bridge. These are completely distinct elements even from a geometric point of view and they create a balance between strength and fragility; compression and tension; permanence and transience. The permanence of the fortification as against the transience of the bridge – the bridge which helps one cross from one side of the city’s fortifications to the other.

Doesn’t Piano’s design propose to cover up the existing stone and rock face with new stonework?

Architect Piano feels that the whole city project should merge with the existing fortifications and, rather than cutting a straight line between the old fortifications and the new building, he proposes to merge them by having the stone face of the new City Gate overlap the old fortifications.

This is an ingenious solution because any other proposal would create a clear division between the old and the new, and the new (even a replica) would contrast too much with the old.

Piano’s scheme in fact, has seen to it that the new stonework is neither artificial nor anti-traditional in dimension. The argument about covering the natural rock face in an unnatural way is an exaggeration.

It is obvious that there are parts in Valletta and elsewhere in Malta (St Angelo) where the fortifications were built in such a way that stonework covered rock. In other areas, such as the City Gate, the stonework did not cover the natural rock but was built above the level of the rock. This could have happened because the builders of the fortifications were in a great hurry to finish the work.

In fact the new stonework is only going to overlap the existing rock face and bastion in very small areas.

What is your personal opinion about the whole project?

The choice of Renzo Piano, acknowledged worldwide as one of the foremost international architects of today, cannot be dismissed lightly.

Piano’s is a sensitive but unpretentious scheme which shows a clear understanding, not only of the historical context of Valletta but also of the historical importance of the present moment.

One surely cannot argue with the philosophy behind the concept of Renzo Piano. The question we must simply answer is simple: In presenting his philosophy, is Renzo Piano this world-renowned architect, taking us for a monumental ride with his concept for the City Gate Project?

If the answer is YES, then we should discard the project.

On the other hand, if the answer is NO, then we should have the courage to accept it.

It is a clear choice that has to be made. Piano’s philosophy does not give leeway for ambiguity or compromise. We have to decide for or against it in a clear manner.

Members of the public and interested organisations are invited to view the project and comment about it. Does this mean that the exhibited model is not the final one and that modifications may still be made to it?

The exhibited model, though accepted and recommended by the Valletta Rehabilitation Committee, has not as yet been approved by the government. The government will evaluate the public’s reaction before deciding on the project.

Changes have already been effected on the original plan as proposed by Mr Piano. Despite his professional stature, Piano has already accepted suggestions put forward by the committee and myself, even though he insisted on retaining his concept.

If one accepts Mr Piano’s philosophy for this project, one may speak out and make positive suggestions. But if this philosophy is disagreeable, then it is useless suggesting modifications, as the whole project will have to be scrapped.

Criticism has been levelled at Piano’s project wherein it was stated that his proposals and the suggestions he made for the project concerning the traffic flow in Valletta, the pedestrian area, the Old Opera House site and the Monti, do not tally with the general plan for the rehabilitation of Valletta. What is your comment on this?

I do not agree. What we are doing in Valletta at present is the restoration of existent buildings and monuments. Currently, the most important work is the restoration of St John’s Co-Cathedral, the National Museum.

Work on St James’ church, and the St Rocco and Pilar churches will be taken in hand shortly. Existing buildings will not be moved by the Master Plan for Valletta or any other project.

The present solution for the Valletta traffic flow is a temporary one. Sooner or later Valletta’s road surfaces will have to be replaced to adapt to the character of the capital city.

The Opposition leader, Dr Karmenu Mifsud Bonnici, criticised the government because it will be spending Lm3 million on this project. Do you think this criticism is justified?

This criticism can only be justified if Dr Mifsud Bonnici can prove that when his administration was embarking on the City Gate Project he didn’t intend spending any money on it at all.

When is the whole project envisaged to be given the final approval so that the necessary work on City Gate will commence?

The Project Exhibition will last for three weeks. Some also harbour the idea that the site of the Opera House should be developed before the City Gate area is finalised. The idea of an international competition for the project to develop the Opera House site is still valid and will be launched in due course. The government has to decide whether a new Opera House will be built on this site or a building for some other cultural purpose.

But definitely by the next Budget, everyone will know the government’s decision on the project.

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The salient points

1. The garden layout in the ditch will provide a cool, green area for the recreation of the public and will house facilities where cultural events (exhibitions, concerts, etc) could be held.

2. A car park will provide place for 500 cars below ditch level.

3. Panoramic lifts will take the visitor up from the car park to bridge level. Other lifts will provide access to the arcades and viewing platforms.

4. The approach from the ditch up to Republic Street will be through flights of stairs reminiscent of the stairs that formerly reached the top of King’s Gate. The stairs are shaded by greenery and accompanied by the sound of cascading water. This will bring the garden in the ditch up to the initial portion of Republic Street.

5. The bus terminus is to be re-designed as a pedestrian area, after re-locating the bus terminus to St James’ and St John’s ditch. Thus the Mall will link the area immediately in front of City Gate to the Argotti Botanical Gardens, the latter forming the ideal counterpoint to St Elmo at the other end of Valletta’s main axis.

6. The slender approach bridge crossing the ditch will give value to the thickness and height of the walls and the depth of the ditches.

7. Viewing platforms on either side of the main bridge will allow splendid views of the gardens in the ditch and the activities going on there.

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The City Gate project

Renzo Piano first came to Malta in 1985, sent by UNESCO following a request by the Government of Malta for his advice on the rehabilitation of Valletta and for the re-design of City Gate. After another visit, also sponsored by UNESCO, Mr Piano was given a Letter of Intent in 1986 to execute the above-mentioned task and a contract was signed in November 1987.

Right from the start it was clear that the new City Gate would serve as an essential pivot on the axis that runs from St Elmo to Argotti Gardens in Floriana and could only be conceived in the context of the rehabilitation of the town.

Piano sees the rehabilitation of Valletta as a strategy that incorporates selected areas along the periphery, which, once upgraded and infused with new life, would serve as urban catalysts for the development of the whole town fabric.

This would allow the concentration of activities in Upper Valletta to spread towards a revitalised periphery thus bringing about a new equilibrium of activity throughout the town.

An essential component of the new vision for Valletta is the project of reopening the old City Gate and creating a passage through its venerable sites towards the modern expression of the town’s new image.

The approach is that of restoring the old wall “fabric” built at the time to protect the town from Turkish invasions. The thickness and depth of the existing wall is exploited by a bridge, which penetrates and interrupts its continuity. The new light and narrow bridge contrasts with the heavy aspect of the fortified city and its walls.

It leads the visitor over ditches and ramparts straight into the old town defences. The bridge also allows a splendid aerial view of the gardens in the ditch below, the latter providing a favourable micro climate. The gardens and underlying parking are connected to Freedom Square through a system of staircases and lifts.

This new image for City Gate, complemented by the removal of buses from the present terminus and the redesigned pedestrianised area immediately in front of the Gate, together with projects for new buildings in Freedom Square and the Opera House site, will establish a new connection between the dignity of the old town and the life of the new.

(From the leaflet published by the Valletta Rehabilitation Committee in the Ministry for the Development of Infrastructure on the occasion of the 1989 exhibition)

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