The Malta Independent 26 June 2022, Sunday

The Many pasts of City Gate

Malta Independent Sunday, 11 January 2009, 00:00 Last update: about 9 years ago

In the light of the proposed relocation of Parliament to the Opera House site and the very welcome news that Renzo Piano may again become involved with the redevelopment and rehabilitation of the ‘City Gate’ area, Roger Vella Bonavita argues for the adoption of Richard England’s comprehensive Master Plan for the area (suitably updated) with particular emphasis on giving priority to developing a new gate, bridge and bus terminus worthy of Valletta. This is an update of his two-part article originally published in The Malta Independent on Sunday on 11 and 18 July 1999 on the past gates of Valletta.

On one point all those arguing for or against the proposals for the main entrance to Valletta appear to concur: the present “gate” must go. This is a huge plus as it means that those who care about this matter at least have a common point of departure, a very rare thing in issues of this kind. There concurrence ends for in the sometimes furious, debate on what sort of gate should replace the current monstrosity, some have argued for a reconstruction of the “original” gate or for some kind of baroque look-alike rather than for a contemporary design. To the debate on the gate is now added the future of the opera house site and the possibility of Parliament being relocated there from The Palace.

The point that needs to be driven home, and it is a point that the powers that be seem to be insufficiently conscious of, is that there has to be an overall plan for the entire complex that includes City Gate, the ‘Opera House’ and the bus terminus because this area, which is so important to the capital and those living and working there, consists of interacting and interrelated elements that have to be treated as parts of a whole. There has to be a Master Plan into which each element fits and fits perfectly if we are not to end up with the same sort of unplanned urban development disaster that has marked Malta’s development experience over past decades.

I believe Richard England’s Master Plan for the redevelopment of the bus terminal and the Freedom Square/Opera house/St James Cavalier elements and incorporating Renzo Piano’s design for the bridge and gate fits the bill admirably and for many reasons. The Master Plan achieves a true synergy (where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts). Professor England knows more about the complexities and opportunities and potentials and problems that arise from working on this complex than anyone else, as he has already realised projects at St James Cavalier (the Centre for Creativity) and St James Counterguard (the Central Bank of Malta) and, having presented the winning design for the new Opera House, he has a deep understanding of how that site needs to be treated and how it interacts with other elements in the area – especially with the entrance to Valletta and Republic Street. Of course there will be details that need further consideration. Constructive criticism and suggestion will promote fine-tuning and improve this Master Plan and, due to the time that has passed since it was first drawn up, there will be changes of perception that will need to be taken into account.

The problems tackled in this Master Plan are enormous: the approaches to Valletta, once so elegant and imposing, now resemble more the outskirts of some squalid urban disaster in a highly underdeveloped country than they do a European baroque city. The MCP car park needs to be camouflaged. The bus terminus is a national disgrace. It is an insult to those who use it and especially to those who work there. Let us consider some aspects of the solution proposed in the master plan: the terminus goes underground: the buses pick up and drop off passengers only and then park elsewhere. One enters and leaves the city via an elegant bridge that allows and encourages vistas of the magnificent defences and ditch in a way not possible at present. Renzo Piano’s bridge runs right into the city – the curtain wall is no longer a barrier but open and welcoming. Within the terminus, pedestrians move to and from the transport points protected from the rain, sun and wind without having to dodge buses or stumble over disintegrating pavements. Note how the exterior of the bus terminus and pedestrian concourse are cleverly and purposely modelled to evoke the lunettes which previously defended Porta Reale and how pedestrians, and the formal cavalcades of visiting dignitaries, entering or leaving Valletta will have to negotiate them in much the same way those now lost lunettes and outer ditches and glacis had had to be negotiated when the defences were intact. There is no traffic here, no scrambling to avoid cars, trucks and buses – it will be possible to enter and leave the capital in comfort and with dignity, and to delight in the juxtaposition of light and shade and mass and space created by the rehabilitation of the fortifications and the remodelling of the other elements in the scheme.

Of course, in the final analysis, those using City Gate do not care a brass farthing what Valletta’s original gate and bridge may or may not have looked like. What they want is an entrance that is worthy of their capital – clean, safe and adequate for the task. In addition to adequate bus facilities, there should be a formal shopping concourse to replace the current unsightly shacks. There should be adequate public conveniences and other facilities. The materials used throughout the complex must be able to stand up to extremely intensive use – this is a major requirement. Finally, the area needs to be fully maintained to retain its looks and cleanliness – perhaps a special levy on bus fares would assure this. The commercial users should be obliged to work within a set of enforceable and enforced civic regulations covering cleanliness, waste disposal, advertising and so on like in other civilised countries. I believe the Master Plan meets requirements in that it combines practicality with elegance and with respect for the past, and that it provides the basis for a truly world class urban regeneration project.

We need an entrance to Valletta that meets our needs now. Valletta is a living and vibrant city containing much that has survived the ravages of time and war and, sadly, of officially sanctioned destruction and mutilation and neglect – much of it relatively recent. It is necessary to keep what is good and useful and beautiful and loved. We must revitalise our capital by investing in the removal of eyesores and in the development of new facilities to improve, enhance, embellish and delight. In this connection the question has to be asked: how would Parliament located at the Opera House site interact with City Gate and the flow of pedestrians in and out of the city? Would a Parliament there actually contribute anything to the city’s cultural and social life by occupying this site? My feeling is that important though Parliament undoubtedly is, putting it at the gate of the city does absolutely nothing for Parliament or for Valletta – quite the contrary.

Would it not be sensible to postpone a decision on the future of the Opera House site and concentrate on the bus terminus and access to Valletta? These are the most important elements of the Master Plan and they should be the number one priority surely. The need for a decent bus terminus and good access to the city is far more important and far more urgent than anything planned for the Opera House site. Let’s get our priorities right and put first things first – just for once! Does Malta really need a new Parliament building more than it needs a state-of-the-art bus terminus? As a great Roman jurist once asked a court: “cui bono?” (To whose benefit?)

It is essential that a new gate and access bridge be designed, approved, and integrated with a comprehensive plan for the bus terminus. What should the new gate look like? Should we reconstruct the old gate? Some reconstruction projects elsewhere have been successful – the monastery of Monte Cassino and the main square in Warsaw have certainly worked well. In the case of City Gate we have to decide which (if any) of a number of past gates it would be appropriate to recreate.

One red herring can be dealt with immediately. According to one authority, Plan V 5 in the collection of plans in the National Library in Valletta shows an elevation of the original main gate of Valletta and a plan of the bridge across the ditch dating to 1569 or 1570. This interpretation was accepted, with reservations by other authorities, and to be totally honest, I too believed the plan was of the Valletta bridge and gate when I catalogued the maps and plans in the National Library during my enforced exile there from the university in the early 1980s. This plan in fact is for a bridge over a caponier at Fort Chambray. Humanum errare est! (To err is human)

What then do we know about the first Porta San Giorgio? Not much sadly. The famous Laparelli plans show only the position of the gate and his papers do not describe it at all. He did intend it to be the main gate of the city of course because his street plan uses the line between the gate and St Elmo as the axis of the city; in fact he refers to his intention to have only one wide main street running from the gate straight along the spine of Mount Xiberras while the other streets would follow the contours of the hills and valleys. It is worth digressing here to comment briefly on Laparelli’s attitude to the design of the street plan for Valletta and generally to architecture and engineering. “The architect,” writes Laparelli, “must never impose on nature but rather should always work harmoniously with it.” This approach was quite revolutionary. Here Laparelli was far ahead of his time, and had he been allowed to design the urban city on these principles Valletta would have been a wonderfully beautiful and comfortable place to work, live in and visit for there would have been fewer steep streets and fewer endless stairs, and the wind tunnel effect produced by a hearty gregale in certain parts of the city would have been largely avoided. One can only speculate on the potential for superb chiaroscuro effects and vistas an irregular but planned streetscape would have produced. However, it was not to be. We can imagine self-appointed “expert town planners” among the knights and engineers throwing up their hands in horror in 1566 at the thought of a planned city with an irregular street plan: it could not be; this “foreign expert” might have worked with Michelangelo but there was no place for such airy fairy ideas in the new city! Plus ça change. And so Laparelli returned to the drawing board and produced the unsatisfactory (and frankly boring) grid plan for Valletta. An opportunity to create something really extraordinary was lost.

We are in danger of losing another wonderful opportunity.

The point is of course that new ideas are difficult to accept when there is a mindset as to how things were in the past (and therefore must be forever), and nostalgia for their conceived superiority over new solutions developed to address present and future situations and requirements. I must confess that like others I too hanker for the past and instinctively, and somewhat irrationally I suppose, adopt the view that “the old is always more beautiful than the new”. But we have to look forward. It is necessary to stand back and take a long hard look at the present and (as far as we can estimate it) the future role of the City Gate area and consider how it is best developed to fulfil this role. We have to consider not just the bridge and gate in isolation, but also take into account their relationship to the areas and functions they service – such as the bus terminus. This interrelationship between the entrance and its surroundings, physical and functional is extremely complex and there are also, as we all know, severe restrictions and huge pressures on all the elements in the area. Consequently, it is necessary to try and develop solutions that are practical, imaginative, elegant and cost effective while being visually and emotionally acceptable. A very tall order indeed but it can be done and it can be done very well. Of course the most facile “solution” would be to “rebuild”, some would say “restore”, the old “gate”. This is easiest to visualise for we all know what an original gate in a baroque fortification looks like – we have plenty of them. However, since Plan V 5 in the National Library clearly is not related to Valletta what are we seeking to rebuild?

It is necessary to review what little evidence there is of the original 16th century gate and bridge designed (presumably) by Cassar or Laparelli at Porta San Giorgio when the main front of the city was built in 1566. One has to bear in mind that in 1566 Porta San Giorgio was unimportant. There had to be a gate linking the city to the countryside of course but there was no need for a large one. Valletta’s principal communications were with the Three Cities across Grand Harbour. This point was recognised by the knights and in fact the first formal city gate was built by GM del Monte to provide access to the city from the harbour. As for the Porta San Giorgio, early plans and illustrations of Valletta – and there are many – show a plain, unadorned small opening in the solid rock of the curtain wall. One left Valletta for the countryside by descending down steps cut into the rock between the cavaliers and walking through a narrow tunnel past the gate and over the bridge. The earliest representations of the bridge are very stylised. One engraving however does show a wooden bridge standing on wooden piles. I must thank Dr Albert Ganado for generously allowing me to look through his magnificent collection of plans and maps. The modest Porta San Giorgio of Valletta’s earliest years reflects its relative unimportance. Even if we had measured drawings and elevations, we would not want to rebuild it.

Some time before 1582 the original timber bridge was replaced by a stone bridge– which had three arches – like today’s bridge. The evidence comes from the painting of Valletta by Perez d’Aleccio who left Europe for South America in 1582. The painting is now in the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich. The bridge in d’Aleccio’s painting is carefully portrayed and is extremely interesting. It is a strictly functional structure lacking any elegance. The pier nearest the far side of the ditch is rather slender; perhaps so that it could be more easily destroyed in case of need. The pier closest to the gate is thicker than the one in the centre of the ditch – evidently to accommodate a strange right hand curved section. There would have been a drawbridge at this point though it is not shown in the painting. The object of this somewhat mediaeval feature was to prevent an enemy from being able to smash the gate with battering rams or to muster a large body of troops immediately in front of the gate.

Before the end of the 16th century, a triumphal arch was built over the original gate – which perhaps remained otherwise unaltered. We have a tiny representation of what this gate looked like – when viewed from within the city – in the birds-eye view of Valletta published in Bosio’s history of the Order in 1598 there was a smaller outer gate on the far side of the bridge. The modification gave Valletta a typical 16th century Italianate gate and it seems likely that the stone bridge and triumphal structure above the gate were built by the indefatigable Gerolamo Cassar. But tutto sommato, we currently know so little about Porta San Giorgio – and its bridge – that we could not rebuild it even if we wanted to do so.

We are slightly, but only slightly, on better ground with Tumas Dingli’s Porta Reale of 1633. The decision to modify the earlier gate and bridge that year reflects the increased volume of traffic between Valletta and the countryside. We have paintings, drawings and even photographs of Dingli’s gate as it appeared in the first half of the 19th century before the third gate – Kings Gate – replaced it. These show a handsome structure above a main gate. Narrow gates on either side have drawbridges connected to the wide pier by curved timber platforms. However, Dingli’s original design was substantially different. Plan V 24 in the National Library shows Porta Reale as it appeared in 1758. The arched bridge is clearly indicated, as is the drawbridge to the gate. However, the two smaller gates each with its own drawbridge and the curved timber platforms, which are evident in the later representations of Porta Reale, are nowhere to be seen. Instead, two narrow passages cut into solid rock on either side of the gate lead to infantry positions from which the bridge could be defended against a coup de main. When these passages were converted into individual gates remains a matter for conjecture. But clearly Dingli did not design them because they were not there in 1758. Therefore one is left wondering how much of the original Dingli design is evident in the later drawings and photographs. Very interesting are details of the wooden palisades and gates, one inside the city and the other at the counterscarp end of the bridge, which permitted the authorities to control traffic in and out of the city at all times without requiring resort to the drawbridge. Plan V 24 was draw to illustrate a proposal to modify the channel carrying Valletta’s water supply from the Wignacourt aqueduct so that instead of running underground and under the ditch it would be carried – most inelegantly – across the ditch on a sloping sealed channel borne on arches. Thankfully the proposal was rejected – and one must admit that had this section of the aqueduct been built as proposed, “old” would not have been “beautiful”! The plan of the first outfall of the aqueduct inside Valletta – the “sgorgo” as it is called here –- is most interesting. As far as we can tell therefore, Dingli probably simply gave the gate a handsome facade and added the passages and infantry positions. Within the gate, he cut the approaches down to the level of Republic Street so that one could enter and leave Valletta without having to negotiate steps or climb to the level of the parapet. He removed Cassar’s curious right hand curve but otherwise seems to have left the bridge unaltered, as the 1758 plan shows the thicker pier next to the gate as depicted in the d’Aleccio painting. Extra drawbridges for pedestrians were added when Dingli’s infantry positions on either side of the gate were converted into small gates with curved timber platforms provided to connect them to the bridge. To conclude: we really do not know enough about Dingli’s original Porta Reale to be able with confidence to build a passable replica. However, paintings of the late 18th and early 19th century are sufficiently detailed to permit a reconstruction of Dingli’s very modified Porta Reale – but it would be far too cramped to cope with today’s traffic.

To recap: in 1577, or shortly afterwards, Gerolamo Cassar built a stone bridge which had the same number of piers as those of the present day bridge. The evidence for this comes from the painting of Valletta by Perez d’Aleccio, which is now in the Maritime Museum Greenwich. In 1577 the engineer Scipione Campi visited Malta and recommended that orilions or orecchioni be added to the shoulders or spalle of the bastions on the main front, thereby converting Laparelli’s bastions into bastioni ‘a coglioni’ – to use the earthy term for describing such bastions adopted by contemporary Italian engineers. The new orilions therefore rose from the floor of the ditch as it was at the time. Today one can clearly see the original level of the ditch when one looks at the cuts in the scarped rock of the faces of the bastions where these abut the orilions. Later the ditch was deepened to its current depth, probably when the counterguards designed by the Marquis of St Angelo were built in the mid-17th century – some years after Dingli built his gate. The extent of the deepening is indicated by the rock faces in the scarps below Campi’s orilions. This is confirmed if one descends into the ditch and examines the piers of the bridge. Clearly seen are the “slices” of bedrock supporting the piers that were left when the level of the ditch was cut to its current depth. This means that the then existing bridge was not demolished at the time when the ditch was deepened. It seems likely, given the similarity of the piers depicted in the d’Aleccio painting and the 1758 plan, that the “slices” of rock supported the piers originally built by Cassar. It should be possible to determine whether or not the piers themselves were rebuilt when the gate was replaced in the 19th century. In any event these slices should be preserved and perhaps put to use in supporting a new bridge.

The only gate for which we do have full details is the Kings Gate of colonial times. This is the only gate that we could faithfully reconstruct. But what would be the point? It is not the original gate and it was demolished because it no longer served – just as the previous gates were demolished because they no longer served. And the present gate must go because it too no longer serves. Should we replace it with a mock baroque gate, a pastiche? If we do, it is to be hoped it will not be of the poorly detailed and execrably finished, debased baroque variety which is typical I am afraid of so many new “and not so new buildings” which are supposed to be “in keeping” with the old styles. Surely we are better advised to build a gate that is as honestly “modern” and “functional” as were each of the previous gates in their time? One day, whatever gate replaces the present City Gate, even if it is that designed by Renzo Piano, it may well no longer serve either and if so it should be replaced as were its predecessors. Laparelli, Gerolamo Cassar and Tumas Dingli, as they look down from the great planned city in the sky, would agree. Of that I am sure.

(Continues next week)

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