The Malta Independent 26 June 2022, Sunday

Manikata Church controversy

Malta Independent Sunday, 31 July 2011, 00:00 Last update: about 9 years ago

Manikata church, dedicated to St Joseph, is considered an iconic landmark in Maltese architecture because it pre-empted concepts raised during the Vatican Council held between 1962 and 1965, architect and artist Richard England told The Malta Independent on Sunday when contacted yesterday about the granting of a permit by the Malta Environment and Planning Authority to alter the church’s structure.

“I shouldn’t be the one asking the authorities to schedule the structure because it would be uncalled for for me to boast about my own work. However, that church marked an important shift in the history of church architecture,” Prof. England explained.

The Vatican Council had changed the way churches were designed at that time, he said, and it is wrong to assume that anything that was built in the 1960s, 1970s or 1980s is architecturally insignificant. Mepa should work towards protecting the architecture of that period. “This is the history of the future. If we don’t preserve it, nothing will remain,” he added.

“The methodology of how the church will be amended is not clear in the permit. Both the excavation and the sky lights are going to compromise the whole church structure. The sky lights will ruin the whole pjazza. That is already dangerous enough, and now that the permits have been granted, it will be very difficult to limit the damage,” said Prof. England.

He suggested that the minister responsible should suggest that the building is scheduled and questioned whether the church commission had any say in the decision-making process about the church.

Manikata church was the first building Prof. England designed. “I had just returned to Malta from studying at the studio of the Italian architect-designer Gio Ponti in Milan. My father had given the project to me as a present, so naturally it has a sentimental and emotional feeling attached to it.” Although Prof. England began working on the design of the church in 1962, unfortunately his father did not see the completed church, because he died before the work was finished in 1974.

The church, with its curved walls resembling a girna – a structure characteristic of the Maltese countryside that is used by farmers as a shelter and store – is widely recognised as a unique building in Malta.

It received not only local but also international acclaim from architecture periodicals and reviews, and various publishers dedicated whole books to it.

Fr Peter Serracino Inglott, who had advised Prof. England throughout the building process, referred to two golden ages in religious architecture in Malta: the Neolithic temples being the first, and the second beginning with the building of Manikata Church.

According to a book by Chris Abel entitled Manikata Church, at the time of its consecration the church symbolised the new spirit of Catholicism as defined by the 1963 Vatican Council. The study highlights the way in which these new directives in architecture were introduced. The new spirit of the Church was revealed in the way greater emphasis was placed on the building as the “house of the community”, reflecting the local character and culture rather than the “house of God”.

Symbols of worship such as the altar, lectern and presidential chair, were highlighted, while all other devotional objects were rendered inconspicuous, in contrast with earlier churches, which tended to be somewhat overcrowded, with several chapels, all containing an altar.

Another author, the architecture correspondent of the Financial Times Edwin Heathcote, described Prof. England’s church as a seminal work and an indicator of a new era.

Another publication by Wiley Academy in the UK said that Manikata Church “Represented a pivotal point in the evolution of what has come to be known as ‘critical regionalism’, an important concept in architecture”.

Earlier this week, Flimkien ghal-Ambjent Ahjar voiced its dismay at the granting of a permit to build a store and a religious education room on to Manikata church.

An application to install telecommunications equipment (ie mobile telephony masts) on the beautiful and historic Mtahleb church followed. The FAA asked whether architects should not know better than to submit an application that would have a negative impact on such a gem.

While the FAA noted that the application regarding Mtahleb church was refused by Mepa’s EPC board, it could not understand how the application in respect of Manikata church had been approved. “Why has this church not been scheduled? Why was the Cultural Heritage Advisory board not involved? The Natural and Cultural Heritage boards are increasingly being left out of the very cases where their input is critical – is this a damaging new trend? There is no doubt that the reform of Mepa has produced some very positive results, so why are such vandalistic ones still being issued? Is it a case of two steps forward and one step back?” the FAA asked.

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