The Malta Independent 24 September 2021, Friday

Manoel Theatre Façade restoration sees applicant and Mepa clash on cladding

Malta Independent Friday, 12 October 2012, 00:00 Last update: about 8 years ago

The Manoel Theatre board yesterday presented to Mepa its proposal for the full restoration of the façade, only to be rebuffed when the directorate recommended refusal. After a long discussion, agreement was reached to defer the decision pending a possible agreement on outstanding issues.

The theatre, a gem of European baroque theatres, was built between 1731 and 1732 but over the years has had many changes done to it. One change in 1811 by the British added another storey while yet another in 1844 added the proscenium. Each change meant that the stage kept being moved backwards.

The main thrust of the present application regards the façade.

Architect Drago, on behalf of Architecture Project, presented the Mepa board with photos taken from the Cabreo Vilhena, drawn some years after the theatre was built, which shows that the façade had a certain austere but clear linear beauty about it, which was completely destroyed by the many ‘restorations’, especially over the last century or so.

The proposal includes the revamping of the façade of the Manoel Theatre. Works are mainly concentrated around the ground floor, where the two peripheral doors will be blocked off and replaced by poster display areas, whilst the two doors flanking the central entrance will be remodelled and reduced in both width and height.

With regards to the central entrance, the existing cornice will be removed to allow the heightening of the existing entablature to reach the bottom of the overlying window.

The existing cartouche will be retained and located below the new Manoel de Vilhena coat of arms. The moulding around the first floor windows will also be redesigned to incorporate a more ornate design.

The applicant said that the redesign of the façade is based on documentary evidence, which include 19th century paintings and proposed drawings from the 18th century Cabreo de Vilhena. Most of the alterations are based on the proposal from the cabreo, however there is no documentary evidence that these were ever implemented.

In addition, paintings by Gianni were studied, dating from 1878, but these show a façade that is radically different from that in the Cabreo. In particular, they show four ‘saljaturi’ that are very similar to what exists today.

There is a big resemblance between this façade and that of Casa Correia, which used to stand where today’s St Albert’s College stands.

In particular, the ‘restoration’ done in the 1970s came in for a lot of criticism. A balcony was removed and old stone was reinforced by new stone.

One issue facing both restorers and the Mepa board was thus that it is not yet certain what was the real façade of the theatre at its origin and also whether to consider the careful restorations of the 19th century as part of the fabric or not.

Then, a second issue came up. In order to come up with a sort of idea how the façade could have appeared, and also leave the intervention reversible in case research sheds more light on how the façade originally looked, the applicant came up with the idea of a hardstone cladding over most of the façade. But this clashed with Mepa’s principles which frowns on the use of cladding in Urban Conservation Areas.

The Superintendence of Cultural Heritage’s comments are that they are in agreement with some of the reconstruction measures being proposed. In particular, the proposed recovery of the original proportions of the facade through the restoration of the windows on the first floor, the removal of the outer-most lateral doorways, and the resizing of the inner-most lateral doorways.

But they objected to the proposed use of etched coralline limestone cladding, as it will introduce a disharmonious element within this globigerina facade. The applicant should consider finding an alternative to the use of such cladding.

The architect replied that the proposed additions on the facade are not accretions, as stated in the DPAR, but it is aimed at restoring original features which once existed on the facade.

The issue regarding the use of hardstone on the facade, if this is selected carefully, could be visually a subtle complement to the facade, only recognisable as an intervention if viewed up close.

The issue of legibility is crucial, for the interventions to be easily distinguished as 21st century additions from the original 18th century facade.

Aspects of the original facade were constructed in materials other than limestone, such as marble. Use of hardstone and marble in portals is evident in other buildings in Valletta, such as Palazzo Castellania.

Furthermore, limestone cannot be used for the modern technological interventions which are being proposed. The proposed ‘cladding’ actually consists of reinstatement of window elements, whilst the portal is a new sculptured reinstatement.

In general, the works are aimed at the restoration of the original facade, to improve the legibility and visibility of the historic streetscape, together with the cityscape.

The Planning Directorate rebutted it still acknowledges the fact that the facade is being improved, however, it reiterated that the use of hardstone on the facade, which at ground floor is considered to be cladding, is generally not acceptable within UCAs, moreover on Grade 1 buildings.

In addition to this, there was, yet again, a KNPD issue but this was hotly contested by the applicant. The issues with KNPD had been ironed out by 31 August and the applicants had an email to confirm this but KNPD had not informed Mepa of its non-objection.

Later on, Dr Michael Grech, chairman of the board, said the KNPD issue regarded the lobby, which is not part of the theatre site but the nearby Palazzo Bonici, which is private-owned (though there is a court dispute between the owners and the government).

The proposed internal ramp is KNPD-compliant but KNPD wanted the toilets to be accessible, which the Manoel board promised as part of the next reforms to be done.

The Mepa directorate, for these reasons, recommended Refusal.

When the application was discussed by the board, Judge Giovanni Bonello forcefully argued for the approval of the application.

The present façade is a degradation of what had been there originally. The Cabreo shows how beautiful the facade originally was and the use of cladding indicates prudence in that anything can be reversed. This is a big improvement on what there is. And what is the difference between Maltese stone ‘tal-franka’ and Maltese stone ‘tal-qawwi’ (hardstone)? The Bibliotheca just up the road shows how the Knights themselves mixed use of the two kinds of stone, with hardstone used in the covered passageway.

Once again, the observer was struck by how much the judge’s weight influenced the rest of the board.

Roderick Galdes however remarked that since cladding is banned in UCAs why should Mepa stop an ordinary citizen from cladding his façade and then allow the Manoel to do so?

Architect Drago then pointed out that actually what the Manoel was proposing was not cladding in the proper sense of the word, but rather a thin screen. No metal hinges or the like will fix it to the façade.

Joe Magro Conti from Mepa’s HPU said that with further discussion even the last remaining objections could be removed, keeping at the same time within the framework of the international conventions on restoration.

In addition to the proposals regarding the façade, the application also proposes internal changes in the theatre, mainly involving small alterations and the rearrangement of seating. The parterre aisle will be slightly modified to accommodate seating, including disabled seating.

In conclusion, Mepa chairman Austin Walker, summing up the discussion, suggested a one-month deferral so that outstanding issues are cleared up. This proposal was unanimously approved.

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