The Malta Independent 22 February 2020, Saturday

Beauty in the eye of the beholder

Timothy Alden Sunday, 10 February 2019, 09:44 Last update: about 2 years ago

One of the defining features of the over-development of Malta is ugliness. I would love to be able to capture the first reactions of residents as they begin reading an article about a new project in their neighbourhood. What are their facial expressions, as ‘progress’ comes knocking on their door? What went through the minds of the people of Pembroke when db Group’s Hard Rock Hotel was proposed instead of the historic ITS building? I would like to know how many times “Oh my God!” was uttered.

I find it sufficiently insulting that our leaders and businessmen are ready to sacrifice public land on the altar of greed, but that tends to come with the proverbial and literal territory nowadays. What I find more insulting is when they try to convince us that we hate these projects because we are stupid. We are often told that if we were more educated, more sophisticated, more forward looking, then we would appreciate the inherent majesty and beauty of these new architectural visions.

You see, according to the brains behind these monster projects, if the entire population had studied architecture, then we would all appreciate their work. Desperate to sound smart, and even more desperate to get rich, businessmen embrace the ridiculous notion that what is being proposed by their architects is “progress”.

It reminds me of the story of the Emperor with no clothes. Everyone with a vested interest applauds a fundamentally ugly design because, somehow, somewhere, there is an book about architecture that describes it as being beautiful. More importantly, however, it makes money. These businessmen, whose projects have no metaphorical clothes at all, do not care for the preferences or mental health of the residents. What looks expensive and successful abroad becomes the new accepted aesthetic.

Let me come now to the project which motivated this article. It is not the Corinthia, which promised to make Malta more sophisticated with its “six-star hotel”. No, in fact I am involving myself in the disagreement between the Malta Railway Foundation and Attard Local Council. The Local Council is promising an information centre with a modern design where there was once a railway station waiting-room. The Foundation, a heritage organisation, is objecting because of the modern design.

As usual, the project’s modern look is justified to us via “internationally recognised guidelines”. However, that means nothing to the man in the street who has to live with the result. If one needs to spend years studying to find the hidden beauty in a project, then perhaps we should not be imposing it on people.

While this information centre is not profit-driven, the common theme here is that Malta's new modern aesthetic is being justified by a soft science that ignores our local context.

We are being told we cannot hold on to the past anymore because some expert, somewhere, told us that we have bad taste. Yet we are the ones who have to live with the results. When the Paceville masterplan was proposed, a representative of one of the consultant firms, Mott Macdonald, was flown in to participate in a meeting of the Environmental Committee in Parliament. At that time, I  had not yet entered politics, but I went to the meeting and will never forget how Mott Macdonald tried to take the residents for a ride. They said that the height differences between the apartments and skyscrapers in their masterplan were justified because everything was designed as a tribute to “Maltese valleys”. Residents, NGOs and activists all laughed together at that claim. The monster project was being sold as a tribute to our traditional landscape!

I respect the constraints placed on architects in their project briefs. Nevertheless, when we do not like a project, we are told that it is because we do not appreciate the subjective guidelines in some textbook. Ultimately, however, there is no empirical evidence which is forcing Malta to change its image. Aesthetics are subjective, and these international guidelines are not a hard science. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and it is the residents who have to live with the consequences. Let us respect their opinions.

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