The Malta Independent 18 September 2019, Wednesday

Preservation vs exploitation

Tara Cassar Tuesday, 4 June 2019, 09:58 Last update: about 5 months ago

Already in the early 1920’s the need to protect buildings, monuments or sites of outstanding cultural value through legislation was recognized. This was to be achieved by listing properties noted to be worthy of preservation, classifying them as scheduled buildings.  This concept, introduced through the Antiquities Act (1925), would provide these properties of architectural, archaeological, artistic or historic significance with a varying degree of protection that would be established according to their grading.

The grading varies from Grade 1, Grade 2 to Grade 3. Grade 1 listed properties are the most prestigious, having the highest degree of protection. Properties categorized as Grade 1 would include for example St John’s Co-cathedral and the San Anton Palace and Gardens. Grade 2 scheduling is reserved for buildings such as palazzos and stately townhouses as well as gardens, of great significance. Grade 3 would then be reserved for properties of perhaps a less spectacular nature and historic importance, but still considered as worthy of preservation, due to their unique character.

Now, depending on the type of grading, one is then able to determine the types of interventions that may be considered suitable for such properties. For this we refer to the definition provided in the Structure Plan (1990). Here we see that for Grade 1 scheduled properties, only works that would ensure the preservation and conservation of the property, and deemed absolutely necessary for this, may be considered.

For Grade 2 scheduled properties, we see that additions or alterations may be considered, so long as these interventions are carried out sensitively and do not cause detriment to the character and architectural homogeneity of the property.

Grade 3 scheduled properties are considered to be of lesser architectural value, however even in this case, any interventions to these properties can only be considered if they are in harmony with the surroundings.

Since its inception the list of scheduled properties continues to be reviewed and new sites included, granting them this legal status of protection. The definitions provided by the Structure Plan have remained unchanged since 1992. So, with no change in the status of protection of scheduled properties, it should be obvious that a building scheduled in the early 1990s would still be protected today. Of course this is not always how things pan out.

One of many examples of how scheduled buildings are being attacked is the proposal for a multi-storey hotel over the Villa Leoni site in St Julians. Villa Leoni, which dates back to the 1800s,            is a distinguished villa with an ornate aesthetic and extensive formal garden listed with Grade 2 status in 1994.

Now, in 2019, we find in front of us a request to engulf the Grade 2 listed villa with a 7-storey structure and obliterate its equally valuable scheduled garden with an additional 8-storey block; all this to accommodate a new hotel on what should be a protected site.

If approved the scheduled villa would be altered beyond recognition, and its protected garden lost. This would go directly against the legislation specifically aiming to protect these sites by precluding such destructive developments.

Nowhere in the legislation governing scheduled buildings do we find a clause permitting one to go against this protection to make way for a massive development. Financial benefits, and effective exploitation of such sites, cannot trump over the dire need to protect our cultural heritage. In fact, such a dismissive attitude is the very reason why this legislation exists. Properties have been and continue to be scheduled to provide them with a legal status of protection against such threats - if one could treat these properties as one would treat any other site why go through the effort of listing them? Why create specific rules on what is and what is not acceptable? The aim is to stop these developments and not succumb to speculators attempting to exploit such sites.

The Villa Leoni case will be decided this Thursday by the Planning Board. Anything other than the outright refusal of this tragic proposal would go against the property’s protected legal status and go against legislation necessitating its preservation as part of the cultural heritage of Malta and Gozo.

Tara Cassar is an architect focusing on planning policies and environmental issues related to land-use, active with a number of local eNGOs

[email protected]


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