The Malta Independent 10 December 2022, Saturday
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Pride in our profession

Sunday, 20 November 2022, 06:41 Last update: about 20 days ago

Antoine Zammit

This year, my baby turned 10 years old. However, I am not here to talk about any of my children. My very first baby was my architecture studio, Studjurban, a small activity I founded in 2012, specifically to focus on urban and architectural design and policy.

I think in this day and age, if one is able to love his job, that is a privilege. In fact, I do feel somewhat lucky and privileged – because being a full-time academic not only allowed me to grow Studjurban at my own pace but to also define this project through the research we put into every commission.

Ten years down the line, I still feel privileged that I can afford to remain true to my original vision, to work on a project only if I agree with it in principle. And in today’s climate, I think I must be very lucky to be able to work on projects I truly believe in, driven by my love for research and constant questioning.

I work as an architect and an urban designer against a backdrop of a Malta which is undeniably going through a building frenzy. I could have easily chosen to be part of this, but I chose not to. I consciously steer away from soulless apartment blocks because they do not appeal to my vision nor that of my colleagues.

Nonetheless, we grew, but although the projects we chose to take on increased in terms of scale and complexity, we have remained true to our principles.

Perhaps what differentiates us is the time we dedicate to research. Research is a very strong part of who we are because we believe that the best projects are those that best reinterpret their respective context, location and spirit.

Beyond our vision, we also promote the idea of “responsible architecture”. This principle came from a document I had prepared for a publication by the Architects’ Council of Europe (ACE), Europe’s main professional body of architects. This document dealt with the need for quality architecture within the built environment and was written in the spirit of a manifesto – to establish good design principles and promote better design quality using also positive case studies in practice.

Most importantly, we seek to promote responsible architecture every time we acknowledge that as architects we have a responsibility towards our respective communities, towards the environment and future generations by creating a better place than the one we have found.

As an architect, it pains me to see social media so rife with photos of buildings and projects that continue to fuel more people against the architectural profession.

The problem is multi-fold.

I would single out outdated Local Plans that have as a result become irrelevant. In turn, while DC15 was formulated with the best of intentions to contextualise architectural design and to place urban design on the map, it has been widely interpreted, unfortunately rarely to favour good design. As a result, a mediocre neighbouring commitment might have more weight in assessment and decision-making today than a design policy. Third, and importantly, we have been treating height limitation as an absolute right rather than a maximum that could be reached unless the context dictates otherwise. Reversing this approach is probably the most difficult, but not impossible.

With recent figures showing that 34% of Malta’s territory is built up, many would deem the country as being overbuilt. Density, per se, is not necessarily wrong. If properly and strategically planned, density may allow economies of scale to flourish, as evidenced by several cities that are based on the “compact city” model – but a correct balance must be achieved between density, land use mix and mobility/access. High density and high car dependence and a lack of regard to cumulative realities of land use topple this balance over. This is why new and properly drafted Local Plans, having a strong and strategic urban design approach, are needed.

We need the political will to update these plans and accept that policy is not static but alive and can change. As architects, we also need to collectively understand our critical role because ultimately, we are the ones accepting certain jobs. Collectively, we should also take a step in favour of the much-needed rehabilitation of older properties which represent our past, our roots and are part of our heritage.

Instead of opting for the easy way out and pulling them down, we need to bring more old properties back to life by restoring and repurposing them while ensuring they also perform more sustainably. Beyond the immense contribution of these buildings to our urban fabric and its streetscapes, retaining them is also an act in favour of sustainability.

Most importantly, architects need to collectively push for better standards. This profession once carried pride. Today, for many architects, their profession feels just like any other job, and this is an immense pity. Together, we can do much better than this.

 

Perit Dr Antoine Zammit is an academic at the University of Malta and lectures in spatial planning, urban design and urban governance within the Faculty for the Built Environment

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