Malta was once a glamourous destination. This small rock, south of Sicily, had been a British dominion since 1800 and since at least World War II had been the playground of the British Armed forces. It was no accident that Princess Elizabeth and her new husband, The Duke of Edinburgh, spent their honeymoon on this rocky outcrop in the sunny Mediterranean. They lived for two years at Casa Guardamangia and the Queen refers to this period of her life as the happiest and most normal. The island was unspoiled and contained an enormous number of beautiful palazzos and churches (the myth is that there are 365, one for each day of the year) amongst its wonderful ancient walled cities, dry stone walls and quaint fishing ports. It was also popular with the fashionable set in London. Up until the early 1970s, Prince Charles regularly played polo on the island at the Marsa Sports Club. And Mark Birley considered setting up a club, along the line of the old Annabel’s, in a wonderful old house overlooking the bay in St. Julians.
Then Malta achieved independence in 1964, a little over twenty years after the island had stood up so bravely to the forces of fascism. First, this small island had defied Italian mass bombing and then, after Hitler deemed the Italian air force incompetent, the Luftwaffe, in a heroic struggle to keep the sea lanes open to Egypt, thus enabling the allies to gain their first victory at El Alamein. This astounding bravery earned the island a collective George Cross, the only country ever to do so. However, when the British naval base ceased to operate, Malta suddenly had a large hole in its economy. So what was Malta to do? Under the disastrous leadership of Dom Mintoff, who became the Prime Minister in 1971, Malta allied itself with north European socialist countries, and also, bizarrely, with Libya, China and the Khmer Rouge amongst other pariah states. Mintoff turned to nationalisation, often in breach of property rights (in 1973, for example, shareholders of the National Bank of Malta were forced to surrender their shares, without compensation, overnight), expansion of the public sector and low grade tourism to fill the hole.
Mintoff, an architect by training, had already demonstrated, as a government minister, insensitivity to history and culture by placing government schemes adjacent to immaculately preserved historic sites. Further and even more violent destruction of the island followed after he left office, when the Nationalists came to power in 1989. This quaint island became awash with unfettered, rampant development, especially along the East coast of the island. Sadly, much of the island, with its amazing treasures, became buried under a massive sea of cheap concrete.
The most heinous of planning laws was passed in the 1970s which allowed the charming limestone sea front villas to be replaced by buildings (usually hotels or apartment buildings) of no more than six stories, later changed to eight stories. This has led to some of the dullest, most uniform seaside frontages of any place in the world excepting, possibly, certain former communist Eastern bloc cities. And on Malta there is nowhere to hide as water is a scarce resource and it is not possible to screen any of the ugliness from view with judicious planting. Very little vegetation grows on this barren rock except the occasional but thin palm or indigenous but tiny Maltese gum, oak and pine trees. Daphne Caruana Galizia, the Maltese journalist who wrote a controversial blog and who is alleged to have been murdered recently, occasionally highlighted these absurdities and the flagrant disregard the Maltese have for planning laws. These are not isolated incidents but have happened numerous times all over the island for years and are still happening today. Thus Malta, within a few decades, had destroyed much of its charm with unnecessary self-mutilation. Both economically and architecturally it seemed to have destroyed the goose that laid the golden egg.
But has Malta finally woken up to its errors and realised that it still has so much to offer? Since joining the European Union, when it cleverly negotiated new tax laws, Malta has become the on line betting capital of Europe. It seems that everyone and their dog want to set up a company in Malta for its beneficial tax legislation and its easy going compliance regulations. That, coupled with an influx of Italians from Sicily, means that Malta is once again booming.
Valletta is both the capital of Malta and a UNESCO world heritage site. It was established in the 1500s when the nights of St. John fled Rhodes from the encircling infidel. The knight’s primary purpose originally had been to protect Christians on their pilgrimage to the holy land but by this time they no longer fulfilled this role. Mostly they harassed shipping, especially Ottoman shipping, which is why the Ottoman Empire was keen to remove them. They were offered the rock of Malta by the Charles I, King of Spain, and built the fortress of St. Elmo on a promontory that also guarded a superb deep harbour on both sides. It was here in the great siege of 1565 that Ottoman expansion was halted on its seemingly endless march westwards. The victorious grand master, Jean de la Valette, built a new fortified city which was named after him. The city was designed by the Italian military architect Francesco Laparelli, who was lent by the Pope, and later by Girolamo Cassar, a local Maltese architect.
Valetta, with its ancient ramparts, as viewed from the sea (Photograph by author)
Valletta is a truly glorious city to explore. It is brimming with small streets, baroque palazzos and ancient churches. Although designed on a grid system it still maintains an intricacy and interest that belies its rational renaissance layout. Part of this is that it is built on a hill and is surrounded by sea on three sides, but also it contains some of the most wonderful baroque palazzos of truly astonishing scale and detail. Casa Rocca Piccola is open to the public and is a good example of how the Maltese aristocracy used to live. The charming current Marquis and his family still live in the palazzo. The layers of history are fascinating also. British colonial tea rooms, with overhead fans, and old fashioned colonial era shopfronts exist side by side with Italian ice cream shops.
Valletta has recently become the world city of culture 2018. A renewed focus on the city has led to the building of a new parliament building designed by Renzo Piano and on the age old question of what to do with the ruins of the old British opera house that was mostly destroyed by the Luftwaffe on the evening of 7th April, 1942. The other problem, that required resolution, was how to successfully mark the entrance to the city.
Renzo Piano has to my mind successfully navigated through the complicated brief of the project. The site has been hotly debated over since the opera house was destroyed by the bombing. Two schools of thought, with dramatically opposing points of view, fought over the site. There were the conservationists who proposed rebuilding Edward Barry’s classical opera house, stone by stone, and using it for the same original purpose. Then there were those that wanted to build new and thought the building should reflect the needs of contemporary society. There was a competition in 1953 for the site and the square adjacent known as Freedom Square. A compromise solution won the competition but was never built. In 1963 the Maltese government engaged, strangely, the Italian architect Alziro Berganzo who had been a militant member of the Italian fascist party, to design the new entrance gate. The existing military ‘Kingsgate’ designed by the British Royal Engineers was torn down. Unfortunately, Berganzo also enlarged significantly the opening in the city walls. This unsatisfactory Berganzo gate which was in a paired down classical, rationalist style also created a gaping hole in the land front fortifications.
In the 1980s the Maltese government approached Renzo Piano to prepare designs for the opera house, Freedom Square and the city gate. Renzo Piano who is from Genoa, Italy, first came to prominence when, with Richard Rogers, he won the Beauborg competition (for the Centre Pompidou) in 1972 and has been an architect of international standing ever since. He is also the architect of ‘The Shard’, the tallest skyscraper in London. Despite his international fame, Piano’s designs received a muted response from the Maltese public and the plans were shelved indefinitely in 1992.
A second competition was launched in the 1990s and the local architect, Richard England, drew up a master plan. Due to lack of funds, the scheme proposed by England included many commercial retail outlets which it was thought would enable it to be commercially viable. The building proposed was a sort of James Stirling-esque ‘post-modern’ multipurpose theatre and shopping center combined and it was to be situated on the opera house site.
Fearful of a commercial building in such an important location, Dr. Gonzi, the Maltese prime minister, during his second term in office offered the commission back to Piano again in 2006. The original brief was to construct a new parliament building on the opera house site. However, Piano instead proposed to preserve the site of the ruins of the opera house as a ‘symbol’ of what Valletta and Malta had gone through over the ages – particularly during the Second World War. Piano proposed to create a highly flexible space in the form of an open air theatre for music, theatre and exhibitions. The adjoining site, the former Freedom Square would be the location for the new parliament building. Piano successfully challenged the brief of his client and his revised design was accepted after some initial hesitation. His proposal for the gate included reducing the opening of the ramparts and demolishing the Berganzo gates.
The ruins of the Opera House with the new Maltese Parliament building in the back ground (Photograph by author)