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Gonzi shows his mettle

Almost everybody for whom living architecture is important has greeted the return of Renzo Piano to the Valletta as delightedly as our forefathers must have welcomed the Soccorso in 1565. Nearly 20 years ago, you were the chairman of the adjudicating board for the competition for the rebuilding of the Opera House. This gave the opportunity to the leading architects of Malta to participate. Out of it there emerged Richard England's project and the conversion of St James Cavalier into a centre of creativity. What are your reactions to the Prime Minister's announcement?

I thought of Joe Friggieri's brilliant play Tkun Darb'ohra Mikielang. Not to have carried out Piano's project was as if the Pope had put aside Michelangelo's dome for St Peter's to another occasion. For us Maltese, another time means never. That our Prime Minister has made the other time happen with Renzo Piano is further proof, if any were needed, of how right the PN strategists were to launch the logo Gonzi PN at the last election.

Our readers do not need to be told that putting parliament in place of the Opera House is diametrically opposed to what I desire, like so many others who believe that it is living art that is the best expression of our identity and our major economic resource. Moreover, the two reasons which the Prime Minister gave for his decision are demonstrably false. They made me wonder whoever it was who had the skill to persuade the Prime Minister of them. However, I have always held that in such matters the buck stops with him.

In recent times great works of architecture were erected in Paris, ensuring that the masterpieces of the past are matched by the contributions of the most original contemporary artists, whatever their nationality, because there were presidents of the republic, from the conservative Georges Pompidou to the socialist François Mitterand, who were not afraid of commissioning work that was bound to be controversial. It has also happened in other great cities when the decisions had to be taken by genuine leaders.

On the contrary when consensus was required, mediocrity was the usual result. In Milan for instance, Leonardo's proposals for the Duomo, were rejected because inevitably the predecessors of those bloggers on who insist on the stale and conventional in preference to Piano, got their way.

I am puzzled how after 60 years of bandying ideas about and international competitions with inconclusive results there are still those who clamour for more discussion. Instead, there should be just rejoicing that a decision has been firmly taken, even if it is not quite one's own desideratum. The final judgment can only belong to posterity.

Are you implying that there is no more point for debate?

There are several matters that are still open. For instance, the 'cultural centre' that is to form the Republic Street side has still not been defined. The ideas put forward have ranged from that of a public library that would allow the Bibliotheca in Republic Square to function as a more selective resort to that of a Centre for Caravaggio studies/showpiece of contemporary art, the need for which has been crying for a long time.

In his original plan, Piano had envisaged that the square will still be left between St James Cavalier and the new buildings would be utilised for open air performances and busker activities.

It had also been supposed that the new building bordering the square would be used for money-making activities that would subsidise the theatre. Presumably, that subsidy will not be required by Parliament. Moreover, the Prime Minister has been quoted as saying that the whole area is to be 'a hub not of business but of culture and heritage'. Consequently then, a cultural purpose should be established for the new building as well.

Three years ago, the architecture students had as their project work to propose uses for the Opera House site. Not one of them thought that Parliament would be an appropriate use, nor did any one of them propose keeping the Barry design. But they had a great variety of ideas that might be relevant, if not now to the main space, to the other still undefined segments, for which a brief has presumably not yet been drawn up.

More than 20 years ago you had written in a leading foreign art journal a much discussed critique of Piano's Pompidou Centre. How come you are now so enthusiastic for his Valletta project and why do you think he has agreed to do it 'another time'?

Piano himself has told me that he agrees with my critique. His plans for Valletta were very different from those of an edifice which was a sort of response to the Eiffel Tower.

Piano is not just designing a monument which is bound to be a tourist attraction but the beginning and therefore the determining element of a holistic scheme for the whole of Valletta along an axis which goes from the Argotti Gardens to St Elmo with the Palace as the second major node after the entrance to the City, and all this as the centre piece of the larger concept of a greater Valletta unified by water transport across the two harbours and vertical transport from the shores to the top of the bastions.

I find it very intriguing to think that it was a Venetian engineer who was a magna pars in the Genesis of Valletta, and now it is a Genoese architect engaged in converting it from self-enclosure into an open welcoming gesture. The founder of Valletta was, as is well known, always a close ally of the Doria dynasty flag bearers of Genoa, dire rivals of Venice.

Fr Peter Serracino Inglott was talking to Alessandra Fiott.

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