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How to build heritage

In a recent address, the chairman of Din l-Art Ħelwa made an extraordinary statement. She declared that, of the many buildings erected in Malta in the last 40 years, there was no single building, not one, that she felt that she would wish to keep, to pass on to posterity.

The young designers of the heritage of the future cannot be selected on the basis of who is cheapest
- Alex Torpiano

This was a very strong statement, one that requires careful evaluation, even if one may not fully agree with it.

The comments were made in the context of an address that looked back at a year of activities by Din l-Art Ħelwa but which, in particular, made reference to the “new built heritage”, by which she presumably was referring to what was being built today, which would be the heritage of the future.

One may argue that, by using the 40-year marker, she deftly excluded a number of over 50-year-old buildings from Malta’s own Modern Architecture period, which have recently been added to the list of scheduled buildings – what we could, then, officially consider as additions to our “new built heritage”.

Time is a great filter; it does need time for a particular building, or group of buildings, to be recognised as part of a country’s heritage. Sometimes, the passage of time allows buildings to be elevated to the status of monuments, even if, when erected, the critics may have been rather negative.

Nevertheless, the chairman of Din l-Art Ħelwa does have a point. Our built environment is, generally speaking, ugly and getting uglier. However, I do not necessarily agree with the analysis that is often touted, namely that the ugliness or beauty of our built environment is simply a question of low or high-rise development, or of building in stone instead of in concrete, or of using traditional timber balconies and round arches instead of aluminium or steel apertures and flat soffits.

I do believe that some well-intentioned policies of the Malta Environment and Planning Authority have not helped and this includes both micro-scale design guidelines and macro-scale policies.

I have had occasion to insist that the quality of our urban open spaces (or lack of quality) is a more serious issue, with regard to the creation of a quality environment, than the design of the “façades” of buildings.

I would also insist that the quality of the “furniture” in the public realm, visually speaking – the ubiquitous electricity cables, the air-conditioning units, the telephone boxes, the traffic signs, and, increasingly, the photo-voltaic panels and solar water heaters, the broken pavements, the lighting poles – are an even more important ingredient in the creation of urban ugliness.

Technology support systems are becoming too dominant in our built environment, without any effort to mitigate or control.

However, this argument does not diminish the seriousness of the statement made by the chairman of Din l-Art Ħelwa.

It is necessary, first of all, to look back at history to understand how, and which, buildings eventually become architectural heritage.

It must be acknowledged that, throughout the ages, the number of buildings that aspired to the descriptor of “Architecture”, with a capital A, were very few among the many structures that were erected.

Residential apartments, among many other ubiquitous contemporary typologies, (including showrooms, factories, farms and multi-storey car-parks, for example), were only relatively recently (in the time units of history) elevated to a status worthy of architectural consideration.

The one characteristic that is generally common to those buildings, which are today recognised as “heritage”, is the existence of an enlightened “patron” who seeks to create something different and of quality, more often than not reflecting status, and who commissions a designer who has the ability to match, and interpret, his aspirations.

It is no coincidence that the monuments of the past are the cathedrals, palaces and public buildings commissioned by kings and princes, the Church and noblemen. Many landmark office buildings were commissioned by important corporations and many residences of note were commissioned by the rich and important – in a time when the centres of real power changed.

Monuments of more recent pedigree include public buildings, such as museums, sports stadia, schools, colleges and Parliament buildings commissioned on behalf of “society” by presidents, ministers and parliaments – and even by enlightened entrepreneurs or corporations.

I believe that this is one pre-requisite of architectural “heritage” – that there is the patron, with the desire not only to build something, which is possibly useful (and possibly valuable) but also with the aspiration that the built ensemble has a particular quality of presence and a particular cultural relevance true to its time and, in addition, that the patron finds the architect who can work with “his hands, his head and his heart” to fulfil this aspiration.

In today’s world, civilised countries, which take pride in their cultural development, seek to perpetuate this tradition of patronage by ensuring that their investment in key buildings, especially public buildings, or buildings built with public funds, is not only secured by the appropriate functionality but also adds to the cultural richness of the urban environment. In these countries, considerable effort is expended in finding the right interpreter of these aspirations, more often than not by holding design competitions.

Design competitions are held at various levels to select the designers of public gardens, of civic centres, of schools, of museums, of public administration buildings, of hospitals, of sports buildings and of colleges and universities.

On the other hand, what do we do in Malta to select the architects of our public buildings? Well, the current preferred route is by competitive tendering. In other words, whoever is cheapest will get the chance to design tomorrow’s heritage! The stock excuse for selecting this procurement route (which, luckily, was not followed in the case of the design of the new Parliament building) is that it is in society’s interest to get the best value for money and best value can only be obtained by competitive tendering.

It is also glibly stated these are the procurement rules prescribed by the European Union. Wrong. This statement is simply not true.

Directive 2004/18/EC, which prescribes the procedures for the award of public works, supply and service contracts, clearly includes provisions for the procurement of design-related services via the organisation of design contests.

The directive even acknowledges that, where there are national provisions on the remuneration of certain services, for example the services of architects and engineers, (that is, where there is a national tariff of fees), contract award criteria should not affect such national provisions. In other words, the directive acknowledges that the procurement of design services, even for public projects, should not ignore the criterion of design quality and need not be simply tied to the “cheapest”.

Of course, it is at the discretion of the contracting public authority to decide when to adopt architectural design competitions as a procurement route rather than crude “who is the cheapest architect available”. In other words, it is at the discretion of all those public institutions, ministries, educational establishments, public entities etc., that are (or should be) interested in procuring the architectural heritage of the future.

This is a very important discretionary power. It should be used by these authorities mindful of their responsibility not only to use public money efficiently but to make sure that good quality architectural design ensures longevity and, hence, value for whatever is built.

This patronage is vitally important for the creation of the heritage of tomorrow.

Competitions are also important to give opportunities for talented young designers to pitch their skills and showcase their abilities. Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers were young, practically unknown, architects, when they had the chance to offer their ideas via the design competition for the Centre Pompidou in Paris. Winning this competition not only launched the architectural careers of these now-famous architects but allowed Paris to add to its contemporary architectural heritage.

This is the story of many and, probably, all contemporary leading architects and engineers. In Malta, we have many, very talented, young people who deserve to have similar opportunities, even if for smaller things.

For 2018, Valletta is aspiring, on behalf of all of Malta, for the title of Cultural Capital of Europe. For this title not to be merely a badge or a slogan, it is necessary for Malta to create structures and processes that promote cultural development in its widest meaning and which will last beyond 2018.

The title should serve to generate a culture of design and creativity, which permeates every aspect of our life. This should include also the design of the built environment.

The creation of the built heritage of the future cannot be based on a fee-competitive tender. The young designers of the heritage of the future cannot be selected on the basis of who is cheapest.

The only built heritage that we will acquire, in this way, is the cheapest possible.

Prof. Torpiano is dean of the Faculty for the Built Environment at the University of Malta.

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