City by a gentleman
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City by a gentleman

'Time has come to repair and cover sins of the past'

A model of the new entrance to Valletta. Photo: Chris Sant Fournier.

A model of the new entrance to Valletta. Photo: Chris Sant Fournier.

The nation finally got to see the new-look entrance to Valletta last night, which the Prime Minister said would be delivered within budget and on time.

Lawrence Gonzi said he was determined to challenge sceptics who doubted whether one of the most ambitious initiatives by a government could be completed within the four-year deadline.

Designs for Valletta's City Gate €80 million project, sketched by world-renowned architect Renzo Piano, were unveiled during a simple but effective ceremony in Republic Street.

The new Parliament building will be elevated on stilts over Freedom Square and take on a more compact appearance than the current House; the Opera House site ruins will be transformed into an open-air theatre and City Gate will be demolished to create a more modest and meaningful entrance, while restoring Republic Street as the capital's spine.

"All this started 25 years ago. It didn't work then, so why should it work now you may ask. This is a better scheme; it is about civic pride, there is nothing private. Before we were trying to mix the sacred with the profane," Mr Piano told the 1,000 guests gathered to watch his presentation.

"We have learnt the lessons and we are better architects today; we are listening more to the little voices... by listening to the weak voice of the ruins we needed 25 years to understand," he said.

Mr Piano said it was quite unusual to expose so much of the project at this early stage and it showed the power of dialogue. The designs were created after six months of ping-pong discussions with the government.

Dressed in an open-neck shirt, which contrasted with the formal attire of the officials and guests, Mr Piano spoke passionately about his love affair with Valletta. He spoke about how he never liked City Gate, because it looked like a motorway that was going nowhere, and how he felt it was "fake" to try and rebuild the ruins.

The government's original proposal to switch Parliament to the former opera house site was shelved after it was deemed too small. A modern opera of conventional size would equally not fit in this place considering today's requirements for rehearsal, backstage facilities and accessibility, besides generating exorbitant running costs.

Thirdly, the ruins of the opera house had achieved the status of a monument and this was why Mr Piano felt the plans should embrace the ruins' memory by consolidating them and dignifying them into an open-air theatre for 1,200 people.

Lawrence Gonzi promised the works for the "beautiful, exciting and adventurous" project would start early next year in an attempt to complete the project by the end of this legislature.

He encouraged the public to visit the exhibition of models and designs at the Archaeology Museum during the next month, as he underlined the need to gauge people's opinion.

Infrastructure Minister Austin Gatt smiled when he described how in the longest dialogue in history, the country was at least united in wanting to get rid of City Gate.

"The time has come to take decisions, not only to repair and cover the sins of the past, but to satisfy our generation's responsibility to leave a witness of our times," he said.

Freedom Square, currently a car park, would become the platform for Malta's building of liberty, Parliament, which to date functioned from borrowed premises. He said it deserved to be located in the street that epitomised the country's identity.

The same way Valletta bore the signature of legendary architects Francesco Laparelli, Ġlormu Cassar, Romano Carapecchia, Stefano Ittar, Pietro Paolo Floriani and Edward Barry, the future would flag the flair and art of Renzo Piano.

"This is not a government project, but a means of returning the heritage to the people," Dr Gatt said.

The Labour Party issued a statement after seeing the designs and said it would adopt a positive attitude to the project even if it had been completely left out of the process.

The proposals

City Gate

• Bridge will be restored to its original 1633 dimensions, giving a full view of the ditch.

• The simple structure will be just eight metres wide and will be open to the sky.

• The street crossing above will be demolished and two large and gently sloped stairs, reminiscent of the dramatic staircases flanking the gate before the creation of Freedom Square, will lead from both St James' and St John's Cavaliers down to Republic Street.

• Designs will give back to bastion walls original expression of depth by enhancing the feeling of narrowness while at the same time opening up the view to the perspective of Republic Street.

• Gate and ditch will be connected through a redesigned stair and an exterior, panoramic elevator that provides the experience of the depth of the ditch and leads to the gardens below.

• Car park below will be eliminated and replaced by garden.

• The gate itself will be monumentally shaped and flanked by high, framing blades of steel.

Parliament

• The Parliament building will shift from the Palace to the parking area currently occupying Freedom Square.

• The transparent ground floor of the building will host a state-of-the-art interactive Museum of Maltese History and Political Development.

• The new construction will distance itself from St James's Cavalier giving back to this historic structure its original shape.

• The new building is made of two massive volumes of stone, supported by stilts that recede from the façade to create an impression of suspension in air.

• The East block will house mainly the chamber the West, all administrative offices for MPs. They are separated by a central courtyard. This court is shaped in such a way to allow views through it from the street of St John's Cavalier.

• The Old Railway tunnel will be connected to the sunken garden in such a way as to make it available for public use.

• Building will be equipped with heat pumps to avoid the necessity of external cooling towers or additional boilers.

The Opera House site

• All existing stone work will be preserved and some of the existing scattered fragments will be reused to complete and embellish the ruin.

• A new, light skin or façade will define the space, supported by a surrounding alignment of steel masts and columns.

• The masts will carry removable walls, lighting systems, acoustic and sound equipment.

• The theatre is envisaged to host 1,200 people.

• When the theatre is unused, the area works as an open piazza with a shallow stepped seating deck, totally accessible and offering the view towards Castille, to the churches of St Catherine and Our Lady of Victories and St James Cavalier.

• The translucent wall elements shall be constructed in such a way, that they can enclose the space but also remain sunken, so that performances can be held in extraordinary scenery of some of the city's best buildings.

• Smaller backstage areas will be created in the vicinity.

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