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Giving value to the invaluable

The Battery at Fort Cambridge is being meticulously restored by a team of architects. Simonne Pace meets consultant architect Alex Torpiano, who says that first and foremost, the fort needs a modern-day function.

For the Victorian entrepreneur, whoever ruled the waves ruled the business. The 19th century was a time of rivalry between warships that bravely sailed the Mediterranean.

Officers and their crew were constantly on the look-out for the best ammunition and positions. In fact, Fort Cambridge was specifically built to accommodate one of only three produced 100-tonne guns, the pride and joy of the British Navy.

The only reason why the British, in a panic, decided to build these positions at Fort Cambridge and at Rinella was because the Italian Navy also happened to buy long-range guns from an English manufacturer at the time.

The British weren't too pleased and thought it best to set up two 100-tonne batteries on either side of the Grand Harbour. These were guns that could answer to the Italians in the same way, they reasoned.

A second application was recently submitted to the Malta Environment and Planning Authority (Mepa) by Gap Developments plc on behalf of Fort Cambridge and TBA Periti for the restoration of the battery at Fort Cambridge.

"Quite a lot of the original is still there," explains consultant architect Alex Torpiano. "We now know what features from the original fort still exist and what we are able to retain or repair."

The objective is to keep or recover the external appearance of the fort to its original extent. This is one of the last forts of the 19th century and part of the Tigné Point peninsula, which contains a number of military fortifications, dating to the late period of the Knights, the British and the French.

The team of architects have obtained plans of Fort Cambridge from military archives in the UK, which "gave us a picture of what the battery looked like in those days".

Fort Cambridge was "a big machine. Everything centred around gun-storing and delivering ammunition and taking away empty shells - it was a sophisticated machine."

Features, such as part of the gun's hydraulic system and the place where the empty shells would slide down, remain. "The idea, however, is to not to build replicas but to have modern interpretations of missing structures," says Prof. Torpiano.

"There is a clear distinction between old and new. This is a philosophy that has worked well with a number of restored sites, because it doesn't devalue the old but shows that the restored site is not a museum piece. This is today. The site is alive. People will use it and appreciate it today."

For better access, the architects plan to recreate a bridge that linked the Garden Battery and Fort Tigné and enabled soldiers to get from one side to the other conveniently. "We want to give it a function to respect the character of the fort."

The fort will feature a number of usable spaces, where people can have a drink, eat, read, or enjoy a quiet moment. "What we intend to do is reconstruct the profile and leave the volume of the fort."

Intact underground structures, such as vaults, could serve as beautiful places for cultural events. Damaged and collapsed vaults will be restored and rebuilt.

Restoring Fort Cambridge is Prof. Torpiano's fourth project. "These tasks are rewarding and interesting, amid the many problems encountered on site," he admits.

Born and bred in Valletta, Prof. Torpiano says fortifications should not be seen as history but as part of everyday life. "We need to bring these historical sites back to our consciousness. They're not 'over there', but 'over here'. They are a memory of what used to be," he adds.

The team is working hard on reinstating the fort's skyline, part of which has been lost. "This is a fort that you look at inevitably from above. What we hope to achieve is not a museum piece, but a place that is part of a past life."

The heaviest structural works will be carried out first. Repairs, new services and apertures will follow. "We need to deliver a building that is closed, water tight and eventually usable," Prof. Torpiano explains.

The architects hope to revive the memory of the battery in people's minds. "People talk about an architectural match. Really and truly, there is no architecture involved. The site is a space."

What the team hopes to achieve is that adjacent buildings are not in conflict with the restored Fort Cambridge, but acknowledge and complement it.

Gap Holdings director Paul Attard says he looks at the fort as an anchor to the big project, which is well underway.

"Everything was developed around the battery - the fort, the old barracks and the way people will move through it. The plan is to get the fort ready by the time the apartments are completed, which is in about two years' time," Mr Attard goes on to explain.

Prof. Torpiano says the restored site is not a replica but an intervention that gives you back the space. "Don't mess around with the heart. Give value to the invaluable. These buildings can take a lot of battering and still look beautiful."

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