Gran opera buffa?

Are those bloggers right who have taken it that you have changed your opinion of the Prime Minister because of the Opera House site controversy?

Not at all. From the start I expressed great admiration for the Prime Minister's having come to a decision after over half a century of indecisive blather. I did not agree at all that building a Parliament House instead of a theatre in that area was a good idea, but I do not think that this sort of question is appropriately settled by referendum. In our case, it is the Prime Minister's prerogative, certainly not mine.

I gave the Prime Minister a second-round of loud applause when he succeeded in persuading Renzo Piano, whom I consider to be the world's greatest living architect and by whom I am privileged to be counted a personal friend, to design the whole entrance area to Valletta.

I was then "euphoric", as somebody said, when the Prime Minister accepted the advice of Piano to place the Parliament building in the parking area just behind the gateway and avoid the profanation, so to say, of a site consecrated to the arts in the minds and hearts of most Maltese.

My enthusiasm for the project increased when I saw the design for the parliament building, especially because its geometry related it admirably to the Cavalier and its immediate context.

I confess that I was, however, somewhat dismayed when I visited the exhibition at the Archaeological Museum just after Piano's presentation of his plans in Republic Street. The theatre space did not have the retractable roof that I had been previously led to expect. Naturally, I expressed my surprise and concerns to the architect, the next day when I met him just before he spoke to the Chamber of Architects. The impression I went away with was that the explanation was money. There was certainly not even the whiff of a hint that it was architectural.

Therefore, on one hand, I remained quite optimistic about the final outcome. On the other, the budgetary allocation for the project was another of the Prime Minister's prerogatives, and at worst the site would have the foundations laid for later, fuller development.

For a time, it even seemed that the now general recognition of Piano's genius could lead to a fairly consensual celebration of the coming-into-being of an entrance to Valletta that gave it the 'brand' optimally expressive of Gonzi's Vision 2015.

How come then that the public has been given the impression that you have made a U- turn?

I did not. What actually happened was that a decision that rightly belongs to the client began now to be attributed to the architect. A literally incredible spin was given to the story of the un-roofing following the Prime Minister's much publicised visit to Piano in Paris this year.

I, for one, could hardly believe my ears when I heard it said that Valletta already had three roofed theatres and needed the novelty of an open air-space or that a plaza surrounded by the romantic ruins of the theatre would be enjoyed by more people than would frequent indoor performances.

Hardly anybody could possibly believe that the Prime Minister, himself a Valletta-born man, had originated such fairytales. The suspicion that they were coming from Piano prompted a reversal of feeling about the whole project. What was the greatest living architect really worth, if he had come to know Valletta so little as to believe that it had no need of an ordinary theatre or that it needed an open area for festivities?

The interpretation of the symbolic building could now only be that Malta today had just decayed ruins of a once glorious operatic tradition to be proud of at the gateway of its capital city. The living theatre arts had been mortified and substituted by uncreative politics.

The protesting response of the 128+, most of whom, like me, had maintained a respectful silence, still hoping that the obviously more enlightened decision would be taken, was inevitably provoked by whoever expected us to believe the fairytales we were now being told.

Personally, as long as I believed that the un-roofing decision was taken by the Prime Minister as client and for policy reasons, I did not hold it to be a citizen's duty to protest. But if the responsibility for a non-architecturally motivated option was being disowned by him, then I felt obliged to join the signatories of the letter. They stressed that they could not wish anyone more than Piano to be the architect of the theatre, but that they could now legitimately, and indeed should, express the real desiderata of the ultimate client (the Maltese people: it had transpired that the architect had never been given a normal brief).

Why do you feel so personally involved in the matter?

Admittedly, I feel a weight on my conscience. I had been appointed chairman of the Adjudicating Committee when the last open competition for the rebuilding of a multi-functional theatre on the former Opera House site was held. We had found Richard England's entry to have been the best, but the competitors had been asked to provide for too many functions than the prescribed volume of space reasonably allowed. Our unanimous recommendation was for St James Cavalier, then shoddily used as a printing press, to be converted into an annex to the theatre which England was to re-design.

The government agreed with this recommendation and its first part was carried out. The second part was delayed. There was a change of government and a succession of two Prime Ministers. Had the committee which I chaired not made a complex recommendation, the current quandary would simply not have arisen.

Fr Peter Serracino Inglott was talking to Margaret Zammit.


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