Preservation of modernist architecture
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Preservation of modernist architecture

The boiler chimney acting as a discreet vertical element, perhaps inspired by a village church steeple that crowns the old barrack complex. Photo: Nicholas Farrugia

The boiler chimney acting as a discreet vertical element, perhaps inspired by a village church steeple that crowns the old barrack complex. Photo: Nicholas Farrugia

The scheduling of Manikata Church is very good news. Similar action, however, needs to be taken on other good examples of Maltese Modernist architecture of which we have only but a precious few. Din l-Art Ħelwa and Kamra tal-Periti, through their seminal publication Modernist Malta (2009), have identified a number of such buildings that warrant immediate protection.

To those who have difficulty coming to terms with the word Modernism, in local architecture it refers to the style first adopted by designers during the inter-war years struggling to free themselves from the Classical, Baroque language that had governed the Maltese style for centuries.

This was typically done by stripping away practically all form of ornamentation and exploiting the ground-breaking benefits of new materials such as reinforced concrete, while maintaining a harmonious sense of proportion and massing as well as keeping a prevailing sense of context and function. This was successfully realised in projects by architects who travelled abroad and became familiar with the International Style largely led by Le Corbusier.

Villino Ellul designed by architect Salvu Ellul in Ta’ Xbiex, which remarkably dates to the late 1920s (scheduled by the Malta Environment and Planning Authority some years ago) is a pioneering example. Architects such as Gustavo Vincenti, Silvio Mercieca and Alberto Laferla were some of the more prominent exponents in this movement, shifting from art deco to modernism.

The socio-economic circumstances that the post-war Maltese architectural scene found itself in led to an increasing popularity of this style particularly in the construction of schools and touristic facilities. It was sometimes successfully employed in the design of social housing (Sta Luċija).

Architects such as Joseph Spiteri, Renato Laferla, Carmelo Falzon and Richard England contributed significantly at this time. Simultaneously the works by a number of foreign architects such as Hans Munk Hansen’s “Danish Village” are equally important. The Baħar iċ-Ċagħaq Officers’ Married Quarters (parts of the ex-White Rocks complex), was one of the last British construction projects in Malta.

Its design was so highly regarded that it featured twice in the prestigious Architectural Review soon after completion.

Maltese modernist architecture ought not to be confused with the “modern” non-descript, greed-driven, pseudo-vernacular constructions that regrettably plague our islands today.

Modernist buildings are a select number of well-designed structures (and their associated urban spaces) which deserve the same recognition and protection as any baroque palace. Their mutilation or destruction would be a negation of one of the most important periods in Maltese architectural history.

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