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Maltese stone, ‘Spanish’ steps

Valletta City Gate project moving forward ‘as planned’, on multiple fronts

Comparisons of the new Parliament building to an “oil rig” may sink by next week as the steel skeleton starts to get dressed in a jigsaw puzzle of 7,000 blocks of Maltese stone, quarried in Gozo and cut into 3,000 specific shapes by Italians.

Cladding process to be finished by June

Meanwhile, the foundations are being laid for the “grand” staircases at the entrance to the capital, from Republic to Pope Pius V street, which are “similar to Rome’s Spanish Steps”.

On the other end of Renzo Piano’s City Gate project, meticulous and sensitive excavation under the whole of Ordnance and Victory Streets, which surround the Old Opera House, has opened up the space for the theatre’s backstage facilities.

The whole project, scheduled to be complete by early 2013, is “moving as planned”, according to Grand Harbour Regeneration Corporation CEO Chris Paris, who would not be drawn into saying whether it would be finished earlier, given it was gaining momentum.

Until recently, the smart hoarding hid away the works going on behind the scenes, but Parliament has risen from the ashes to the complete extent of its three storeys, and by mid-February, rapid and major changes are expected as its façade is clad in local stone.

The cladding process should be finished by June by which time the Parliament office block and chamber, connected by two bridges, would have taken “significant” shape, he said.

The meticulously numbered blocks have started to arrive from Italy and are in storage off site until they are pieced together for a louver effect that has been designed to protect Parliament from heat gain and loss.

A study of the façade had worked out the climate conditions and sun orientation, considering also the mechanical properties of the stone, Mr Paris said.

“Its geometry makes the building more efficient in terms of running costs,” he said, pointing out that architect Renzo Piano did not want a glass structure.

The stone was checked to see if it complied with the mechanical, archi­tectural and aesthetic properties laid down in the performance and design specifications before being chosen and numbered to facilitate the installation and for traceability back to the original block it was extracted from, he said.

Before being sent back, a “dry lay” was carried out whereby the façade was installed on the ground to check that the criteria were met.

Meanwhile, about 80 per cent of the procurement list has been secured, including Parliament’s all-important audio-visual component.

As for the new entrance into the city, the foundations for the two Piazza di Spagna-style staircases are being laid after the fortifications were consolidated. Mr Paris said it was a slow process that involved the insertion of rods, injected with a specific material, into the ancient walls to treat the breaches of the past.

Scaffolding is also being erected in the ditch to be able to demolish the accretions to the original Tumas Dingli bridge.

Mr Paris said excavation works around the Opera House were carried out using rotary equipment to avoid excess vibrations, and 27 sensors were stuck on the surrounding historical buildings in Victory Square for real-time monitoring of any impact on them.

“If we exceeded the established limits, we would have had to stop immediately and proceed by hand, but it was not the case,” Mr Paris said.

Nevertheless, the excavation has been “challenging”, and builders have had to work around an existing substation that feeds a good part of Valletta and could not be moved. All utility services have, in fact, been suspended so that works can continue underneath, he said of the “engineering feat”.

As regards the “open-air venue place”, as Mr Paris prefers to refer to it, the metal structures are being finished in Italy and are expected to arrive early next month for installation.

Meanwhile, the building’s existing stairs have been cleaned and repaired, while a number of other Opera House elements are being restored off site to be installed again.

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