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Contemporary architecture

In the late 1970s, Tonio Borg and myself, both not yet 20, attended a conference in Stockholm. We were taken to the Swedish Parliament and I was shocked at the time to see a concrete building where all the service piping could be seen. Since then I have been fascinated with contemporary architecture and its place in cities. Yet, there is an enormous difference between good and simply bad contemporary architecture.

I have read the two articles by Simone Mizzi on bad design in our architecture and the defence of Alex Torpiano. As I have no intention of entering into a discussion I will refrain from even referring to the two articles except to say that I do not agree that all contemporary architecture in Malta is bad but, on the other hand, I must admit that there is very little that really inspires me.

As I have travelled all over the world, I could increasingly appreciate what good new architecture is.

Contrary to some of my fellow conservators who hate the very idea of “concrete”, I admire well-designed buildings that make a statement. I admire the efforts made by a modern architect to give a modern interpretation of buildings. I admire the courage to attempt to come out with something different, playing with materials and design, challenging our concept of what a building is.

I have always been in favour of allowing architects to express themselves but, in saying so, I was always of the opinion that there are rules to be followed in trying to insert a contemporary building in a historic city. I have followed and participated in all the international fora on the subject such as the now famous Vienna meeting that resulted in the Vienna Memorandum and the years of discussion that ended in the approval of the Unesco Historic Urban Landscape Recommendation.

I commend very much the research done by Konrad Thake and Michael Ellul. I have always, in the meetings of the Cultural Heritage Advisory Committee, tried to protect good recent buildings but so many good buildings from the 1920s onwards have been destroyed nonetheless in spite of what the advisory committee said.

This is a country that has destroyed or terribly altered even buildings of our most important architect. Many recent buildings, especially in the Sliema area, have been destroyed without any attention being given to the interiors when much of the detailing of the stone work or the staircases was indeed remarkable.

Especially in recent years, the advisory committee always insisted on more information on the interior of buildings, yet, the requested three photos for an application to the Malta Environment and Planning Authority were always of the exterior. At least now, somewhere in the Mepa archives there are photos of what some of those buildings looked like but certainly the destruction that has been made is unbearable even to think about.

I always advocated the scheduling of modern buildings and the advisory committee was a major driver within Mepa for this to happen. I nominated some buildings myself though not all my proposals were accepted. This list is so important because, though the majority of the scheduled buildings are monumental, there are also more modest villas and structures.

I have often said that this is a country that does not even record the architects of most modern buildings. Though we know the designer of buildings from hundreds of years ago we did not record the architect of recent ones. The names of most architects of recent buildings, or at least from the 1920s onwards, have been lost. When so many buildings have been pulled down not even the memory of the original designer is recorded!

Having said all this, I find that very, very few indeed, modern buildings can be said to have a good design. In a country where the building frenzy continues in spite of falling demand, a country which has a tremendous history in the use of its stone but those who are capable of using it well get fewer and fewer, a country with so much heritage, with so many historical cities and village cores, we do not even dedicate time to ensure that modern buildings have at least a good design.

Many will say that “good design” is a very subjective criteria. I say that most can distinguish between a good design and just another building. I will not say why we have come to this point, though I do have my own opinion about this.

We have built up so much that it is almost too late to stop the terrible trend and, yet, we can at least ensure that new buildings are of a good design. We need to pay much more attention to modern interventions in historic cities and villages.

There are areas where no demolitions should be allowed at all. In other circumstances, we must be very careful to the design of modern interventions. (The criteria of what admissible modern architecture can be incorporated in historic cores needs a separate article.)

A much bigger effort must be made for good design at least. There must be a strong commitment and more thinking about this.

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