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Cheese graters, pharaohs

Last week, the parliamentary secretary responsible for culture kindly invited me to the inauguration of what is now the officially christened performance space called Pjazza Teatru Rjal. It is that strange hybrid mixture of neo classic ruin married by proxy to steel girders with green seats set cheek by jowl alongside what looks like a gigantic cheese grater. This stands within spitting distance of two pylons out of which one would expect Yul Brynner on his chariot to emerge chasing illegal immigrants down an avenue of sphinxes!

What have we done to our capital city?

How strange that it is only now that Unesco has woken up and, to use a fashionable turn of phrase, ‘smelled the coffee’. After four years of innumerable articles and discussions, of protests and reasonable and unreasonable arguments on the social media we now have Unesco rethinking Valletta’s status as a world heritage site! Hello? With the outgone Nationalist legislature obstinately refusing to listen even more obdurately than that same Ramses II, whom Brynner played so iconically, we are seeing the results of this €100 million and more project and I am just as obdurately unimpressed.

In my book, the sole reason why a tourism-dependant country like ours should engage a world class architect like Renzo Piano is to create a building that is a work of art and which, like Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim in Bilbao and Jean Nouvel’s Festival Hall on Lake Luzern, will become an icon that would attract people from all over the world.

I will never forget the exhilaration of listening to Claudio Abbado conducting Parsifal in Lucerne while my emotion at being in Frank Lloyd Wright’s New York Guggenheim will stay with me forever.

I was fascinated by the Norman Foster dome on the Reichstag in Berlin. However, unless, of course, the Prime Minister invites me or I am an elected member of Parliament, which is unlikely at my venerable age, I will probably never know what the interior of the giant cheese grater looks like.

Therefore, as a member of the public, my experience, and yours, of Piano’s magnus opus will be sitting in an open piazza, exposed to the elements, by which we presently mean an asphyxiating 36°C, in an airless city from which my ancestors who all had abbonamenti (subscriptions) in the Royal Opera House used to flee from after the feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel on July 6.

I am sure that these same ancestors, both paternal and maternal, averted their eyes in disgust as their shades sensed that their son, grandson and great grandson Kenneth Zammit Tabona had finally succumbed and taken his VIP green seat in that husk of what once was an architectural gem and a temple to artistic excellence. My excuse was the European Union Youth Orchestra and for that I am grateful.

Those lone columns, forlorn and bereft, are a stark reminder that the fighting spirit of the Maltese, that very same that defied the Luftwaffe and the Aeronautica, is no more; smothered to death in a wall of white feathers.

Truly it is no use crying over spilt milk but, for the record, I simply must write just once more to express my complete, utter and total disapproval that taxpayer’s money was spent on a Parliament building alone and, consequently, short-changing that same taxpayer out of having one or perhaps two of the cultural infrastructures necessary if we are to be taken seriously as a Capital of Culture in 2018.

Here we are, with less than five years to go, without an auditorium, without a theatre, without a state-of-the-art and accessible library and without a museum of modern and contemporary art.

Our artistic and cultural activities seem to focus entirely on a 1731 court theatre which the late lamented Giorgio Borg Olivier wisely decided to save in the 1960s in inimitable style. And there we rested, sitting fairly and squarely on our laurels, thinking that once we have the Manoel Theatre we have it all. Half a century on we still think in the same way and the sad consequence is this Pjazza thingy which this government, quite rightly, cannot even get itself to call a theatre! The word sticks in one’s throat.

The awful thing is that those millions of euros could have been spent on the restoration and rehabilitation of Valletta, Floriana, the Three Cities and Mdina and, with a bit of ingenuity and imagination, we could have had all the cultural lacunae up and running for 2018.

We may have not had Piano stamped all over our capital city but we could have had an ongoing series of projects that would have ensured that an artistically, architecturally and, above all, historically important church like the Jesuits in Merchants Street is not falling to bits with the Oratory of the Onorati being held up by scaffolding and steel girders! We would also have ensured that, for the next four years, the construction industry would have full employment too.

Tragically, the damage is irreversible, just like the decision to create avenues in front of parish churches in the 1960s annihilated the character of the Maltese village forever, bulldozed along with goodness knows how many architectural gems.

We still are a short-sighted race. Can you possibly imagine in your remotest dreams queues of tourists, waiting patiently in the sun, wind and rain to visit our giant cheese grater of a Parliament building like they do St John’s Co-Cathedral or the President’s Palace? The co-cathedral is a still a source of artistic wonderment 500 years after it was built by a great Maltese architect. Will we be able to say the same about our Pjazza Teatru Rjal?

Kenneth Zammit Tabona is Artistic Director of the Valletta International Baroque Festival.

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