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A palace for an office

When architect Paul Camilleri was given the brief to transform one of Valletta’s older – and long-disused – palazzi into a functional banking base, it seemed like a mammoth task. He tells Ramona Depares about the project that earned him the Din l-Art Ħelwa Prix d’Honneur award.

Bathroom facilities were constructed within a large timber ‘box’ positioned on the first floor’s internal terrace. In this way, the original rooms were kept intact, while the drainage pipes were routed through an area of the building with minimum intervention.Bathroom facilities were constructed within a large timber ‘box’ positioned on the first floor’s internal terrace. In this way, the original rooms were kept intact, while the drainage pipes were routed through an area of the building with minimum intervention.

Palazzo Spinola is one of the most well-known buildings in Valletta. Situated in St Frederick Street, it still had an air of majesty and nobility about it, and this despite the fact that it had lain abandoned for years.

When Lombard Bank decided to transform part of this building into a functional space to be utilised in parallel with, and as an annexe to, their head office, it was obvious from the start that this was not going to be some simple turnkey project.

Paul Camilleri & Associates were hired, and the work began in earnest. The brief was to rehabilitate, restore and convert, turning a building that was in a state of almost irreversible disrepair into a base that aesthe­tically fit within the character of the city’s architecture.

“As is often the case with such projects, there were two main priorities, which, at face value, may seem to be in conflict with each other. One priority is the clients’ main brief, that of providing a practical working space to suit the bank’s needs. The other is to conserve and enhance the historic fabric of the property. But there was another element that needed to be factored in: the project needed to be completed within a specific time frame and to a definite budget,” says architect Paul Camilleri.

The latter, as anyone involved in the industry will tell you, is a much more complex and demanding task when it happens in Valletta, rather than other areas.

“The concept I decided upon is the same I always adopt when commissioned to work on such a project. Enhancing the historic fabric and the experience of the building is a must, whether you are dealing with an important palazzo or a more modest abode.”

Before the restoration works were completed.Before the restoration works were completed.

In this particular case, the building represented one-third of Palazzo Spinola. It had been previously split up into three as a result of inheritance issues around a century ago, with the middle part having been demolished and re-constructed into apartment blocks. The section that was being worked upon came with certain features that the architect says he had never previously encoun­tered on other similar projects his firm had handled.

“The ground-floor cloister construction is a series of masonry groin vaults, which were carefully restored, with recent accretions removed. Another feature worthy of mention is the method of construction of the top ceiling, which was not what one would expect (timber beams and stone slabs, ie xorok). Instead, it was made of timber beams and timber planks, with overlying strata of seaweed for insulation. It seems that even then, they were sensitive to sustainability issues,” Mr Camilleri points out.

Enhancing the historic fabric and the experience of the building is a must

The building also featured a deffun, which is a compacted strata of masonry dust with a surface layer of compacted clay. Other notable features included the colonnade around the courtyard at first-floor level, where recent accretions were removed and the columns restored. The first-floor corner room sported a frescoed ceiling, which was also restored.

The first-floor corner room sports a frescoed ceiling, which was also restored.The first-floor corner room sports a frescoed ceiling, which was also restored.

The ground-floor cloister construction is a series of masonry groin vaults, which were carefully restored, with recent accretions removed.The ground-floor cloister construction is a series of masonry groin vaults, which were carefully restored, with recent accretions removed.

“The biggest challenges when restoring this building – in fact, when restoring any such buildings – were to find a way to incorporate the additions required to convert it to its new use without ruining the heritage aspect. Providing modern amenities – such as positioning bathroom facilities and the routing of air conditioning, drainage runs and so forth – was a huge deal. We also wanted to find a way to service the building with the minimum CO2 footprint possible,” the architect explained.

The first challenge entailed the careful assessment of various options by compiling and producing numerous photomontages, 3D views and sections of and through the building. This helped ensure that sight lines, both externally as well as internally, were not compromised. In fact, the extension at roof level is not noticeable from the internal courtyard, and externally, it practically blends with the rest of the building seamlessly.

“It is essential that for such buildings in Valletta, each is studied individually. They cannot be subject to a pre-defined set of rules. The successful balance between conservation and development requires this. In this particular case, the Malta Environment and Planning Authority was very sensitive and a valid partner for discussion in what is considered to be a successful conversion of a long-abandoned building,” Mr Camilleri says.

The second challenge also required certain particular solutions, such as providing the bathroom facilities within a large timber ‘box’ positioned on the first floor’s internal terrace. In this way, the original rooms were kept intact, while the drainage pipes could be routed through an area of the building with minimum intervention.

The internal courtryard , with its arches and fountain, was also totally restored.The internal courtryard , with its arches and fountain, was also totally restored.

The third challenge entailed the careful detailing of building elements, such as insulation, apertures, lighting fixtures and ventilation. The architect adopted – as far as feasibly possible – concepts of natural ventilation in certain periods of the year. The glazed roof over the courtyard was carefully designed to achieve this.

The project took some 18 months to complete from inception and was awarded the two highest awards by Din l-Art Ħelwa for 2010 – the Prix D’Honneur in Category B for the outstanding and significant contribution to Maltese cultural heritage and to the achievement of architectural excellence in Malta, and the silver medal as the overall winner in all categories that year.

“That’s one of the biggest satisfactions,” the Mr Camilleri concludes. “Having your work judged positively by your peers.”

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