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Green roofs and habitable cellars

The other day I had an appointment with the rector of our University. The idea was to discuss a departmental matter. Only it turned out Juanito Camilleri’s mind was elsewhere and we ended up discussing (to my pleasure and hopefully his) some of his dreams for a better-looking and altogether more sensible island.

The first was that of ‘green roofs’. The Faculty for the Built Environment recently launched its Life Med Green Roof project in which it plans to tap into the potential of roofs. Put simply, and both actually and metaphorically, our roofs could be greener.

I’ve always had a bit of a penchant for roofs. That’s probably because I grew up in Valletta where fuq il-bejt (‘on the roof’ – although in this usage the Maltese ‘bejt’ retains the meaning of the original Arabic word for ‘house’) was the equivalent of a secret garden. To a child, it was a magical world of peeling paint, ventilator vents that dropped off into a black underworld, and forests of TV antennae.

That, and the nature. There were pots of cactus that looked old and shrivelled but was never entirely dead. The weathered stone seemed grey and dull from a distance but up close it was a canvas of colourful, and very much alive, lichens. Geckos and sparrows were regulars and the autumn months brought white wagtails, black redstarts and the occasional robin. I once even saw a hoopoe on our roof.

All of which means that I look forward tremendously to the Faculty for the Built Environment’s own green roof. (Happily, my room at University overlooks the faculty buildings.) I’m familiar with the concept in Switzerland, where city buildings are often topped with a layer of alpine grasses and such, and I can really see how this might work in Malta.

That’s partly because of the historical legacy of fuq il-bejt I mentioned earlier, partly because the local garigue and steppe vegetation (xagħri) lends itself. It doesn’t need much soil and it can survive the full blast of a Maltese summer with very little watering. It also happens to be species-rich, sculptural, and often aromatic and colourful.

The thought of thyme and spurge growing on roofs reconnects me to that childhood world of geckos and lichens, as well as to later love affairs with the wild xagħri of Comino. If habitation is ideally about an affective and memory-rich attachment to a building which is itself in harmony with the landscape, this would be the paragon.

The second point raised by the rector seemed rather far-flung at first. Fact is that we like to build outward and increasingly upward, but seldom downward.

The answer to that is that people are not generally in a hurry to move underground before they absolutely have to. That, and the notion that bunkers are for dictators.

Except I don’t think Prof. Camilleri was referring to wenge-themed hypogeums, troglodytic kitchen islands, or Saddam Hussein’s last days. Rather, things like car parks and such necessary evils are the obvious candidates. There was an idea for an underground car park outside Valletta once, only it ended up very plein air and very ugly indeed.

Be that as it may, below ground is not necessarily the strict preserve of functional but unsightly services. Once again, Switzerland provides some inspiration. Which is hardly surprising, considering that a chunk of that country is made up of slopes.

Two places come to mind. The first is Peter Zumthor’s spa complex at Vals in Canton Graubünden, where a low-profile linear building in perfect harmony with the hillside gives way to a set of chambers cut out of the granite. It’s a masterclass in the use of materials, space, and natural light that has (rightly) made Zumthor a household name.

The second is Mario Botta’s Centre Dürrenmatt in the botanical garden that overlooks the city of Neuchâtel. I once lived right next door and never once stopped marvelling at the way the architect had managed to bring natural light to an underground gallery of Dürrenmatt’s paintings.

There was nothing gloomy about the place at all. On the contrary, the subterranean location added a psychological twist to the exhibition. (Dürrenmatt is best known as a writer and his paintings are intimate portraits of his subconscious.)

Cut to the vulgar barriera quddiem il-katidral (a quarry in front of the cathedral), which was the language used to shoot down ideas for an underground museum in Valletta a few years ago. Never mind things like design and names like Zumthor and Botta, an underground space can only be a barriera.

The model seems to be one of buildings that conquer and dominate the landscape, as opposed to spaces of reciprocity

The philistine mindset is a double slap in the face. First, to a legacy of underground spaces that includes the Tarxien hypogeum, Għar il-Kbir, and most of Valletta itself (pace Edward Said’s recent fascinating book). Second, to experiments in a similar vein by contemporary Maltese architects.

What I find tragic about Mistra, for example, is that it comes a full 30 years after Richard England’s Festaval tourist village in Mellieħa. Rather along the lines of Charles Correa’s late 1960s-early 1970s hotel projects in south India, England designed a complex that, while not exactly invisible, at least respected the topography and seemed to grow out of it.

England went even further in his designs for a chapel carved right into the cliff face facing Filfla. It was never actually built (cut?) but it would have been a tremendous addition to Prof. Camilleri’s notions of underground spaces that are not necessarily car parks or boiler rooms.

Subterranean Valletta, Festaval, and the Filfla chapel were then. Mistra, with its outrageous disregard of topography and pig-headed use of space, is now. I find that a pretty damning indictment of the way Malta is going, in spite of our substantial band of innovative and sensitive architects.

The model seems to be one of buildings that conquer and dominate the landscape, as opposed to spaces (green or underground or otherwise) of reciprocity. I wish I could say they’ll age badly and are therefore low on added value. Truth is that when they do age badly (and they will) they’ll simply be knocked down for another killing.

Perhaps the rector should invite a few developers, and the people at Mepa, for Christmas drinks and smokes in his office at University. Wouldn’t that be a party worth an impeachment or two?

mafalzon@hotmail.com

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