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An introduction to 20th-century architecture

Richard England’s Manikata Chapel.

Richard England’s Manikata Chapel.

Mark G. Muscat: Maltese Architecture 1900-1970: Progress and Innovations.
Fondazzjoni Patrimonju Malti, 2016.

The architectural output of Malta in the 20th century was a varied and eclectic one. This subject matter has received the indepth scholarly attention of academics such as architectural historian Conrad Thake. However, it is also the subject of a recent publication by Mark G. Muscat that has stemmed from Muscat’s undergraduate thesis.

The Lyceum in Victoria designed by Joseph G. Huntingford.The Lyceum in Victoria designed by Joseph G. Huntingford.

Muscat is a graduate of the Architectural and Civil Engineering from the University of Malta. He then proceeded to study Architectural Photography at the Politecnico di Milano. In 2012 he read for a Masters Degree at the Bartlett School of Architecture at the University College London.

This book, titled Maltese Architecture 1900-1970: Progress and Innovations, is an analytical study of the private and domestic architecture in Malta in a large part of the 20th century. In it, Muscat records the creative flair of a period leading up to the Maltese Islands’ independence and its aftermath. Throughout these seven decades, Maltese and foreign architects experimented successfully with the aesthetics and the novel construction methods which created the modern built environment in Malta.

The text is beautifully illustrated with a large array of period photographs, drawings and plans as well as contemporary photographs

These were years of political unrest and turmoil for Malta, from which a series of interesting buildings emerged. It is an architecture that reflects this context and the society that produced it, and which eclipsed the 19th-century eclecticism in the arts and architecture.

The period under investigation is, of course, an eventful one, as Denis De Lucca put it in his foreword.

At the beginning of the historical period under question, Malta was a British colony, with ties to Italy, whose people were in search of a Maltese identity.

Italy was, of course, a great source of inspiration for the architectural enterprises being discussed, which is duly taken into consideration by the author, especially the monumental architecture of the Stile Littorio, that is closely associated with the Italian Fascists. In this vein, Muscat also goes into a discussion of Valletta’s City Gate.

The 1964 Independence of the Maltese islands brought about the ideal setting for the search of a national identity. This, and the motivation to delve into a more modern aesthetic, was propounded by the presence of British personalities who made Malta their home.

Painting of William B. Binneir's and Lewis V. Farrugia's design for Farsons new brewery. Photo: Simonds Farsons CIsk Plc)Painting of William B. Binneir's and Lewis V. Farrugia's design for Farsons new brewery. Photo: Simonds Farsons CIsk Plc)

These included artist Victor Pasmore and Scottish architect Sir Basil Spence, who were both interested in and intrigued by the local vernacular architectural tradition. Richard England’s Regionalist architecture then comes into the discussion.

The book is composed of six chapters that take the reader on a journey through the architecture, from Art Nouveau to the 1960s vernacular-inspired structures. The six parts of the book are Art Nouveau Beginnings, The Influence of Art Deco and Italian Futurism, The Fascist Interlude and Stile Littorio, New ideas, New Materials, New Possibilities, Post-war Manifestations and Regionalist Experiments.

As one can see from these titles, the book offers a chronological overview to an architecture that is diverse, a result of the many sources that influenced these buildings’ design.

The author also included sculptor Antonio Sciortino in his discussion, who contributed to the visual language of the time, as well as the artists who are briefly in the latter part of the discussion: namely Emvin Cremona and Pasmore himself. Similarly, art historian Vincenzo Bonello is also included for his 1939 Tribuna for the Eucharistic Congress and the Dar tal-Kleru.

Paradise Bay Hotel inauguration, designed by Richard England. Photo: DOIParadise Bay Hotel inauguration, designed by Richard England. Photo: DOI

Villa Roseville in Attard, designed by Alessandro Mannara.Villa Roseville in Attard, designed by Alessandro Mannara.

The text is adequately referenced throughout, and provides a useful insight into some 20h-century edifices of note on the islands.

As expected of a book on architectural history, the text is beautifully illustrated with a large array of period photographs, drawings and plans, as well as contemporary photographs, many of which were taken by the author himself. The layout is, therefore, very user-friendly.

The research was based on primary and secondary sources that included historical documents and interviews to the architects themselves whenever this was possible.

The book is well-written and a pleasure to read. However, while providing adequate information on the edifices discussed as well as the architects who designed them, it could have benefitted from a more in-depth and critical analysis of some themes. Another thing that is lacking ,in what is an otherwise good publication, is a conclusion that critically evaluates the major discussions tackled throughout the publication.

All in all, this publication pays adequate tribute to 20th-century architecture on the Maltese islands, even that which has, unfortunately, been lost. It is a great introduction for anyone interested in the subject and will certainly whet one’s appetite.

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