Death by renaissance

'Valletta is as Renaissance or baroque a city as Rome is a classical one'. Photo: In Green/Shutterstock

'Valletta is as Renaissance or baroque a city as Rome is a classical one'. Photo: In Green/Shutterstock

Angelo Xuereb has a 10-year master plan for Valletta. It’s actually a few badly-written pages of half-baked ideas and what looks like a page from a colouring book (five-star hotels in blue, promenades in green, and so on), but there are two reasons why it’s worth writing about at all.

First, because it made the news. Although it was hard not to see the tongue-shaped bump on Ivan Martin’s cheek in this newspaper’s report on July 31, there was no such relief elsewhere. Second, because many of the proposals are based on a kind of thinking about Valletta that Xuereb sadly has no monopoly over. It follows that his 13 pages of atrocious grammar and syntax will resonate more than they ought to.

Throughout, Xuereb refers to Valletta as a ‘Renaissance capital’. It was a baroque city until last week, but never mind. The point is that Valletta is as Renaissance or baroque a city as Rome is a classical one, or Bombay an English fort. It has elements of both, but only as part of a history that is much more diverse. It is precisely that diversity that makes Valletta rich. It would not be the same city without the gridiron plan or the baroque façades, but nor would it be recognisable without the mock funeral held by tas-City supporters whenever their team wins the championship.

Xuereb is not alone in trying to cram Valletta into the straitjacket of historical reductionism. The same happens when learned men describe it as the city of the knights, or one built by gentlemen for gentlemen. There are at least three problems with this.

First, it is highly annoying. The ‘gentlemen’ cliché, for example, is sexist and elitist drivel that makes me want to commit murder. Second, it is historically rubbish, because Valletta is not a city that was built in a decade and then frozen in time. Rather, it displays a breadth of architectural styles, urban models, and social currents (so much for the gentlemen). Even such an apparently-uniform thing as the fortifications is, in fact, the result of hundreds of years of work and innovation.

Angelo Xuereb’s Valletta would be a much wealthier but greatly impoverished city

Third, and most consequentially, to say that Valletta is Renaissance or baroque is to privilege that aspect of the city at the expense of all the rest. It is the kind of narrow-mindedness that very nearly cost us Piano. Piano, readers will remember the sages telling us, is not baroque, and had no business to be in a baroque city. Perhaps he is closer to Renaissance (he does have a beard), but I doubt it.

Xuereb’s plan is, in fact, obsessively reductionist. For example, he recommends the demolition of the social housing block at City Gate. He thinks it’s an eyesore, that it obstructs the view of the ‘magnificent’ St John’s Cavalier, and that it robs the entrance to Valletta of its ‘Wow! effect’, whatever he means by that.

Now it so happens that people live in that block. What Xuereb calls an eyesore they call home, and in any case, the welfare value of evicting people every time someone needs eye drops is debatable. But let’s leave that minor point aside.

It is telling that Xuereb’s sore vision of a vast open space flanked by two majestic cavaliers was first proposed by – wait for it – Norman Lowell. That bundle of pure genetic material is not particularly well known for his accommodating and broad notions of history. In fact, he rather peddles the grandiose version in which ‘Piazza Imperium’ (he calls it that) would reflect our knightly and noble legacy. Something tells me that Lowell would settle for Renaissance – as long as the proles are booted out, that is.

If Xuereb had his way, the eyesore homes at City Gate would not be the only case of collateral damage. He also has plans for the primary school at St Elmo, which “can be demolished and a car park for the hotel built beneath it, with the school being rebuilt on top of the car park”. Which must be wonderful news to the non-Renaissance residents of Valletta. Evicted from their homes, they would drop their children off at a school built over a hotel car park. Splendid.

Nor are public buildings Xuereb’s only target. ‘Underutilised convents’, too, make his eyes water. He has a problem with “enormous convents where only a handful of nuns live”. (Why not also the ones where a handful of friars live, Mr Xuereb?) These wasted spaces, he suggests, could be converted into old people’s homes or childcare centres that would “earn the Church additional income”. Of course, the nuns “can have their own section”. Which is nice.

I hardly know where to start on this one. First, convents are private places and none of Xuereb’s business. Certainly the generations of nuns and friars who have lived in them have done a far better job of maintaining their buildings than Xuereb and his contractor friends have theirs. Second, the convents are not owned by the diocese and do not earn the Church any income. Third, there happily is such a thing as the monastic life, and it does not obey the logic of using space for maximum income.

Not that Xuereb will understand this, because his master plan sees Valletta as a kind of dairy cow and just that. In fact, the only reason why old people’s homes and childcare centres would be located in convents is that Xuereb has other plans for public buildings. Predictably, they are for Evans Building, the Auberge of Bavaria, the House of Catalunya, lower St Elmo, Palazzo Ferreria and Boffa Hospital to be turned into boutique hotels; as he puts it: “the more the merrier”. So much for planning, then.

Like many others of his type, Xuereb would have the whole of Valletta commodi­fied. The master plan crawls with things like superyacht marinas, dinner cruises at night, restaurants of a high standard, shops selling designer clothes, executive car parks, and so on. No wonder he has little time for social housing and the principles of the monastic life.

Angelo Xuereb’s Valletta would be a much wealthier but greatly impoverished city. He would be well-advised to stick to building eyesore hotels in Qawra, planning golf courses at Tal-Virtu, and being one of a handful of people in a vast villa with plenty of underutilised space.

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