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New ways to remove old buildings

The latest catchword is 'dangerous structure'

The old Sea Malta building. Photo: Modernist Malta, published by the Kamra tal-Periti

The old Sea Malta building. Photo: Modernist Malta, published by the Kamra tal-Periti

Think of a historic building and imagine an internal ceiling is found to have rotten or unstable beams.  Or perhaps some pillars look unsafe. Would you agree that this is enough to knock down the entire building, or rather that the ceiling or pillars should be immediately repaired?

You’ve got to hand it to them. Our developers, under the supposed watch of the Planning Authority, are always devising ingenious ways to knock down historic buildings.

The latest catchword is ‘dangerous structure’. A Development (Removal of Danger) Order is issued, and contractors promptly move in with trucks to demolish the entire thing.

In reality, the law does not allow this type of permit to be used in a way which affects the integrity of a historic building. Any works are to be limited to the removal of the danger itself, and not to knock down other parts as well. A ceiling with unstable beams does not extend to total destruction. But be careful. Give a slice and they may take the whole cake.

WATCH: Workers send Villa St Ignatius balcony crashing down

Instead of just removing or repairing any dangerous parts of the building, at St Ignatius Villa in Balluta last week a developer carried on, targeting an entire wing of the villa. There are probably plans to develop the site.

There was an outcry to stop the demolition, with photos and videos circulating on Facebook and reports in the newspapers. The Planning Authority was immediately alerted, but still the first floor and balcony have disappeared.

The former Sea Malta/NAAFI building at Marsa was also recently issued with a permit for the removal of dangerous structures. This is a fine Modernist building, part of Malta’s architectural history.

The Planning Authority claimed that the condition of the building posed a danger to the operation of the Port. It did not insist on repairs but agreed to the removal of the structure.

But the Kamra tal-Periti (Chamber of Architects) objected, insisting that the report also said that the Sea Malta building was ‘not financially feasible’ to repair, which is a different argument altogether.  It noted drily that this “is not the way to treat our diminishing Modernist heritage … Real estate is more profitable than restoring heritage buildings.”

The PA then requested that the front end of the Sea Malta building with the clock tower is retained ‘as it is not in imminent danger of collapse’, but a significant part of the structure was still given over to the demolishers.

The Kamra tal-Periti has said that the behaviour of the PA “can only be described as an utter disgrace.”

At both Sea Malta and St Ignatius Villa, it had to be the public, the architects and NGOs to shout out for the brakes to be applied, and to play the role of watchdogs. The PA shrugged off or downplayed the cultural value of the buildings.

The regulatory authorities were either inept, complacent, or willing to allow buildings of historic importance to be damaged or destroyed.

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