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Another misconception about planners - Anthony Ellul

The Malta Chamber of Planners refers to the report ‘Planners should use standard building for future construction, urban development seminar told’ (November 22). It cannot but note that once again there is a misconception about planners.

It is not the role of planners to design buildings. Planners formulate policies and planning parameters to guide the design of buildings within specific contexts. It is the architect’s role to apply such policies and parameters and use his creativity in coming up with buildings which respect more the streetscape and urban skyline.

As the Guardian of Future Generations, Maurice Mizzi should know there are planning policies, particularly in the Development Control Design Policy Guidance documents, including the one recently approved in 2015, and in various local plans, especially where building heights are concerned, that guide building design.

The Development Control Design Policy Guidance and Standards 2015 provides guidance with regard to contextual design, urban form, architectural quality and architectural elements. The problem is in their application and very often how one tries to surpass these parameters to achieve one’s ultimate development aim.

Most architects rarely see the wider urban context and focus mainly on their particular building to meet requirements set by their clients, resulting in streetscapes which are a mix of different designs and architectural elements that instead of offering a pleasant streetscape create a negative visual impact.

Nonetheless, the chamber does not agree applying a template, thus limiting the architect’s creativity. Architects should take into account the context and streetscape and common architectural elements of existing buildings in applying their creativity in designing new buildings.

That is where creativity comes in. Rather than just producing a design which on paper would look good and interesting but when placed in the context of the existing streetscape will not be harmonious, architects should seek designs that integrate well with the existing context in terms of openings, architectural features, colour, etc. Even though the building is not similar to the adjacent, yet there are elements in the new building that reflect existing elements, thus resulting in a building that integrates well with adjacent ones.

The Planning Authority, then Mepa, carried out a street categorisation exercise years ago, within the urban conservation areas where streets were classified with regard to the quality of the streetscape. 

This categorisation for Sliema and St Julian’s had in fact been approved as part of the North Harbour Local Plan. Streets classified Class A still had a pristine urban morphology that justified the highest level of protection while Class C streets presented differing elements, resulting from past development approvals, which permitted new designs, yet which still had to respect and improve the existing context.

So the planning parameters for ensuring that streetscapes are preserved and improved and to ensure that new buildings are designed within the context of the existing streetscape are in place. Whether they are being applied by those taking decisions at the Planning Authority is another question.

Despite the parameters and guidance new buildings are being designed without any relationship with the context and very often the same design for buildings is applied irrespective of whether the building is located in the traditional locality of Marsaxlokk or whether it is in Buġibba and Qawra.

The chamber does not think that having a template, as suggested, is the right solution to achieving improved streetscapes.

What is needed is more sensitivity to the context and streetscape by those who design buildings, being more creative when applying the existing policies and more attention when approving such buildings.

Creativity is achieved by designing a building that integrates well with the context and streetscape.

This may not necessarily be a carbon copy of the existing buildings but architectural, fenestration and other facade elements are designed with respect to the streetscape, resulting in a pleasant and harmonious urban environment.

Anthony Ellul is general secretary, Malta Chamber of Planners.

This is a Times of Malta print opinion piece

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