Wooden spoon for architecture - Mark Anthony Falzon
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Wooden spoon for architecture - Mark Anthony Falzon

There was a time when the candidate who got the lowest marks in the mathematics finals at Cambridge would be awarded a wooden spoon by his fellow students. The practice itself survives only as a figure of speech, but it does have some living relatives.

So-called booby prizes are awarded annually to individuals who produce the worst and most idiotic work in their field. They tend to be parodies of awards for excellence. Thus, the Razzie Awards go to the worst in film, the IgNobel prizes to the most pointless scientific research, the Bad Sex In Fiction award to poorly-worded descriptions of sex in novels, and so on.

Which brings me to Malta. Last year, the Kamra tal-Periti (Chamber of Architects) launched the E.L. Galizia Awards for distinction in architectural design and civil engineering. A good idea, since one of the aims of the organisation is to steward and encourage quality among its members. Given the many practitioners who do come up with appealing work, I don’t expect potential recipients to be in short supply.

The problem is that the opposing camp is equally well populated. There appear to be many architects whose only loyalty is to their clients’ profit margins, and who will not hesitate to abuse the very thing they are qualified and responsible to protect. I came across at least two prime examples in the last couple of days alone.

The first is the proposal to put up a behemoth of apartments, shops and garages next to Fatima church in Pietà. Yawn and louder yawn there, to be sure, but this one’s particularly bad. It would completely twist the character of a quiet residential street in an area which has so far somehow escaped the madness, and which retains a good chunk of its old-world charm.

That, however, is not quite accurate, because one of the reasons why the place is so valuable is its wonderful collage of styles from different periods. One side of the street is lined with elegant and well-maintained early 20th century terraced townhouses. Right opposite, an old farmhouse-style building sits beside attractive examples of modernist architecture.

To Musumeci, it seems, ODZ is simply a designation to be defeated by the magnification of legal fine print

It is precisely this last that the developers are proposing to demolish to make way for their blessed flats. If they get their way, the first to go will be Villa Gauci, a sprawling detached house and a gem of vernacular modernist design set in an enormous orange grove.

That’s right, the proposed development would mean the outright destruction of the villa, the farmhouse and part of the garden. It would also plonk itself right next to  Fatima church and spoil its setting.

Thing is, behind this proposal there is an architect (or several). They will have spent five years at university studying the principles of design and looking at examples of good architecture, including those of the modernist kind. They will also have pledged to make good architecture their first responsibility, just as a priest does for the glory of God or a doctor for the health of their patients.

The second example is something Robert Musumeci said in his interview with Bertrand Borg last Wednesday week. Asked why he was the ‘king of ODZ’ – the architect most synonymous with successful applications for development in ODZ areas, that is, – Musumeci replied that he was ‘also a lawyer’, and that he was good at sniffing out legitimate legal means of getting his way, to his clients’ dividend.

I trust readers will appreciate just how chilling a reply that is. In his own words, Musumeci represents the rise of the lawyer-architect, a type who will use their know­ledge of the law to obtain the unobtainable: development permits on ODZ land.

At no point in his reply did Musumeci refer to architecture, the value of undeve­loped land, or his responsibility to them. His argument was limited to the law, and he even said it was his standard practice to argue his cases in court. To him, it seems, ODZ is simply a designation to be defeated by the magnification of legal fine print.

The lawyer-architect, then, is the equiva­lent of the priest who doesn’t believe in God, or the doctor who thinks that everyone has to die anyway. It is a profession that has shed all reference and responsibility to the discipline, in this case architecture. In the land of the lawyer-architect, building permits have nothing to do with buildings and everything to do with the law.

Now I shudder to think what these un­obtainable obtainables do to case law, and how they effectively make redundant the policies put together in good faith by gene­rations of planners. My argument, however, is awards.

Based on the evidence of two examples in as many days, I think I’ve established that there would be a long line of proud claimants to a national booby prize in architecture. It follows that we must identify an awarding body, and I don’t expect the Kamra tal-Periti to be it. After all, the Razzies are not awarded by the Oscars academy, nor were wooden spoons officially dished out by the University of Cambridge.

And yet, if such an award is to make sense beyond a bit of parodic fun, it must be given by people who know their architecture. The ones that are really suitable for the purpose are architecture students at university. Wouldn’t it be splendid to spend an evening on campus, in white tie, blowing raspberries and laughing at the genius who is proposing to demolish Villa Gauci?

If policies don’t work, maybe public ridicule will. Still, there may be recipients who dig up some legal something or other to argue, in court and successfully, that wooden spoons are made of gold.

mafalzon@hotmail.com

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