Malta’s capital Valletta has rarely been out of the news this past year. Renzo Piano’s plans for the City Gate area have focused attention on Valletta as never before. Notte Bianca, a night-long street life cum culture and arts’ festival held the first Saturday in October (this year, on 3rd), is one of several, now calendar events aimed at giving Valletta back its lifeblood; its raison d’etre in the evenings, when shops are shuttered and businesses closed.
It’s timely then to pause and consider where we’d all like Valletta to go; what we’d like it to be…
And there are few people better placed to voice an opinion on Valletta as a capital, a city, a human-social space and a historic monument than David Felice. David is a leading partner in Architecture Project (AP), a network of architectural practices with offices in London, Malta and Croatia. He spent part of his childhood in Valletta and is passionate about the city. Below, we kindly reproduce key elements of a longer article he penned on the city’s role and regeneration.
What does Valletta want to become when it grows up?
Valletta has again become a topic for debate, as always. This also the result of a silent revolution, of measurable change, that is due to mostly spontaneous interventions rather than the implementation of some complex masterplan…or is it? Political leaders have throughout history recognised that the ultimate legacy of their administration is the mark they manage to leave on their cities. Cities are primarily political statements – it is within cities that ideas are generated.
The history of cities consists of experiences constantly being arranged in layers marking time and, in relation to these, a new generation can demonstrate its capability to emulate the past. Besides, architecture never is completely finished or perfect. Imperfection is life and it is use by people that completes architecture.
Valletta: always a place for new ideas
One of the things that always surprises me about Valletta is its yet unrecognised, but marked, historical capability to change to meet new challenges and to host new ideas. Valletta was built as a military machine. Peaceful times, the positioning of authority and power within it, its location on the water that brought commerce and trade, all these and many other factors turned it into a city.
Buildings of later centuries arrived to celebrate Valletta’s commercial purpose. They had their place, but naturally changed the city’s architectural homogeneity. The Chamber of Commerce Building in Republic Street, for example, is reminiscent of exchange houses that graced cities throughout Europe in the nineteenth century, as is the market building in Merchants Street with its cast iron and glass structure, built so soon after the construction of the Crystal Palace in London. Important buildings or building projects are often controversial and frequently feed off the urban tensions present in any city.
The city state – a ‘Greater Valletta’
The walls of Valletta are static but its boundaries are constantly changing. The separation between the fortified towns around the harbours and the villages that dotted the Maltese landscape, is no more. Indeed the opportunity that presents itself today is to interpret the current physical situation as one of a Valletta in close liaison with a Greater Valletta, made up of the vast urban area that has developed and grown around the fortified capital.
Does this mean anything? It certainly does. It would develop the as yet untapped potential of the Valletta brand; and it provides inspiration to other urban areas, outside Valletta, with the parallel of a quality built environment within the existing historic fabric and raises the challenge to provide similar standards by new development. Above all, this fertilisation of ideas, also releases pressure from the inner city and allows overspill of activity to areas outside it – not everything needs to be in Valletta, if the areas around it become capable of supporting it.
This is a process has already happened in history; indeed what a great event it must have been to see the first buildings erected outside the walls of Valletta.
What would make a ‘Greater Valletta’ unique?
What are those factors that would make it special, much in the same way as other, even larger, more complex cities have identified for themselves? Milan is based on very specific factors which are known to all, simple determining characteristics like design quality, fashion, football; or Barcelona with Gaudi’s buildings, the ramblas and its harbour.
What would these characteristics be for Valletta, or rather for a Valletta branded as a city representing a larger region, a city of comparable size and population to many good quality small European cities, like Toulouse or Maastricht? Is it a Jazz Festival or a carnival? Is it a Caravaggio city? Could it be a transport system? Could it be turned into a university town, where the streets become the campus?
What others say, beyond our shores
It is of course, always interesting to find out the way others look at us. Monocle Magazine, a must read glossy with, quote, a cool eye on the world, identified Malta in its January 2008 issue, entitled ‘The Forces of the Future’, as one of five territories to watch. Monocle prides itself to report on people, policies, trends, states and games that will shape the years ahead. Let’s see whether Valletta will earn its mention – time will tell.
David’s article above is based on a lecture he gave for Valletta450
Photo: Gege Gatt