Valetta Judgement: Renzo Piano’s designs for the City Gate and Opera House of the Maltese capital city Valletta are recieving a mixed welcome
Malta is a speck in the Mediterranean with a rich history and a unique culture that blends Italian, Arabic and British influences. Both its old medieval capital Mdina and contemporary capital Valletta are UNESCO World Heritage sites and architectural marvels sculpted from the local soft, warm limestone that characterises its architecture.
The architectural radar usually overlooks this happy island but one project in particular stands out for its controversy: the parliament building/city gate/open-air theatre combo designed by Renzo Piano. Controversy is part and parcel of contemporary architecture, especially in historic centres, and it is a well-known fact that dictators are fond of enshrining their legacy in stone. However, few elected leaders have had the confidence to disregard the populace’s opinion and international law in equal measure in order to get a pet project constructed. Equally unusual is said project contributing to their election defeat, as the project managed for Malta’s erstwhile Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi last year.
The story goes back to 1985 when Malta’s government requested Piano’s advice for the rehabilitation of Valletta. UNESCO sponsored the architect’s visit and in 1989 an exhibition presented his proposals for an urban strategy including a redesign of Valletta’s historic City Gate. Piano’s gate was to be the fifth to stand on the impressive, immense stone walls that have protected the walled city since the 16th century. Its predecessor of Italian Rationalist design was completed in 1964 as part of a larger project that included redeveloping the nearby Royal Opera House, a much loved building designed by EM Barry dating from 1866. It was destroyed in the relentless bombardment by German and Italian forces in 1942 and became symbolic of the city, remaining in its ruinous state due to indecision and bureaucracy.
After Gonzi’s second election victory in 2008, he decided to complete this high-profile project, comprising the City Gate and Opera House, regardless of opposition. Despite the city’s Structure Plan stating that ‘A new Government administration centre will be developed outside Valletta to house most government departments, while Parliament itself and the ministries will concentrate in the palaces and auberges of Valletta’, the brief was augmented by the addition of a new parliament building. Originally this was to go on the site of the Opera House, but Piano argued that the site was too small and so should instead sit on the square located between it and the City Gate. Malta was now a member of the European Union, but no OJEU notice was published and Piano was commissioned directly.
The €82 million project is funded through a €40 million European Investment Bank loan, €25 million from direct government funding and €10 million from Malita Investments, a fully government owned company set up to ‘acquire and manage a portfolio of immovable assets of strategic national importance’ of which the City Gate project is the first.
From press reports and talking to local people, the project is massively unpopular, not only due to the familiar story of a modern building in a historic centre being considered inappropriate, but more due to the way it has been imposed on the city, especially when the population’s taxes will ultimately foot most of the bill.
Richard England, one of Malta’s most renowned architects, opined that ‘The project is Valletta’s beacon for the future. A masterly combination of elegance and strength. An excellent entrance with wonderful lateral staircases.’ I am inclined to agree. However he is ‘less enthusiastic about the theatre which seems to have lost some of the magic of its original concept’. I would not be so complimentary.
The whole project is due to be completed this year, but the open-air theatre (which is what the Opera House has become) was inaugurated last August. Piano’s website advertises it as a ‘restoration of the Opera House’, but it looks today more like a temporary pop-up theatre, completely at odds with its grand setting. The Parliament building promises more and the City Gate looks to be worthy of its World Heritage Site location.
Compounding the controversy further, the Maltese government failed to notify UNESCO of its intentions for the site before starting work and now the Cultural Organisation is deliberating whether the architectural intervention has so detracted from its Outstanding Universal Value that it should be removed from the World Heritage List. I can’t see this happening – I predict that the City Gate will become much loved, the Parliament Building accepted, and the open-air theatre rejected and re-regenerated. But it all goes to show that there’s more to architecture than simply placing one stone upon another.