Friday, 3 July 2009

Piano Andante

3rd July 2009

The Malta Independent - Friday Wisdom

We have been discussing the plan for Valletta City Gate practically from the very moment the present awful gate was built in the 1960s. Now it is time to move on and pass from talk to action. We are never going to have a project which achieves perfect consensus and Piano’s latest proposal comes as close to it as possible.

So to borrow a phrase from Nike – just do it!

This is not to say that even to my architecturally amateurish eyes the project does not have some points of interrogation. But it is simply to say that the project has many positives which should overturn any reservations, which however should still be considered, if at all possible.

Let’s start with the positives. The new entrance to Valletta with a virtual open sky gate is a stroke of genius. The redevelopment of the bridge and landscaping of the underlying ditch into public gardens accessible through panoramic lift from the main gate is pleasing to the eye and emphasises the majesty of the fortifications.

The conversion of the Barry remains into an open air theatre, protecting for posterity what has now become a part of our history is a very practical solution which skirts the great debate of what to erect in its place and gives to Valletta a place for cultural activities without getting yet another over-powering building.

Equally impressive is the open space provided near the St Catherine of Siena Church on the South Street side of the project. Apart from creating valuable ground space for the activities going on in the theatre it makes the recently renovated St Catherine’s Church stand out and gives further access to the Auberge D’Italie.

That is where my homage to Piano stops. For the rest I have great reservations about two ‘sins’ of the project. One is a sin of omission and the other a sin of commission. Let me start with the sin of omission as I think it is probable that it is due only to the limitation of the brief given to Piano rather than a slip which is otherwise inexplicable.

I am here referring to the total silence about the access to City Gate from the Floriana side including the bus terminus and other car parking arrangement. The project would be grossly incomplete if the pedestrian access to it is not incorporated as a critical component. I am literally fed up of having to negotiate my life twice every working day with a handful of bus drivers as I walk from the MCP car park to Valletta and back. I would much rather walk in a traffic free access zone so that I can pin my gaze with admiration on the Valletta fortifications and eventually on the Piano re-designed bridge and entrance.

Obviously this has to include enhanced provision for parking outside, and shuttling to, Valletta in the belief that the new vehicular access will continue to make it ever less possible for non-residents to park inside Valletta.

The bazaar outside City Gate must be addressed. If underground parking/terminus outside City Gate can be created the kiosks have to be pushed down there as happens in most metropolises. Please do not give us a ‘jewel’ in a soiled wrapper.

However, my major reservation about the Piano project is the proposed parliament building in Freedom Square. I am not against having a new parliament building incorporated in project. I had already opined in this column in favour of the parliament being erected on the present royal theatre site. Piano’s idea to reserve this site for open air theatre is admittedly better so somehow Piano had to squeeze the parliament building somewhere else in the project.

And squeeze it he did in the one of the few open spaces remaining in Valletta by planting it in Freedom Square. I am sorry but this is just crazy. Not because there is anything wrong in having a parliament building in the City entrance; but because Valletta needs more not less open spaces. Freedom Square should be a people’s parliament not a representative’s parliament. It should be where people meet, talk, discuss, argue, demonstrate, and do whatever is democratically allowed in the pursuit of freedom of expression. And this can be done in a pleasant environment with full view of St James Bastions by redeveloping exactly as Piano has suggested but without parliament dual building, which should be replaced by landscaped gardens instead of the present car park cum shopping complex.

Parliament can still be housed at City Gate. It should address the other flaw in Piano’s plans i.e. the fact that he did not ‘touch’ the City gate shopping complex and overlying housing estate that is so out of place right at the City entrance. I can only presume that this was a red circle included in government’s brief; and if this is so it shows lack of determination to do what’s right rather what is popular.

This eyesore should be developed as the site for a new parliament building in a way which opens up vistas to St John’s Cavalier as the twin to St James.

The residents in the City gate complex should be re-housed in a more suitable location in full respect to their tenancy rights without compromise to the larger good of the whole community. The same applies to the commercial outlets that would need to be re-located. The common good should prevail but individual rights should be respected through fair compensation or adequate re-location.

Whatever the reservations it is time to move on.

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