When the old two-storey extension of St John’s Co-Cathedral, built in the 1960s fell into disrepair, most of the cathedral’s treasures went into storage and became invisible to the public. In 2013, architecture firm AP Valletta was commissioned to design a new extension for the museum to house not only the precious artefacts that were stored there but also the unique set of 29 tapestries based on the cartoons designed by Peter Paul Rubens that have recently been restored in Belgium.

As with any other project in Valletta, this new extension has attracted its fair share of criticism. 

Konrad Buhagiar, director of AP, who received the President’s Award for his architectural achievements in 2022, sees this criticism with the eyes of the famous Renaissance chronicler Giorgio Vasari who, in his Lives of the Artists, stated that people judge by their ears and not by their eyes.

This seems to be again the case, he says, since the criticism that is levelled today against the project is based only on the impact of an incomplete project. Besides, UNESCO, whose responsibility it is to ensure sensitive development in World Heritage Sites, has examined and approved the project, Buhagiar says.

When did the project commence, and what were the main stages? 

The museum project commenced in 2012, with the initial Planning Authority submission in 2015, followed by a transparent process of public consultation. Due to the extension’s archaeological, architectural, historical and town-planning sensitivity, approvals involved collaboration with local and international heritage authorities, including UNESCO.

After extensive discussions and UNESCO’s stamp of approval, a permit was issued in April 2016. The permitting process underwent scrutiny by an on-site advisory mission and expert evaluations by ICOMOS (International Council on Monuments and Sites) in 2015 and 2018. The meticulous incorporation of ICOMOS-proposed amendments demonstrates a dedicated commitment to preserving the monument’s cultural and historical integrity.

What are the next major targets?

After significant delays due to foundations that required strengthening and archaeological discoveries, the structure has finally emerged from the ground. The main space for the priceless tapestries is now taking shape above the stone remains of the old museum on the ground floor. The 10m-high, 50m-long concrete inner walls are complete and awaiting the installation of steel trusses that will serve to stabilise them and form the support of the sloping roof. Once these are installed, the sculpted stone outer wall will be assembled. The concrete spiral staircase leading to the tapestry chamber is currently being built. 

What was your vision for this project and how did the client respond to it? 

The new extension is not only required to create a space that guarantees the correct environment for the preservation of the museum’s delicate artefacts but also to serve as a symbol of the continuing presence of the Catholic Church as a spiritual guide for the people and an essential component of its identity. 

We required a space as large as the central nave of the cathedral for which the tapestries were originally designed and located on the site of the cathedral itself to further enhance its spiritual and religious importance. With this in mind, we designed the new structure in the form of a precious casket, a reinterpretation on a giant scale and in stone, of a reliquary containing the ‘Triumph of the Eucharist’, the theme of the baroque tapestries and the ultimate article of the Catholic faith.

Main consideration was how to create harmony between the new extension and the existing structures

What have been the main challenges in this project and how did you address them?

The first challenge was to work with the only space available to accommodate the large volume required to house the tapestries, that runs along the façade of Merchants Street. As if by divine intervention, the perimeter of the box that we envisioned accommodates the whole set of tapestries, except for the portrait of the donor himself, Grand Master Perellos, which will be hung in the centre of the space. 

Raising a 50m-long and 12m-high box onto the first floor with no support below, in order to preserve the view of the courtyard below, was another challenge, rendered even more daunting by the fact that this new extension could in no way rest on the historical structures.

Aside from the elaborate research methodology, what were the main considerations that you needed to take in your designs?

Considerations included the exhibition potential of the historical spaces available, the streetscape and new skyline, preserving the courtyard and technical issues such as climate control, safety and security, visitor flows and disability access, lighting, showcase design, signage and new technologies for information and education.

The main consideration, however, was how to create harmony between the new extension and the existing structures and how to create a new building that was timeless and, concurrently, of its time. This was achieved by using classical architectural motifs in a contemporary way, thus guaranteeing a seamless absorption of the new building into the streetscape.

The old with the new.... Will this project manage to strike the right balance?

Architecturally, the new building is inspired by classical elements that have been manipulated unconventionally to be recognisable as unapologetically of their time. 

Rotated pilasters that create rhythm, depth, perspective and texture will contribute to the overall effect of a container of precious things − as something at once mysterious and divine. The project is centred around the interface between the old and the new, the classical and the contemporary to inspire awe and spirituality. 

What past experiences have contributed to/inspired your planning and conceptualisation of this project?

I can say that Italian architectural monuments such as Alberti’s Cappella Rucellai in Santa Maria Novella and Michelangelo’s Biblioteca Laurenziana in Florence, Grimaldi’s Sant’Andrea della Valle and Borromini’s trompe l’oeil in Palazzo Spada in Rome are the inspiration behind the project. They are masterpieces in stone that marry sculpture, architecture, bas-relief, perspective and scenography. The church of St Augustine in Old Bakery Street, Valletta, is also an important reference. A small project by AP Valletta for a residence in San Pawl tat-Tarġa, which has recently been completed, is based on the same principle.

As with past projects, this project will again carry the AP identity with it. What will be the ‘AP signature’ to this project?

A good part of our research is centred on the qualities that make buildings timeless. We strive to produce work that is built for longevity and that by time, remains relevant. We also seek to understand why the buildings of the ancients continue to inspire awe. We would like to emulate these qualities and embed them in our own buildings. If buildings are designed to be beautiful, then the chances are that they will be admired, cared for and will last much longer in time.

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