Anyone visiting Ħaġar Qim and Mnajdra Temples may be taken aback by the construction works under way and the steel structure protruding from the car park. But the centre, which is taking shape, is the fruit of finely tuned and tweaked plans that hit the drawing board five years ago and should have minimal impact on the landscape, while meeting the needs of a World Heritage Site.
It has been a long process, kicking off with an international design competition in 2003, and the visitors' centre should be fully functional by the second half of 2009, drifting from the original target by about year. The delay is due to constant revisions to ensure that it would be as low as possible, said Heritage Malta's senior curator of prehistoric sites, Reuben Grima.
"There is nothing that is larger than it needs to be," he said. In fact, the end result is an overall floor area 10 times smaller (850 square metres) than the original brief, and does not break the skyline and horizon when viewed from Ħaġar Qim, meaning any astronomical phenomena would not be altered.
The new visitors' centre is also going to house the "first ever purpose-built space on any archaeological site in Malta designed and devoted expressly to schoolchildren," Dr Grima said.
Hopefully, it would be the first of many, he said, stressing the importance of pedagogy, a priority at Heritage Malta. The number of school groups visiting the temples was much less than desired, but given the existing facilities, it was not surprising, Dr Grima said.
The volume of the facilities required has been reduced drastically to the essentials expected on a World Heritage Site, he said, pointing at the only "sub-human" facilities now in existence - a couple of mobile toilets, plonked at the entrance to Ħaġar Qim.
The megalithic temples rec-eive over 100,000 visitors annually, but the potential for growth is immense - so decent bathrooms have been given pride of place in the project.
Other facilities in the visitors' centre include an auditorium for an audio-visual introduction and an exhibition space, displaying related artifacts that are currently at the Museum of Archaeology. Having interpretation on site is essential but so is the need for a space close by to complement and consolidate it, Dr Grima maintained.
The project has received mixed reactions, Dr Grima admitted, and the question of whether it was needed has been raised. But he believes in the rationale employed, having weighed the alternatives.
"The idea is to create a structure that would serve the needs of the next century - something that is, all too often, not taken into account in projects of the sort, and the result is trying to catch up with ever-changing needs.
"It is by far the worst moment to judge the building - you can see the full volume, but just its skeleton. It is like judging a person on the basis of a handshake with their bones."
As regards the location, the existing car park was larger than the needs of the site, and the building rests on the bedrock - the lowest level that would avoid forbidden rock cutting.
The ground floor is the lowest acceptable and a tall person can actually touch the ceiling. It has been built in the space where the rock levels dipped, to avoid any excavation works.
On the contrary, the main floor has a high ceiling due to passive climate control requirements in view of energy consumption and costs - a fundamental design principle that allows it to have a low carbon footprint. It has no air conditioners but heavy insulation and will be making maximum use of natural light.
Despite the height of the main floor, however, the terrace of the restaurant above the car park, a benchmark for the centre's height, overlooks its roof.
The €4.6 million project, financed by the European Regio-nal Development Fund 2004-2006, would have cost an "astronomical" four times what was available had a larger building been constructed in the quarry beyond Mnajdra, requiring a new access road and car park - a non-starter also for other reasons, including altering the visitor experience if the area was opened up to traffic from both ends.
Meanwhile, the shelters over the temples should be installed between September and November and the groundwork is being laid.