The world-renowned Italian architect, commissioned to design the entrance to Valletta, is pleased the project is "public" and "clear" - free from the commercial element and the "compromise and confusion" of the original brief.

Renzo Piano, who was in Malta yesterday to revisit the area, the first project having been shelved some 20 years ago, harped on the fact that it was a "public project about civic pride and civic sense", incorporating culture too.

The previous project, which dates back to the late 1980s and fell through by 1992 due to growing criticism, attempted to "combine the sacred and the profane", but ended up with an overdose of the latter, he said.

"Without wanting to sound arrogant, we are lucky to be in a position to only work on what we believe in and we prefer public buildings to commercial, built from public finances that are being spent on the community."

In keeping with the civic raison d'être, Mr Piano said having Parliament in Freedom Square brought in a public function and "made sense".

The brief is to turn the old Royal Opera House ruins into a multi-purpose building that would host Parliament and also have a cultural role. But its relocation to the site from the President's Palace is currently the most controversial issue of the project, and Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi yesterday said the use of the building was yet to be decided.

"Culture should be part of the project too, having the same values as Parliament. The latter is about administering the country and the former about fertilising city life," Mr Piano said.

Speaking at the Hotel Phoenicia yesterday evening, Mr Piano could not yet shed much light on the way Valletta's entrance would look when the project is completed in four years, but said it would not be just a beautification process - it would be an exercise in bringing life.

Together with Renzo Piano Building Workshop senior partner Bernard Plattner, he toured the entrance to Valletta - "a great city of great value" - to refresh the thoughts that have been brewing for three months, and be aware of dimensions, proportions and uses.

"If you have an ear to listen, Valletta has lots of stories to tell..."

Those whispers are telling him that the baroque city is not about big, open spaces, but about "intensity and compression". Freedom Square is too empty, Mr Piano said.

"When you enter, you should not find an open space; neither should you find shops, but something culturally and civically important."

Unhappy with the word traditional, Mr Piano said "modern is the only way to go, but it does not mean you have to be aggressive".

The logic of modernity was based on building layers that represented different times, without destroying them and respecting what was good, he explained.

Mr Piano said Valletta had remained in his heart since he had embarked on the original project. The connection lay in "romantic" notions: the Mediterranean Sea, which the architect could relate to, being born and bred in Genoa that "shares the same waters". He saw the sea as a linking element, rather than dividing.

It was an "incredible sensation" that the sea was visible from almost anywhere in Valletta, he said.

Filling the ditch with water was not really an option, but Mr Piano entertained the idea of turning it into another way to enter the civic centre, whereby visitors would walk up along the "fantastic" walls and a lift could elevate them to Republic Street.

Building an underground car park was not on the cards either - "the more space for vehicles, the more you attract".

As yet, Mr Piano was still considering any possible options for the rebuilding of the Opera House site, and as regards the materials he would use, he said it would be hard to escape stone, but it was too early to go into that.

Mr Piano said Valletta was the Manhattan of the 16th century - "although that would be a sacrilege: It is Manhattan that copied Valletta!"

He arrived yesterday morning and leaves today. Infrastructure Minister Austin Gatt, who was also at the press conference, said the government was honoured that the acclaimed architect had accepted the commission to revisit Valletta's entrance and rebuild a part of Maltese history that has been an "open wound" for so long.

The brief includes intervention on City Gate, the bridge, ditch and the old Opera House site, which should house Parliament and also have a cultural function. It does not, however, include intervention on the flats in Freedom Square, but could possibly lightly touch the arcades, Dr Gatt said.

Mr Piano's scheme should be presented by April and the entire project completed in four years.

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