Expedition and photography producer, writer, and blogger HELEN JONES-FLORIO shudders at the sight of another building permit proposing to cement Malta's architecture.
I first arrived on the island of Malta, three years ago, with my husband, photographer, Jason Florio, after he got a call to come to document the migrant and refugees rescues in the Mediterranean and the Aegean, for a local NGO.
We had been living and working in West Africa, on various assignments and personal photography projects. The contrast between living in a developing country to one that appeared to be an overload of concrete and glass, multistory structures, was stark.
In Malta's defence, Tigne Point, Sliema, was our first port of call. For those who know the green and beige edifice, will almost surely understand my first (mis)impressions.
I seriously wondered what would inspire me to get my camera out. Yet, thankfully, within those first few days, I discovered "the doors" - Malta's beautifully decaying, colourful, vestiges of its history.
To find my bearings, I walked… and I walked. It’s the only way that I know to get a real sense of any place I've ever landed in. So, leaving the vast concrete and glass apartment complex, perched on a peninsula, I turned down one
narrow side-street after another – off the main drag of Sliema – and the true architectural beauty of Malta began to reveal itself.
During those first days on the island, my unintentional 'Disappearing Malta‘ series began to take shape and I've been photographing the doors and facades of the old structures ever since.
I now have a growing obsession to capture the decaying beauty of the abandoned Maltese houses of character, closed up shops, warehouses, and so on, should they disappear completely.
I'm fascinated by the hues, the textures, the varying stages of dilapidation, the intricate details in the many designs of the doors, the history – who lived in a house like that? What happened to them? Does the house belong to anyone,
Each and every door or facade has a story - and, someone, somewhere on the island can tell it. And, I want to see what’s behind the doors – hence, I’m often peeking through letterboxes, and broken windows!
I hail from England, steeped in history, where millions of people flock from all over the world, every single day, to see our historic buildings. Our heritage. Yet, often, I have to be reminded of this – when a friend from abroad comes to
visit and wants me to do the tourist thing with them.
Our local band club bar was recently closed down, to make room for yet another new bar/restaurant
Do I have to? But, it’s then that I realise how much I take it all for granted. So, I do understand that it’s easy to become blasé about what surrounds us – become oblivious to the beauty that is there, right in front of us, until that is, it’s gone. For good.
I'm not saying that Malta should live in the past. I get the need for development. In many cases, it has to happen to propel an economy forward.
But, having lived long-term in two major capitals, London and New York, where ‘rejuvenation’, ‘gentrification’, ‘generi-fication’ - however you want to tag it - has left its mark, which sadly, all too often means taking something away.
A place begins to lose its character, its personality, communities dissipate. For
example, our local band club bar was recently closed down, to make room for yet another new bar/restaurant (in an area that is already overwhelmed with them).
Where have all those now-familiar to us faces - whose local it has been for decades long before we arrived - gone now? These meeting places (much like the bantaba’s in West Africa - often simply a crudely-made wooden platform beneath the shade of a huge tree - where the community meets to talk anything from politics, to farming, to local gossip) are an integral part of any
community - the glue that holds it together.
I'm sure that some of the old buildings are well beyond repair - not worth the investment to restore. But surely there has to be a balance, to work harder to preserve Malta’s architectural history, and to retain the allure of a place; especially, when the island has such a huge influx of tourists each year?
The number of friends who visit and exclaim: 'We love Valletta!'. The same is rarely said about, for example, Sliema or St Julian's – the once architecturally-characterful bays (I’ve seen the old photos!) now almost entirely lined with cookie-cutter concrete and glass high-rises, elbowing their way into every bit of airspace, the skyline littered with cranes, dust in the air is palpable.
Of course, he loved Valletta, but I don’t think he will be back anytime soon… until one day, perhaps, when the dust settles
Whenever I see the ubiquitous building permits – I always wonder if it signifies the demise of that particular door, that building. I’m always rooting for restoration and cheer to myself when a building – even if only the façade - is saved.
Brought back to its original state, its rich heritage shines, once again. Sadly, though, in three short years, too many of the old houses of character that I’ve photographed have already been replaced by, yes you guessed it, yet another
multi-story block of concrete and glass, ready to rent/buy, modern building.
An old friend from London visited us recently, and his reaction (semi-jokingly) was ‘You are living on a building site!'. Sadly, he is not the first visitor to make this kind of observation.
Of course, he loved Valletta, but I don’t think he will be back anytime soon… until one day, perhaps, when the dust settles.