The creative work of artists or designers is scrutinised in reviews published in newspapers and journals. These are generally written by their peers, who are knowledgeable about the topic. Reviews give praise and recognition, but can also be scathing and unforgiving about flaws and weaknesses.
In Malta, reviews are rarely harsh. This is understandable, considering the small networks of people. We also have very few specialised platforms which reach beyond an academic audience. Yet reviewers still provide solid and informative critique, whether focusing on painting, sculpture, musical concerts, films, plays or works of literature.
Unlike other creative activities in Malta, there is little informed or professional critique of architecture or urban design available to read. The aesthetics, design quality, utility, convenience or appropriateness of contemporary Maltese buildings is rarely reviewed. Neither form nor function come under serious scrutiny by independent critics, although tongues are loosened on designs by foreign architects – such as Renzo Piano’s parliament building, or Zaha Hadid’s upcoming block at Mercury House in Paceville.
Architects do not work with a blank canvas but adapt to many constraints, including the site, context, materials, resources and finances, as well as the client. Evaluating good design is about more than the way things look. Public opinion tends to dissolve into loving or hating a building, without much technical insight.
Being the subject of review is positive. It is, of course, difficult when an opinion is unfavourable, which applies to any sector. But with some notable exceptions, Maltese architects are largely silent about the design output of their own profession.
They have little to say, at least in public, about the strengths and weaknesses of design quality in Maltese buildings. This is a great pity, as engaged and informed peer review helps to improve standards. It raises the game. Good and fair reviews might also hold architects to account for some of the monstrosities they inflict on the community, as well as give recognition and praise where it is due.
Practising architects might hold back for personal reasons, but aren’t there any retired, experienced, non-practising or foreign architects out there who might have an opinion? Architectural students should surely also study the successes or failures of the buildings that exist around us, to learn what makes a good project.
Good and fair reviews might hold architects to account for some of the monstrosities they inflict on the community, as well as give recognition and praise where it is due
A tiny Design Advisory Committee was recently established at the Planning Authority, but it is not a beacon of light. Recommendations from a government-appointed panel are anyway different to opinions by independent expert critics. Meanwhile, the design quality of the average contemporary building in Malta’s streets is poor.
Having said that, many of the apartment blocks that form the new Maltese urban landscape do provide efficient and comfortable living spaces. More so, indeed, than damp old houses with inconvenient rooms, which are difficult to cool or heat. But the facades of new blocks often have ugly proportions, presenting low, narrow entrances to large buildings, and horrible windows. Architects of a former generation were better at designing pleasing proportions.
I fully agree with adapting old buildings to new uses; otherwise they lose their value and just fall to pieces. So-called ‘facadism’ has often been criticised and there is a valid point to be made here. But with the inferior facades being produced today, it is sometimes preferable to retain the old facades – even if the internal spaces, which no longer fit today’s needs, are demolished and rebuilt as apartments.
It is difficult to critique anything without causing offence in a small place, but that applies to all types of creative activity, so why is architecture different to other forms of art and design? Many reviews are actually quite gentle fluff, but architecture hardly even gets that.
An attractive book by Conrad Thake, launched recently, showcases some great examples of contemporary architecture in Malta. Various competitions also exist which reward excellent conversions of old buildings. Good contemporary architectural design certainly does exist in this country, hidden between all the rest. Yet these worthy efforts are too few and far between.
The design quality of new, large projects with significant impact on their surroundings, should be open to more scrutiny, at least within the profession.
An exhibition of new designs for the Metropolis site in Gżira was put on display, yet the reviewers of architecture (if any exist in Malta at all) have been pretty silent. Hardly anything has been written about the design of proposed tall buildings and their context. This is a shame, as the best and most informed opinions are likely to come from practitioners in the field.
If our architects won’t evaluate the quality of contemporary buildings, then who will? Their silence is a disservice to the rest of us. Architecture in Malta seems above and beyond reviews of any kind, but we all must live with its successes and failures just the same. Buildings transform the landscape. They matter.
As famously stated, architecture is an expression of its time. What our living Maltese architects are striving to create, and their vision of the future Maltese urban landscape, is unclear. It will remain a mystery unless they explain it more openly, including to themselves.