Valletta is a city of many layers, with different buildings telling a story of different times, ranging from the baroque edifices, setting the Knight’s tenure on the island in ornate stone, to the Anglican cathedral rising high into the air as a reminder that Catholic Malta spent 200 years as a British colony.
You’ll notice that a lot of shops have newer signs placed over the old ones
A few weeks ago, the planning authority set out to protect another aspect of the capital’s architectural history by scheduling 62 wooden shopfronts, kiosks and painted signs, bringing the total of those under protection to 112.
The wooden shopfronts, most of which can trace their roots to the first part of the 20th century, have been accorded Grade 2 protection status, which is given to buildings of architectural or historical interest or which contribute to the visual image of an urban conservation area.
“We used a set of fixed criteria to choose the sites and remove subjectivity,” said Matthew Vella, from the Malta Environment and Planning Authority’s heritage planning unit. The criteria are historic significance, aesthetic/architectural, social and research values, rarity, contextual/interpretive aspect and what they represent.
Among the features preserved are the wooden frames and panels, the old glass signs and wooden shutters, which were once a common sight. Owners also have to adhere to a strict colour scheme enforced by Mepa, which is intended to complement other buildings in the city rather than disrupt them.
But modern exigencies might hinder proper conservation of these features and Mr Vella and his colleague Rene Attard mention modern aluminium shutters as one such need.
“Insurance companies nowadays require that shutters are made of metal, not of wood, for shop contents to be insured,” Mr Vella said.
The pair has an intimate knowledge of the shopfronts, discussing different signs as if they were old friends.
They also reminisce over a kiosk that used to stand at the corner of Merchants Street, which, despite being scheduled, ended up being accidentally destroyed when a truck reversed into it.
As shops change hands, more often than not it does not make sense to keep the same sign. “But you’ll notice that a lot of shops have newer signs placed over the old ones,” Mr Attard said.
A bigger obstacle for proper conservation is dilapidation. Some shops that have now been scheduled are not being used, meaning it will take more than a document to keep them alive. While welcoming the move, Valletta businessman Reginald Fava said shop owners should be provided with funds to maintain the shopfronts as was the case with the old balcony scheme.
Valletta mayor Alexiei Dingli said he was glad Mepa was acting to preserve the city’s heritage, adding the council had already teamed up with architecture students and Flimkien Għal Ambjent Aħjar “to propose some coherence to the shopfronts of the city”.
He said the council was trying to approach foreign NGOs and tap EU funds to get volunteers to work on Valletta properties. “However, this is still at an embryonic stage,” Dr Dingli said.
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