Young, talented architect Jonathan Mizzi, who has his own internationally-acclaimed architecture studio in London, was last week interviewed by the Times of Malta and he spoke about planning regulations.
He described the UK regulations as “extremely rigorous and meticulous”, where “nothing is left to chance”. “There’s no room for confusion or grey areas. It’s all clearly defined,” Mizzi said.
On the contrary, he says, the regulations in Malta – which he has to follow as he is working on the new futuristic Chiswick School project in Pembroke – are written “with broader strokes”. “Sometimes you’ll read a policy and realise that it can be interpreted in more than one way, or you’ll look up a policy map and discover that the boundaries aren’t clearly delineated… puzzling,” he said.
Puzzling indeed, and especially more so when the planning regulators themselves actually allow for historic buildings to be destroyed.
Just last week we witnessed the destruction not of one, but two priceless buildings, both of great value to our society not just for their history, but also for their aesthetics, architecture and culture.
One of the buildings, in Marsa, was the headquarters of Sea Malta in the recent past. Some older readers may even know it as the NAAFI building.
The style of the building is modernist. Modernist architecture goes back to somewhere in the first half of the 20th century. The Eiffel Tower in Paris, for example, is a modernist structure. So modernist architecture is something that you’d get off your Hop-on Hop-off bus to take a selfie with it in the background when you’re abroad. But when you’re in Malta, the chances are that your selfie will be photobombed by a bulldozer and an avalanche of tumbling stones.
You may be wondering how this modernist building came to be knocked down. Was it an act of God? Was it perchance that nasty tremor? Alas, not. The building was demolished with the blessing of the Planning Authority.
Let’s pause a bit here to see what the role of a Planning Authority is, shall we? Its responsibility is: a) to ensure that planning laws are fully respected, and b) to safeguard our heritage from the claws of development.
In other words, the Planning Authority is there to protect the common good.
Now let’s go back to the Sea Malta building. In a startling ruling, the Planning Authority said that the building had become dangerous, and that – wait for this – it was too expensive to save. Too expensive?!
This is tantamount to me finding a Caravaggio that is in desperate need of restoration, and I chuck it in the bin because I cannot afford the restoration fees.
This ruling was so irresponsible and so… mad, that the Planning Commissioner at the Office of the Ombudsman investigated the case and wrote to the PA to revoke the permit. But horrifically, the PA ignored him, and the building was wrecked.
We are going to wake up one day and realise we’re surrounded just by ugly, hideous, concrete blocks
The Kamra tal-Periti, in a scathing comment, rightly pointed out that if “financial feasibility” becomes a reason for dishing out approvals for demolition then “we are truly headed towards the obliteration of our built heritage”.
But if that was not enough heartache, last week also saw another building being flattened: Villa St Ignatius, in Old College Street, St Julian’s.
For those not familiar with the area, it is a stone’s throw away from Balluta Buildings and close to the Carmelite Convent and gardens – recently the subject of an application to develop into a supermarket (Argh!).
Villa St Ignatius was part of a larger property that once housed the first Jesuit college in Malta. It was already documented as a landmark building in 1839 and its Neo-Gothic motifs may well have been the earliest in Malta.
So what’s happened to this national treasure? The Planning Authority authorised works to be carried out strictly in accordance with a court order issued earlier this year. All well and good, except that the court order was not adhered to, and the villa started being wrecked in a clear breach of building regulations and the permit.
The Planning Authority had only one decision to make at this point: issue an enforcement notice and a stop notice. Did it? No. And the destruction of the building continued happily. “S’okay, go ahead, I’m not looking,” the Planning Authority effectively said.
What can we do about this? It’s not too late, the Kamra tal-Periti said: in other countries, when heritage buildings are destroyed in defiance of regulations, the courts order a reconstruction.
I am not sure that that will happen because in a surreal turn of events, the Planning Authority has gone lawless.
Perhaps patriotic MEP Marlene Mizzi, who chaired Sea Malta for many years, and who therefore must have some sort of affinity with the building, can speak up?
Or perhaps Martin Scicluna, former Din l-Art Ħelwa president, who clearly has the ear of the government, can say something about this in his newspaper articles instead of force-feeding us about how all is well in the State of Denmark.
This is our heritage. We are going to wake up one day and realise we’re surrounded just by ugly, hideous, concrete blocks and our physical past erased. A country without a history is like a man without a memory. Maybe this is the aim of the people running the Planning Authority?
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