Valentino Architects, a design-led architecture practice based in Valletta, have recently been honoured at the Iconic Awards, an awards programme run by the German Design Council. 

They have also been longlisted in the Emerging Architecture Studio of the Year category at the Dezeen awards, considered a benchmark for international design excellence.

Peter (left) and Sandro Valentino, founding partners of Valentino ArchitectsPeter (left) and Sandro Valentino, founding partners of Valentino Architects

The awarded projects are a penthouse in Gżira, a jewellery store in Tigné Point, Sliema, a hair salon at the Embassy in Valletta and a low-rise apartment in Balzan, all of which show the studio’s focus on prioritising design that is user- and context-driven.

“We’re delighted that our work is receiving attention at an international level. This is the second year we’ve been recognised at the Iconic Awards – we see this as a mark of consistency, which is something we prioritise,” founding partner Peter Valentino says.

“It’s also great to be in the company of other local firms. This year, both our practice and Mizzi Studio made the longlist for the Emerging Architecture Studio of the Year at the Dezeen awards. That’s two Maltese studios selected out of 4,700 applicants globally.”

East Penthouse, Gżira: a residence using spatial zoning as an alternative to conventional, open-plan living. Photo: Alex AttardEast Penthouse, Gżira: a residence using spatial zoning as an alternative to conventional, open-plan living. Photo: Alex Attard

His cousin and co-founder Sandro Valentino comments that such recognition is important for several reasons.

“It gives validation to our team’s work, but more significantly, it brings our studio into sync with wider industry priorities, helping us understand what design excellence means universally. Our biggest hope is that awards like these can propel a discussion on design and aesthetics locally,” he says.

Sandro describes the awarded projects as “aesthetic ambassadors for the studio”. 

The Art Diamond rethinks retail space, borrowing from the tradition of art galleries as opposed to flashy jewellery stores; 14 East Penthouse challenges the notion of open versus closed plan living; while the Dean Gera Salon presents an interior that sculpts space, creating a processional route through the salon’s different zones. 

“Our focus now is making all our projects more sustainable, while keeping design as a priority. We believe the two are mutual,” Sandro says.

Tree Top House, Balzan: a home prioritising insulation, solar energy and passive cooling in response to a southern Mediterranean climate. Photo: David ZammitTree Top House, Balzan: a home prioritising insulation, solar energy and passive cooling in response to a southern Mediterranean climate. Photo: David Zammit

Peter explains that their mission has always been to make buildings that are defined by “design integrity”.

“We are especially motivated to achieve that goal through design that is environmentally and socially driven. This may mean challenging Malta’s default systems, triggering dialogue about go-to construction methods, planning policy and aesthetic direction, and even questioning the role of the architect.”

Shifting towards ‘a common good’

While many lament about the overdevelopment of Malta, with ongoing construction and high-rise buildings leading to the island’s uglification, Sandro says that the problem is not that Malta is overdeveloped but that “it’s overbuilt”.

“Development, in essence, is a positive term, signalling the forward movement of our built environment. But in recent history, we haven’t seen much architecture, mostly just construction,” he points out.

“Our urbanscape is dominated by commercially driven construction aimed at maximising short-term return, with very few public, cultural or community projects being delivered on balance. This has caused the destruction of the periphery of our village cores, urban sprawl, environmental harm and general ugliness.”

He notes that development and density “can be positive” if accompanied by forward-thinking as has been done abroad, including in cities with a rich heritage context. As an example, Sandro mentions the Porta Nuova district in Milan which “sits respectfully with the city’s existing fabric” and is recognised as an urban success story. It all boils down to sound planning and a focus on world-class design, he says.

He adds that, locally, we must shift focus towards “a common good”. 

“This means shedding the belief that construction is a given right just because someone owns a piece of land. Development should only happen if it is for the benefit of society, and never at the detriment of the environment,” he stresses.

Threeplusone, Balzan: a low-rise apartment block designed to respond to surrounding context and orientation. Photo: Julian VassalloThreeplusone, Balzan: a low-rise apartment block designed to respond to surrounding context and orientation. Photo: Julian Vassallo

Peter continues: “Right now, all the construction industry is doing is building towards a promise of ‘profit’, which is a false objective for a better life. This is all happening with very little long-term thinking or understanding of environmental consequences.”

He maintains that for the industry to be more sustainable, priority should be given to high-quality design, well-being and low-impact building techniques. 

“We need to be more aware of the consequences of our actions – the impact of digging a hole to build a basement, the sourcing of materials, the demolition of buildings without consideration for reuse,” Peter says.

“Malta’s architecture and construction industry should shift towards a predominantly retrofit model. The island is abundant in existing building stock and makes a perfect case for reusing what’s already there. This needs to be incentivised by national policy – VAT cuts on retrofit projects are being lobbied elsewhere in Europe. Malta has every opportunity to lead on this front.”

Sandro adds that for existing buildings to survive, they need to be carefully adapted to cater for contemporary society’s requirements. And whenthe marriage between old and new buildings is done sensitively, “it characterises the evolution of our built environment”.

Art Diamond, Sliema: a jewellery store designed to resemble art spaces with archways, diffused light and plinthed vitrines replacing crowded product display. Photo: Alex AttardArt Diamond, Sliema: a jewellery store designed to resemble art spaces with archways, diffused light and plinthed vitrines replacing crowded product display. Photo: Alex Attard

“Today, most people are afraid of what is incorrectly referred to as ‘modern’ architecture and are unfortunately paralysed by nostalgia,” he says. 

“This is understandable, given the state of the built environment. There’s also very little exposure to good contemporary architecture locally, so people find comfort in what is familiar, often backing replication of traditional buildings as opposed to reinterpretation.” 

The duo concur that this is another reason why international awards are important: “They penetrate popular culture, encouraging a collective understanding of how contemporary design can improve the way we live.”

Part two will be published tomorrow.

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