A 17th-century coastal watchtower has been reimagined as a temporary living space and a micro art gallery as part of a project to show the potential of heritage buildings and “counter the local cult of the newbuild”.
The architectural retrofitting project for the Torri tal-Għallis on the outskirts of Naxxar transforms its interior to create features such as a kitchen, retractable sleeping areas and bathing ‘capsules’ with views of the horizon.
The lightweight design elements, which are not permanently fixed to the original fabric of the tower, can also accommodate more uses such as an exhibition space.
Valentino Architects and University of Malta architectural students designed the retrofit of the historic watchtower as part of a course module and the project will be shown in Venice in May.
But the design team have developed it in consultancy with the tower’s custodians, Din L-Art Ħelwa, and hope it not only becomes a reality but also serves as a blueprint for how to find new uses for the network of Malta’s historic watchtowers.
The project, entitled Għallis, is intended to explore how to “reactivate the tower as a usable piece of architecture today, while still alluding to its past”, the design team said.
It will be shown as part of the European Cultural Centre’s 2023 Time, Space, Existence showcase, a partner project for the 17th Venice Biennale of Architecture.
The project also hopes to “stimulate the conversation around heritage buildings, moving away from their conservation as relics towards engendering their evolving use”.
Retrofitting buildings for flexible uses could mean “drastically less” construction, according to the design team that has used the coastal tower as an example of improving heritage sites’ accessibility and inclusivity.
The team of architects and students call for heritage buildings to be made more affordable to buy and restore, rather than being swallowed up by developers to be converted into extravagant hotels or occupied by government entities.
“These buildings should be released from their exclusivity and modified for broader use; altered in ways that meet the needs of wider society,” they said.
The idea may not go down well, they acknowledged.
“But at this point, people’s comfort around change is not the priority. The need to design sustainably, equitably and for longevity is more important.”
It is supported by local retrofit developer Jeffrey Farrugia and is being taken to Venice in collaboration with curator and design writer Ann Dingli.
About the tower
The Torri tal-Għallis, built in 1658 by Grandmaster Martin De Redin, is located on the last bend in the coast road ahead of Salina and was among a string of defence towers along the islands’ perimeter.
Like many of the towers in its network, it fell into degeneration by the mid-20th century and is now a target of vandalism.
Its insides are now a “cavity of disuse”, awaiting new architectural elements to reactivate it, according to Dingli and Sandro Valentino from Valentino Architects, who has led the design for the project.
The specific retrofit design of Għallis focuses on flexibility and future adaptability. It is about activating the tower as a “responsive space” rather than viewing it as a relic-like heritage asset.
By making all the retrofit adaptable, the design breaks away from the “local tendency to inflexibly categorise building uses”, Valentino and Dingli explained.
“The less rigid we are about classifying buildings’ uses, the longer they stand to last and the more creatively they can be inhabited,” they said.
The Għallis retrofit elements are transferable across the islands’ recurring defence structures, promoting a “fast and relatively straightforward means to reawaken them”.
It is the “rejection of rigidly defined functions” that drives the retrofit design, they said, adding that “flexibility is key to inclusivity”.
But beyond the watchtower network is a huge inventory of heritage architecture that could also be restored, reused and reimagined.
What is restoration today?
The exhibition questions the definition of restoration today, the design team said.
“Should it be about taking a building back to a fixed point in time and freezing it? Or is it about consolidating it in its current state, including all imperfections that may have formed along the way, accepting accretions that hold value, and then adding a new layer that is adaptable and supports contemporary use?”
The emphasis of the project is on making sure conservation focuses on a building’s present and future as much as on its past, they said.
“Many historic buildings worth preserving were originally built to service the elite and to be enjoyed by the few, especially large-scale heritage architecture…
“Now, we would hope society has moved beyond these hierarchical conditions to become more levelled. But the truth is, in many cases, it has not.
“This is why we focus so much on flexibility in our design for the Għallis tower – it makes it more accessible to a wider range of users,” they explained.
At this point, people’s comfort around change is not the priority
Speaking about the state of Malta’s heritage buildings today and the general attitude towards them, they acknowledged a “lack of focus” over who they should belong to and serve.
The themes of the Venice show include “a new counter to the local cult of the newbuild” – or using the imagination for what existing buildings can become and could be applied to all Malta’s building stock, they said.
“If we cannot reuse buildings in their built form, we need to encourage a process of well-managed dismantling and material reuse,” the team continued.
“Ahead of that, we need to re-programme our thinking to imagine a new range of ways to use existing architecture” – other than for hotels and offices.
The role of the next generation of architects
The project also aimed to shape the perceptions and priorities of future architects through hands-on experience, they said.
“It was a bite-sized look into the world of architectural practice that their generation of architects will be experiencing – based on building less and creatively retrofitting more,” they continued.
“We should be building more urgency around the external forces that shape our context – like climate change, resource consumption, quality of life, over-building and social inequality – as opposed to simply obtaining permits for ‘form follows finance’ construction projects.”
The next generation of architects will need to question what their role is in today’s world.
The project has also focused on the idea that the built environment should not just be shaped by architects, planners and developers, but by a broader representation of society – a notion that was “quite absent” in Malta.
“The sooner we embrace a more public-facing approach to adapting buildings, the sooner our dormant historic architecture can experience new life, longevity and purpose,” they said.
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