A decision on the scheduling of a landmark modernist 1940s property should be taken before an application to demolish it and build a hotel is considered, the St Julian’s mayor has said.
The residence along the St Julian’s promenade was designed and lived in by acclaimed architect Gustavo Romeo Vincenti from 1948 until his death.
St Julian’s mayor Albert Buttigieg maintained it was “unfair” for the application to be discussed and processed before deciding on a request to list the property as Grade 2, which would protect it.
The development application, PA 7761/21, is at the initial vetting stage.
Developer Carlo Stivala is proposing to drop the iconic villa and replace it with a 136-room hotel, restaurants, meeting rooms, a gym, spa, theatre, and outdoor and indoor pools. Three basement levels would provide 60 parking spaces, with more on a higher floor, accessible from Triq il-Kbira.
The project is designed by Robert Musumeci.
The local council’s objection is based on the scheduling issue, given similar development on either side of the building, Buttigieg conceded.
In its objection, it referred to architect Edward Said’s formal request in February 2019 to schedule the premises, describing it as a “landmark piece of Maltese modernism of the late 1940s”.
The council wants the PA not to discuss the development application before a decision on scheduling.
Given that Said’s request was submitted almost three years ago, it would be “ironic, incorrect and give rise to suspicion of potential back dealings” if the PA had to decide first, the mayor said.
Said, a heritage conservation practitioner, researcher and university lecturer on Maltese architectural heritage, has been “earnestly” seeking feedback on the request for scheduling of the “highly significant building”.
Said coincidentally made the official request for the illustrious architect’s three homes to be protected by law on the day his only son, Hilaire Vincenti, was buried.
In his appeal to the authority and the Superintendence of Cultural Heritage, he referred to a PA educational spot about the architect aired on national television. He made a strong case for listing the now partly dilapidated Palazzina Vincenti for its “high architectural and historic value”.
He recommended Grade 1 protection, including all façade apertures and finishes, while interior elements were worthy of preservation due to its grand reinforced concrete staircase and waffle structure ceilings.
Quoting a university dissertation by David Ellul, titled Gustavo R. Vincenti’s approach towards 20th-century Maltese architecture as revealed by his archives, he said Palazzina Vincenti could be among the architect’s “greatest masterpieces”.
It would be a great misfortune to our local heritage to lose such a gem
As one of the earliest examples of domestic architecture to utilise reinforced concrete, it was a manifestation of this material “celebrating new architectural possibilities”.
In April 2019, Said was informed the PA was awaiting the recommendation of the superintendence.
But the superintendence has told Times of Malta the property was still being assessed.
It said it had “a long list of properties that might merit scheduling” which needed to be prioritised by importance. It also noted that the SCH was only consulted on PA 7761/21 on November 1 and it was still assessing the proposal before giving feedback.
The PA has not answered questions on the scheduling of the villa. Objections to the planning application close on December 10.
Buttigieg warned that “the plan is slowly but surely unfolding” – the proposed hotel and offices would even have access to a subterranean tunnel, leading from the villa to the foreshore, which the architect used to use.
“Coincidently, the underground passage linking the house to the foreshore under the road leads to the ‘new’ location of the Zammit Tabonas’ fast ferry, identified in the latest application,” Buttigieg pointed out.
“Hotel + offices + fast ferry + lido = Perfect!” he said.
The History of Art and Fine Arts Students Association said it was “very shocked – yet unfortunately not surprised – that another piece of local identity is under threat”.
Referring to “the icon of 20th-century Maltese architecture”, the students listed various buildings by Vincenti in Dingli Street, Sliema, such as the Assisi townhouse, with its floral frieze designs, as well as the Italian Embassy and Vincenti Buildings in Valletta.
“The very pediments that shape us are being shaken,” they said. “It would be a great misfortune to our local heritage to lose such a gem.”
It said the hotel project “diminishes our past and does not respect the founders of Malta,” and it appealed to the superintendence “not let another milestone in our history get torn down”.
Masterpiece of Architecture
Palazzina Vincenti stands as its owner’s “architectural tour de force in the shift towards modernism”, according to the Master of Architecture dissertation by David Ellul.
It represents the culmination of his entrepreneurial and architectural achievements, embodying the meaning of wealth and success through progressive design and innovative materials, he wrote.
Vincenti’s affiliation with the ‘circle’ and ‘square’ motifs, applied to his Art Nouveau buildings, are manifested in the three-dimensionality of the structure through the geometric juxtaposition of circular curves and cubist projections.
A salient element within the Ġorġ Borg Olivier Street façade is the semi-circular cantilevered terrace, acting as a focal point of the whole composition, Ellul explained.
Influenced by international examples of architectural works, the villa portrays Vincenti’s desire to evoke new possibilities within architecture.
The spacious interior complemented Vincenti’s affluent status, with an awe-inspiring foyer, grand in scale and architecture, and an imposing staircase.