It’s been a month since I returned from my week in the south of France. Any wistful longing for Malta has since evaporated and the rose-tinted spectacles have fallen off.
Malta has been falling victim to the wrecking ball for years, but this year has already been particularly bad. Each day brings news of some act of sabotage against Malta’s architectural heritage and natural environment. Our historic buildings and iconic structures are being lost to crassness and greed, bad taste and bad planning.
Not only is it hard to keep up with what’s happening, it’s also hugely depressing. I’m tempted to just ‘look away’, but of course you can’t. Architectural eyesores and the trashing of our landscape are everywhere you look – there is just no getting away from them.
The government – or whoever in authority is permitting and enabling the demolition of our fine buildings and squandering our countryside – has not understood that we are destroying just about Malta’s most bankable asset. How ironic is that? Killing the goose and addling the golden egg.
Ritzy five-star hotels and soulless restaurants, execrable apartment blocks, modern complexes and mean-spirited office buildings are not in themselves distinctive. In fact, sun and sea apart, and if you take away its remaining landscape and remarkable architectural survivals, none of Malta is all that special. And yet there seems to be no end to the plundering and amputation.
The message, time and again, is that ‘anything goes’. You can demolish with impunity a building of character that has stood for decades, if not for centuries, and build whatever (and even wherever) you like. Yes, when it comes to our official culture, Malta’s planning and heritage policies do seem worryingly inconsistent and ‘flexible’. Nothing is sacred.
Plans are under way to demolish the historic 150-year-old Moynihan House in St George’s Bay and replace it with a five-storey development comprising 6,000 square metres of office space, a language school and a restaurant. This may seem just like any other time-expired building set to bite the dust, but we’re actually talking about a structure recommended by Archaeological Services Ltd for Grade 2 status – and hence preservation.
Its report authoritatively states that its retention is essential to the integrity of St George’s Bay as a cultural landscape. Yet without any final democratic decision ever being taken, the Superintendence of Cultural Heritage alone has deemed the building unworthy of protection.
It is preposterous that a body whose duty is to ensure the protection of Malta’s patrimony and cultural heritage can give its blessing to such demolition. What’s more, well before this recent Grade 2 recommendation, a 1992 Mepa survey had drawn attention to the considerable rarity of an austere Victorian building in Maltese ashlar. Unfortunately, such inconsistency is not unusual.
The deliberate destruction of a noted building is sacrilege… in fact it’s obscene
They say that great architecture has only two natural enemies: water and man’s stupidity. As far as I’m concerned, the deliberate destruction of a noted building is sacrilege, especially one recommended for preservation. In fact, it’s obscene. But Malta is never short on stories like this, just as it is never short on the other kind of storeys. Rules are there to be bent and broken.
A 12-storey residential and commercial shoreline development at Smart City has recently been given the green light. This despite major concerns regarding its visual impact and departure from the master plan’s approved seven-storey limit.
There’s the recent renewal of a controversial 2013 planning application for a massive 12-storey development at Mistra, a project that would be in breach of Malta’s Floor Area Ratio (FAR) policy, which is supposed to ensure that tall buildings are located “away from ridge edges and should not interfere with views of protected areas”. Finally, at the time of writing, the new ‘Jerma’ has just been announced.
It goes on. Hot on the heels of the db Group’s land grab was the Corinthia deal – another land-grabbing mega project, only three times bigger. One objection, of course, is the obscenity (and doubtful justice) of a government giving away, in perpetuity and for a knockdown price, prime public land for private speculation. Another objection is that, for a project to be approved, planning laws have first to be changed. In my book, that’s putting the cart well before the horse.
In all this, I must point out that I am not against development per se. It’s rather the constant moving of goalposts, the conflicting signals and the bending over backwards so that ends will always justify means. Development that kills the environment and gives nothing but grief to the larger community is bad development, and I suspect that the government, quite cynically, is aware of this.
Less obvious is why it continues to underestimate the importance, holistically, of our natural environment, infrastructure and heritage, especially when (as it claims) its eye is on high-quality tourism. Each time an old house or building comes down, each time a tree is felled, some part of Malta’s soul is eaten away.
And, of course, the upshot, especially in a small place like Malta, is that the whole island is reduced to one large building site. On a daily basis most of us are assaulted by dust, dirt, debris and noise, to say nothing of broken and hazardous pavements and a country groaning under a building-waste disposal problem.
Besides, once a permit has been given and construction works begin (if they haven’t started already), the developer can take as long as he likes; which means that a construction site can be ‘work in progress’ for years on end. I’m surprised that our constitutional courts aren’t sinking under the weight of many more cases.
I’m surprised too that we – and the tourists who visit our islands – actually put up with it. How many Maltese (if not wilfully blind) are really enjoying their surroundings? And how many discerning tourists actually return?
This is a Times of Malta print opinion piece
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