Interview with Din l-Art Helwa president Alex Torpiano

May 13, 2019

In his first interview since his appointment as Din l-Art Ħelwa president, Prof. Alex Torpiano points his finger squarely at the Planning Authority and at politicians as the biggest culprits of the mess the country is in.

Interview in the Sunday Times of Malta by Fiona Galea Debono on 28 April 2019

Malta’s heritage and environment are in an abysmal state and architects are also responsible for this. You are an architect yourself, at the helm of Malta’s most prominent heritage and environment NGO. How much do you feel your profession is to blame for the state of the country and how can your role within Din l-Art Ħelwa be even more effective because of what you do?

In my last speech as president of the Kamra tal-Periti, I told my colleagues that the ugliness we are seeing around us is also our doing. However, that is only part of the problem, and not necessarily the bigger part. In order to create the urban and rural environment that we aspire to, we need much better legislative tools to protect what we have inherited and to promote a better quality of what we are building today.

These legislative tools need to come from politicians who are sensitive, or sensitised, to the issues, and frankly, where are they? It is often argued that politicians have to respond to the wishes of their electorate, but good political leadership also means that one convinces one’s constituents that more restraint, higher urban quality, less demolition of old houses, etc… are actually in their economic interest as well as that of their well-being.

In my view, the biggest culprit in the mess is the Planning Authority, and the politicians who are unwilling to let go of the attraction of controlling it – because their patronage depends on this. This is the real reason for the state of Malta’s built and natural heritage.

Whether my background as an architect can help DLĦ to be more effective now remains to be seen. I will certainly do my best.

Have you ever found yourself having to pander to a client’s needs, which may not necessarily fit into your values and standards when it comes to quality architecture and a respect for the environment? Do you understand this predicament many architects may find themselves in?

Yes, I certainly understand the predicament. It is very difficult, especially for a young professional, wishing to enter the market, after long years at university, to take a stand against what the client wants, especially if the client is a seasoned developer. It is, indeed, not even fair to expect this.

What we really need is that values and standards are not just personal choices but national requirements. Therefore, architects are not left on their own when they are not comfortable with what is being demanded of them – particularly if these client needs are allowed by policy and are, therefore, legitimate.

Of course, this means that the architect has to have the moral courage to reject any ‘twisting’ of policy to suit the client. It is not correct professional behaviour to plot a route through the many gaps in our myriad policies and guidelines in order to achieve this objective. The problem is that the planning process has become a legal process – it is all about whether a particular comma allows or prohibits a particular proposal. It is rarely about the quality of the product itself.

I have been in this predicament myself and I must say there were a couple, very early, of minor projects that I am not, in hindsight, particularly proud of. I can also state that, when my practice was established, I could refuse, for example, to take on at least two lucrative high-rise projects that I believed were wrong – even if, with some stretching, one could say they were within ‘policy’.

As the Dean of the Faculty of the Built Environment at the University of Malta, lecturing on architecture and urban design, what are you seeing in the next generation of architects? What are you teaching them? What is the most important lesson you want them to learn?

I think there are two important lessons we need to impart. The first is to be critical and the second to have integrity.

Design talent needs a fertile base in which to flourish and this base is constituted by the environmental and cultural context in which students grow up. The students who register for our courses, with the ambition of becoming periti, always carry with them the baggage of what they have seen in their home towns and villages; this is what forms their likes and dislikes. They are often, I have found, immune to the ugliness that pervades. However, once we break through that ‘shell’, we find that there is a lot of talent, a lot of awareness of what is wrong and what could be better.

Not all students are, of course, of the same ability. The question, therefore, is how to ensure that the better students, and hence young professionals, get the more important commissions. Interestingly enough, private clients, wishing to build houses for themselves, do seek out such talented professionals, but for public projects this does not happen. It is mostly about political patronage, or on the basis of who is cheapest.

This is why I have militated, within the KTP, for Malta to adopt an Architectural Policy which, for example, would require that commissions for publicly funded projects are invariably awarded after design contests.

Over the last years, we have presented final year students with local sites that need attention, such as Marsa, Qawra, Gozo, and invited them to collectively study their problems, propose strategies and then formulate their thesis project within those strategies. The Marsa project was a particularly important and successful one – and we even mounted a presentation to the Planning Authority and the local community in the old power station. As a whole, it was a beautiful proposal – which, unfortunately, was ignored. A few months afterwards, the power station started to be demolished!

You’ve just stepped out of the role of president of the KTP. How much do these two roles overlap and how much can you continue the work of one within the other, or work together?

I have stepped down as president of KTP because, as per our statute, the term of office is two years. I am still past president on the council, for the next two years, albeit with much less duties. My role as DLĦ president, therefore, does overlap with that in the KTP.

However, in my view, the positions taken by the KTP council that I led, and the direction we tried to give to the profession, coincide perfectly with the objectives and philosophy of DLĦ. We want a better Malta, and this comes from preserving the good that we have, and from promoting contemporary architecture that will be our legacy for future generations.

Among your concerns in your previous position was the PA and, to mention just one issue, the impact its interpretation of policies is having on the country’s built heritage. Do you feel you can battle this monster, responsible for some of the most despicable decisions, better now? Or have you lost some strength? Can it ever be tamed?

In the 1980s, the Malta Planning and Environment Authority was the result of a brave political attempt to introduce real planning processes and to combat the free-for-all that resulted from laws such as the infamous Building Development Act. Back then, I was a young professional, active in promoting the Development Planning Act.

 Over the years, it was tweaked by successive legislatures and now it has evolved into a monster, remotely controlled by specific ‘political’ interests, and certainly not effective in promoting the common good. It has developed into an ‘efficient’ machine, where the measure of success is how fast the process of determination of applications is.

In fact, the PA is now a misnomer, since it does not actually do any ‘planning’, it only processes applications. In other words, it does development control. It can hardly be otherwise, when the Prime Minister himself has expressed his lack of faith in planning.

The drafting of policies is the main tool by which the PA determines applications. These policies are rarely site specific and are also vague enough to be interpreted as is convenient. I once had a case of a planning officer arguing in favour of my client’s proposal on the basis of a specific policy and then, when the Commission indicated its intention to vote otherwise, he used the same policy to argue for refusal!  

The system is all wrong. Take the issue of scheduling of iconic heritage buildings. How is it possible for scheduling proposals by the Superintendence of Cultural Heritage to depend on the votes in the executive council in the PA, where the SCH is a very small minority? And how does the PA interpret scheduling? One is required to retain the façade but then ‘policies’ allow you to build a number of floors above. It takes a tour de force, if not a miracle, to make good architecture out of that policy. PA has many design guidelines but not a single one of them requires developments to be beautiful.

You ask me whether it can be changed. My answer is: do politicians want it to change?

The KTP council had noted that the many NGOs, scattered all over the islands, did not have the clout the development lobby has with politicians and the PA, so a loose alliance was formed to speak with a strong unified voice about heritage management and protection concerns. As president of DLĦ, will you be taking this idea of a cross-party platform further, despite an initial lack of success? And what will it actually take to get the powers that be to listen to you, despite the strong but ineffective public interest?

I remain of the same opinion and will continue to work in this sense. The initiative that you refer to is just over a year old. It brought together a platform of over 20 NGOs, concerned about what was happening to our built heritage, to collectively launch a Declaration of Concern. We talked to all political groups about it and, as expected, the ones in opposition supported it eagerly.

It took us about six months to get to talk to the Prime Minister, and two ministers, about it, and although the meeting was very cordial, with a degree of consensus too, nothing has come out of it yet. We are not done with this initiative!

The collaboration between NGOs has, however, continued to grow. DLĦ, and KTP, have worked with other NGOs on a number of issues. For example, we supported Graffiti on their stand on petrol stations. Another grouping of NGOs has collectively filed a judicial letter demanding the publication of the various reports on the proposed Malta-Gozo tunnel, as well as a Strategic Environmental Assessment, as per European and local legislation.

Some of these demands seem to have been echoed by politicians in Parliament, with, apparently, an approved commitment to publish forthwith the reports that have already been completed, and to publish promptly those that still need to be completed.

We will now see whether the Executive faithfully implements what Parliament has decided. However, it is symptomatic of the way things are done in this country. We have a bipartisan agreement to undertake a mega project even when critical reports, supporting or contradicting it, have not been published, and some not yet concluded.

The Prime Minister has gone on record saying that the PA will have the last say in approving the project; seriously, though, how on earth could the people, whom the Prime Minister himself appoints, ever contradict his stated desire to build a tunnel?

And what if the consequences are not what we are being promised? Can we delete and start again? 

DLĦ needs more resources, not least someone who would attend PA meetings and make a strong case against certain development applications. Many are fought but few are won. Do you feel this is a necessary tool and do you have a solution?

The role of DLĦ, and other NGOs, in attending PA meetings and presenting objections, is a very important one. To a certain extent, it is generally expected that we take up the fight against all sorts of projects.

DLĦ receives a regular stream of complaints and alerts about proposals to the PA, even from people who are not members of the organisation. And it is difficult to undertake this work solely on the basis of volunteers – no member of the DLĦ council receives a cent of remuneration for their work; and to employ somebody requires funds and resources, which are hard to come by.

I feel the fact that we, and others such as Flimkien għal Ambjent Aħjar, receive so many of these complaints and worries from the general public is a clear indication they have no faith in the organisations, principally the PA, to act in defence of our built and natural heritage, as it ought to. It is a further measure of the failure of this institution.

DLĦ will continue in this role, in spite of what could be perceived as a relatively poor rate of success. But we have had successes. DLĦ, with others, was successful in getting the Environment and Planning Review Tribunal to send the Townsquare proposals back for re-design. The court has also recently upheld DLĦ’s action in the case of the Villa St Ignatius debacle.

When KTP pointed its finger at the PA for breaking its own regulations by allowing the ex-NAAFI (Sea Malta) building to be demolished, the Ombudsman ruled that KTP was right. The PA ignored the Ombudsman and, once again, three NGOs together, DLĦ, KTP and FAA, had to take the PA to court. If we did not continue in this role, who would?

How would you describe the state of the Malta you have ‘inherited’ and have you ever felt it was pointless taking on this cause?

The state of the visual environment is in a terrible shape. It is not only about ugly buildings, or even buildings that are too high in the context of their location, or even about ODZ. It is about the shabbiness of the places where we live, the ugly hanging electricity wires, the broken pavements, the proliferation of signage poles, the exaggerated photovoltaic panel structures. It is about the acceptance that billboards are an acceptable intrusion in our landscape.

When the late Judge Maurice Caruana Curran set up DLĦ in 1965, the situation in Malta was risking degeneration. The context was a young Malta, suddenly needing, and wanting, to become a modern nation. It was, therefore, also a politically difficult situation. How could development be balanced against preservation? Was it pointless for DLĦ to be set up? Where would we be today if DLĦ had not been set up?

So, how can I even accept to think that taking on this cause is pointless.

What are the main goals you set out to achieve during your term of office? What do you consider to be most challenging – from the Gozo tunnel to mega projects, land reclamation and the destruction of more historical buildings and gardens as outlined by your predecessor Maria Grazia Cassar? And the most crucial?

There are so many issues, and it is unrealistic to expect that we will be able to fight on all fronts. It is not productive to always have to be the ones to say no. In fact, DLĦ has never been against development – only against ugly and out-of-scale development, unnecessary speculation, and destruction of our built and natural heritage.

DLĦ has also endeavoured to undertake what it preached. From the first project of the Ħal Millieri Chapel in the 1970s, it has been given, by the government, the guardianship of a number of properties, which it has restored, thanks to the support of its sponsors, and opened them to the public.

DLĦ and its volunteers have saved 51 national monuments and landmarks since 1965, and all with funds raised without any help from the State. DLĦ was, and remains, a protagonist in the promotion and management of the Park Majjistral.

I would dearly like to see DLĦ take an even more proactive role in the defence of other areas of high landscape value, not just to promote leisure and amenity, but also to promote, for example, heritage agriculture. DLĦ will work to promote the preparation of professional landscape plans for our countryside. We will also work to promote green open spaces in our urban areas.

DLĦ also has to make better use of the media to promote its message that our well-being in the future depends on how we look after our built and natural inheritance.

At the end of it all, what is the one project you would want to have stopped, contained, or achieved?

One project I really believe is a mistake, which I wish could be undone, is the Zaha Hadid Tower. The building was designed by a ‘great’ architectural firm – Zaha Hadid was already dead when it was designed. The PA even reduced its planning gain fees because of the additional ‘costs’ to the developer, given his engagement of a top firm.

This, therefore, seems to inhibit us from saying that it is a really ugly building, out of scale with its surroundings, and crushing, in the ugliest way possible, an iconic historic building, Mercury House, which the PA believes is being preserved for posterity!

Is there any way that some of the damage already done can be undone? Can ugly architecture be torn down? Or have we reached a point of no return?

Other countries have shown that it is possible to undo damage caused by building mistakes. Whether or not this could be done in Malta depends on how strongly future governments would wish to take it through.

I think that, in some areas, this will be inevitable. We have a limited land area and, therefore, we cannot afford under-utilised or badly utilised land. By this, I do not mean land where the density of habitation is low but areas where the quality of life is poor, and poor because of the urban environment. Fragmented ownership issues obviously make this process complex and fraught with difficulties.

Nevertheless, I cannot accept that there is any area in Malta that is beyond redemption.

However, we must act now to preserve what has not yet been ruined. It is necessary to radically change our collective approach. Instead of paying lip service to the concept of sustainability, we must really ensure that what we build today is a worthwhile legacy for our children.

This requires, in the words of Fiona Reynolds, an almighty “Fight for Beauty”. I believe that one first step ought to be to give the voice of civil society, and NGOs such as ours, a strength enshrined within the Constitution, for matters relating to the protection and promotion of the built, cultural and natural heritage. And we will certainly be campaigning for this.

https://www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20190428/local/the-ugliness-around-us-is-our-doing-din-l-art-helwa-president.708416

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