John Ruskin claimed that we know more about the lives of the ancient Greeks from the ruins of their buildings than from anything else they left behind. Anyone who has visited Pompei near Naples, a town frozen in time by the scorching heat of an explosion of the volcano Vesuvius, knows the fascinating experience of being transported back into the past through the tangible remains of the original streets and houses of the ancient Romans – seeing not only the relics of their grand monuments but also visible traces of their ordinary, everyday domestic lives, and of a whole cross-section of the town’s inhabitants.
Writers and painters have always been inspired by the streets through which they walked, responding with thought and emotion to urban vistas of towns and villages. Canaletto’s Venice, Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria, Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul or the Cairo of Naguib Mahfouz – the imagination of countless artists has been attached to a favoured place.
People organise the spaces within their urban surroundings to reflect the way that they live and think, in line with their customs, values and beliefs. These spaces are a fusion of buildings, yards, streets and alleyways, gardens and public spaces. The architecture of our old towns and villages embodies the history of Maltese urban life. It bonds us to the generations that came before us and, if we are careful to preserve it, may do the same for the generations that will come after us. The physical aspect of our houses and streets acts as a focal point of our collective memory and identity as a nation.
Each individual relates to the urban heritage in a personal way, yet the community as a whole also has a shared response to this heritage. Private ownership of buildings broadens into public ownership of the town or village as a whole. The perception of ownership grows even wider, as in the case of Valletta and Mdina, when monuments or entire towns are designated as part of the international heritage as UNESCO ‘World Heritage Sites’. It is thus not only the grand monuments of a place that might be recognised as important, but complete towns that could include ordinary streetscapes with humble alleys and simple vernacular architecture.
In the 1960s, a heavy mass of buildings, streets and entire new areas began to rise up into the skyline of Malta. By the 1980s many people were looking at old houses and streetscapes with changed eyes. Increasingly, they appreciated the history being bulldozed away in a heap of dust before them. Today, nostalgic ‘past and present’ photos in books and newspapers are ever more popular, often comparing familiar streets and landscapes with the way they looked only a few decades ago.
In the early 1990s, Maltese planning legislation designated that the historic cores of the villages and towns of Malta would be protected. Their boundaries were traced into the draft Local Plans and termed ‘Urban Conservation Areas’ (UCAs). In 1995 the document ‘Development Control with Urban Conservation Areas’ was published by the Malta Environment and Planning Authority (MEPA). This useful document outlines strict design and building regulations for these historic areas and has made great strides forward – but in reality, these rules are constantly challenged by the pressures of ongoing development.
Conservation must take social needs into account. To preserve a vibrant community life in a historic area, houses must be comfortable and desirable to live in, with a suitable internal layout. One recurring doubt is whether to rehabilitate or redevelop, that is, whether to improve the existing building, or to knock it down and build another in its place in a similar style.
When rehabilitating an old house, people usually aim to adapt their houses to their contemporary lifestyle and taste, often knocking down walls to create contemporary flexible spaces, enlarging windows to let in more light, and changing the function of rooms. At the same time, they value what Ruskin called the “golden stain of time”, and emphasise old and quaint features of the building.
An extreme of this is the growing trend to only preserve the façade of an old house to ‘keep up appearances’ and completely knock down the interior, creating an empty shell of history like a scooped-out oyster. Sometimes additional floors are added on to the top of old buildings, often in a completely different style and with an unsatisfactory relationship to the building below, resembling a mismatched torso and legs in the children’s game ‘Misfits’ and wearing a penthouse as a silly hat.
In the early 1990s, the Structure Plan was passed in Parliament, which is the law governing development planning in Malta. This Plan sensibly stated that the draft boundaries of UCAs would continue to be amended in the subsidiary plans and additional areas included, indicating a presumption that they would grow bigger. Over time one would naturally expect more and more streets and buildings to be viewed as historic.
On the contrary, when the Planning Authority finally announced the amendments it had introduced in the new Plans of 2006, the UCAs had been shrunk considerably. Huge areas of the UCAs of Hamrun and Pieta had vanished. A central area of Sliema was left out. Streets were graded down from Category A to B or C, thus significantly changing the level of protection given to them.
Our heritage belongs to all of us, and not to the Planning Authority. It is only right that the public should therefore be entitled to have a say in its regulation. This fundamental issue is formally recognised in the Aarhus Convention which entered into force in the EU in 2001. Among other things, this document establishes the rights of the public to participate in environmental decision-making. This is reflected in our own Planning Development Act (2001), of which Section 27 (a) states that the Planning Authority is obliged to “make known to the public the matters it intends to take into consideration” and must “provide adequate opportunities for individuals and organisations to make representations to the Authority.”
In the case of these changes to the Urban Conservation Area boundaries, the public was not given adequate opportunity to make representations as required by law. In February 2007, Din l-Art Helwa therefore requested the Planning Authority to launch a public consultation to give the public the opportunity to review these changes. The Planning Authority are sticking to their guns and stating that the revisions they introduced were merited. However our difficulty does not lie not solely in whether the changes were good or bad, but in the fact that the public was not consulted enough.
It is certain that among the numerous changes made to the UCAs in the recent plans, the overwhelming majority aim to ease the building regulations in these areas and pave the way for more development. Yet much of the desire to build is not driven by the need for new and better housing, but by the craving to make money through real-estate, fuelled by hefty bank loans, for short-term profits. The pressure is there to flatten everything to the ground and rebuild for profit, and then repeat the process as soon as possible, treating our towns and villages like some kind of rotating harvest. This must be resisted absolutely.
Heritage is finite – once it is gone it cannot be replaced.
Dr Petra Bianchi – Din l-Art Helwa
This article first appeared in the Times of Malta, 14 March 2007