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Glorified Ugliness in our Village Outskirts. Does it make you think?

Ode to our Architectural Prowess

The many pre-historic structures that we have sprouting here and there - are amazing reminders of these island's antiquity and the long standing civilization of their diverse inhabitants.

The medieval limestone walls and bastions that fortify our cities, the old houses that core our villages, the baroque churches that are scattered all over the Maltese islands - aren't they charming and fitting to our weather, environment and temperament? These structures epitomise an age, and in many ways fossilise it.

But don't tell me that most structures erected after from the 1970's onwards, the limestone orgy of Malta's leftist age, the so-called housing for all, have left us with an outer core of ugliness littering our towns and villages; the ominous housing estates - the shear sight of which - gives me a bad mood, now shape most of our urban landscape. Whats more is the fact that for a supposedly noble cause, the use of limestone was made mandatory in the 70's, a decision that helped make peasant land owners rich from their quarry business, at the expense of changing our Southern European - Mediterranean Charms into the likes of Gaza and Nablus in the heart of the Middle East.

The 70's and 80's gave rise to the impression many tourist got (and may still get) of Maltese villages being in a permanent state of works-in-progress, always appearing as semi-finished (or semi demolished), with gusts of yellow sand blowing in the wind, old rusting second hand cranes and trucks lining the streets, and heaps of construction rubble openly thrown in front of every row of so-called modern maisonettes - in most cases built on pristine green areas - long before MEPA came to be - as if it would have made any difference.

Throughout the 90's little changed in this construction orgy, as if Malta had a population increase so high, that homeless were sleeping in make shift tents on the streets! We saw hundreds of new limestone structures sprouting everywhere you look, even metres away from World Heritage sites and the shore line. Speculation ruled galore.

Seen from a historic perspective, Malta having just obtained its independence in 1964, is a toddler state which to its credit goes the capacity to turn an economy that was based on military services and induced mass immigration, to a diversified one where tourism, manufacturing, electronics, and more recently IT, pharmaceuticals and financial services accelerated the wheels of business.

Picture: Msida Creek, with the parish church, the traditional town core skyline in Malta.

It is not a rare occasion when one comes across discussions on Malta's post independence performance over some dinner party chat, where the cliche argument of Malta having fared brilliantly if one had to compare it to other former British colonies such as Egypt, Nigeria or Kenya. The people who reassure themselves against such benchmarks are naively forgetting the likes of other ex-colonies such as hi-performers Australia, South Africa, Canada, New Zealand, (and for those who shrug my argument saying these are huge countries) there is the tiny city-state Singapore for a quick reference. Not to mention our Mediterranean and EU partner Cyprus.

Malta and Singapore - a brief comparison

Malta and Singapore share a lot in common. In many ways their size is what strikes first your attention. Singapore's surface area is 270 compared to Malta's 121 square miles. Both are tiny. But if Malta is known for its population density* (7th globally*) with 400,000 people crowded on a few rocks in the Med, what can Singaporeans say about its 4, 600,000 population on their not-so-much-larger island in South East Asia (4th globally*)?

Picture: Singapore skyline by night

Arguably, population plays an important role in generating economic prowess but with a per capita income at US$40,000 against Malta's US$23,000, Singapore seems to be faring much better indeed. Its Gross Domestic Product is a staggering US$171 billion, compared to Malta's tiny US$9.3 billion. And by the way, like Malta, Singapore has no natural resources to boast about either.

English and Maltese share official language status in Malta , with English being the language of business and higher learning. In Singapore English is the language of administration with Malay as national language.

Both countries attract a good share of foreign direct investment, mainly due to their human resources being resourceful and fiscal realities that make such a choice more attractive.

Both countries are hot tourist attractions. About 9.7 million and 1.2 million tourists visited Singapore and Malta respectively in 2006.


Which brings me back to the limestone case, which I am sure many passionate co-nationals might defend as a national symbol. Like in Singapore, Malta's architecture is a reflection of its history, cultural and ethnic mix.

Singaporeans have realised much before us that their growing population needed space, and this could only be found by moving upwards, and not by infringing on the few remaining green open spaces. The government there has imposed a limit of 280 metres of buildings height, and the city skyline is today a landmark of this small nation.

Picture: A Maltese quarry, munching deep into the soul of the Island.

Malta has taken another route altogether. The shrinking of available green areas and the expansion of building zone seem insatiable. Limestone remains a major building material, and any satellite image of the island shows the ugly craters than disfigure the land surface, with churned up hills even in tourist and areas of historic importance. Stories of accidentally discovered unreported archaeological sites abound, all in the sleazy ambition to exploit more land to fuel the ongoing building craze.

Up till the Nationalist government of Borg Olivier (1962-1971) , Malta continued with its traditional Latin (pro-Italian) drive, that when combined to our British influences reflected our true Southern European outlook. The Socialist, pro-Arab orientation advocated by the Mintoff and Karmenu Mifsud Bonnici governments of the 70's and 80's created the limestone craze, enshrining it in a law that made all facades to have this blessed stone as its main building material - rather than the concrete hallow grey bricks - starting a momentum of Middle Eastern style buildings that mushroomed all over the islands since then.

Picture: Typical limestone buildings mushrooming outside village cores in Malta

A quick look at our old village cores, the likes of Balzan, Lija, Zebbug, Zejtun, as well our cities and main towns of Valletta, Floriana, Zabbar and Sliema immediately shows the South European dimension, the classical inspiration, baroque or neo-classical.

Yet the limestone invasion then started. And this can be seen best in the buildings that surround the old village cores, that appear as if to have been constructed by another breed of people, conceived by a new school of architectural thought (if at all), yet crafted and built by the same old bennejja.

These outer village structures, with their so-called modern houses and maisonettes, many with adorning stone columns on the balconies, often brandishing classical bombastic statues from classical Greek themes, are more reminiscent of the Middle East in their creative look and feel, thus are alien to our region, and I believe have disfigured our skyline, ambiance and environment.

One could argue that perhaps the latter was an unintentional occurrence in our building styles, as we were slowly trying to assert our new identity as an independent state, establishing our 'own styles and trends'.

It may also be due to economic realities arising from Mintoff's efforts to promote workers' at the cost of established entrepreneurs of his time. Money was scarce and in times of such scarcity aesthetics often is a first liability. It looks very much like the fact builders themselves took over many responsibilities of the architects and draughtsmen, churning out structures simply construed to economic limitations (or greediness) , ignoring aesthetics, totally missing historic significance and using exclusively limestone with which they played and thrived. Much this comes more to my surprise since Mintoff was himself a British trained Architect and Civil Engineer.

Picture Above: A Step in the right direction: The Portomaso Complex represents a combination of traditional Maltese charm with a foward looking, modern touch.

This is yet another case in Malta's history where the common people's art and crafts took over as national realities - as had happened before with the native dialect of the bdiewa (farmers) that the British helped adopting for us as 'the Maltese Language'. The benneja and their political lackeys of the time forced their uncultured architectural barbarism on the rest of the population.

I am certain that a heap of arguments quoting a list of researchers and sociologists can be thrown back at my face to contradict my claims. They are welcome. I love an constructive argument.

The way I see it is that this was a home grown cultural rape that altogether with the then drive toward closer relations to Libya and other emerging Arab dictatorships in Algeria and Egypt, created an identity that befitted the new role models' of our political demagogues of the time which where down south.

The solution adopted in Singapore when faced with a huge housing challenge, with many make shift constructions segregating the various ethnic groups forming the nation was to radically plan and reconstruct huge chunks of the national urbanised area. This came as a cost, including the loss of many historical landmarks, which constituted a grave mistake. Though overall Singapore has solved its housing problems by providing a modern approach, using the very latest in architectural mythologies shared from around the world.

Malta is obviously limited as to how much the mistakes of over-building, and worst still, I dare say, the erection of ugly structures cannot be undone as these have now been endorsed by the state and are legal. What one can do is to help creating better awareness about prevailing architectural styles, promoting awareness of design, especially from around the rest of Europe.

Education will certainly help inducing a slow but sure change in mentality. A better educated population that possesses a sense of style and appreciation of architectural beauty will not accept ugliness to re-emerge, and will help so that by time it disappears.

I am certain that open minded research into Malta's post independence economic development and how this exhibited itself in the island's architecture will shed more insight into the points I have raised. I am almost certain that deep in our erratic style shifts in building technology, styles and fashions, political moods, international aspirations and international views lies the old ethnic division lines, long buried under the carpet of time and the veil of Catholicism that may have acted as our national unifying force. It is seldom the case where ethnic diversity is discussed openly in Malta as a factor that affects are cultural and political outlook. Our national integrity will not be challenged by our deeper understanding of our ethnical make-up and composition. Ours is a cosmopolitan mix, reflecting thousands of years of both peaceful and forced colonisations, of piracy and trade. It is this colourful history and inbuilt diversity that I believe has given rise to our cultural richness and significance beyond our geographical minuteness.

It is also what weaves our character as islanders, our economic drive and willingness for self determination in the face of adversity. It may also be our our mixed ethic composition that often separates us in two blocks (as is evidenced in our bi-polar political scenario); one side endemically inward looking, peripheral, premordial, reclusive in its mind-set, and the other forward looking, looking more towards European influences where it feels more at home, is more positive and more inclined to risk taking.

The acceptance of these fundamental characteristics embedded in our identity may enable our better understanding of the factors defining our temperament and help us gear ourselves to concentrate on our common aspirations as an old European nation that has recently taken control of its own destiny.

Ray de Bono
Dmax Malta Blog

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