“Prof. Thake and I have a well-oiled symbiosis by now,” says Dr Charles Paul Azzopardi when asked about how the concept behind Staircases of Malta came about, referring to their initial publication, the sold-out Portals of Valletta. “After having documented the doors of Valletta, we decided to tackle staircases in all their forms and shapes for this new publication.”
And so it came to be: Staircases of Malta celebrates the rich diversity of stairs and staircases in Malta through a series of striking images and expert commentary spanning the arc of time from the Megalithic temples to the Baroque staircases of the palaces of the Order of St John, as well as staircases in British colonial-period buildings all the way to contemporary, modern staircases.
Naturally, this begs the question, why staircases? “Staircases have a particular mantra in the photographic scene, as they provide innate opportunities to shoot patterns, whorls and spirals which are aesthetically pleasing,” Dr Azzopardi explains, adding that since he chooses to work almost exclusively in black and white, patterns and textures are “the sine qua non of a captivating image for the viewer.” For him, this makes the choice of staircases a natural consequence of seeking to document a disappearing or oft-overlooked architectural feature which is frequently taken for granted as simply a vehicle for moving in a three-dimensional space.
Staircases also can tell us a lot about the local architectural scene. Citing the fact that staircases have featured since antiquity, Prof. Conrad Thake points to two aspects that are particularly fascinating. “The first is the fact that our forefathers demonstrated so much ingenuity in constructing so many different forms of stairs, but all basically constructed in local globigerina limestone, that is until more recent times when other modern materials – particularly steel and glass – started to feature in the design and construction of staircases,” he explains. He goes on to note the vastness of the spectrum of different types of staircases, from the simple cantilevered steps along the external wall of a traditional Maltese farmhouse to the domestic staircases design bir-raġġ and the spiral garigor stairs leading to the roof, among others.
The other aspect he mentions is a social and symbolic one, that is, how perceptions towards the staircase have changed over time. “During the early days of the Order of St John, staircases in public buildings like auberges were modest and placed discreetly out of immediate sight, however during the 18th century, staircases became central features in local architecture, monumental and scenographic in their appearance as, for example, the grand staircase of the Auberge de Castille, that of the Bibliotheca and the most theatrical of them all, that of the palazzo that used to house the former Museum of Fine Arts,” he asserts.
Staircases are not just utilitarian architectural elements, Prof. Thake goes on to explain, but rather also embody symbolic and aspirational aspects which reflect the time in which they were conceived. “In the volume Staircases of Malta, we tried to capture that ethos and spirit of the staircase within the Maltese context,” he says.
From a photographic point of view, I ask Dr Azzopardi what it is about staircases that is most exciting, to which he likens the experience of photographing them to a journey. “Staircases are imbued with an inherent ability to enthral, being object vessels commensurate with a journey, with a beginning and an end; in the same way, photographing such a project is a journey in itself, both artistically and personally,” he explains.
We go on to discuss the process of putting Staircases of Malta together – a task, I gather, which is no mean feat. “The process starts with a master list of all sites to be featured, arranging consent for the sites to be photographed, and then the staircases being methodically photographed and documented, taking into consideration the directionality and quality of light falling upon them,” the photographer maintains. The end result, Dr Azzopardi reveals, was about 500 images which were meticulously narrowed down to 85 images that eventually graced the pages of the final publication.
And with such an array of staircases featured within the book, there are bound to be a few that stood out on a personal level. For Dr Azzopardi, it’s that of the ex-Fine Arts Museum building in Valletta – a striking choice that comes as no surprise. Meanwhile, Prof. Thake mentioned the helicoidal spiral staircase at Verdala Palace, the grand monumental Baroque-era staircases designed by local architect Andrea Belli, and Emanuele Luigi Galizia’s open masonry staircase leading to the summit of the Addolorata Cemetery. Finally, he lists a number of open spaces or streets in Valletta that are “basically staircases”, including St Lucia Street and the fan-shaped public stairs in East Street.
The publication looks set to go down the same path of the pair’s previous book, Portals of Valletta, which sold out within two months of release. Asked what he feels it is about the collection which prompts such a reaction from the general public, Dr Azzopardi believes it is down to “the particular feeling evoked by black and white photography of architecture, which is disappearing at an alarming and seemingly unstoppable rate.”
And with Staircases of Malta well on its way to becoming the definitive tome documenting staircases in Maltese architecture, what’s next for the dynamic team that is Prof. Conrad Thake and Dr Charles Paul Azzopardi? “Further projects related to architecture and documenting this precious heritage are in the pipeline,” Dr Azzopardi assures me, “with at least two publications planned for this year and another two slotted in for next year.” We can’t wait to see what the historian and photographer duo tackle next.
This feature was originally published in The Commercial Courier