Gozo's crown jewel restored

Martina Said – 19th November 2016

Following years of abandonment, the Cittadella in Rabat, Gozo is finally basking in its restored glory. Architect Martin Xuereb, who worked on and implemented parts of the Master Plan for the site, divulges what went into this mammoth project amid expectations for a nomination as a candidate for UNESCO World Heritage status.

The Cittadella rises over the city of Rabat, Gozo, like a soldier’s shield, protecting itself and everything within its walls from potential harm, just as it intended for centuries past. Fast-forward to 2016, and its appearance is more majestic than ever, despite its demise as a defensive fort. Its bright bastion walls, accessible walkway and landscaped ditch are looking the best they have in decades, if not centuries – thanks to a concerted effort to bring this national monument back into the spotlight.

I meet Martin Xuereb, founder and consultant architect at Martin Xuereb & Associates (MXa), the local firm which, together with Italian specialists appointed by the Ministry for Gozo, prepared the Master Plan to restore the site back to its original splendour. “Most of Cittadella had been abandoned ruins since the 17th century, therefore restoration was long overdue,” says Martin. In 2012, the Ministry for Gozo obtained funding from the European Economic Area which it invested into this large-scale project, with the brief being to present a vision for Cittadella’s future, with policy guidelines designed to protect the site in its entirety and develop it, with emphasis on education and tourism.

Works on site began in May 2014, and MXa set about applying the approved plan for the Visitors’ Centre, as well as alterations to the walkway and gate. “The water reservoirs, built in the ditch below the main entrance in the 19th century, were identified as a suitable location for a Visitors’ Centre which would be an informative first stop for visitors and would improve the accessibility of Cittadella,” says Martin.

Easy access routes into Cittadella were provided and the last bay of arches, parallel to the bastions, was removed to reveal a large area of the city walls which had been covered up when the reservoirs were built. “The idea behind removing the reservoir ceiling was to be able to see the beauty of the bastions at the right distance, as well as the old city gate. By doing so, we also enabled visitors to see how the reservoirs were built and allowed light to enter the visitors’ centre below,” says Martin. “Construction and completion of this site were slowed by the many and frequent archaeological finds, which caused the re design of most of the new elements of the structure, sometimes several times over.”

Such discoveries include Bronze Age silos, which were unearthed in the main square and outside the Cittadella, as well as an ancient round structure formed with medium-sized stones, found by the archaeologists on site, the function of which is still a mystery. “The silos confirmed the use of this hill-top site as a centre of habitation around 1,200BC, a time when many other cities, including Athens and Syracuse, were founded around the Mediterranean,” explains Martin. “Finally, substantial parts of the causeway leading to the old Cittadella gate, which had been buried under the access road built by the British administration, were excavated, restored and may now be seen by visitors.”

All works on the Cittadella, completed in June 2016, were carried out under the supervision of the Planning Authority Heritage Unit and the Superintendence of Cultural Heritage. “Whenever new archaeological finds came to light, their treatment was discussed and agreed with the Ministry for Gozo and with these two regulatory bodies.”

Past alterations also had to be addressed by new ones, such as the gradient of the main square occupied by the cathedral, which had to be reduced substantially to make the main square more practical for locals, who may want to host cultural activities there. The Master Plan also called for a gate to be placed in the 1950s bastion breach to direct visitors to the original city gate, which was met with its fair share of resistance, since visitors had become accustomed to using the large archway as the Cittadella entrance instead of the original entrance. “One of the attractions of walking through a city gate is that you get a glimpse of what’s inside, rather than seeing everything at once, and the breach in the bastion wall took away from that experience,” says Martin.

Alterations were also made to the ditch, which was landscaped and linked to the main areas of the Cittadella through several access routes.

One of the challenges that comes with a project of this scale, scope and value is undoubtedly respecting the old while making way for the new. “I am a strong believer that, where possible with regard to restoration, one must be careful to respect the old while allowing new interventions to marry well, but remain evident,” says Martin. “Our design approach was to peel off layer after layer of misuse, neglect and abandonment, and bring back to light the original splendour and history of the area to allow for future uses.”

He asserts that, in the case of structural elements, fair-faced concrete was selected. “In doing so, the necessary structural requirements could be achieved in a slender version of what our fore-fathers would have been able to use. This also allows a greater portion of the original fabric to be experienced. When it came to areas such as the bastions, the intention for restoration was to use local materials that did not impose on the historical value of the site. For instance, restoration of the bastions required that the existing stone that was in good condition be cleaned and restored, while other soft stone blocks that had eroded be replaced. The selected material was local hard stone, which blends in sufficiently to give a harmonious overview, but still defines the newly restored areas to be seen for what they are.”

The orillion, or orillon – an architectural element of a military fortification intended to provide defence for guns and soldiers or to shield a city gate – has multiple functions in the overall structure of the Cittadella, and needed to be both strong in the structural aspect of supporting the approach road and aesthetically complementing the surrounding features.

“Concrete was used in order to allow heavy vehicles to access the overlying roadway, but having that amount of concrete visible as a finish to the orillion would have detracted from the overall atmosphere that we wanted,” says Martin. “While hard stone was the obvious choice, due to the complexity of the orillion design, namely the curved plan combined with raked walls which would have required every stone block to be individually worked, the costs would have been untenable. Therefore local soft stone was the selected material as it blends in with the surrounding areas.”

The years of hard work invested into Gozo’s crown jewel paid off immeasurably, as locals and visitors may now walk through the old city’s streets and marvel at its many valuable structures which were longing for a new lease on life. Martin says, “Cittadella is a living symphony which developed out of the synergy of over three thousand years of occupation, culminating in the recent interventions.”

This is a snippet. Read the full feature on the latest issue of the Commercial Courier.

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