Category A Winner (Major Regeneration Project): Binja Laparelli, Bezzina & Cole Architects & Civil Engineers
“Binja Laparelli, The Central Bank of Malta’s new knowledge centre, is intended to serve the Bank, other financial institutions, as well as the interested public. The project involved the demolition of the previous unfinished ex Malta Police Social Club, and the design of a multi-purpose space that fitted harmoniously into the central volume of the St James’ Counterguard, alongside the passageway connecting it to the newly refurbished Triton Piazza and Bieb il-Belt. The judges felt that this new building has successfully achieved its scope within the brief, while at the same time respecting the context of the fortifications. Of particular note was the discreet rational approach, yet imaginative design, in the stone screen created on the Bank’s façade, and the integration of the design elements to complement the exterior walkway, and the historical structures.” – Maria Grazia Cassar, Din l-Art Ħelwa
With the owner and occupant of this building being the Central Bank of Malta, partner at Bezzina & Cole Architects Keith Cole draws on the main objective of the institution – that of “maintaining stability of the financial system” according to the Bank’s own website – to illustrate the ethos behind the project. “Central Bank of Malta is required to build and maintain an outstanding knowledge base, and Binja Laparelli is intended to supplement and support this research and knowledge transfer function of the Bank,” he says.
The main spaces of this new building, the architect explains, consist of a foyer, a research library, a training and conference centre, an IT department, archiving facilities and servant spaces. “For national bodies like the Central Bank of Malta, establishing standards is both statutory and routine. This underlying disposition elicits quality and professional responsibility in the Bank’s staff and in those who serve it. Since all the Bank’s properties reflect this kudos, our firm determined that the design and execution of Binja Laparelli could not be an exception,” Perit Cole continues, maintaining that it is the employer that originates and moulds the initial brief. “This brief was further expanded by the project team led by the Employer’s Administration Department and including our firm, together with MTS, a firm of building services engineers. The brief is further influenced by the PA’s planning regulations and, in this case, by the Superintendence of Cultural Heritage, among others,” he explains.
Speaking of the team’s design goal, Perit Cole outlines the creation of a sense of place upon arrival, which would be carried on into the interior of the building. “The exterior of the building reflects its context within the fortifications, with a tapered hardstone brise soleil reaching down to the depth of the 1980s excavation. A bronze tubular bridge connects the public passageway to the private realm,” he says, explaining that functionally, this bridge serves as a security antiporta. “As an architectural mechanism, the bronze enclosure draws attention to the main entrance. Walking through the enclosed bridge provides a further experience in that it heightens the element of surprise upon entry into the foyer, high above the floor. A staircase wraps around a twisted lift tower and leads one down to the foyer floor,” the architect maintains.
“Albeit not exclusively, light and matter are two symbiotic constituents of architecture,” continues Perit Cole, as he goes on to explain that in the public areas, the predominant material selected to reflect light off the walls was local hardstone. “This material maintains the experience of place. The hardstone panels reflect the natural light prevalent in Malta and suggest that this building is located within the fortifications of Valletta.” And since the building is enclosed on three sides by fortification walls, the architects opted to introduce daylight through an array of skylights above the top office floor and foyer, while the east wall provided a further source of light and visual contact with the exterior.
Divulging his take on the future of the local built environment and architectural heritage, the architect maintains, “Our society needs to collectively embrace the responsibility of stewardship of the environment, both rural and urban. Our best heritage is one of the indicators confirming that we have the capacity to make this island a better place to live in. Our worst heritage implies that we also have the capacity to push this island towards oblivion. As always, the choice is ours.”
Category B Winner (The Rehabilitation and Re-Use of Buildings): Macina project, Edwin Mintoff Architects
“This early 17th century building, originally housing the mechanism for ship mast fitting known as a ’macchina’, was rehabilitated and given new life as a guest house with ancillary facilities, including a pool, bar, restaurant and cafeteria. It was a complex project, both technically and philosophically, and the jury were impressed by the quality of the finishes and design choices. Despite creating the necessary luxury, the overall concept retained the military, functional feel of the building’s previous use, especially in the staircase and the courtyard. We felt that this was an example to follow, in the rehabilitation and re-use of military buildings, and were unanimous in our decision to award the Prix d’Honneur for the Rehabilitation and Re-Use of Buildings to Edwin Mintoff Architects for the Macina.” – Maria Grazia Cassar, Din l-Art Ħelwa
“The structure known as Macina forms part of St Michael’s bastion, a critical part of the city of Senglea’s landward defence,” explains Edwin Mintoff, architect and founder of EM Architects. Utilised for ship mast fitting from the early 17th century, the bastion originally housed a machine made of hardwood, which was later changed to steel in 1864. By 1927, however, the machine was dismantled in favour of a floating lift crane, and the Macina has subsequently been used for a variety of purposes including the Admiralty’s Head Office, a Trade School and a political party headquarters. More recently, it has been used as an exhibition space for special events.
“EM Architects’ design was based on the desire to preserve and enhance this historical building and restore it to its former glory,” Perit Mintoff, maintains, going on to explain that this was primarily analysed with regards to the site location and surrounding amenities, so as to determine how the project could contribute to the holistic urban regeneration of the Three Cities. “It was also of primary importance that the building was finally protected and restored so that it could be enjoyed for years to come. The new layout was designed to maximise the traveller’s engagement with the history of the building and the culture of the surrounding area,” he says.
After years of disuse and continuous exposure to rain, wind and sea-spray, when it came to the commencement of construction works, the building was badly in need of repair, the architect recalls. “The existing coralline and franka limestone was found to be deteriorated in certain locations, and had to be replaced, and certain areas which had been plastered over had to be cleaned,” he explains. Apart from this, as is common with many historic buildings in Malta, numerous modern alterations and additions were also discovered, which were constructed using methods and/or materials which are incompatible with the older fabric. “Many of the post-war repairs were low-budget and make-shift, like many of the first and second floor ceilings. Certain areas of the existing structure, in particular those which were repaired following the damage caused in World War II, were found to be structurally unstable and impossible to repair. A portion of the building had also been damaged by an arson attack and also had to be replaced, as the fire had severely decreased the area’s structural integrity,” maintains Perit Mintoff.
Speaking of the Din l-Art Ħelwa Award, the architect maintains that having worked on the project for 10 years, every decision, even related to structural interventions, was planned so as to respect the existing building. “We hope that the Macina building serves as an example and perhaps a benchmark for the restoration and re-design of other historic buildings in Malta,” he maintains.
Category C Winner (A Restoration and Conservation Project): Architecture Project, The Coach House
“Despite the many developments in the science of restoration, and growing awareness of the importance of our historic buildings, we are sadly witnessing a spate of destruction of old and traditional buildings, the scale and rate of which is perhaps unprecedented in our country. We therefore greatly admire clients who are willing to take on a restoration and rehabilitation of private non-commercial residential projects. This of course also requires the judicious approach of an architect who responds to the challenge in a most imaginative, yet sensitive manner. In the Coach House, such a challenge lay in the restoration of the fabric of a humble yet historic property, which was a one-storey service building attached to Palazzo Bosio in Balzan. The intervention and extension upon the existing building consisted of a stone volume hovering above the existing fabric. The limestone façade is detailed to mimic a weaved pattern, creating a surface of changing shadows echoing the irregular surfaces of the historical walls below, whilst reducing the impact of the new-built volume. This intervention, together with the restoration and conservation of the existing structure has in the opinion of the jury, earned the Prix d’Honneur in the Restoration and Conservation of a building. The Silver Medal was also awarded to the Coach House for its ability to create a harmonious intervention with the simple historic fabric of the existing farmhouse without overwhelming the existing historic buildings and their traditional construction.” – Maria Grazia Cassar, Din l-Art Ħelwa
A Grade 1 Scheduled property located in the heart of Balzan, the site of the Coach House was historically occupied by a series of farm buildings dating back to the 15th century, explains David Drago, founding partner at Architecture Project. “The palazzo was built in the 18th century for Vincenzo Bosio, Commandator of the Knights of the Order of St John, as his own residential quarters, absorbing these rural farm structures into the palazzo’s baroque layout,” he says, maintaining that the Coach House is thought to have primarily served as a service building intrinsically connected to the adjacent Palazzo Bosio.
“Mons. Gwann Dimech – a respected historian who researched and published studies on prominent members of the Order of St John – in his book Ħal Balzan – Ġrajjietu sal-1999 – dedicates a chapter to palaces and other historical houses in Balzan. According to Mons. Dimech, Vincenzo Bosio, who was at the time a prominent Knight of the Order of St John, made the palazzo his residence in 1780. The book specifically refers to the entrance of the Coach House on the right hand side of the square, as the entrance leading to the area where animals – and the coach – used to be kept,” he continues.
Composed of an outer set of buildings adjacent to the palazzo, the Coach House features a number of rooms on the ground floor – including a large mill room and an adjacent room with corbels – which have ceilings that exceed four metres in height. “Various features within the rooms clearly show that these rooms were used as a service building, and more specifically, as an area where animals were kept. One of the main rooms within the upper floor of the Coach House originally formed part of the palazzo,” Perit Drago affirms, adding that the main aim of the project was to preserve the functional nature of the pre-existing building while turning it into a home and accommodating the requests of the new owners.
Looking back on the start of the project, the architect describes the state of the original property as dilapidated, with most apertures missing, stone walls lacking mortar joints, and severe biological growth due to the humid environment resulting from the lack of use and maintenance. “The well-defined approach to the project was, first of all, the restoration of the fabric of this humble yet historic, valuable property,” he says.
As for receiving the Din l-Art Ħelwa award, the architect maintains that restoration alone is sometimes not enough to preserve a building and inject new life into it, especially in today’s highly-demanding socio-economic environment. “To preserve our unique built heritage, we have to constantly find new ways of making it ‘accessible’ while respecting it. We are careful to avoid preservation as an ideological battle driven by nostalgia, just as we resist the temptation for easy and immediate financial gain of insensitive developments,” he says, adding that the Coach House is the result of an approach which takes into consideration all these elements and finds new solutions to mediate between them through design.
This article originally appeared in The Commercial Courier