Of Demolition And Development: Are We Destroying Our Architectural Heritage?

Sarah Micallef – 13th August 2018

Can the construction industry be short-sightedly destroying Malta’s economic interests, in the long run? Three industry experts weigh in.

"Heritage buildings are only perceived as a nuisance today because developers are not aware of the economic value of this asset" – Konrad Buhagiar


Photo by Dragana Rankovic

"I think I’ll hazard an unorthodox start by saying that heritage is an artificial construct," posits Konrad Buhagiar, founding partner of Architecture Project, when faced with today’s demolition of historical properties.

Arguing that the concept of heritage took root and flourished in the 19th century, in the wake of the great social and economic upheavals brought about by the French Revolution, the architect explains that the new order catalysed the rise of the middle class, which in turn generated experiments in unification and, as a consequence, the concept of national identity.

"It engendered the idea that wealth is produced by personal achievement and labour, and not by inheritance, a phenomenon that reached its peak in the second half of the last century when countries devastated by two World Wars rebuilt themselves through hard work and personal sacrifice," he maintains, going on to refer to best-selling book Capital, in which French economist Thomas Piketty showed that such economic and social structures belong to the past, and that "we are closing the bracket on the economic tenet that labour produces wealth. Today’s dictum would be something like: wealth produces wealth."

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Bringing this to bear on the situation locally, he continues, "add to this the gradual erosion, as a result of social media that transcend traditional boundaries, of the traditional concept of identity as determined solely by group dynamics, whether racial, religious or national, and one can understand how heritage as a container of meaning and identity is under serious attack."

Quick to point out that this does not mean that it is obsolete as a force in our society, he argues to the contrary, affirming, "the values that heritage embodies need to be re-evaluated in the light of these new economic and social developments. Heritage buildings are only perceived as a nuisance today because developers are not aware of the economic value of this asset and planners and policy makers are not prepared to shift their point of view to accommodate the imperatives of development."

Asked whether the demolition of such properties could be short-sighted, Mr Buhagiar feels that "it is dangerous to divide the phenomenon of heritage and planning into two distinct camps: on the one hand, development where financial gain is of the ultimate goal, and on the other, preservation seen as a militant mission, driven by nostalgia, on the model of British 19th century preservation societies that still hold sway to this day." Unless an effort is made to join these two forces, he maintains, "the ambiguities and confusion that characterise the scene today will arise. In the absence of a real vision and direction, everything goes, including historic properties."

Arguing that safeguards are not enough, because they give the negative perception of heritage as a brake to eliminate or a hurdle to overcome, he believes that heritage authorities need to educate developers and the public at large that heritage is an asset that can be exploited to increase the value, economic and otherwise of the property or project. "Sustainable heritage must become one of the main drivers behind the evolution of our cities. This understanding needs to start early in a child’s learning life. Only education can reverse the atmosphere of radical pragmatism that reigns today in all spheres and all industries," he says.

"It is worse than short-sighted, it is suicidal." – Prof. Alex Torpiano

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For Prof. Alex Torpiano, Dean of the Faculty for Built Environment at the University of Malta, his disagreement is not only with demolition, but also with other forms of what he terms defacement. "Building three or more floors over an existing heritage building is a mistaken policy that destroys the very heritage asset to be preserved," he argues, lamenting, "streetscapes are destroyed when certain buildings are allowed to rise disproportionately over the other buildings in the same row."

Asked whether any recent demolitions of historical properties have struck a chord, Prof. Torpiano points out the Marsa Power Station and the ex NAAFI building as examples of "wanton demolition" he disagrees with – two modernist examples of industrial heritage the likes of which are fast disappearing on the islands. "Both buildings should not only have been retained, but used as key features in a ‘new’ Marsa," he says. "Two years ago, my students prepared proposals for the revival of Marsa, and demonstrated various ways by which the Power Station could be converted to new uses, to spearhead the regeneration of Marsa. We presented all this to Enemalta, who listened politely; but they had already decided that the site was ripe for real estate," he laments, going on to point out that yet, examples of how this could be done exist in places such as BelVal in Luxembourg, where "obsolete steel furnaces and an ancillary plant were preserved and used to define the heart of a new, and beautiful, urban development."

"It is worse than short-sighted, it is suicidal. One of our key economic strengths is our tourism industry. The environment we offer tourists is the same one we experience every day, except that, given that they are paying for the pleasure, they are even more sensitive than we are to the ugliness; for how long will people continue to pay to enjoy the Malta we are creating?" he asks.

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According to Prof. Torpiano, "historical properties become dilapidated because they are abandoned, and because of lack of maintenance. Sometimes, this is the result of fragmented ownership, or of owners who cannot afford the costs of maintenance and upgrading. In some instances, the abandonment is deliberate, so as to pave the way for eventual demolition." Admitting that not all properties can be saved, the Dean of the Faculty for Built Environment argues that the State and public entities should lead by example. "Investment in dilapidated buildings could be mobilised if their location, and their potential use, were valorised. The state invested in the public infrastructure and urban spaces of Valletta, Mdina and Birgu - private investment in dilapidated buildings did the rest," he asserts.

Meanwhile, on 18th April, Prof. Torpiano declares, a group of 22 entities, active in the area of cultural heritage, published a Declaration which demanded a different approach to the preservation of our built heritage. "One of the proposals was the creation of a Heritage Property Fund that can be used to acquire key properties, put on the market by their owners, so that they could be restored in a proper way, and then put back on the market, or used for communal and social purposes. In this way, owners of these properties are not penalised, the heritage asset is restored, and the Property Fund can recover part, if not all, of its outlay," he maintains.

"Tourists don’t come to Malta to see high-rise buildings, they can go to much finer cities known for that." – Astrid Vella

Astrid Vella

Astrid Vella, Coordinator at local NGO Flimkien għal Ambjent Aħjar, expands on the tourism angle, arguing that the destruction of Malta’s heritage will undermine our long-term economic interests, since Malta’s economy depends on tourism, not the development industry which is undermining it. "Tourists don’t come to Malta to see high-rise buildings, they can go to much finer cities known for that," she says, maintaining, "the same goes for beaches, where other places in the Mediterranean offer much better beaches. A great many of the tourists who support Malta’s economy, filling Air Malta’s seats, our hotels, restaurants, taxis and shops come to enjoy our heritage towns."

The Flimkien għal Ambjent Aħjar Coordinator goes on to maintain that it is not enough to preserve Valletta and Mdina, otherwise once tourists have seen those, many will not feel the need to return. "I cannot see how our politicians have been so blind as to ignore the fact that the most flourishing town in Sicily is Taormina, full of luxury hotels that are fully-booked almost year-round. Taormina has based its success on offering a quality Sicilian product, preserving its heritage and landscapes with no buildings higher than four storeys, and marketing its own identity rather than trying to be a wannabe Dubai, New York, Singapore or Hong Kong," she quips.

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"In cases where developers or architects are well-connected, Planning Authority boards ignore even outstanding heritage value, as is the case of Villa St Ignatius, the earliest major building in Balluta. This can only be attributed to corruption of the planning system, given that the Planning Authority is the body responsible for protecting Malta’s heritage," adds Ms Vella.

"The dilapidation must stop," Ms Vella exclaims, pointing out that few realise that while the PA is legally empowered to step in when scheduled buildings are allowed to deteriorate, this has not been implemented. "It is shameful that countries that are struggling, unlike Malta, appreciate and preserve their heritage buildings far better than we do; the case of Russia’s immediate post-war restoration of its palaces destroyed by the Nazis is an outstanding example," she says, arguing that dilapidation can usually be remedied. "Chesky Krumlov in the Czech Republic is an outstanding example: abandoned for decades, its medieval houses lay in ruins until a local governor with vision started a private owners’ restoration programme. Just ten years later, the town was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site!"

Finally, on her part, Ms Vella believes that there are many ways to repurpose historical properties, mentioning private homes, offices, clubs, restaurants and boutique hotels, "which are mushrooming in Valletta and the Three Cities, yet outside those areas permits are still being issued for outright demolition of such properties."

"What is lacking is not re-use options but political will, vision and courage," she asserts, with a final counsel: "Malta has already lost so much to this wanton, unnecessary and preventable destruction. What remains of this non-renewable resource should be treasured and nursed much more responsibly for the sake of our heritage, identity, well-being and our economy."

The full version of this feature originally appeared in The Commercial Courier

Of Demolition And Development: Are We Destroying Our Architectural Heritage?