Peeling Back The Layers Of The 500-Year-Old Auberge d'Italie

Martina Said - 25th May 2019

The newly-restored Auberge d’Italie in Valletta, now home to the National Museum of Art, is a fascinating building with a 500-year-old history that served as a pillar around which the museum was modelled. The project’s trailblazers share what went into bringing this building back to life.

When Malta’s National Museum of Art, known as MUŻA, opened its doors to the public last year, there was enormous anticipation for its grand reveal, after many months of intense work to have it ready in time by the end of Valletta’s tenure as European Capital of Culture in 2018. For many, anticipation and excitement mounted for more than one reason – the art community was eager to view and experience the newly-displayed art collections, but many were just as eager for the grand reveal of the newly-restored Auberge d’Italie, the historic building that houses the collections – and both lived up to, and exceeded, expectations.

After speaking to three experts who led different aspects of this project, and whose work was pivotal to its success, I learned that the Auberge d’Italie was and is much more than just a ‘house’ for MUŻA – as the museum’s Curator and former Project Lead, Sandro Debono, aptly puts it, “the Auberge was the container within which the collection had to fit. The ambition was to create a glove-in-hand situation – the Auberge is the glove and the collection is the hand.”

Dr Debono says that the project adopted an interpretative design approach which was all about letting the building speak, understanding the complexity of its 500-year old history, and reacting to its many layers, rather than imposing new layers onto it. The scars and marks left on the Auberge’s walls were acknowledged as part of the building’s history, and therefore left exposed. These included graffiti, but not just, given that the building had been severely mutilated over time. “The idea was never to adapt the building to be a museum, but rather the other way around,” he asserts. This went hand-in-hand with developing the concept for MUŻA, which moved away from the model used for the now-defunct Museum of Fine Arts. “We didn’t create a collection from scratch for this new institution – it is a historic collection, re-engineered and re-thought into stories that communicate better with the viewer.”

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The interventions were carried out so as to provide a better and clearer reading of the historic layers of the Auberge, says Dr Debono. “We opted for surgical interventions to remove what was absolutely necessary, rather than removing a layer to expose the underlying one. This was all part of one concerted vision that guided the restoration of the building and the rethinking of the collections into narratives. There was an intentional attempt at polyphony, woven through all the various and multifaceted components of the project, and this too informed the conservation and restoration of the building.”

The road to getting this project off the ground was long and complex, and began with an international design contest based on a brief prepared by Heritage Malta, after an intense period of workshops and focus groups to establish the storyline and experience of the community art museum, says Perit David Zahra, Head of Projects at Heritage Malta. The detailed design phase started towards the end of 2016, while works on site began at the beginning of 2017.

“Historic buildings provide a wealth of data about past habits, manners, techniques and aspirations. Hence, the restoration intervention has to preserve, without distortion, this full range of evidence, supplemented by research and documentation,” says Perit Zahra. “The intervention at the Auberge d’Italie aimed at identifying the various layers which constitute the historic building that stands today, and understand the organic manner in which this developed, in response to ever-changing needs and requirements, throughout its history. This approach required extensive research, making use of archival and published sources over a period of roughly 500 years. In order for the Auberge to tell its written and unwritten history in its totality, it was necessary for the intervention to retain and make legible all surviving layers found within it.”

MUZA

As with any restoration project, unexpected yet invaluable discoveries were made at the Auberge, albeit ones that were obliterated through war damage and extensive modifications, but which completed the narrative of this important building – namely the Camerone and the grand staircase, or La Scala Grande.

“The former was a double height space, practically occupying the entire wing overlooking Pjazza de Valette, with a pitched roof and high windows, similar in scale and style to the Grand Salon at the Auberge de Provence, albeit this being at ground floor level,” says Perit Zahra.

“The only hint to this space was a chase in stonework of the external wall on the existing roof, indicating the pitched roof profile. During the works, the original paving was uncovered, the position of the coat of arms was identified, and the original profile of the high windows (that direct light downwards) understood, hence requiring a major re-design of this space to enable any visitor to understand the original proportions of this space, even though in a small area of the former Camerone.”

As for the staircase, Perit Zahra says that, since the early stages of the project, one element that eluded all was the lack of a grand staircase in such a building. “This was very unusual for period buildings. Hence, even though it was understood that such a staircase was demolished, its position was as yet unknown.”

Following the demolition of the more modern staircase and the cleaning of the walls, elements started to emerge within the stones that started to point towards an elaborate and elegant configuration of La Scala Grande, in line with what one would expect in such an Auberge. In line with the restoration philosophy, Perit Zahra says it wasn’t possible to reconstruct the staircase and obliterate subsequent layers of the fabric. “Therefore, the proposed staircase evokes the memory of space and light, while using modern materials to re-create the unique experience of La Scala Grande.”

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Perit Robert Sant, Project Architect and Head of the Integrated Design Team (IDT) for MUŻA – which included his company Design & Technical Resources (DTR), the interpretation consultants (Martello Media and DMW Creative), engineers (Cyan Engineering), restoration consultants (MCG Architects), and project managers (iMANAGE) – says the project brief called for the restoration of the Auberge as well as the generation and installation of MUŻA.

“MUŻA is about stories, connection, about stimulation, about asking people to find dots and connect them, even dots as yet unseen by the experts. It is this basic understanding that underlies the work of the architects and interpretation consultants.”

Perit Sant explains that, as Heritage Malta and the IDT studied and explored the Auberge, and its walls were uncovered, the complexity and convoluted history of the building emerged, and so the questions arose: “what exactly does one restore the building to? All evolutions are an intrinsic part of a building’s story, and every evolution is important. The restoration concept became, almost, one of archaeology, one of layers and skins. The restoration intervention became one of surgical intervention to peel back various layers of skin, carefully revealing what lies underneath, then applying a graft, should this be required, or applying the graft to the spirit of what no longer is, or can be, what has been taken over by evolution, but which has left deep signs of its passing on the very walls.”

The restoration of the building attempts to reveal the very story of the Auberge as completely as it was understood, Perit Sant adds. “The building comes before MUŻA, and shall perhaps even outlive MUŻA. Everything put into it in 2016, 2017 and 2018, including MUŻA, can be taken out, and the Auberge will remain, restored, unmarked and well able to take on its next function in its evolution.” Therefore, he continues, “we did nothing to adapt and prepare the space to house a national museum. Instead, we adapted MUŻA to be housed within the Auberge d’Italie. No space is created other than that which already exists, and MUŻA merely occupies such spaces without any imposition.”

Part of the restoration process involved applying grafts of new skin, where necessary, to the Auberge, “to soften the wounds and mark the glory,” as Perit Sant explains. “This skin is light, transparent, yet visible and perforated to allow one to realise that there may be more than initially meets the eye, to stimulate a desire to delve deeper. This new skin is not in itself a pure construction material but, seeking to inspire a story of construction, is associated with it.”

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This is where the use of copper came in, which the architect says has played a role in buildings for many years, but not really for structural purposes. “Copper has always been applied to buildings as a skin and this understanding, we feel, is engrained in society’s psyche,” explains Perit Sant. “We chose TECU Premium, a light bronze (a copper alloyed with a small portion of tin) and applied it in thin, 0.7mm sheets, perforated to an even pattern, both for visual lightness and also for transparency. In the Grande Scala installation, the TECU skin evokes that which no longer remains. In other places, such as the Pjazza de Valette façade, the TECU screen is all that remains of a building torn away, and now marks the extent of that tear, while also providing protection to the wound of exposure, while asking the viewer to peer deeper through it.”

The challenges encountered throughout this project were many and various, ranging from the scale of the structural interventions to design modifications that had to accommodate new discoveries. The museum’s curator says intervening on the building as little as possible while staying true to the original concept of MUŻA was among the greatest challenges. “Respecting the fabric of the building was key, but the museum also needed a sound infrastructure suitable for a contemporary art museum, which includes climate control, lighting and, in MUŻA’s case, transforming a historic building into a zero carbon footprint institution,” says Dr Debono. “All the energy consumed is generated on site, making it the first museum in Malta, and one of few in Europe that generates energy this way.”

The complexity and scale of this project make it unique in many ways, and now it also serves as a prototype of a sustainable historic building which could pave the way for future projects of this kind. True to its name, MUŻA serves to inspire visitors, and through the thoughtful engagement between the building and the art, it opens up a world of opportunity for centuries-old discovery and exploration in a remarkable setting.

This feature originally appeared in The Commercial Courier


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