After decades of neglect, recent years have seen the historic city of Valletta finally get the attention it deserves. The recent completion of the City Gate project, which extends onto the majestic Triton Square, has provided a fitting frame for the entrance to Malta’s capital, though it is only the latest piece in an intricate puzzle of regeneration.
Valletta’s revival has been in the works for a while – one could say it began following Renzo Piano’s master plan in the late 1980s, when the public slowly began to appreciate the architectural value of its stately buildings. Backed by revenue from EU structural funds and a commitment to the capital by local authorities and the private sector alike, the capital began to come alive, owing, in no small part, to major projects including the restoration of the fort network, the rebuilding of the Upper Barrakka Lift, and the Parliament project.
Among the projects that have come to fruition over the years, Restoration Directorate Director, Norbert Gatt, considers the restoration of the fortification lines to have been of particular significance. Starting in 2009 and reaching completion in 2015, the Directorate was responsible for the restoration of the majority of Valletta’s land front fortifications, starting from Marsamxett Harbour all the way to Grand Harbour, with an expenditure of approximately €13 million, partly funded by the EU. “It’s the biggest project that we’ve worked on, and is certainly one of the most visible when approaching Valletta. It revamped the area, and paved the way for Renzo Piano’s City Gate project,” he says, adding that St James Cavalier, which is the backdrop of the Piano project, also formed part of the land front fortifications restoration.
Also included in the project is the Fortifications Interpretation Centre on St Mark’s Street, forming part of the St Andrews bastions, which, as of 2013, houses the Fortress Builders, telling the story of how the fortifications in Malta were built. “That involved the complete rehabilitation of an abandoned space,” Mr Gatt explains.
The Directorate was also involved in the restoration of a number of other critical landmark buildings over these past few years, he goes on to explain, naming Auberge de Castille, the National Library, the Grandmaster’s Palace and St John’s Co-Cathedral as noteworthy projects that have each given new life to the city. “All their external façades were restored by the Directorate, and in these instances, all by our own workforce, which is something that I’m very proud of,” he maintains.
Closer to Valletta 2018, restoration works on several other façades in the capital have been carried out, including that of Palazzo Ferrerria just opposite the opera house; the entire complex of the Jesuit Church including the University; and Palazzo Castellania, which houses the Health Ministry. Meanwhile, the Directorate is currently busy at work on a €10 million project in conjunction with Heritage Malta: the regeneration of the Grand Master’s Palace and Armoury, co-funded by European Funds.
All of this certainly comes at a cost, and while some projects are easier to quantify thanks to the allocation of EU funds, others, Mr Gatt explains, are somewhat trickier to cost. “For the projects which we carry out with our own workers, we mainly factor the costs of the materials, because the workers are salaried. While I don’t have exact figures, the timeframes give a dimension of the costs. The three main façades of Castille for example, which comprise a large amount of stonework which needed to be restored, took a stretch of five years to complete. So, if you factor in the salaries of a group of workers for five years, it runs into the hundreds of thousands,” he explains.
A detail from the Grand Master's Palace
Meanwhile, the Admiralty House conversion rehabilitation project, which is set to house the Attorney General’s office once it vacates the Grand Master’s Palace, is costing in the region of €4 million globally, while the Jesuit Church and complex (which includes the rehabilitation of the oratories and church) will have a total cost in the region of €5 million. The Notarial Archives project, which includes the rehabilitation of the building and the restoration of some of the manuscripts, will amount to €5 million, which is being co-funded by European funds, and yet another huge project, comprising the restoration of the southern tip of the western side of Valletta, will cost in the region of €24 million.
Speaking of this project, which is being led by the Grand Harbour Regeneration Corporation (GHRC), Mr Gatt details the Directorate’s roles involving the restoration of the fortifications of the lower end of Valletta, which were not part of the original fortifications project, as well as Auberge de Baviere and Auberge d’Aragon.
Asked to name other projects which he feels have made a significant impact on the city and which the Restoration Directorate wasn’t directly involved in, Mr Gatt names Renzo Piano’s City Gate project as being high on the list, as well as “the pedestrianisation of Republic Street and subsequently the pedestrianisation of Merchants Street, which I feel have helped a lot in the revival of Valletta, making everything so much more accessible.” He also mentions Valletta’s revamped indoor market, Is-Suq tal-Belt, which “breathed new life into another area of Valletta which had previously fallen into disrepair,” while also looking forward to the completion of the Cathedral Museum project. “These are all links, important pieces of the puzzle which, put together, make up Valletta in 2018,” he maintains.
Finally, one can’t speak about Valletta’s regeneration without mentioning Fort St Elmo, which, following a lengthy period of restoration and the housing of a new National War Museum, was unveiled to the public in May 2015. Works on the Fort St Elmo restoration masterplan began in 2005, with works on site kicking off in 2011, featuring a collaboration between GHRC and Heritage Malta, and an allocated €17 million from the EU’s Regional Development Funding Programme. Finally, the flagship project for Valletta 2018 – the new National Museum of Art, MUŻA – is nearing its final stages of restoration within the 15th-century Auberge d’Italie, and is touted to be a game-changer in the local art scene.
Asked what the reception of such major restoration projects has been, and what each has contributed to Valletta as a whole, Mr Gatt maintains that there has been a shift in awareness over the years, “an understanding of what restoration is all about, and an increased appreciation, which also brings about an increased appetite for more to happen,” he says. And that’s certainly great news for the capital’s wealth of architectural heritage, and music to our ears.
This article originally appeared in Business Agenda