It is not everyday that a prime minister has the honour to introduce to his captive audience the unveiling of a regenerative project for Valetta designed by world-class architect Renzo Piano.
At that presentation Dr Gonzi was excused for posturing as the prime minister who was singled out for the honour to remove the eyesore that faces visitors when entering city gate and resurrect the opera house ruins. The unveiling of the project amid much aplomb and hype in the media was the highlight of the occasion for the distinguished guests that were invited to peep at the wonderful designs. Dr Gonzi did not forget to remind the illuminati that Malta will celebrate almost 450 years since the Great Siege. Again for posterity it helps remembering that Malta acts as the president of the EU in 2017. All this can happen from the boxy structure adorned with modern photovoltaic cells. It will be a happy occasion for any future prime minister to greet guests from the other 27 states at the city built by gentlemen for gentlemen. Therefore, the Renzo Piano project must be completed before all these celebrations occur. Naturally our parliamentarians will be functioning from the proposed new building within Freedom square (previously being the only free parking lot in Valletta). Signor Piano designed the new parliament as a modern structure which mimics the Baroque pertness that enriches Valletta. Guess what? It will be on stilts. Yes in designing the new parliament Mr Piano may be truly representing the contrast between strength of our duality in party loyalties and yet the long stilts conceptualise the fragility of the same emotion that engulfs both sides particularly when debating partisan matters.
The new building itself is made of two massive volumes of stone, supported by stilts that recede from the façade to create an impression of suspension in air. The East block will house mainly the chamber and the speaker’s office; the West, all administrative offices for parliament members, the Ministers, the Prime Minister and the leader of the Opposition. According to the official press release one notes how the Piano’s concept will cost around €80 million which will house parliament, an open air opera house and a refurbished city gate. Other cherries on the cake include an interactive Museum of Maltese History and Political Development. The modern “green” parliament complies with the architecture’s technological heat transfer designs and this further introduces a futuristic style that must cohabitate with the opulent baroque. This is not to mention the juxtaposition of several stylistic elements reminiscent of Venetian palaces, such as the panelled pilasters, the channelled columns and the round-headed double-light windows of the Francia Palace. There will be no typical Maltese style wooden balconies but a clever design that incorporates a restaurant to serve famished parliamentarians and their acolytes. This is mysteriously located down below in the ditch, the old bridge that leads to the old railway station. Inaccessible to the prying eyes of the press are the official archives secretly tucked away behind the restaurant. Signor Piano also surprised everyone by cleverly including the biggest committee room so far available in Valletta and of course much needed meeting rooms for ministers and back benchers. Now that the debate on the practicality of the new design is reaching its zenith, how did the general public perceive it and what are the views of the thousands of passers-by who did not fully understand the complex drawings exhibited in the Museum of Archaeology?
A salient remark was placed by one of the bloggers in the Times of Malta who complained that the plans are misleadingly sketchy and miss a three dimensional computer presentation. Cynics labouring under one of the highest rate of cost of living regimes were sceptical how the €80 million project can be finished in four years when Mater Dei a state of the art hospital faced continual cost over-runs and took 17 years to complete. Those who visited the exhibition even complained that it was not properly ventilated or air conditioned such that the heat made it unbearable to stay studying the finer details. The FAA organisation also complained that the plans were not finished to sufficient detail so as to enable a professional critique of the various angles and options on show. Although nobody belittles Piano’s genius, the association blames the government for not affording a holistic brief to cover a proper working opera house which can house presentations all year round. When so many Palazzos presently in ruins are available to house the new Parliament it is a pity that scare funds are being allocated to build a modern building when, say, St Elmo can be a splendid alternative location. Again pragmatists were not silenced by the fact that Piano’s designs come at a historical moment when we should all unite to exalt the rich heritage left by our ancestors and try to finally restore the war- damaged parts of the Baroque city to its pristine glory. They complained that the solution is not a holistic one… it would be better and more worth it if Piano’s plans were shelved and something was done to the ‘Venda’ area. Patching up broken pavements and removing unsightly electrical wires from facades would be money well spent rather that the €80 million plus earmarked to deify the incumbent politicians with the dubious glory of papering the cracks of a city which is left without basic needs such as adequate parking and bad signage. Not to mention the dirty facades of numerous Palazzos that cry out for restoration. The ancient Romans had a saying: “When the plebeians were disgruntled and restless give them bread and invite them to fun and games at the circus”. Thus everything settles down with such palliatives but the malady remains. Again why did the brief to Signor Piano not include the tidying up of an ugly bus terminus reminiscent of a third world country? The entrance to the Parliament on stilts will be preceded by hawkers peddling their cheap wares, jugglers, bread sellers, tattoo artistes and the stench of urine. In simple words …what is the use of having a new entrance to a new Parliament when the outside is like a rubbish dump in a slum dog area? Some were not so gregarious in their remarks about the projected City Gate and bridge to replace the existing one. They point out that the entrance to parliament from the narrow bridge with two massive limestone blocks will restrict the visibility presently afforded in Freedom square. A noble suggestion is to erect a commemorative statute to honour the valiant De La Vallette at the entrance where the proposed parliament is being erected. Without demeaning the minimalist qualities of Mr Paino designs, the new look of the entrance does not express the richness of the highly decorative baroque prominence of palaces that adorn the triumphant city.
To conclude, this new design very much reminds me of the Salvatore Dali rendition of the famous Elephant structure perched on stilts. One can conceive how the triumphant Elephant, which stands 5.74 meters high is guarding the entrance to attract visitors go by under its huge bamboo-like legs. Perhaps in our case the new parliament on stilts also trumpets the dawn of a new era of democracy and augurs a superior handling of the social and economic being of the Maltese nation. Interposing the semblance of Dali’s Elephant seems to remind me of every voter’s hope for abundance and good fortune to lead us to a speedy recovery. All this usually radiates from superior management of our state finances so poignantly depicted in each repetition of pre-electoral promises. Or is the bland design resonated in the inspiration Mr Piano has of the eerie debates that sometimes regurgitate in the chamber by our elected representatives? Who knows ….but it is now definitely the time to act.
Partner at PKF – an audit and business advisory firm