An Academic Paper Submitted by Ella Fleri Soler
To question the modernity of the five century old city, ‘built by gentlemen for gentlemen’, is to put the spectacular Baroque-born ‘Humilissima Civitas Valletta’ under the microscope of the 21st century eye. The Knights of St. John emerged victorious from the Great Siege of Malta in 1565 and erected what was a modern city for their days beyond a shadow of doubt, but has the test of time converted their splendour into a shrine of the past with no future for the modern lifestyle? Perhaps in answering this one must begin at the very definition of ‘modernity’ – certainly not an easy feat in an era of rapid change and diversifying cultures. With a better understanding of the various approaches to defining this sphere we could then begin to zoom into the context at hand – the magnificent Valletta.
As a historical category, modernity refers to a period marked by a questioning or rejection of tradition. The modernists had an optimism for the future. They saw the 19th century city as outdated and wanted it to move towards a form of rationality, to be achieved through functionality. The aim was to create a universal architecture, something which is not tied to a specific place, but rather one which promotes efficiency as a city tool. However one could argue that the city produce of the machine age is no more efficient than the traditional cities. In ‘Paris, the Capital of Modernity’ David Harvey laments on how our first encounter with a city is through its streets, which explains why the concern of the modernists for Paris’ pre industrial unhygienic and unordered streets called for Haussmann’s 19th century renovation. This recalls Jane Jacobs “spontaneous order” of some city streets where an "intricate ballet in which the individual dancers and ensembles all have distinctive parts which miraculously reinforce each other and compose an orderly whole." . Jacobs (1961) refers to the 19th century poet Charles Baudelaire and German philosopher Walter Benjamin. The former is credited with coining the term "modernity" (modernité/flaneur) to designate the fleeting, ephemeral experience of life in an urban metropolis, and the responsibility art has to capture that experience.
Baudelaire plunges us into the line of thought, therefore, that modernity is not simply dealing with the functionality of buildings and efficiency of the city, but rather the human experiences and interactions that take place within. The need to look into the social dimension of Valletta lines up with Michel De Certeau’s ‘Walking in the City’ in which he criticizes purely functionalist architecture for its lack of consideration of the legends, cultures and practices of the place, which make living in a city bearable. This is further highlighted in Abdou Maliqalim Simone’s ‘For the City Yet to Come’ in which we see the city of Duoala, to be much more than the sum of its buildings, but that of its words, stories, inspirations, legends, crimes and people.
To take the ‘19th Century Modernist’ stance on Valletta could perhaps disprove the very notion of the traditional being inefficient. With its grid like system of streets and manageable size Valletta is possibly the most walkable of cities, enabling good circulation and porosity. Architect Francesco Laparelli designed the city in such a way that it has the best possible light all year round – that explains why Republic Street is aligned with the winter solstice . Furthermore, the strategic location of the peninsula between two harbours offers the benefits of its natural ports, allowing for prosperity in the commercial and touristic industries. This said, inhabitants could live, work, and gain access to any needed services without ever having to leave the city walls. However the social infrastructure may not be pointing towards such a level of comfort. Today the city has become a hub where locals, tourists and commuters cross paths, each with their own needs and wishes which could quickly lead to conflicts of interest. In the chapter ‘Valletta – Glory, Decline and Rehabilitation’ Mitchell identifies two rather contrasting visions for Valletta. On one hand we have the “educated elites who perpetuate the image of Valletta as a Baroque city par excellence” whose interests mainly lie in the preservation and maintenance of the national patrimony and at encouraging tourist development. On the other hand we have the locals of Valletta, ‘Il-Beltin’, whose interests “appeared to be constantly subsumed under the hegemony of heritage, and who struggled to come to terms with the implication of living on a monument”. With these two visions in mind it may seem easy to draw the line down the middle and assume a party for the preservation of social infrastructure of Valletta and another for that of the material infrastructure, however this would be to certainly oversimplify the situation. In actuality, even the locals who may seem to be unconcerned with the implications of Valletta being titled a UNESCO Heritage Site in 1980, are indeed proud of where they come from and the rich history of their city. What they crave is the past flourishing of their businesses, the freer social life of their days which may now have dwindled at the face of commercialisation. Rather than taking these visions for their differences Mitchell (2001) attempts to find their common ground, which he identifies to be nostalgia.
This nostalgia is formed on the collective or personal memories of the people. Whether it being the nostalgia of ‘Il-Beltin’, for their way of life before control was assumed to attempt a literal clean-up of the city, or that of the elite outsiders, who though may not have current ties to the city have still been brought up in the shadows of their ancestors who were once locals, and so share a collective nostalgia for Valletta, the very fact that some form of nostalgia is present is an indication of our passing to a modern era. Nostalgia itself is very modern – the more modern we are, or the more modern we think we are, the more we feel the need to archive the past. Such nostalgia need not be looked at in a bad light. Philosopher Walter Benjamin explains how there is no reason why a nostalgia conscious of itself, a lucid and remorseless dissatisfaction with the present on the grounds of some remembered plenitude, cannot furnish as an adequate revolutionary stimulus. This means that Valletta may be very nostalgic but it also very aware of its future. Past changes to the slum areas of the city wounded those who so greatly socially identified themselves with the area, but in one loss comes about another birth. And in a loss, a mark is still left, somewhere, in some form, on the city, adding to its richness. In the excerpt ‘The Sky Above Valletta’ Konrad Buhagiar writes:
“Man’s actions, great and small, accumulate and pile up all around me on the roofscape of Valletta. They blend into a rich composition of forms and textures, their contrast subdued by a unifying patina. No city or work of man can escape this docile yet humbling influence of time. I stand and watch the imperceptible, patient unravelling of the town’s history…and I wonder about its ability to invent a suitable and dignified future”.
The calling for the future is the calling for an attempt to move forward, Valletta’s chance at stepping into the light of modernity.
An excellent example of this birth from loss is brought forward to us by the world renowned architect Renzo Piano and his project for the City Gate. A project of great controversy yet undoubtedly one of transit, between past and present. In bringing forth such change and continuity Valletta is striving for the anti-static notion that is modernity. Sigmund Freud once compared the mind to the city of Rome with its intriguing layers - a modern city which embraces its past but looks to the future. Projects like that of City Gate are directing Valletta towards this same regeneration which perhaps slowly, but surely, one day, will earn it the name of ‘a modern city’ without hesitation. As Ackroyd (2001) stated “the city has the ability to recreate itself silently and invisibly, as if it were truly a living thing”.
The notion of nostalgia previously discussed has relevance here in the controversy caused by the City Gate project. In reacting to the project, the nation quickly divided into “in favour” and “against” but it wasn’t often that people could explain why. The general public clearly felt the area was very sentimental to them, and so they were reluctant to see change, but maybe they were not educated enough to fully understand the values to be considered, in say, replicating a historic monument such as the Opera House or passing on the opportunity of rejuvenating a static capital city entrance. Although preparations and discussions prior to the works carried out were dragged on for years, unfortunately the public was left in the dark for much of the decisions taken, which may have left the feeling of alienation. This is a significant “blunder” because there is a whole life of commuters, hawkers, hanger-ons, bus drivers and more that bustles around the site. Nonetheless, a closer study of the design reveals Piano’s work to respect the core elements of what Valletta is and what it shall be. The newly injected architecture embodies the values, ambitions and ideals of the place, the people and our era. Perhaps most important of all is the attempt to create something timeless.
In ‘Stone as a Vehicle of Timelessness’ architect Konrad Buhagiar explains how throughout the works on the project, Renzo Piano Building Workshop (RPBW) had one thought in mind: that of introducing contemporary structures to “participate in the homogeneity of the urban fabric of the town, as well as to contribute to the harmonious composition of volume and scale of which it is made”. He continues to justify, “Ruptures, like that of Modernism for example, are not relegated to the level of intellectual histories, the rebellions of a number of individuals besotted by progress and turning their backs on the past. They are interpreted, instead, as necessary reassessments of the past and enriching realignments that are, nevertheless, enduring elements of a collective drive towards survival and permanence”.
As romantic as this may sound however, one must not get lost in the architectural philosophy implemented by such projects. “A city uninhabited is different” (Thomas Pynch, V: 323). In our quest for modernity we have to examine not solely the urban changes but particularly their effect on the social interactions. The people that inhabit a city (or pass through it) become the blood or lifeline of a city. In speaking of change for modernisation we think of change as positive, however this adapting infrastructure must in some way allow continuity of lifestyle and social interaction. In the evolution of such public space the playing field in which commuter meets local, meets tourist and so on is to be debated. David Harvey speaks of a need for symbiosis between all these parties. This implies that not only are the public, the semi-public and the private spaces to be appropriately provided but they are to work hand in hand – this is how a modern city may flourish to be successful in its cosmopolitanism and diversity.
City Gate, albeit the largest, is not the only project plunging Valletta to the forefront of architecture. With V18 fast approaching the bar has been set high for the capital, with new projects constantly cropping up for social revival of quiet areas. Namely the Barrakka Lift, the Valletta Waterfront, Strada Stretta, MUZA and St.James’Cavalier - to mention a few. Perhaps to provide a sigh of relief for some, many of these projects are reviving more of the social dimension than the infrastructural one. Boutique hotels are attracting foreigners of a certain class, the arts sphere is promoting better cultural integration programmes and nightlife is being kick-started once again. This is all good news for the struggle to maintain what architect Alex Torpianoonce called “Belt Barokk, perot, Belt Modern” – ‘A Baroque city – but a Modern city’. However it is important to strike the right balance, and not allow all this to come forth at the price of gentrification. This is when the cohesion of the people is really put to the test, with the hopes of integrating all the dimensions to provide a better success story than that of Malta’s suburbs such as Paceville, with its luxurious touristic landmarks literally swallowing the town whole, leaving little to none at all of any public space for diversity and equality to be exercised – two crucial aspects of a successful modern city. A true sense of place can only be created when the users, irrelevant of their background or association to the city, can identify themselves with the space.
This brings us to question who Valletta is really for. The well-known modern cities of the world, Paris, London, Berlin, New York, Tokyo and so on, above all share one thing is common – diversity. But is Valletta cut out to cater for this thriving cosmopolitanism? Capital cities are always important foci for their nations, be the reasons political or commercial. Much of their importance is a consequence of public culture, with the way the “idea”of the city is portrayed, through social media or the community. Mitchell (2001) explained how it is not often that nationals even visit the capital, but they are nevertheless familiar with its geography. Valletta however presents a whole new ballpark. Given Malta being such a small nation, the engagement with the capital is far more real than imagined. So much so that the Maltese call Valletta ‘Il-Belt’- ‘The City’ and are constantly within reach of this hub of activity, even if they are not living or working there. This points towards the idea that every Maltese citizens feels that Valletta, at least to some extent, belongs to them. Pure evidence of this was the passionate public discussions held regarding the City Gate project, by many who in fact are not even residents. It is on this level, the way in which Valletta is for its people: its locals, its commuters and its foreign visitors, that our city can be placed on the map of modern cities of the world. To set it up against the big players of Modernity in comparisons of size, modern infrastructure or transport systems would be to set it up for a premature and unjust failure at modernity. Aristotle once said that ‘a great city is not to be confounded with a populous one’ which means that scale is not an issue. Valletta is small but it is has the same role and responsibilities to represent the nation as do Paris, London and Tokyo.
Perhaps the way in which Valletta is unique to these masters of Modernity is in that it is an ageing body. Most people view historical cities as ‘frozen in time’, and any change comes as a shock to this passive perception. Yet all cities, old and new, are constantly changing, following a cyclic process which never stops. Every so often there are changes of extremely large proportions, as in the case of Renzo Piano’s City Gate, but in the light of the entire history of Valletta it is only another step in the natural evolution of a city. When the Knights of St. John set out to build Valletta they were instigating a change of mind-blowing proportions for Malta, yet like the changes of today, that was, five centuries ago, a response to the need of the time. Awareness for this perception of change could be all that the city needs to continue to push it further onto the path for Modernity. A path on which change can be embraced as in essential for the vitality of a city. Valletta and its ageing body needs such a dose of steroids to cope with the increasing demands of modern life and hopefully time will continue to prove its successful striving for rejuvenation.
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Reljic, T. (2011, Febuary 1st). Transit Interview with David Pisani. [Weblog]. Retrieved 12 May, 2015, from http://www.maltatoday.com.mt/printversion/8954/
Ayling, E. (2011, 21st May). Valletta in Transit Between Past and Present. [Weblog]. Retrieved 12 May, 2015, from http://www.maltainsideout.com/16364/valletta-in-transit-between-past-present/
Mitchell, J.P. (2001). Ambivalent Europeans: Ritual, Memory and the Public Sphere in Malta. England: Routledge.
Billiard, E. (2014). When the Dark Knight Rises: The Morality of public space. University of Malta.
Buhagiar, K. (2013). ‘Stone as a Vehicle of Timelessness: Nature and the new Valletta Entrance’ in AA.VV. The Art and Craft of Masonry Construction; Malta, Heritage Malta, 2013, pp.123-143.
Pisani, D, Buhagiar, K & Felice, D. (2007). Vanishing Valletta. StaVenera, Malta: Midsea Books Ltd.