Thursday, December 17, 2009

What do you think Malta needs?


  1. Malta (I am limiting my argument here to architectural design and construction, for it would be too complex to extend the discussion to the socio-economic and political wider sense) needs its own little Renaissance and move on from being stuck in the early C20 stylistic designs and neo-rustic pastiches of having facades sporting the odd cantilevered RC and yet bearing (no pun intended!) balcony stone corbels which are totally useless but reminiscent of the past; nauseating repetitive use of rendered blockwork and stone and aperture units which are all made-to-measure and thus ridiculously expensive and slow to manufacture and install; creating fake epoch facade architecture built in C21 and with contemporary uses therein which change over time, needing expensive and cumbersome insertions of beams; heavily relying on artificial lighting methods when the island's climate generously provides 300 days of sunshine a year..etc etc..not to mention my own personal niche - structural engineering: we build using medieval construction methods, using load bearing walls of ridiculously heavy and non renewable masonry and methods which take ages to build, are terribly expensive to alter and are structurally inefficient due to excessive self weight, and thus requiring tons of steel-packed concrete beams and columns to carry mostly the weight of the stone or (even worse) prestressed planks with 3-4 floors above them spanning across open plan garage areas. What Malta needs is simple: catch up with contemporary methods of design - efficient, flexible and cheap structural frames; lightweight and removable non loadbearing internal partitions which can be adapted to different uses as people's lifestyles change with time; green facades with double/triple glazing and adjustable solar control systems to permit light gain but minimising solar gain in summer and maximising it in winter; fresh C21 facade designs using vernacular language in terms of aperture proportions, assemblies and grammar implemented using modern materials in modular units. Wishful thinking? I hope not!

  2. It strikes me that Malta's climate is intense, and as such its vernacular architecture has responded over centuries to these very conditions, notably without the technology of large glazed areas and mechanised building control systems. This is what has given rise to the 'vernacular language' of openings and spatial assemblies.

    Yet people continue to occupy these spaces within the town, delighting in the material tectonic of the place, itself providing a not insignificant source of income from tourism I imagine. Arguably the longevity of the vernacular stone architecture has made it more sustainable than the array of lightweight steel frames that are quickly put up and as quickly torn down. In material terms alone (quarrying, for example - iron versus stone) I wonder which works out to be the more financially viable over the long term, given the average building lifespans of the each constructional system. Here we are talking in terms of centuries, not a building lifespan of 10 years. Once quarried, there is also the embodied energy that goes into producing engineering-grade steel, in comparison to what I imagine is a labour-intensive (but energy efficient) craft industry in stonemasonry.

    It strikes me that introducing high-tech solutions to an environmental character of intense heat and light that Malta has coped with for centuries through a thermal mass efficient architecture is counter-intuitive. I would be interested to see the actual efficiency of designing, installing and running such technologies, and the additional counter-measures needed to overcoming the problems of direct light and solar gain. If lightweight, glazed buildings have so many overheating problems even in the UK (with our dismal amount of sunshine), even with louvres, shutters, blinds, HVAC, BCM systems, and automated openings, I cannot imagine the complex systems needed in Malta. All of which, I hasten to add, involve materials with high embodied energies and require a great deal of energy to run and maintain.

    This is just a quick response to issues which are challenging the architectural, engineering and development professions. I am certainly not against contemporary architecture or technologies, but I feel that the energy crisis of our time has much to do with the ease with which people can 'throw away' their buildings. Traditional architecture has lasted for more important reasons beyond heritage and nostalgia. It is because they still work as buildings, despite their constraints and limitations, and in that they have something to teach us about the value of realistically appraising the plethora of options available to us in the present.