Saturday, December 4, 2010

The Lido Cinema needs YOUR help!

I hear that the Lido Cinema in Birzebbuga is to be demolished - is there nothing we can do? Please post your ideas...

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Birżebbuġa Waterpolo Club

- or what's left of it

The club's dilapidated state is a result of being rendered unusable following the construction of the Freeport; the regular dredging of the sea bed and the movement of large ships in the bay caused the seawater outlets of the pitch to block up, filling the pitch with debris and rendering the water unsuitable for swimming. The pitch and the club were closed and the club house demolished.

find out more about the club and its story at:

Monday, September 27, 2010

Thoughts on Uncle Lino's House

I wrote a letter to a friend after finding out that my Great Grandfather's house in Zejtun, was to be sold. The house was so full of childhood memories that I felt desperate at the thought of never being able to revisit it, so in the letter I wrote everything I could remember - I was afraid that without the house to remind me, I would forget. 

On my next visit to Malta I was able to visit the house one last time as it hadn't been sold yet. But everything had been auctioned off and the remaining unwanted items sat in the middle of large empty rooms. I looked all over, hoping to find something I would remember, wanting to give some last un-auctioned item a home, but nothing was familiar. It was strange to walk around this empty and unfamiliar place, it contrasted so much with what I'd described in my letter a few months earlier. 

I took photographs. I was trying to record and preserve what was left. But they were photos of unrecognizable empty rooms. They only served as a record of what was not there anymore. Later I put the letter and the photos together, and a strange little book was born (Uncle Lino's House), some sort of attempt at bridging nostalgia and reality. 

Uncle Lino's House

Have I ever told you about Uncle Lino?
He’s the brother of my grandfather, Nannu Fons - we used to call him Nannu Doc because he was a doctor - but that’s a whole other story. Today I want to tell you about Uncle Lino, well, actually I really want to tell you about his house. But first a little bit about him.
Uncle Lino is a bishop, most people call him Nuncio Gerada but we’ve always called him Uncle Lino (his real name is Emmanuele, but that just complicates things). He was born on the 18th May 1920. This might not mean anything to you, but to a Catholic Bishop it meant a lot – he shared his date of birth with Pope John Paul II – and never failed to remind us.

My father always said that his grandfather (Uncle Lino’s father) simply lined up his sons and said to them, “you’re going to be a doctor, priest, chemist etc…” as that’s what they did because that’s how things were in those days. So as you might have guessed Uncle Lino is the son who stood under his father’s pointing finger as his father bellowed “PRIEST” on that life-defining day. And so he became a priest. And since diligence, impatience and high desires run thick through all Geradas’ blood, my Uncle Lino went on to become an Archbishop and eventually Papal Nuncio (kind of like being the Pope’s Ambassador).

Uncle Lino was Nuncio in El Salvador and Guatemala in the 70s, Pakistan in the 80s and Ireland in the 90s (during his time in Ireland he collected all the Funday Times newspapers for us). I wish I’d appreciated it before he got dementia, but I didn’t, so I don’t know all the stories that you are probably eagerly awaiting. I’m sorry.

For most of my life I have only ever seen Uncle Lino on Christmas Eve. Our whole family would gather at his house every year on that night; my grandfather’s brothers and sisters, their cousins, husbands, wives, children and grandchildren and their boyfriends and fiancés. The whole extended Gerada family at its loudest, standing around Uncle Lino’s house in Zejtun. There would always be copious amounts of alcohol and cold sausage rolls and other party food aplenty. And our parents would all get very drunk and embarrassing. At midnight, with half the family drunk (including Uncle Lino) we would have a mass in the little chapel and some poor male cousin would have to go through the humiliation of being alter boy whilst the rest of us tried to make him laugh. Everybody was either drunk or on a sugar high; the Christmas midnight mass was always very, very entertaining.

How can I possibly describe his house to you? I wish I could take you there with me, ideally both of us eight years old. The whole house like another world, some sort of magical adventure playground that you entered through a typical Maltese front door, its secrets unknown to the rest of the village. You’d expect to find doors to parallel universes and books that uncovered the secrets of life amongst all the strange treasures from far away countries and the videotapes (yes videotapes… the videotapes are amazing, they’re all labelled like the videos in that Korean restaurant on Store Street, except the labels are typed out with a typewriter).

I guess I can tell you now (because now the house is locked and barred and empty) that you didn’t need to ring the doorbell to enter this world, the keys to the locked antiporta were always hidden behind the outer wooden door, which was always left open. All you had to do was step in from the street, reach blindly for the keys behind the huge doors and you were in…

There was a room that one only ever walked through to get somewhere else, nothing in it invited a child (or adult, as I discovered upon growing-up) to stop or sit down. We all knew, without being told, that we shouldn’t - nobody even dared to hide in it during our highly competitive hide and seek games (now this is strange because it would have made the best hiding place of all).
The room was green. Perhaps nothing in it was green but it definitely had a green feeling about it, it was green. You went in through thick, heavy velvet curtains that stopped all light from entering it. It always gave me the sensation of going indoors at noon in the summer, except your eyes never adjusted to the light as they do on such a day, because there simply wasn’t enough in there.

Occasionally you caught a glimpse of an enormous pair of elephant tusks towering above a huge mahogany desk. And once I even saw a wooden bible holder on the desk, upon which sat a replica of the Book of Kells - as far as I know it was handmade, complete with gold leaf capital letters, by some Irish monks for Uncle Lino to mark the end of his being Archbishop of Ireland (I visited Uncle Lino in Ireland when I was eleven, he lived in a huge monastery with an Alsatian called Murphy).

As teenagers we played a new kind of hide and seek, we found that the kitchen was the best place to hide frightened boyfriends. Under the pretence of heating up sausage rolls and mini-quiches we had our own little party, balancing wine glasses on the 70s style furniture and leaning on the ancient well opening, away from our embarrassing family.
Our hiding place was soon found out, when, typically, the mothers and aunts came in for food supplies as soon as we broke the rhythm of trays leaving the kitchen.
The informal backdrop of the kitchen (and perhaps the wine too) suddenly made mingling with mothers and aunts less daunting for the boyfriends, and more acceptable to us. They too found a piece of furniture to lean on and joined in the conversation.
Slowly more family members entered in search of food - for at this point we’d completely forgotten that to keep our cover we should occasionally distribute food - until the dining room was left empty if not for Auntie Maria and Uncle Lino, the two family members who couldn’t get off their chairs unaided. And so that year, when the majority of us were teenagers, in a strange turn of events we all happily mingled in the kitchen (a room which we’d hardly ever been into before) forgetting the sole purpose of being there, whilst Auntie Maria and Uncle Lino fell asleep in their dining chairs, wondering where the sausage rolls were (probably getting burnt in the oven).

The videos covered the walls. There must have been hundreds. And it’s funny because the room was so small and full of antiquities, but every shelf, table, cupboard, surface, even the hole in the wall, was crammed with videos. And every video had been meticulously labeled with a typewriter and little labels, every single one was exactly like the next, God alone knows who did it, surely not Uncle Lino - he was the most impatient person I’d ever met (besides every other member of the family). And where did he get them all from? The selection was so random; Rocky 2 stood next to The Snowman which was in the corner with Pretty Woman, although I’m probably lying because I don’t really remember, all I remember is loads of clean, white labels.

Two huge zebra-skin covered bongos towered above you as you entered the house. I don’t think I have ever felt as old as the day when I entered the house and found that I was taller than the bongos.
They fascinated me. I have no idea why because in retrospect they were quite ugly. But I suppose it wasn’t them, but what they represented that fascinated me. To me they were a clue to what Uncle Lino did when he wasn’t being Uncle Lino – when he was Nuncio Gerada, of which we almost knew nothing. They were a little reminder that he was traveling around the world the rest of the time (when he wasn’t sitting in the dining room with Auntie Maria complaining about how stupid our generation was).
The most exciting moment of our Christmas Eve party was when Uncle Lino handed out presents to all four generations of the family. We all stood in the hallway, eagerly (and apprehensively - because you really never knew what to expect and whether you were going to be capable of holding a straight face) awaiting our name to be called out. Sure enough, every year, Uncle Lino never failed to outdo himself in both randomness and originality. And we loved it.
There was nothing better than being given something completely unexpected - whether you liked the present or not didn’t matter, this was all about excitement - the unpredictable gift.
I guess most of the gifts were little objects that he’d collected over the years, probably presents he’d received from all over the world, things that were slowly breaking his shelves, hiding his walls, closing him in, things he couldn’t get rid of, but perhaps could pass on to his family. But it wasn’t only the exotic qualities of these presents that made them so unique, it was his personal touch. The choice of what to give to whom. It was another clue to this man that we knew so little about, and also perhaps a clue to what he thought of us. A copper money box for Andrea, a book about tortoises for Hannah, an engraved sickle for Pierre, a tea set for Julian…what did they mean?

Monday, May 31, 2010

a remote culture

On a Sunday morning the Churches are full and the streets are empty. Walk past any church and you will hear the parishioners worshipping ‘Alla’. Songs of worship sung in the Semitic mother tongue sound like they should be echoing through a mosque rather than a church. 

After church it’s family and food - and so the trinity of tradition is reinforced every Sunday. Extended families congregate at their grandmother’s house, on this sacred day she is in her full matriarchal role – the mother of mothers, the provider of food. Lunch starts with a serving of ‘timpana’, pasta baked in pastry, rich in sauce, meat, eggs and Parmesan and sliced like a pie. This is followed by roast meat served with potatoes, vegetables and thick slices of crusty bread to dip in the gravy. For desert a selection of almond cakes and homemade liqueur. These Sunday rituals are leftovers of Malta’s history.

It is said that Malta was once a ridge that rose out of the land connecting Europe to North Africa - from Italy through Sicily, Malta and Tunisia, dividing what is now the Mediterranean Sea into two great lakes. The ridge, Malta, would have been the perfect vantage point from which to watch the great flood that transformed it into an island. The Atlantic Ocean roared into the western lake, swallowing up the land that connected Morocco to Spain and so forming the Straits of Gibraltar. It rolled on, engulfing the land bridge that connected Tunisia to Italy, isolating Malta and joining the two lakes to form the Mediterranean Sea.

Once the ridge became an island and the lakes a sea, Malta became the stepping-stone at the centre of all journeys across the Mediterranean. The island’s location shaped its story more than any other factor – it is the greatest asset of this otherwise dry rock. The Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Normans, Sicilians, Knights of St. John, French and British took the island and left their mark on the land, its inhabitants, their genetic make-up and culture.

Idiosyncrasies inherent in the Maltese culture are expressed through the local love of flags. All over the island they adorn the flat rooftops; the yellow and white Vatican City colours fluttering alongside an English Football flag. A Maltese one of red and white, with the George Cross stamped on it, flying by an Italian one. During a village’s feast, its rooftops are covered with images of its patron saint being martyred. Homage is paid to numerous cultures, resulting in a people that can relate to so many others but never in their entirety; a Maltese can laugh at a British joke, argue with a Sicilian and barter in any North African market – and on each occasion in the other person’s native tongue. As with the courses served in the Sunday dinner, this small place is layered with different influences; the eye of Osiris - the Phoenician God of protection against evil - painted on the prow of fishing boats, citrus trees brought by the Arabs, Roman Aqueducts and red pillar boxes.

Whoever happened to hold the island in their possession knew that they would have to fight to keep it. Malta, named ‘the island fortress’ by King George is so full of fortifications that it is like a museum on the art of defence. Arab citadels are strategically positioned on the highest hills, surrounded by deep moats and thick bastions. Valletta, built by the Knights of St. John, was to be the unconquerable city; a hilly peninsula surrounded by fortified harbours, moats and ramparts. The city’s pavements are covered in low steps so that knights in heavy armour can walk up them. It was connected to the rest of the island by a series of towers built along the coast, within line of sight of each other, to serve as lookout points and to relay warning signals to the city. Pillboxes and anti-aircraft batteries built later by the British surround the towers, testimony to the knights strategic positioning.

Such layering of style is not confined to fortifications. All over the island buildings from different eras stand alongside each other. Yet when inspected closely they are the same. The differences expressed in the designs are very slight; they are differences in form, differences in surface decoration, differences in proportion, unified by the yellow limestone that they are built from. Every church, catacomb, library, fortress, be it British, Roman, Arab or French is made of this damp, flaky rock. 
This is Globigerina limestone. For a long time it was the only building material available in Malta. It is formed by the accumulation of organic matter at the bottom of the sea, layer upon layer – like the stratified history of the island. The Limestone can be carved up to form any architecture imaginable that speaks of other cultures and distant places, but it is innately Maltese.

The horizontal grooves weathered into the surface of Dingli Cliffs are not only a clue to the geology of the island, but a poetic representation of its history and culture. Similarly the weather beaten bastions that surround the capital city talk of the true nature of this place. Some parts of the limestone dissolve and others harden through exposure to the elements. Malta seems to be shaped by so many outsiders, but like the rock, all the layers of influence have been subject to erosion. Some parts purposely left to dissolve away and others chosen to stand out in relief – to be strengthened by exposure.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Details from the plan

At the request of Geraldine Holland, one of my trusted followers, I have posted some images showing details of the plan below. The images are chosen and ordered to convey a journey along the promenade.

In the image above the promenade is hot, without shade, to draw the stroller on...

Above it is divided into 3 paths; at the top the stroller walks by the street, completely cut off from the sea and the Freeport - protected from views and shaded from the sun. In the middle a platform looks out to the view - with information on the Freeport and its relationship to the rest of the World. Below at sea level are the existing salt-pans, the limestone coast and a long pier.

Above, the division continues... In the middle is a space that is cut off from views, it looks inwards towards itself - whilst the spaces above and below look out - to the street and the sea.

The journey culminates at the large stage, which rises out of the landscape and faces the Freeport, then stepping down towards it in the salt-pan inspired landscape.

And finally a swimming pool - I think this will have to move due to the Freeport extension...

Friday, April 9, 2010

In search of Maltese Architecture - A Call To Action!

Myriad underground spaces scattered all over the Maltese islands speak of a heritage in which space is not defined by enclosing it, but by painstakingly carving it out of rock. Old farmhouses reveal a multitude of inventive methods for crafting limestone to suit numerous needs. Balconies and layered front doors tell of our Arabic legacy and a complex relationship between public and private. Valletta educates on the art of city planning and Mdina on the expertly composed meander.
With such a rich and varied architectural heritage from which to learn and be inspired, and such a unique culture to express and to build spaces for, Maltese architecture could aspire to be more. Yet so little of our contemporary architecture seems comparable to that built throughout our eventful history. 
Discussions on architecture in Malta tellingly tend to follow two patterns; reminiscences on the island’s pre-building boom beauty, on our wonderful architectural heritage and the importance of conservation, or cynical rants on the contemporary, mixed with a resigned acceptance of it as an inevitable consequence of progression and a reflection of the times.

And so a conspicuous, notional divide exists between our pre-colonial and postcolonial architecture. Perhaps this is a natural symptom of a long history of colonisers applying their vision of Malta, one
on top of the other, like a layered drawing, upon our little island.

But what can we do with the metaphoric top layer? Conserve and give value to our heritage – ideally this is taken for granted. But simultaneously be inventive and ambitious, create opportunities, outside of the private sector, to develop an architectural language that has grown from this unique heritage, and is our own, and not more of the nondescript construction that exists all over the Mediterranean.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Plan of Wied Il-Buni

This plan is the latest. It is derived from the collage shown in an earlier post. Here inspiration is taken from the salt-pans and the concrete platforms that are scattered all over Maltese seascapes. A series of platforms and canopies divide the coast into inhabitable spaces which could be used for a number of things; markets, sports (volleyball, tennis, basketball courts will be marked onto the surface), swimming, theatre, outdoor cinema, sunbathing, fishing, walking, jogging, or just sitting and staring.

The drawing style is intentionally vague, as are the functions of the spaces. I don't wish to dictate what should be done here, it is a place for people to do as they please - to express Malteseness, whatever that may be.

In the same way the map was open to interpretation by others, so as to be manipulated into something Maltese - and not simply my own version of Maltese - the architecture is open to any form of expression.

A Conversation with Signy Svalastoga

I met Signy for a conversation about the project and amongst lots of other useful observations and feedback, she recommended that I look at the two following projects:

Paque de los Deseos, Medellin, Colombia

image above from:

images from:

Playground, Stavanger, Norway by Helen & Hard

images taken from:

Extension to the Freeport

click on the image below to see a larger version, or click on the following link to read the article online (with very heated comments from the public):

The extension to the Freeport is interesting for obvious reasons - because it will directly affect the site and its residents. But more interestingly it presents an opportunity for planning gain - a system whereby the developers would be required to develop a project alongside the Freeport extension that would benefit the local community(a system similar to Section 106 in London).

This project aims to give value back to the area. I am interested in finding an architectural way of saying, 'the freeport, gas plants etc etc exist and they are not going anywhere, whether we like it or not. This is the new landscape of the area - cranes, containers, etc.. and there is no hiding it - How can we face up to it, acknowledge it and make this town a better place?". It would be perfect if this were to be funded by the freeport - even if only in theory.

To quote a project friend and x-resident of Birzebbuga "in Birzebbuga (and the South in general) the citizens have suffered environmentally by Power Station on Marsaxlokk, Freeport, Gas Bottling Plants, Factories in Hal Far, Concrete Plants, Cargo Groupage bonded stores, illegal immigrant tents and very few embellishments and leisure facilities. If the Freeport were to contribute to a better life, tourism and leisure in Birzebbuga it would win many points, even politically."

A Landscape inspired by Salt-Pans

Creating a landscape of platforms and pools for the public to inhabit.

The rectangular shapes and plays with volumes, edges and stepping are inspired by the salt-pans and terraced fields that make up the Maltese landscape.

Here the rectangular shapes are extruded from the landscape or cut into it, to form platforms and pools.

There will be different sized places, for different types of use. Some for hiding in, others for rising above. Some sized for whole extended families, others for individuals.

Announcement - New Project Friend!

Project Friend Number 9 - Joe Gerada.

map conversation with Joe Gerada

My father has been an unofficial project friend since our map conversation in December. I have decided to make it official because his contributions have become key to the project. He drew the South of Malta, including Birzebbuga the village he grew up in - which eventually became my site. He explained the historical, social, economic factors that have shaped and changed this area and the reasons why it is so separate from the rest of Malta. In doing so he painted a layered picture of a place shaped more by outsiders than by its inhabitants, and a place that is still going through much change even now.

Lately he is one of the people I find most helpful in answering almost any type of question I have on Malta, be it architectural, social, historical, economic or completely random.

Monday, March 29, 2010

First Proposal

My starting point was to consider the whole promenade, from one end of the town at St. George's Bay, to the site at Wied il-Buni. I mapped a journey along the promenade, paying attention to the views of the Freeport.

The drawing above illustrates the key views along the promenade. Note the changes in the views of the Freeport as one moves towards Wied il-Buni which is to the right of the drawing.

From St. George's Bay the Freeport is small and in the distance, on the horizon. It is easy to take in as a whole, and the horizon is still visible - it does not completely obscure it.
As one walks towards Wied Il-Buni the Freeport gets progressively bigger, it obscures the horizon, and it is no longer at the background, it takes up the view, towers overhead...

The first proposal, illustrated in the plan below, uses the above observations to play with one's journey along the promenade. The key views noted in the yellow drawing above become the areas where pedestrians are encouraged to stop - by adding shading and street furniture. In the spaces in between these stopping areas there is no shading or seating - pedestrians are encouraged to walk. At other points views inwards to the town's pretty seaside houses are encouraged.

At the end of the journey, at Wied il-Buni (top left hand corner of drawing), the pedestrian is cut off from the view, only to be faced with it at the end of the journey when the freeport is at its largest and most overbearing.

The reason for these plays with the views of the Freeport is to acknowledge it as the town's landmark. To face up to its prominence - the opposite of pretending its not there. In a similar vein some of the street furniture will be informative, outlining the history of Birzebbuga, explaining the functions of the Freeport, outlining where the containers come from and go to...

Memories on the Site

Once the site was chosen and briefs were starting to come forward from all the research, as outlined in the posts below, it was time to bring back the memory map and use it to inform the architecture...

The memory map (shown below) was drawn at the start of the project. It was my attempt to capture all my memories and nostalgias of Malta, and accordingly was drawn from my memory whilst I was away in London. An interesting language began to emerge, a language that described Malta, and captured the unique places and spaces that formed the backdrop to my memories there.

I made copies of the map, cut them up and placed them over the site. The character of the places I had previously drawn now described the places that I wished to design.
The resultant collage is shown below. It describes the typically Maltese spaces existing in the town; the church square, townhouses, blocks of flats, villeggiatura houses, terraced fields and valleys...

collage of my memories of Malta, placed over Birzebbuga.

Below is a detail of the drawing at Wied Il-Buni. Here the collage is no longer describing what's there, but its describing what could be there. The Maltese spaces from my memories are placed over the site, they describe a journey; long straight followed by circular spaces to turn in.

detail of collage, showing the site at Wied il-Buni

Next to interpret what the essence of these spaces from my memories of Malta is, and how they will be translated into the architecture of the site!

Extract from Birzebbuga Local Council Website

Below is an extract from the Birzebbuga Local Council Website. It gives a clear indication of the problems that Birzebbuga is faced with. It also gives some insight into the nostalgia and loss felt by the residents. Finally one is given an idea what the mayor's wish for the town is - although this is quite a vague, a notion rather than a proposal.

" The Mayor of Birzebbuga is Joseph Farrugia... he has lived in Birzebbuga all his life and he has seen this once small seaside village change the what it is now.

As a boy he can remember Birzebbuga as a lovely seaside village,... As time passed Birzebbuga began to be developed.

It first started with British Petroleum who built a huge fuel installation, which has become part of Enemalta Corporation. This was followed by the naval station at Kalafrana, and then the Air Force Base at Hal-Far. Since then we now have the underground fuel installation at Wied Dalam; gas tanking at Qajjanze (northern Birzebbuga); Malta International Airport 32.End runway which starts from the southeast of Birzebbuga, the Malta Freeport and, finally the Power Station.

Till now every Maltese Government we have had has tried to create even more industry and facilities on this southern side of Malta, despite the ever-increasing level of pollution levels. I do not blame any of these governments because the intention was always to create jobs. No one foresaw that we would be faced with an ever increasing level of pollution that these accidents industries, including installations have created.

The petrol tanks...are surrounded by residential homes and the fumes, which leak into the environment lead to sickness and nausea, besides the threat of living very close to a time bomb.

The flight path of Malta International Airport is directly over the town, and aircraft fly in all day and all night, with their approach being very low. This creates, not only noise pollution, for the whole town, but the residents living in the flight path suffer from lack of sleep and continual disturbance.

The Freeport was built to encourage trade and industry. It created jobs and gives security to many people. Once again, it was built in a residential area, albeit opposite has created the coastline. In fact, the site used was the Kalafrana naval station. The pollution this has created is excessive noise at night with total disregard for the residents, especially when containers are either dropped or banged together; the generators, which are used for power, and sea pollution, again regardless of the fact that Birzebbuga is a seaside resort with its own hotel.

The Power Station was built to provide electricity to the southern part of Malta. The pollution this creates is one of black dust emissions, which fills the air and covers the houses with black dust.

Many of the residents, especially the children, suffer from asthma and bronchial related illnesses because of the excessive air pollution. They also suffer from lack of concentration at school due to being distributed at night by both air craft and Freeport.

Today, Birzebbuga has endured a great deal of damage to its way of life. Mr. Farrugia that it is not enough to compensate the residents by building of a new road, which will not benefit anyone, or planting trees which will have no effect on their lives. Drastic action is needed to be taken to solve this problem of pollution in order to give the residents a better quality of life and a cleaner environment for the benefit of the children.

It is the Mayor’s wish that the people of Birzebbuga who have lost entirely the clean environment, which the old folk used to enjoy, will be compensated in such a way that benefits them for the rest of their lives. The Mayor, and his fellow Councillors acknowledge very seriously that what Birzebbuga has lost can never be regained, but they can save what has not been lost and which is still good. "

taken from:

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The Local Scale vs The Freeport Scale

I have had to draw and re-draw the site because it is so difficult to communicate the scale of the freeport. It is larger than the whole town in plan, and it towers above it. The drawing above is an attempt to communicate the size of the freeport when compared to the town. The freeport is purposely overpowering, visible from miles away. Whilst the town is small and detailed, one needs to get up close to look at it.

How can the scale of the town be reinforced against this enormous stamp of industry?