Valletta was born as a fortified town, designed to keep out the invading Saracen and to keep at bay the advance of the Ottoman Empire. Its original image therefore was noble and austere, contained as it was by the most magnificent enceinte of walls rising out of the sea to provide the safest shelter to its inhabitants. This does not mean that it was lacking in beauty…
* Ever since the Treaty of Paris of 1814, when British sovereignty over the Maltese islands was unambiguously confirmed, Malta’s strategic position in the centre of the Mediterranean made it an enviable military and commercial hub , and, as a consequence, Valletta with its two splendid natural harbours became a constant protagonist in the history that shaped Europe during the last two hundred years.
Yet Valletta is still very much the city of the Knights of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem. Nearly every street and alley bears witness to them. For the Knights, beauty was paramount. Mt. Sceberras, on which the city rests was never leveled, in spite of the original project to do so, and streets slope down in all directions, from the main artery, Republic Street, towards the sea. The fortified Grand Harbour is a formidable sight. Although Renaissance in is inception and spirit, Valletta remains an excellent example of Baroque architecture.
Valletta is a city of sights and flavors.
Valletta was born as a fortified town, designed to keep out the invading Saracen and to keep at bay the advance of the Ottoman Empire. Its original image therefore was noble and austere, contained as it was by the most magnificent enceinte of walls rising out of the sea to provide the safest shelter to its inhabitants. This does not mean that it was lacking in beauty. Quite the opposite.
Laparelli, the architect sent over by Pope Pius to design the new fortified city, based his vision on the architectural and urban planning principles of the Renaissance, and in his report to Grand Master La Vallette, stresses his concept that the main street running down the axis of the new town was to be built for reasons of beauty as a symbol of the harmony and nobility of the population that would come to inhabit Vallettas walls.
By the eighteenth century, when the fear of an Ottoman invasion has subsided, Valletta became one of the foremost trading centers of the Mediterranean, providing services for ships entering its harbours on the way to and from the Orient. This trade provided the town with all manner of luxury goods from fine fabrics to varieties of exotic spices, so that the town became renowned for its colorful and sensual lifestyle.
A history, arts, and entertainment too. It was during this period, from the seventeenth century onwards that the image of the town began to change. The austere fortified image began to give way to a more open, outward looking sumptuous appearance with gardens being planted on the bastions, baroque palaces replacing the smaller scale sixteenth century residences and the construction of a typically baroque theatre for the entertainment of the citizens.
The history of arts and entertainment is a long one!
Today several galleries, cafes and restaurants provide recreation for the inhabitants as well as several theatres including the theatre which Manoel de Vilhena built in the early Baroque period.
Mr. Konrad Buhagiar, Partner of Architecture Project, an architecture agency in Valletta welcome to the interview.
Q: A blend of Renaissance simplicity and baroque splendor, which are Valletta`s landmarks?
Konrad Buhagiar: The main outstanding buildings in Valletta belong either to its first phase of building, when the town was built ex-novo in the sixteenth century, or to the several phases of urban stratification and evolution. The first phase saw the erection of the Auberges, the main residential buildings of the Order of St. John, each one belonging to one of the Langues of the Order, the construction of the Co-Cathedral of St. John with its splendid marble intarsia sepulchral floor and its vault painted by Mattia Preti the Calabrian painter, the Palace of the Grand Masters and the Hospital which was in its time the largest in Europe; and of course one must not forget the magnificent fortifications including the powerful Fort St. Elmo at the tip of the peninsula.
The flamboyant baroque buildings which characterize the landward side of Valletta belong to the second period of Vallettas development. The grand Auberge de Castille, today houses the offices of the Prime Minister and the several large “Palazzi” which flank Merchants Street and St. Pauls Street, as well the Manoel Theatre belong to this second period that saw the flourishing of the arts.
One must also mention several buildings erected during the nineteenth century, symbols of British rule and hegemony. These include the Doric portico facing the Grand Masters Palace, the Anglican cathedral of St. Paul whose spire defined the skyline of Valletta for over a century, and the closed market which is the exact copy of one of the sheds of Les Halles in Paris.
Q: Valletta is a city of beauty, and also the first city build according to detailed plan. Would you like to guide us through a brief history of the city?
Konrad Buhagiar: Laparellis report to the Council of the Order is a wonderful record of the considerations that the military engineer entrusted with the construction of the new town brought forward to convince La Vallette of the feasibility of his scheme. It might come as a surprise to note that climatic considerations where in the forefront of his mind, as well as the geometry that the humanistic principles of his time advocated as a basis for the creation of a sound and noble society.
Q: A step back in time, Valletta`s museums are full of treasures, what is there to see?
Konrad Buhagiar: Vallettas museums contain important artifacts that testify to the long history of the significant Maltese presence in the Mediterranean. The archeology Museum is a must. Its exhibits include the first ever architectural model of a temple, probably five thousands years old, several votive offerings taking the form of female figures, sitting or lying, possible symbols of fertility or erstwhile effigies of Mother goddesses, and stone altars , fragments of ancient structures dedicated to unknown forces.
The Museum of Fine Arts in South Street takes the visitor through several centuries of painting from an early Mediaeval fresco of a crucifixion, removed from a troglodytic series of catacombs in the centre of the island to fascinating samples of twentieth century Maltese art.
The greatest of Vallettas treasures is undoubtedly the Beheading of St. John, the painting Caravggio created for the Oratory of St. Johns co-Cathedral.
Q: Quality of life in Valletta is high, what else makes Valletta so special?
Konrad Buhagiar: Valletta is the quintessence of the European pre-modern city. It is defined by its walls, surrounded on three sides by the sea, and consists of an urban fabric that takes its architectural quality from the theories and practice of four centuries of European architecture.
It is a city that has hosted innumerable architects and craftsmen from overseas, some of the most accomplished some anonymous, some who intended to stay the duration of a project and remained to the last days of their life, others who integrated with the Maltese to the extent that they continue to inhabit the same spaces through their descendants.
Valletta is special for this reason. It transcends place and time.
Q: What is Valletta like today? Perhaps a moment?
Konrad Buhagiar: Valletta is changing! The entrance is reborn and being reworked. The last Main Gate, dating back to the sixties, has been torn down to make way for a new design by Renzo Piano whom my office is collaborating with on this rich and rarefied project. It includes, besides the Gate, a new Parliament House, an open air theatre in the ruins of the Old Opera House, the restoration of the Sixteenth century Bridge into the city and a garden in the Mediterranean tradition to be planted in the broad and deep dry moat. Already, as you enter, crossing the public pedestrian passage that divides the building site, one can hear the tinkering of the workers slowly piecing this compact and complex building together, shades of the Renaissance coming alive in the hands of the Italian master!
A moment? Coffee and cheesecakes at “Prego”, a cafe which has not changed its interior decor since the fifties, run down to the office for a meeting where we discuss the possibility of rehabilitating a tunnel on the site of the Hotel Phoenicia, one of our current projects, that could connect our site to the rock hewn baths on the edge of the sea and across the road, or where I come abreast with the latest developments of the City Gate project -and I must find the time for a spot of research at the “Bibliotheca”, the National Library that is housed in one of the last buildings designed in a severe baroque, almost classical style, built by the Order.
Q: Walk us around Valletta, favorite spots, places?
Konrad Buhagiar: The authentic relaxed fish restaurant called “Cockneys” on the edge of the sea overlooking Fort Manoel and a late night out at zesty Q-Bar on the recently rehabilitated Valletta Waterfront.
Q: Valletta today is transformed into a romantic city, what makes Valletta a romantic city?
Konrad Buhagiar: Its grandeur and its imperfections, the light that blinds you at midday and the deepest of shadows in doorways that hide unknowable lives, the religious processions that invade the streets from time to time, the hustle and bustle of conniving merchants and businessmen during the day, the quiet mystery of its night.
Q: The city of Valletta is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, can you elaborate?
Konrad Buhagiar: A world Heritage Site, too, has a life and a future. Todays architecture must settle quietly and politely amongst the stones, like budding flowers on the rooftops. It is the heritage of tomorrow.
Q: Would you like to give us a tour of Valletta`s gardens and some of its attractions?
Konrad Buhagiar: Vallettas gardens were planted on the most strategic, wind cooled bastions so that the framed view is as essential a landscaping element as the vegetation itself. Do not miss the spectacular view of the Grand Harbour from the “Upper Barrakka”, close to the entrance of the city.
Q: Time is short to cover several centuries, suggestions for a day tour of Valletta, where to eat, where to stay, local dish, trendy cafeterias, good shopping, local crafts, souvenirs-?.
Konrad Buhagiar: Cappuccino at the Waterfront where you can enjoy the early sun, watch the liners slide in and buy some books on Maltese history and culture, a visit to the gardens and museums and lunch at Da Pippo for a typical Maltese meal and local atmosphere.
The evening could be a choice of the warm welcome and homey food of Chris and Krista at Trabuxu Bistro, Mediterranean cuisine and jazzy atmosphere at Malata in the main Square or contemporary style meal tucked away between the soaring walls of the land front fortifications and the age-old olive tree trunks of Rampila, meeting up with the local crowd at close by wine bar Trabuxu for a nightcap and a gentle smile from Stephanie..
Q: In 2018, the Maltese capital will be become the “European Cultural Capital”. What events are planned, would you like to give a foretaste?
Konrad Buhagiar:It is still early in the day to see a firmed up programme, but the vision is there for a town that will become vibrant with cultural activities at once derived from its traditions, and introducing new elements that will contribute to the evolution of the identity of the town. A new Opera is planned in the Old Hospital of the Order and a Contemporary Art Museum in the old Power Station.
Q: What is the welcome message to the visitors?
Konrad Buhagiar: Valletta has always been, since its inception, an international community. I believe that you will feel comfortable enough here to sense this authentic spirit of the town.
Q: Any last thoughts-suggestions?
Konrad Buhagiar: Watch the effect of the setting sun on the stones of the city.
The golden glow is unique and nothing less than magical! . Mr. Konrad Buhagiar in Valletta, Malta thank you.
ABOUT KONRAD BUHAGAIR Konrad Buhagiar is a founding partner of Architecture Project. He has been responsible for several projects in Malta and in particular for numerous restoration and rehabilitation works in historic buildings. He obtained a degree in Architecture and Civil Engineering at the University of Malta (1981) followed by a post-graduate degree in Restoration at the University of Rome, “La Sapienza” (1985).
Between 1985 and 1991 he was Architect-in-charge of the Antiquities Section under the auspices of the Ministry for Public Works. He has lectured in several countries abroad, published numerous historical articles, and he currently is senior visiting lecturer at the University of Malta. He was also Chairman of the Heritage Advisory Committee between 1995 and 2005 and Chairman of the Valletta Rehabilitation Committee between 2002 and 2008. During 2008 he was editor of Modern Elegance (MEdesignmagazine), one of Malta’s leading journals on Architecture, Fashion and all aspects of design.