Wednesday 01 December 2021

How is the removal of all that is historic considered ‘embellishment’?

This column first appeared in Malta Today

Pictured above: A sketch by designer Caroline Ciantar-Barbara of what the Balluta steps could look like

I’m going to ask all the Ministers reading this: when you travel around Europe’s oldest cities, what do you see? For example, do you see the Mayors of Italian towns and villages demolishing their old steps? Is everything which is over 50 years old being destroyed to make way for grey slabs, glass and steel? Are they going around their hometowns and razing everything to the ground to be replaced by shiny, new structures which are as stark, clinical, minimalist and as a trendy (but charmless) new hotel with no soul?

Honestly, every time I read that dreaded word ‘embellishment’ it is like a dagger to my heart, because I know the powers that be are going to take something which has character and history and just screw it up. My conclusion is that a bunch of philistines are making these decisions.

For many people, the design we were presented with, which will see the demolishing of the Balluta steps to be replaced by a modern alternative, was the last straw. Friends of mine who grew up in the area spoke about how this broke their heart and made them want to cry. I don’t blame them, especially on learning that this has the blessing of the St Julian’s local council. Why should our country be left in the hands of people who seem to have no clue about what makes Malta beautiful? All they want to do is use their power and authority to meddle and change things with no concept of how to tastefully restore what needs to be restored (and probably grant a juicy contract or two to friends of friends). All this could be avoided if they went to qualified experts in the field for advice. It is not as if this nation is lacking in talented designers and architects who have a healthy respect for history.

One such designer is Caroline Ciantar-Barbara who shared her idea of what could be done instead: a simple, yet picturesque design which blends beautifully with the surroundings. To quote her impassioned plea:

“Can we please not spend 450k euros on a design which was proposed in 2017 prior to launching the guidelines to protect historic buildings and monuments. This was somehow still approved in 2020.
A huge mistake about to happen with Grade 1 Balluta Buildings directly abutting this alien design, Grade 1 Karmnu Church 36 meters away, and the Grade 2 row of townhouses directly adjacent.
Not an inch of franka stone proposed… Glass railings?! Grey Plaster? Grey Floors? No Trees?!
I appreciate the attempt to turn this into a public space, however we can do better. Here’s a simple sketch of something a little more respectful to the surroundings. You are still in time to reverse this!”

I try to rack my brains to try and understand the thinking behind designs like the one for the Balluta steps, and the only thing I can come up with is that those who approve such things have no appreciation for the beauty which lies in weathered stones. For them it is simply ‘old’ which is synonymous with decrepit and unattractive, so their solution is to tear it all down and start again. They are two completely opposite mindsets which are as far removed from each other as a woman who ages gracefully, embracing her wrinkles, to one who keeps trying to look like she’s 20 with botox injections and fillers. It is a battle between what is authentic vs what is fake, and fake keeps winning.

I would not be surprised if all these new-fangled designs end up ruining not only our tourism industry but our film industry too: what location scout would choose Malta for a film which requires old buildings and views steeped in culture and history when all of it is being desecrated beyond repair?

Hot on the heels of the Balluta botch-up, we were regaled with photos of the AX Group erecting a platform in front of their boutique hotel in Merchant Street with plans for a permanent structure for their tables and chairs. By what right does this already wealthy company think they can appropriate a public street like this? Well, according to the Planning Authority, no one objected, so that’s it then. My reaction to this was summed up perfectly by a Valletta resident who posted a video telling the Valletta local council and Mayor exactly what he thinks of them. His expletives exactly mirrored what I was thinking from behind my screen.

As if Anglu Xuereb’s high-handed approach to our capital city were not enough to make us swear, the week was capped off with yet another of these man-children posing as politicians. I doubt I have ever heard as much waffling as I heard when Tourism Minister Clayton Bartolo give a long-winded reply to the question: what if someone wants to lay their towel down on the beach at Comino (which has been illegally taken over by sun beds and umbrellas?) If this were a drinking game and you had to drink every time he used the word ‘sustainable’ you would have been drunk in two minutes.

I know many will say: but what’s the point of constantly complaining if PL are in the lead anyway? If the polls are right, another Labour victory seems to be almost a foregone conclusion. Well, I think that something can be done if those still intending to vote Labour because it is their party of choice, will at least vote for other candidates and not these high-handed, obstinate men who have been appointed to head Ministries but are refusing to listen to ordinary voters who put them there in the first place. We have an Environment Minister who doesn’t protect the environment, a Tourism Minister who doesn’t protect tourism and an Infrastructure Minister hellbent on keeping Malta’s roads in a permanent state of upheaval and diversions. We need politicians (from any party) who will not just talk about protecting the rights of the common citizen and the essence of our neighbourhood communities, but will actually do something about it.

Unfortunately, the Nationalist Party still hasn’t come out strongly enough to oppose the most pressing environmental issues. Bernard Grech’s response to the question about over-development was that, “he has no intention of turning back the clock on planning rules introduced in 2006…and he does not want to impinge on people’s right to develop their property.” He was also too wishy-washy about the Marsascala marina, saying he would repeal the current plans but did not rule out the idea of a marina completely. So tell me, how will the PN, if elected, be any different to what we have now?

In an ideal world we would have a Green Party which has a stronger following, especially among the younger generation, but Alternattiva Demokratika (which has now merged with the Partit Demokratiku as ADPD, which in my view was a mistake) still doesn’t have the numbers to make a difference. Frankly, right now, the people who really voice my concerns about the environment are Moviment Graffitti. They are unequivocal about their stance, so you know exactly where they stand; they are very present in the media and always on the ball at every turn, but so far, they are still a lobby group not a political party. If they ever change their mind and decide to contest the election, they would definitely have my vote.

Avatars against ageing

The news that ABBA are about to release a new album after 40 years was met with excitement by fans, especially those of us “of a certain age”. There is something about the catchy tune and simplicity of an ABBA song which just makes you feel ridiculously happy, and want to get up and dance.

I was not too happy, however, about their decision to use avatars of their younger selves for their upcoming virtual tour. It is almost as if they were not willing to show their fans just how much they have aged (as we all have) but preferred to freeze themselves in time to when they were at their peak. Watching footage of how this was all achieved was impressive from a technological point of view, but it still left me feeling rather dejected, with a jumble of mixed feelings. This decision speaks volumes about our reluctance in the Western world to grow old gracefully; as if white hair and wrinkles are something to be ashamed of, rather than embraced and accepted as part of the circle of life.

Ageism is all around us, especially where women are concerned: Italian presenter Mara Venier was recently scolded on social media for still wearing her hair long “at her age”, prompting her to write a long post about how women are still judged on their age and appearance. Similarly, actress Sarah Jessica Parker was photographed with grey hair and no make up, and the commentary about her was scathing.

Who would have thought? Celebrities are mere mortals like the rest of us, and they age too. While we obviously all try to look our best, getting older should not be treated like a scourge because it is leading to an unhealthy obsession to prevent the march of time, which can have a devastating effect and lead women (especially) on a downward spiral.

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