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Designing beyond the visual
July 13, 2018

Ann Dingli interviews Valentino Architects, an emerging Maltese architecture practice that’s winning awards and carving out an elegantly measured approach to creating enduring architecture on the islands.

“The whole island will be obliterated by buildings. And this will take very little time” – said scores of social media warriors as saga after saga of local development travesties blotted their news feeds. Or, projected the architectural critic over fifty years ago in a special edition of the Architectural Review. By now, we’ve all been more or less reminded of Quentin Hughes’ assessment, and it has become wildly convenient to quote accepted authorities for the purpose of critiquing collectively mourned problems. But the wanton bootlegging of their prophetic wisdom doesn’t make it any less relevant; and in Malta many believe that we are standing – not at the precipice – but within the boiling hot centre of what Hughes once predicted would happen.

But meanwhile, amidst the raging – and largely legitimate – complaints, there are a few people trying to shine a light on what is good, and what can get better. Enter Valentino Architects, a young practice that’s quietly carving out a design approach based on the reckoning that Malta needs more than buildings that cut a good commercial figure. They were recently awarded the Premju Emanuele Luigi Galizia by the Kamra Tal -Periti (Malta Chamber of Architects) for best interior project, and emerging architect; accolades they equate with recognition from their peers within the architectural community, and a mark that their practice has established itself seriously within that very community.

Speaking at the event, Professor Richard England – who after Malta’s Independence created a brand of architecture that helped define the national identity of the islands – said of the award, “this is exactly what Malta needs at this particular moment. Architecture seems to have lost its spirit and degenerated into what I term, construction”. His own generation of architects is well-versed on the dangers of hyper-development as a result of swift economic upturn and a subsequent boom in building. It’s already happened – in the eighties. That’s when people first started waving their fists and quoting Hughes. We seem to be back there again, at a loss as to what comes next or what might be the solution. Scrambling to understand if we can fix what went wrong or whether it’s too far gone.

Peter and Sandro Valentino’s evaluation of the situation is more calm than cross, more careful and less reactionary than might be expected of two young designers who have been described – along with their fellow Premju Emanuele Luigi Galizia winners – by Professor England as “the future of Malta”. When asked how they negotiate their own viability in a building boom landscape, their answer is that it’s all about playing the long game.

“The beauty, and challenge, of architecture is that your work is around for many years,” they muse, “creating the backdrop for different encounters in life. We operate on the notion that building good work is a long-term investment to our studio’s sustainability. Because when the building boom is over, who will remain afloat?”

So far, Valentino Architect’s work has mainly taken the form of small to medium sized domestic and commercial projects. Their projects are characterised visually by elegant economy – of scale, colour and material. Their interiors befit the style of the contemporary Mediterranean professional that hasn’t even yet been discovered. Their buildings resist stereotypical solutions to planning projects and instead return to the idea of working with the islands’ unique temperature, landscape, and size. They are also working to secure work abroad so as to broaden their frame of experience. “International work is the next step in our studio’s development, be it through architectural competitions and/or commissions. We are currently working on the design of a hair dressing salon for a local client which is to be situated within a prestigious hotel in Budapest which we are quite excited about”.

Despite the attractiveness of the studio’s architecture, theirs is an approach which they describe as going beyond the visual. “We shouldn’t be talking about a specific aesthetic when assessing quality in architecture. Quality architecture seeks to offer solutions to problems, to create relationships between natural and man-made, to work within its context, to be inherently sustainable, and so on. It is these ‘hidden’ aspects which truly deliver quality.”

So, is looking beyond skin depth the answer to Malta’s seemingly out of control construction scenario? Valentino Architects would bank on it. But they also insist on maintaining a level of perspective amidst the apparent construction panic. “If you look back at the last forty years [in Malta], there has consistently been a proportion of good projects to bad,” they assert. “The situation is no different today”.

“What is different is the density of the built environment, so every mistake – and triumph – is highly pronounced. Malta needs to realise that policies being implemented now are going to shape the built environment we live in for many years to come – this puts a big responsibility on the architectural community, and on society at large. But we must be careful not to only point fingers at planning policies.”

“One very rarely receives an architectural commission to build beautifully for the joy of building beautifully, but rather, we work in a culture of ‘I will only invest in x, if I get x + y in return’. This is not necessarily bad at every level, because projects do need to make financial sense. But when such a large part of the economy is rooted in construction then the repercussions are clear. The Taj Mahal would not have been so beautiful if Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan asked for three quotations and decided on the lowest. In an economy as bustling as ours, where have these projects gone?”

Without entirely realising it, Valentino Architects have answered their own question in the form of their built portfolio. Their answer is to build, within this supposed apocalyptical context, buildings that confidently look beyond it. To design buildings that look good and perform well without there being an overt demand for them to do so. When asked to describe Malta’s current architectural wellbeing, they assert – “it’s on a knife’s edge”, that it could go either way. But if their long game maintains its stylish stamina, they may well tip the scales in the right direction.