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Reclaiming Public Space
April 12, 2022


In 2015, Renzo Piano’s Parliament building was completed as one of the major components to the wider City Gate Project. After months, even years, of contentious dialogue around what the project would mean for Valletta, Parliament House brought a new identity to the city, yet in doing so, refused to deny what the city already was. Together with the rest of the entrance masterplan, Piano’s design enhanced the existing composition of Valletta’s main entrance artery. It also gifted the city with a new public space – a clearing below the monumental stone building that symbolised the democratisation between citizen and institution; a flat, boundary-free square that advocated free passage and movement.

That intention has since been obliterated. Where Piano’s open square was initially set to be a backdrop to free pedestrian movement, it is now lined with a cortege of metal barriers – a visual symbol of exclusion that sows feelings of division, denying the design’s original definition of public space.

In the decade since that project first began, the definition of public realm in Malta has become increasingly vulnerable, with less clarity over who controls it, who has access to it, and who decides how it should function. Within the same period, the Maltese public has been besieged by island-wide overdevelopment, prompting protest around the demolition of individual buildings or places and outcry at ceaseless construction. The issue of overdevelopment has become so inescapable, that access to and ownership of public space risks being relegated to a second-tier problem.

Late last year, following public protest, a decision to grant Palazzina Vincenti – the 1930s Modernist building in St Julian’s – an emergency conservation came as positive news. But beyond its temporary conservation, there was no discussion on its future use and on whether it could be transformed into a publicly used space.

It’s examples like Palazzina Vincenti – a building that has always been private – that have the potential to spark a discussion on ownership. Should a heritage asset be allowed to be enjoyed by only a tiny fragment of society? Or, as in this case, remain vacant for decades? Or could buildings like these be inducted into the definition of ‘public realm’; reclaimed for common use and made accessible to the many as opposed to the few?

Malta has several examples of existing buildings with the potential for public use – many of which have been dormant for years. The Rialto Theatre in Bormla is a strong contender for conversion into a public space. The old cinema and classic Art Deco building stands at a prominent corner site, optimally positioned to better activate its small nearby piazza. The Orpheum Theatre in Gzira shows similar potential. Designed in 1932 by Harold J. Borg, its Spanish Art Nouveau influence has secured its Grade 1 scheduling, yet it remains vacant and therefore missing an opportunity to be brought back to life and enjoyed by the public.

The question around how these spaces can be released back into the public domain is a complicated one, involving creating a balance between stakeholder value and public good. Meaningfully striking this balance would mean an upheaval to what has become the default model for local development – a predominantly commercially driven endeavour.

There needs to be a discussion around how we can hybridise the creation of public space and commercial viability. Ideas like the traditional Italian ‘casa bottega’ model, where the threshold between private and public becomes more permeable, should be modernised and taken up. Charities like the Meanwhile Foundation in the UK, which was set up to “grow the use of vacant property for projects that deliver economic development and social or environmentally led regeneration” could solve two major problems locally: making good use of the overwhelming amount of unused building stock, and generating more community space.

If we exercise our ability to think outside the box, looking beyond the dichotomy of private versus public, then the definition of public space could conceivably begin to change. Perhaps Malta can begin to cultivate an attitude that goes against the development-first default – an approach that bestows knee-jerk entitlement on every individual or group that owns land, airspace or property to build at all costs.

In 2021, clusters of pallet style planter-come-benches were installed outside the Parliament building, initially intended as a temporary installation for the Valletta Green Festival and made permanent in response to apparent public request. Sitting opposite their neighbouring barricade of metal fencing, they have become an emblem for Malta’s wider discussion on public place – a distraction to a problem that is bigger than what it seems at face value. A problem of shutting people out, drawing both visible and invisible boundaries, and forgetting who the public realm is rightfully meant to serve.