A few weeks ago I left Malta to try my luck somewhere else. I would have loved to organize the event I intended to hold, a conference regarding Maltese contemporary architecture (or rather lack thereof), however circumstances do not allow me to pursue such an interesting but unprofitable venture. I would like to thank the people who offered their help with organizing it: Norbert Attard, Narcy Calamatta and Eduard Duca. Their support gave me really warm feelings towards Malta.
In order to repay the favour I’ll share with you some observations regarding the problems of Maltese developments and offer suggestions for change.
For those readers not familiar with Malta, here are the basics: it’s a very small island of only 246 square kilometers and even less in square miles, with well over 400.000 inhabitants (with some more on the island of Gozo). The population is increasing quite rapidly and the demand in tourism has doubled over the past five years. Other important contributors to the economy are the Maltese freeport and (online) gambling sector.
The Maltese people love driving (or perhaps hate physical modes of transport), for it has the highest number of cars per capita in Europe even though distances are small. Getting around by bicycle or even on foot is quite challenging. And in spite of small distances, near perfect weather and congested roads, very few people use scooters or motorcycles either (except for a few hipsters on those lame electronic kick scooters).
But culture does not change overnight, and as any parent can attest to, it is far easier to achieve results with positive incentives than with negative ones. The challenge is to develop good incentives while accepting the current reality.
Development is inevitable; Malta will receive between ten and twenty thousand new residents this year, and unlike many other EU countries, these are not economic refugees but migrant workers, expats who can afford to pay for housing. Taking into account the average household size of 2,5 persons per residence, it implies 4000 to 8000 residential units will have to be built with a corresponding increase in office space, retail, industry and other infrastructure. This figure does not include hotels, AirBnB’s and second homes required for tourism which also puts further pressure on existing infrastructure. Malta already is one of densest populated countries in the world, and if it is to retain agricultural land and green areas, the only way to build is up. To build up, older structures have to be torn down to allow for deeper foundations and parking space. (Land reclamation is sometimes mentioned as another option, but most of the seabed is too deep to make it feasible).
On an island with an ancient history and strong traditions, any (big) development meets stiff resistance. My own (not very scientific) research revealed that the far majority of Maltese people including all the 20 or so architects I interviewed, are not happy with contemporary developments.
At the same time, what we are seeing is not strictly a Maltese phenomenon. All across Europe there is opposition against taking down old buildings, and discontent with the new is the rule rather than the exception. Most new buildings, be it public, residential, or commercial, are acceptable at best.
Naturally many people value their heritage, but that is not the only objection: new buildings replacing the old ones lack character and beauty. On the contrary, oftentimes they are quite ugly indeed. What are the reasons for that?
Before we dive into that I’d like to state that beauty is not entirely subjective. For example, we can have individual preferences over whom we find attractive, but collectively it is obvious than some people are far more attractive than others. Similarly, we can do so for plants and animals. Arts and architecture cannot escape the same scrutiny. It is one thing to have unattractive items in a gallery that few people visit, it is another to force it upon the public the way an appalling building does.
- The demise of the family
Up until a century ago, when having children wasn’t optional, large families operated as a single unit to make a living in a decent home. Life was shorter and more uncertain, living conditions were much harsher than what they are today. Owning your own family home was a source of pride, for it guaranteed the well-being of your family and of future generations. A house was not a disposable item, and most people would live their whole lives in the same house.
Today, families are far smaller, the average in most developed countries is 2.5 people per household. Maltese birthrates have dropped well below the replacement rate of 2.2, at a mere 1.45 births per woman. On paper, many people own their own home, but if you consider most houses are paid for through a mortgage, very few people can say they really do. Consumer debt in Malta amounts to 50% of GDP (2018). The official homeownership rate for Malta is 80% (2018), however I couldn’t find reliable data on the percentage of Maltese owning their home free and clear. In the US, that percentage dropped from 42% in 1960 to 29.3% in 2010.
When buying a house through a mortgage, it is almost as if you are renting it from the bank. It changes our attitudes towards the buildings we live in: we are less inclined to spend time and money on a house we don’t fully own, in which we probably won’t be living our entire live, nor our children if we even have any. Such a temporary shelter has as much symbolic value as an IKEA closet.
The demise of the family and consequently demise of multi-generational family homes is a fundamental change in our societies, but it is hardly the only reason for architectural indifference, for it does not explain why office and public buildings are equally hideous.
2. The growth of government
At the turn of the last century, tax rates in Europe averaged far lower than what they are today. Few countries had an income tax or value added tax, and levies totaled less than 20% of the economy. In our present day democratic feudal system, taxes have increased to a stunning 46% of GDP (EU average). Malta is still comparatively affordable at 35.6% of the economy taken by the public sector.
One obvious consequence is that construction developers and individuals have comparatively smaller budgets for relatively less important things such as the aesthetics of a building. What’s more, bigger governments create more rules and legislation, which complicate construction business and favours large corporations over smaller players. Compliance with rules drives up costs and limits creativity. (We have an environment where people are more likely to ‘play it safe’ than to risk something more experimental.)
It is often said that we live in a hyper-individualistic society. However, when we examine closely the bandwidth within which we are allowed to express ourselves, it would be hard to argue we have gained much freedom. On the one hand, religion and family have less to say on whom we date and what career path we choose. But on the other hand it is much harder to start a business from home, change your career without official qualifications or licenses, or even paint your house in a different colour. And I’m not even talking about the huge run-up costs if you dare to launch an innovative product. Bureaucracy has diminished so much of our personal choices that we can hardly claim we are that much more free and individualistic than past generations.
Consequently, many of our neighbourhoods do not look much different from those constructed in Eastern-Europe during communism. Individualism and eccentricity is not appreciated by city planners, a sentiment which unfortunately is shared by a large segment of the population. Many prefer an overbearing p/matriarchical government handling our affairs over handling them ourselves. God forbid we have to talk to our neighbours to arrange something!
Precisely this trend of outsourcing personal responsibility to (mostly unelected) government officials has created the veneer of individuality. Private problems such as childcare, aging parents or an unemployed relative are now ‘a burden’ that society, meaning other people, should take care of and pay for. In the end it became a merry-go-round where we all pay to huge inefficient institutions to take care of each other’s problems. The bureaucracy thus created cares little about the aesthetics of the massive complexes in which they are housed. Aesthetics is, after all, an individualistic expression of taste, not a collectivist amalgamation.
3. The rule of the accountant
In a society run by big business and big government, cost is the main concern when constructing large buildings, and aesthetics is moved to the bottom of the priority list. It is a world in which accountants and project managers rule: all that matters is how many residential or commercial units can be built for X amount, and how much profit and/or votes can be secured. The accountant never meets with the end user, the customer or citizen is merely a means to an end, a burden to be overcome.
Architects who are subjugated to accountant rule have little artistic freedom, and create the industrial monstrosities we see in every office park and suburb. A gray, globalist goo that has spread to the far corners of the globe.
4. The education system
Public education and universities are a relatively new phenomenon. Many professions such as architecture that are now considered to require tertiary education used to be trades you learned on the job. Up until fairly recently, an architect was only valuated by his work, not by his degree. The profession was open to anyone regardless of their educational background. Artists with architectural aspirations could find clients unimpeded by bureaucratic obstacles. Da Vinci, Brunelleschi, Michelangelo all fall in that category. More recent examples of self-taught architects include: Frank Lloyd Wright, Louis Sullivan, Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe, Buckminster Fuller, Tadoo Ando, Friedensreich Hundertwasser, and Peter Behrens. On education, Louis Sullivan wrote:
“How strange it seems that education, in practice, so often means suppression: that instead of leading the mind outward to the light of day it crowds things in upon it that darken and weary it”
While education in itself is a good thing, large bureaucratic institutions are not known to inspire or encourage creativity. The University of Malta is a great example of utterly dreary architecture. How can anyone learn anything good in such a depressing building? It’s akin to teaching theology in a whorehouse.
The old masters, by contrast, learned on the job, which meant they got practical experience with the materials they applied and thoroughly understood their physical characteristics as well as their theoretical possibilities. Modern day architects rarely get their hands dirty, they are only half-educated.
How bizarre it is that foreign expressions of traditions are highly valued by tourists: the tribal dance of South Americas natives, the traditional garments of Nepalese; yet we don’t value our own cultural heritage. In an effort to be modern and progressive, old customs and trades are forgotten, neglected and in many places, extinct. Ever so rarely they get replaced with new, region-specific customs. Travel around the world and you notice differences between countries getting less and less: we dress the same, listen to the same music, buy the same brands in the same stores, watch the same shows on television.
Nowhere has it been as obvious as in architecture. The by now old-fashioned (post) modern / contemporary architecture that has been around since the Barcelona Pavilion of 1929, which to this day maintains its dominance, does not allow for any (native) motives, ornaments or regional elements. Only climatic differences and technological developments lead to differences in building construction, but stylistically, newly constructed buildings differ little from Korea to Brazil.
Without ornament, style is not possible. What is the point of art anyway? Strictly speaking, it is unnecessary. An office does not need a painting on the wall in order to function, let alone mosaic floors, stucco ceilings or stained glass windows. Post-modernism is cheap, but empty and devoid of meaning. And as such, it is the most depressing form of art: that is what people instinctively fight against.
In part 2 I will offer my solutions.