The Times, Friday, 16th April 2010
Judging by the massive feedback by civil society on Renzo Piano's plans for City Gate, it is evident that Maltese society is reflexive and not simply made up of passive yes men and women.
Indeed, a spectacle has been created, with environmentalists pitted against each other, traditionalists yearning for a golden age that might have never existed, cultural elites and self-appointed spokesmen of "the people" (whatever this means) attempting to maintain their status in the field, while postmodernists rub their hands with joy as they see all that was solid becoming fragmented. Realists say that Mr Piano was ultimately conditioned by the government's brief and budget and partisans support or oppose the project for partisan reasons! Others might not be interested at all in the project and many, after all, like or dislike all or parts of it depending on their taste.
Professional expertise is a must in the case of such projects and Mr Piano is definitely a world leader in this regard. Yet, experts themselves know that there is no royal road of truth on such matters. On Bondiplus, Mr Piano himself said that hearing the voices coming from society is a prerequisite of the type of intelligence that he favours.
It is natural to expect different and contrasting opinions and tastes. Any decision taken would have had supporters and opponents, at least on particular aspects. If anything, the present government should be applauded for having the courage to take a decision after 60 years of waiting.
My opinion of Mr Piano's plans are that they should be welcome. Were I on the Mepa board, I would have voted in favour of the project, though I would surely have put forward certain critical comments.
It is true that the entrance to Valletta needs to be regenerated, not only for aesthetic reasons but also because this can create multiplier effects by generating employment and encouraging cultural activities. Tourism, culture and the arts have much to gain from this. The expenditure on the project, though hefty, should be seen as an investment and not a waste of money, as some opponents, in some cases motivated by partisan interests, are unfortunately implying.
As regards the Parliament building, I believe it would have been better to have it sited elsewhere but, at least, the fact that it will have environmentally-friendly aspects is commendable. One also hopes that, beyond the construction aspect of the building, Parliament becomes a true symbol of a plural and open democracy with a vivid civil society and not simply a bastion of power jealously kept by the two-party oligopoly. It would also be great if space is found for a public library
in the building.
The open-air theatre has the potential to be used for various purposes and, in a way, it is as if Mr Piano has created an open space to compensate for the space taken up by the Parliament building. One hopes the theatre will be accessible to various forms of arts and culture and not simply restricted to the elite. As regards the roof, I honestly can't see why the rain should be seen as a reason for having it, given our climatic conditions. Sound is another issue but should we, at all times, be held hostage to certain uncontrollable festa enthusiasts, bent on forcing as many people as possible to hear their loud bangs?
It is very positive that Mr Piano used the fortification imagery to keep cars outside of Valletta. The pedestrianisation process in the capital city, which should be repeated in other towns, is conducive to the democratising of open spaces. This has significant social, environmental and economic benefits. Accessibility by pedestrians enhances social interaction, decreases pollution and improves business opportunities. A visit to cities that have taken this route gives ample evidence of this.
A city with a lack of open spaces is a city that stifles human interaction. Suffice to say that, in the course of history, various rulers tried to control open spaces to give less space for their adversaries to rebel!
Of course, the reduction of access to cars has to be coupled by a holistic traffic management plan and bold changes in Malta's public transport. The latter is the best guarantee that there will be fewer cars on the road. Besides, alternative modes of transport to Valletta and within the city itself should be encouraged.
It has taken 60 years to decide on the City Gate spectacle. Now that a decision has been taken, let us ensure that as many different voices and identities in Maltese society as possible can make use of it. A regenerated city entrance would, ultimately, be a triumph of everyday democracy.
The author is chairman of Alternattiva Demokratika - the Green party.