As, together with my team, we commemorate 10 years since the founding of our architecture studio, Studjurban, I find myself thinking not only of this journey of urban and architectural design and policy practice but also on the architecture profession, which I hold very much to heart.
Malta is undeniably going through a building frenzy. As an architect, I could have easily chosen to be part of this but I chose not to. In fact, I consciously steer away from soulless apartment blocks because they do not appeal to my vision nor that of my colleagues. Nonetheless, we still grew and managed to attract projects of bigger scale and complexity but we remained true to our principles.
We do this relentlessly by promoting the idea of ‘responsible architecture’. This principle came from a document we had prepared for a publication by the Architects’ Council of Europe (ACE), Europe’s main professional body of architects. This document dealt with the need for quality architecture within the built environment and was written in the spirit of a manifesto – to establish good design principles and promote better design quality using also positive case studies in practice.
As architects, we promote responsible architecture every time we acknowledge our collective responsibility towards our respective communities, towards the environment and future generations by creating a better place than the one we have found. In fact, I must admit that it pains me to see social media so rife with photos of buildings and projects that continue to fuel more people against the architectural profession. The reasons for this are multi-fold.
Firstly, I would single out the outdated local plans that today have become irrelevant. In turn, while DC15 was formulated with the best of intentions to contextualise architectural design and to place urban design on the map, it has been widely interpreted, unfortunately rarely to favour good design.
Thirdly, and importantly, we have been treating height limitation as an absolute right rather than a maximum that could be reached unless the context dictates otherwise. Reversing this approach is probably the most difficult but not impossible.
With recent figures showing that 34 per cent of Malta’s territory is built up, many would deem the country as being overbuilt. Density, per se, is not necessarily wrong. If properly and strategically planned, density may allow economies of scale to flourish, as evidenced by several cities that are based on the ‘compact city‘ model, but a correct balance must be achieved between density, land use mix and mobility/access.
High density and high car dependence and a lack of regard to cumulative realities of land use topple this balance over. This is why new and properly drafted local plans, having a strong and strategic urban design approach, are needed.
We need the political will to update these plans and accept that policy is not static but alive and can change.
As architects, we also need to collectively understand our critical role because, ultimately, we are the ones accepting certain jobs. Collectively, we should also take a step in favour of the much-needed rehabilitation of older properties which represent our past, our roots and are part of our heritage.
Instead of opting for the easy way out and pulling them down, we need to bring more old properties back to life by restoring and repurposing them while ensuring they also perform more sustainably. Beyond the immense contribution of these buildings to our urban fabric and its streetscapes, retaining them is also an act in favour of sustainability.
Most importantly, architects need to collectively push for better standards. This profession once carried pride. Today, for many architects, their profession feels just like any other job and this is an immense pity. Together, we can do much better than this.
Read the article in the Times of Malta.