HISTORY November 1860 was the start of designing this beautiful Neo-Classic gem, known as the Royal Opera House. It didn’t start off quite well; in fact its planning started on quite a rocky start mainly because of lack of communication, or rather miscommunication between the English architect, Edward Middleton Barry, the Maltese liaison, Sir Adrian Dingli and Mr Dale, whom Barry appointed as clerk of works in Malta. Dingli communicated the Council of Government’s objectives about the designs of the plan to Barry. Barry cautioned Dingli against alterations which would amount to the destruction of the design. If however, they insisted, he would have made a new design which will cause delay and expense. After several changes, Dingli proposed a design where the front terrace of the Opera House would be removed and thus bring the theatre in line with the buildings of Strada Reale. Barry obliged to these demands with yet another design, but this was so inferior to the original design that Dingli pleaded him for a final try, which resulted in drawings being quite similar to the original. These were the final plans on which the Opera House was to be built. Tenders for the masonry, woodwork and ironwork for this new theatre were issued. Giovanni Vella, Collector of Land Revenue recommended Mangion for the masonry work of the new theatre. It is when Dale, Barry’s clerk, working side by side Dingli, overestimated his position and altered Barry’s plans to include a water reservoir and a cellar. In September, the foundations to this ‘fixed’ plan started to be laid down under the supervision of Dale. Barry, when noticing what the situation was urged Dingli to communicate with him directly and through Dale. Dale was redirected back to England where he was later suspended and another assistant was sent to Malta to replace him. Only a few days later, Salvatore Fenech, a surveyor from the Collector of Revenue, discovered several faults in the foundations. The walls had been built of soft stone quarried from the site, the filling was badly packed and the mortar thin and of poor quality. Several double walls risked settling down because they were built on unequal levels. The report that was made condemned the entire works and recommended their demolition. Mangion was dismissed from this project and a month later, MA Azzopardi was awarded the contract to start the masonry work. Fenech was appointed site surveyor and Barry appointed Webster Paulson as his representative. Azzopardi began demolishing Mangion’s foundations and remaining buildings in March of 1862. Barry’s final plans for the theatre were designed for 1095 seated persons and 200 standing. This theatre also had a controversial front terrace, which also concealed the base of the impressive with Corinthian columns. Inside the portico was a rectangular foyer with the staircases at the sides leading to the pit tier. The enormous sum spent on the theatre drew sharp criticism from several quarters. It was argued that the money would have been better spent on drainage works and an adequate water supply for the inhabitants of the Three Cities. One of the local newspapers, The Malta Observer admitted the need of sanitary reform but defended the theatre. The exterior of the theatre was almost complete by March 1865. The stage was set for the official opening in October. With the benefit of hindsight, it is easy to say that Barry’s theatre had no feeling for Valletta’s vernacular architecture and that his opera house was both vulgar and overdressed. It must, however be borne in mind that the architect and his building were paradigms of Neo=Classicism. Barry elevated Valletta to the rank of a European capital with his self-assured Victorian composite structure of iron and stone. Not even 10 years later, on the night of 25th of May 1873 to be exact, the Opera House caught fire. On that night, when the general rehearsal for the opera La Vergine del Castello, which was going to take place the day after, was quite satisfying for the director of the orchestra. All of a sudden the singers evacuated the stage, raising the cry of “Fire, Fire!” After five minutes the stage resembled the fiery crater of a volcano. The flames, the heat and the hysterical cries caused many to seek the nearest and quickest exit. Half an hour later, the roof fell in the most terrific crash sending up such an immense volume of flame as to light up the surrounding countryside for several miles. Three fire engines were brought but the water reservoirs in the area were nearly empty. The authorities feared that the fire would spread to the buildings in the vicinity, thus all the available water was directed on these buildings. Luckily, there was no wind and the fire had spent itself by two in the morning. The exterior of the theatre was undamaged but the interior stonework had been calcified by the intense heat. The fire was started because of a gas lamp that had no protective glass tube which accidentally touched Cali’s paper scene. The unchanged and apparently undamaged exterior deceived many into thinking that its repair would be quick and easy as it hid the destruction. The Council appointed a Select Committee to consider and report what steps should be taken in consequence of the damage done to the theatre on the occasion of the late fire. The committee at once resolved to repair the theatre even if the cost of reconstruction might be too large for the limited means of the Government. Dingli mooted the idea of a 2% tax on the annual rental value from property in Valletta, Floriana and the Three Cities, but the members of the Select Committee objects to this proposal. The exterior masonry was virtually intact except for the wooden doors and windows, doorways, lintels, a portico soffit and some balustrades. The interior, though, was an entirely different proposition. Most of the ironwork, the staircase, the tiers of boxes, the amphitheatre and the corridors leading to them were destroyed. The dressing rooms, the stores, the dome of the pit, the saloon ceiling and the entrance hall were gone. Also destroyed were the walls of the pit, the stalls, the mirrors, the stage and its machinery, the drop-scene, the scenes, the skylights , all the internal fittings, the chandelier and the gas installation; but the arches of the cellar, the foundations and the water rank remained intact. The committee finally resolved to rebuild the theatre according to the original plan out of public funds; to postpone the constant debates they were having on the interior decoration, whether to be as acoustically efficient and costly as before or not, for a later state; to proceed with the stonework and issue tenders for each separate portion of work. Stone was going to be used instead of wood and iron and the whole work should as far as possible be done in Malta by natives. The Governor gave the work to the men who had originally built the theatre, MA Azzopardi and by the end of September the work was nearly complete. Finally, on October 11th of 1877, after nearly four years and a half from the fire, the theatre reopened with a performance of Verdi’s Aida. The inauguration was a low-key affair. On the evening of Tuesday 7th April 1942m the theatre was devastated by the bombers. The rear end starting halfway from the colonnade was however intact. Except for the broken windows an onlooker at Victory Square would easily have been misled into thinking that the theatre had in fact survived. While the War lasted there was little hope of reconstructing the theatre. In 1946 German prisoners of war in Malta offered to rebuild the theatre for a nominal charge but the Government declined the offer as it was a time of massive unemployment and emigration. In the following year the theatre was mentioned in the political parties’ manifestos as it was hoped that there was enough money for its rebuilding from the War Damage Fund allocated to Malta. In 1952, the Royal Opera House Reconstruction Committee was set up to select the site, the architect and advice on the construction. The committee introduced clauses as to which the architects had to abide to when designing this Royal Opera House. Two important clauses stated: “It is also desirable that in designing the facades, the architectural features of the Old Opera House be maintained as far as possible” and that “parts of the facades which are still standing be incorporated in whole or in part in the new scheme”. Several designs by world renowned architects were submitted, all of which were criticised and it was concluded that none of the projects had produced a satisfactory solution. Throughout the ‘70s and the ‘80s, the site languished and the Maltese put on a brave face when explaining to foreigners this ruin on the threshold of their nation’s capital. INTERVENTIONS It all started back in 1985 when Malta’s Government requested Renzo Piano’s advice for the rehabilitation of Valletta. In 1989, after Piano’s visit to Malta sponsored by UNESCO, an exhibition was presented showing the architect’s proposals for an urban strategy, including a redesign of Valletta’s City Gate. After Gonzi’s second election victory in 2008, he decided to complete this high-profile project, comprising the City Gate and Opera House, regardless of opposition. The brief was to turn the Royal Opera House ruins into a multi-purpose building that would include an open air theatre at the former Opera House site, the design of a new Parliament building and the renovation of the historically significant City Gate. This €82 million project is funded through a €40 million European Investment Bank loan, €25 million from direct government funding and €10 million from Malita Investments, a fully government owned company set up to ‘acquire and manage a portfolio of immovable assets of strategic national importance’ of which the City Gate project is the first. Piano states that the project is a public project about civic pride and civic sense which also incorporates culture. The aim of this project was to restore the Baroque city, which has been described by UNESCO as a rare urban site, to its former glory. From press reports and talking to local people, the project is massively unpopular, not only due to the familiar story of a modern building in a historic centre being considered inappropriate, but more due to the way it has been imposed on the city. The sore point from this entire project is unquestionably the open-air theatre, composed of the preserved ruins from the English architect Edward Middleton Barry’s Neo-Classical design for the Royal Opera House. Columns will be punctuated with steel masts, supporting a system of translucent screens. On the night of a performance, the screens will glide vertically to isolate the theatre from the busy streets nearby. Controversy surrounds the treatment of the ruins of the Opera House, presenting a dilemma as to whether the remnants should have been saved or else the fabrication of a replica should have been done. However, the parliament building offers a subtly spectacular new entrance. The façade of the three-storey building will be clad with a screen of 7,000 blocks, quarried in Gozo and laser cut in Italy. Despite all this, the public remains unimpressed. Compounding the controversy further, the Maltese government failed to notify UNESCO of its intentions for the site before starting work and now the Cultural Organisation is deliberating whether the architectural intervention has so detracted from its Outstanding Universal Value that it should be removed from the World Heritage List. Even though this won’t be the case, I think with time the City Gate will become much loved, the Parliament Building accepted, and the open-air theatre rejected and re-regenerated. But it all goes to show that there’s more to architecture than simply placing one stone upon another.
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Contrary to what local residents think, Piano's first loyalty is to the history of the city. The Opera site was initially targeted as the location for the new Parliament, but it was Renzo Piano himself who put forward the idea of shifting Parliament to the neighbouring open space and utilizing the existing Opera site as a multipurpose theatre. Piano states that, when one enters this loved city, one should not find an open space, neither should one find shops; but something culturally and civically important. Piano stated, "I like the idea of joining past and future, history and modernity, in the place that is Valletta and on the ruins of something that was so beloved... The real sacrilegious thing would have been to destroy those ruins, to put there some other function. But to keep those ruins, giving them dignity, giving them function and adding machines, modern machines for performing art... I think that's great, that's part of the magic." CRITIQUE Places of cultural significance enrich people’s lives, often providing a deep and inspirational sense of connection to community and landscape to the past and to lived experience. They are historical records that are important as tangible expressions of our identity and experience. Places of cultural significance reflect the diversity of our communities, telling us about whom we are and the past that has formed us. They are irreplaceable and precious. It is because of cultural significance that the interventions made over the Royal Opera House have caused so much controversy between locals. The dilemma of this situation always lies in whether one should conserve this said place of cultural significance or else restore. Conservation is based on respect for the existing fabric use, associations and meanings. It requires a cautious approach of changing as much as necessary but as little as possible. When we look at our Opera House and the interventions made by Piano, we notice that although respect and thought has been given to incorporate the remains of the Old Opera House, the addition of a parliament next to the multi-purpose open-air theatre feels as if the prestige that the opera House has been lost, being out-focused by the modern buildings next to it. Traditional techniques and materials are preferred for the conservation of significant fabric and in these recent interventions we do notice, that every bit of fabric still present from the old theatre has been used, and careful designs, such as the screening method that can be used when the theatre is in use, shows that such decisions were made so as to assist the idea of conserving the remains and the idea of the old Opera House. The cultural significance that the Opera House had back in its time cannot be quite explained. The Neo-Classic building that was the first thing that one sees after entering the City Gate, gives it quite a prestigious name; let alone now, when we know what this building has been through, with the fire and the bombing. But locals argue and ask, whether this new theatre will give the same atmosphere, the same feeling of grandiosity as it used to before. The change in location for the Parliament has also created a controversy on its own. How till the new use of the open space of Freedom Square, the new Parliament, affect the theatre and its visual setting? Participation from the public, of this newly built project, from a social and cultural sector, will help the public feel more aware and be more attracted to understand even more the history of this open-air theatre, from beginning to end. As stated in the Burra Charter, Article 14 of the Conservation Process, conservation may include the process of retention or reintroduction of a use. When Piano’s concept and design were exhibited, many feared that the change in the settings of buildings will reduce the theatre’s cultural significance. When it comes to maintaining and preserving the old Opera House, Piano’s new project made sure to not disturb these fundamental aspects of conservation. While the screening and the steel columns added to the new open air theatre are there for protection and mainly for better usage, the fabric present from the old theatre is still evident and thus making the theatre look more prestigious and interesting. The reconstruction of the theatre, on its own is already enough to improve the situation of how the area was before; an open space with the remains of a bombed theatre from 50 years earlier. The restored theatre still portrays the importance of it; culturally, socially and historically and this makes it a good example of restoration. The Parliament added next to the theatre might distort or obscure the cultural element or significance of the theatre or even detract from its interpretation and appreciation. One of the preferred forms of conservations that Piano clearly makes use of is the continuation and modification of the theatre for a more appropriate and significant use. Initial studies of the history of the theatre, either physical or historical had to be carried out in order for the restoration on the fabric of the old Opera House. Management and planning of the impact of the proposed changes should also be analysed as to how they will affect the cultural significance of the theatre. Adequate resources should also be provided to conserve the theatre. In my opinion, although Renzo Piano really did try to conserve the remains of the old Opera House, and leave its stone to provide enough aesthetical beauty and remembrance of the Opera House, some other designs in the vicinity, may cause less interest in the theatre in itself. Thus the conservation purposes weren’t fully taken advantage of. All in all, the project will only make our city richer with this architecturally great entrance.
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