We Were Warned Almost 50 Years Ago

"The whole island will be obliterated by buildings."

Warned Cover

Malta got a short, sharp lesson in the dangers of overdevelopment during the summer of ’69, when the world-renowned Architecture Review visited our shores to dedicate its entire July 1969 issue to our island.

But reading through one of the articles in the edition – ‘The Perils of Non-Planning’ by Ian Masser – it remains debatable whether we took any of that advice on board.

Focusing on Bugibba, Mellieha and Marsaskala as examples of where Malta’s built environment is heading, and what pitfalls it should avoid, Masser’s article makes for poignant and sobering reading. Particularly in the wake of the debate as to whether high rise is a viable or desirable option for Malta – to say nothing of the fact that our own Prime Minister confessed that our ‘infrastructure is crumbling' – Masser’s piece hints at the possibility that the rot set in quite early for Malta.

Here are some key passages that should get you thinking…

No master plan to handle the boom (sound familiar?)

“To the outsider from Britain, Maltese planning has many strange and disquieting features. Much of the apparent anarchy, exemplified by the sprawl of piecemeal and haphazard development, must be attributed to a lack of technical resources… In recent years the technical staff have been overwhelmed by the mass of administrative detail caused by the building boom, and have had little time to review the situation as a whole. As a result, in the middle of 1968 there was still no overall master plan for the islands which would provide a framework for day to day decisions.”

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James Spiteri

Bugibba: 'The whole area resembles an enormous building site'

“At the present time Bugibba gives the impression of a settlement bursting at the seams in all directions. The whole area resembles an enormous building site. Even alongside flats and villas that are already occupied foundations are still being laid, and heaps of stone can be seen on vacant sites that are awaiting development while road works are proceeding haphazardly, with frequent interruptions to make provisions for underground services.”

“In front of the new blocks is an extensive area of land which is still awaiting development. Some distance along the new promenade a battered and rusty sign indicates that [J. Quintinus Street] leads inland. This street has all the signs associated with over-hasty development. Heaps of building stone lie scattered around the uneven and unsurfaced road. Water pipes lie across the road while sad-looking remnants of dust-covered vegetation are to be seen on an adjacent site which also contains the remains of an uprooted tree stump.”

“It is obvious that a great deal of hard thought must be given to Bugibba in the next few years. Already the basic decision to expand the settlement has been taken, and the implications of this decision are now becoming apparent to those concerned. If the same mistakes are to be avoided in the future, a much stricter control of the sequence in which new building is permitted to take place is necessary.”

Mellieħa: A cautionary tale

“Like Bugibba, the Mellieħa area is probably a good choice for large-scale development by comparison with other parts of Malta, but the rash new building that has taken place is largely unrelated to the old village. It has, as yet, no real character of its own. Each estate tends to be seen as a separate unit rather than in terms of its place in the new town that is emerging. Even the road network seems designed to keep people apart by providing separate access to each area… for a long time to come the message of the Mellieħa area will be essentially negative, pointing to features that should be avoided in new building elsewhere.”

Marsaskala: 'Opportunity to show lessons have been learnt' (Little did they know...) 

“So far the new developments at Marsaskala have been relatively successful, but the prospect of large-scale building raises fundamental questions which should be answered satisfactorily before it is allowed to proceed any further. Marsaskala could operate at several different levels. It could remain substantially a small-scale settlement which is in close harmony with its natural setting. It could become a medium-sized resort through the development of the hillside behind the old village and limited schemes for building along both shores of the bay. Or it could be transformed into a major focus for the new building activity in Malta. In this last case it should be shown, and beyond all possible doubt, that this is necessary in the interests of the island as a whole.

“In Bugibba and at Mellieħa decisions have already been taken which make the latter choice inevitable, but at Marsaskala there is still time to rethink both its possibilities and its implications. Marsaskala offers an opportunity to show that the lessons of recent development have been learnt.”

Apathy: the main problem

“Despite the lack of technical resources and the limitations of the planning scheme system, there can be little doubt that, given the will to plan, Malta can ensure that its towns and its countryside are enhanced for the pleasure of future generations. But examples like Bugibba, Mellieha and Marsaskala show that public opinion has so far been slow to appreciate the full implications of the building boom. No matter what the authorities themselves may wish, the final decision rests with the public, which must choose whether or not building should continue in the present destructive manner.”

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Claude Portelli

And in another article, architect Quentin Hughes gives the starkest of warnings...

"The whole island will be obliterated by buildings. And this will take very little time. It will happen unless planners, architects and legislators take action very soon. Malta could lead Europe into a new era of environmental and cultural re-evaluation, or it could become through a laissez-faire attitude, just another blighted area of exploitation."

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READ MORE: Why High Rise Is Not The Problem