Monday, March 4, 2013

A Sneak Peek Tour of Valletta's Open Air Theatre by Renzo Piano

valletta open air theatre renzo piano

Several weeks ago I was privileged to get a sneak-peek tour of Valletta's new open air theatre and parliament, designed by renowned architect Renzo Piano (see The Shard, The New York Times Building, The Nemo Science Centre, etc.). Today I am thrilled to take you on a virtual tour.

(Check back tomorrow for a tour of Malta's first purpose-built parliament buildings, by the same architect!)

A thoughtful class mate of mine (thank you, M!) was able to arrange a private tour of Valletta's new open air theatre for my postgraduate marketing class. We were taken throughout the construction site - expected to be completed later this year - by Architecture Project's research and heritage expert Guilluame Dreyfuss. 

I was thrilled when I found out we would be going (art history geeks unite!) How often do you get to see a country's parliament as it's being built? It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, for sure. And one that this art addict won't soon forget.

A little history to get us started: English architect Edward Middleton Barry built Malta's Royal Opera House on this site in 1866. It was a beautiful, if awkward, building, a striking example of Neoclassicism in Valletta's otherwise Baroque streets. The Royal Opera House was destroyed during WWII (1942) and dismantled in the years to follow. When Mike and I first arrived in Malta in 2008, it was a sad and slightly haunting pile of ruins sitting in the middle of a dusty parking lot.

Since then, Renzo Piano has re-envisioned the theatre, returning it to public use while maintaining its status as a reminder of the destruction WWII wrought on this little island (something the previous ruins always strongly represented for me).

This has not been without controversy, as many have called for the theatre to be entirely rebuilt to its original state.

I am not among them (are you surprised?)

To reconstruct the theatre would be a disservice to Malta's Generations X and Y. Malta's lack of contemporary architecture tells these generations that their cultural legacies are subservient to those of Baroque and British era Malta. This cannot be true; we must not erase from the history books everything that came after 1900.

Piano's design refuses to do just that (prosit!)

valletta open air theatre renzo piano

Piano's treatment of this site preserves the original ruins and reconstructs several of the theatre's beautiful nineteenth century columns. A contemporary steel structure has been built to surround the ruins, and will house a sophisticated lighting and sound system.

Locals will notice the final design differs slightly from the original proposals. This is because, during construction, archaeological investigations revealed exciting finds beneath the theatre with a heritage status of their own, which will be preserved (aqueducts, etc.) for public viewing.

The stage and seating of the theatre are mobile, and easily adapted to meet the needs of various performance groups. For example, the stage can expand to give more room for dancers' leaps, or retract to accommodate an orchestra during an opera performance. 

valletta open air theatre renzo piano

The green seats of the theatre are a nod to the green Maltese balconies so common in the capital city (and are, conveniently, neither blue nor red - colours with strong political connotations on this island). I'm not a huge fan of the green (a simple grey would have done nicely) but it's easy to overlook given the stunning treatment of the rest of the site.

valletta open air theatre renzo piano

Once completed, the theatre will be entirely open to the public 24/7. Walkways provide access to the underbelly of the theatre, where you can see the original 1866 stone-cut foundations. And, with a keen eye, you can also spot a section of the seventeenth century aqueduct. 

valletta open air theatre renzo piano

Critics have argued against the construction of an open air theatre in Valletta due to the obvious limitations of any open air site - inclement weather can cancel events, damage equipment, etc. True, but it is likely that in the event of inclement weather events would be transferred to the nearby Teatru Manoel, the Mediterrean Conference Centre, or St. James Centre Cavalier for Creativity. It is also important to remember that Malta rarely gets rain from June to September, so the open air theatre's 'high season' will be complementary to those of the above mentioned structures (e.g. Teatru Manoel does not operate during the summer, for lack of air conditioning).

Efforts - such as thoughtfully designed sound systems and sound proofing - have also been made to trap noise pollution within the structure. These are important features, given that the theatre is surrounded by homes, Malta's Parliament building, and local businesses. 

valletta open air theatre renzo piano

The tented structure, pictured above, will (hopefully) be removed in the future. Erected during the holiday season in a politically motivated 'soft opening,' it is incongruous with Piano's stunning, rhythmic designs for this site.

valletta open air theatre renzo piano

An interesting side note - when the theatre was originally dismantled in the years following WWII, pieces of the theatre (like columns, capitals, and stonework) ended up spread throughout the island, in private homes, fields, etc. During Renzo Piano's project those pieces (which are protected under national heritage status) have been recollected (in some cases, literally dug up) and reintegrated into the theatre site.

I thought this was such a lovely gesture, representing an appropriate level of 'rebuilding' that acknowledges the importance the Royal Opera House played in Malta's architectural history. By collecting the bones of the original structure and returning them to their original 'resting place', in a significant way, Piano's open air theatre is a beautiful eulogy that also breathes new life into the site and the city.

the theatre (still very much under construction) in use during a preview at last year's notte bianca, september 2012

As a foreigner living in Malta, I strongly feel this theatre will be a draw for many tourists: a badly needed injection of nightlife in Valletta. Like the design or not, you have to admit there is something intoxicating about watching a play or a concert or opera under the stars.

And as someone who had the opportunity to see this site as it was in 2008, and as it is now, I think Renzo Piano's vision for the theatre is wonderfully symbolic of the country of Malta and its people. Amid challenges and conflict, Malta always picks up the pieces and rebuilds again.

- Jess

p.s. come back tomorrow for a sneak-peek virtual tour of malta's new parliament buildings!

all photos ©


  1. Loved this post, Jess! I am always fascinated to hear the stories behind the buildings - particularly why decisions were made - and how lucky for you to hear it first hand while in construction! I hope you'll get to enjoy a performance there in the near future!

  2. What a fun opportunity and visit! (And those blue skies in your photos always make me jealous Jess!)

    I've been slightly obsessed with the Shard on recent visits to London and haven't been able to get enough of this feature on it:

    Great to learn about the other international projects the architect has been working on. Can't wait until you can go see a performance!

  3. This design of Piano has hit the Maltese worse that the bombs - it is that ugly, and we paid for it and nobody likes it. Now it is too small!!!

    1. Hi RJ,

      Thanks for your comment! I think you mean the Parliament is too small, not the theatre.

      I also think you do a disservice to the many who suffered in Malta during WWII when you say a modern building project is worse for the country than the bombs that tore through the country's villages, destroying homes and taking lives.

      There's enough negativity in the world, how about spreading some kindness?


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