Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Behind the Scenes at Malta's New Parliament Buildings by Renzo Piano

malta parliament renzo piano architecture

To those of you who live in large cities in Europe, North America, and beyond, the above photo may seem commonplace to you. But for Malta, this strikingly modern edifice is anything but. 

malta parliament renzo piano architecture

Renzo Piano's design for Malta's first purpose-built parliament buildings is, yes, perhaps a little incongruous with the rest of the city's architecture. It throws off Baroque flamboyance in a city that is Baroque all over, and has more in common with the city's earliest austere architecture than its later ornate auberges and palazzos.

But I love it, and the more you learn about it, I hope you will too.

malta parliament renzo piano architecture

Continuing our tour from the open-air theatre, we entered the construction site of the parliament buildings and city gate. The site had a calm, efficient air about it that is so rare in a construction site of this size. It was also filled with a sense of excitement - the bones of the buildings are finished, and the end of this project is very clearly in sight.

This is Malta's first purpose-built parliament building. The country's current parliament sits in the Grand Masters Palace, a 16th century building (you can take a virtual tour of it here). Malta achieved its independence (from Britain) in 1964 and declared itself a republic in 1974, so this country has a relatively short history of independent government. 

malta parliament renzo piano architecture

malta parliament renzo piano architecture

Malta's new parliament is composed of two buildings, situated side by side (the visual tension between the two edifices is beautiful). The building on the left will house offices spread across three levels, with the party in power, the official opposition, and the Speaker of the House on separate floors. There will also be a Museum of Maltese History and Political Development somewhere in there (details are fuzzy).

The building on the right will house the parliament chamber. The above photo was taken from scaffolding that connects the two buildings; it will later be replaced by a pedway. 

These buildings are 'on stilts' (for lack of a better term), elevated on steel beams so that the ground floor of the structures are open-air. This space will be public and pedestrianized when the structures officially open, and says a lot about the symbolism of this building: open, permeable, welcoming.

Imagine standing underneath a country's parliament while it is in session!

malta parliament renzo piano architecture

The buildings are clad in the most beautiful stonework, the details of which had me head over heels for this project. These stones are cut from a single quarry in Qala, Gozo. The quarry is cut block by block, and the blocks divided into smaller blocks, all numerically coded.

Why so methodical? Because the architect has designed a system by which the stones are placed on the building in roughly the same order they were cut out of the quarry. A special colour-grid coding system assists the construction workers in this endeavour.

malta parliament renzo piano architecture
the stones arrive on the site on these pallets, you can see their coding below.
on a side note: the stones are incredibly smooth.
if you get a chance to visit the site, touch them!
malta parliament renzo piano architecture

Not only does this ensure the subtle colour gradations in the stone run across the facade of the buildings as they would run across a cliff face (they are so stunning in person) but it pays homage to the very stuff this country is made of. As our tour guide Guilluame said, there is something deeply significant about Malta's first purpose-built parliament being enveloped in Maltese stone. I can't help but agree.

I also think the stones' very specific treatment says something significant about Renzo Piano and his respect for the materials and history of Malta. Prosit, Piano.

malta parliament renzo piano architecture

The parliament buildings have been constructed to be 100% carbon neutral during the winter, and 80% carbon neutral in the summer. The architect has calculated the exact angle of sunlight in Valletta throughout the year, and the shape of the stone facings block the sunlight from entering the structure, while still providing incredible light in the interior.

malta parliament renzo piano architecture

malta parliament renzo piano architecture

Below is the view from the top of Malta's new parliament buildings: a view that is reserved for the Speaker of the House and his/her staff when the building is completed. These photos don't really capture the incredible panorama you get from up there - it's the highest point in the city. You'll have to take my word for it that it is pretty spectacular. (I don't know how the Speaker will ever get any work done!)

malta parliament renzo piano architecture

malta parliament renzo piano architecture

And now, we enter the Parliament. Once completed, it will be covered in local stonework, so this is the last view you'll get of its steel bones (which I love). This is the first steel structure built in Valletta; most buildings in Malta are made of concrete and local limestone. 

These photos were taken from a roof-level perch overlooking the parliament floor. The lit up area (above) will house media and consultants when parliament is in session.

malta parliament renzo piano architecture

malta parliament renzo piano architecture

Returning to the parliamentary offices building, you can see how close the project is to completion, with wiring and venting systems in place.


malta parliament renzo piano architecture

And right below the parliamentary offices is Valletta's old railway tunnel, which will also be spruced up, pedestrianized, and open to the public (pictured below).


Reading this article, you've probably noticed the word 'pedestrianized' used repeatedly. An important feature of this project, which I love, is that there is absolutely no parking accommodated in this design.

This is a big deal in Malta, which is a country of cars and car-culture. And I'm just as skeptical as the locals as to whether or not members of parliaments will actually walk the several blocks from a nearby underground parking lot to the parliament building (currently, they are dropped off/park practically at the front door). But I think this design feature is consistent with the open, permeable symbolism that pervades Renzo Piano's entire Valletta project.

Shouldn't politicians walk to work like everyone else in Valletta, joining the throngs parading through the city's new gate?

I think that's kind of beautiful.

malta parliament renzo piano architecture

Another element of Piano's designs that I love is their emphasis of the fortifications of Valletta. Pictured above is St. James Cavalier, the walls of which have been further exposed during this project. The design of the city's new main gate (photos of which I don't have - but you can be sure they'll make it to this little corner of the Internet soon) is also an attempt to emphasize these walls. 


Malta will vote in an election this weekend, and the next parliament will be the first in Malta to sit in these buildings. 

By Canadian standards, Maltese elections are crazy in terms of turnout (Canada: 61% in 2011, Malta: 93% in 2008) and sheer public exuberance. While Canada does have a predominantly two-party political system, I have never seen such a strong red/blue rivalry as on this little island. It's a cultural divide I don't think I'll ever fully understand. But it is one that Renzo Piano - also a foreigner to this island (he's Italian) - has managed to gracefully navigate in his designs for Malta's new parliament buildings.

To this foreigner's eyes, the open air theatre and parliament buildings - destined to become Malta's newest national symbols - aren't red or blue. And they aren't Baroque or Neoclassical either. They are of this island and this century; they are simply Maltese. 

- Jess

12 comments :

  1. I've walked past this building so many times and never known what they were building. Now I'll look at it with different eyes :)

    Becominghugo.blogspot.com

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    1. Oh good! It may even be finished before you leave Malta :)

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  2. I love that your excitement and enthusiasm practically floats off the page as I'm reading it. It's almost impossible not to appreciate the new buildings and the symbolism behind all of those architectural decisions!

    (Also, one might argue that Canada is heading in the direction of a predominantly 3-party political race as the NDP has been steaming ahead as of the last election. For some reason, I prefer that to the typical 2 party fight.)

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    1. I completely agree that Canada is heading in the direction of a 3-party system, but I do tend to simplify the situation and say 2-party when I talk to people from other countries. However, I also prefer a multi-party system to the typical 2-party fight!

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  3. I love this! Although I'm no architecture expert by any standards, I'm drawn to the openness of the layout and the contemporary hints mixed with the traditional. Sometimes a city needs something a little shocking to keep it on its toes :) Thanks for sharing this Jess!

    xxx
    Jenna

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  4. wow, this is amazing! I'll have to send this to Jon - he's an amateur architecture buff and is totally into Renzo Piano stuff right now because of the Shard being finished in London. too cool!

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    1. Great to hear about other RP enthusiasts :)

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  5. Just a minor correction, the Parliament Building is not the first steel structured building in Valletta. That honour goes to the Market located behind the Gran Masters Palace, built in the 1900's if I'm not mistaken.

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    1. Actually, I think the covered market (is-Suq tal-belt) behind the Grand Master's Palace was built in the 1860s of cast and wrought iron, not steel. Although commonly confused, they are actually different materials :)

      Iron is an element, while steel alloy containing iron. Steel is stronger than plain old iron, with better tension and compression properties, which is why its more commonly used in modern buildings.

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  6. Very interesting post! I am a Maltese student with an interest in architecture, and the prospects of this entire project excite me. I think that sometimes we Maltese haven't yet grasped the concept of embracing new times and let go of the past. And I think this is why I'm so fond of this project: it's a new window to the world of contemporary arts/ architecture which unfortunately is quite a new concept over here.

    Thanks for promoting our country so well!

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    1. Hi Anonymous,

      I love hearing from students on the island, and I'm so glad that this project excites you. I think it helps to remember that even Baroque architecture was new to somebody at some point, and what would Malta be if it had not been embraced?

      Thank you for your kind words!

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