The building chosen to
house the Fortifications Interpretation Centre is a large sixteenth century
warehouse situated near Biagio Steps at the farther end of St Mark Street, in
Valletta. It was chosen to house the permanent exhibition largely for its vast
interior spaces and its central location, which is right next to St Andrew's
Bastion, thereby providing a direct access to Valletta's ramparts.
The creation of the
Centre provided an opportunity to rehabilitate this structure which had lain
derelict for numerous years. Until recently, part of the building served as an
examination hall, while the upper most floors, level with Melita Street, was
demolished during the Second World War and never rebuilt.
Little is known
about this majestic building itself, with its imposing, if somewhat, sombre and
plain façade. Escutcheons with the coat of arms of Grand Master Hugues Loubenx
de Verdalle fixed on the main façade suggest that it was constructed, or
completed, sometime during the rule of this French Grand Master (reigned
1581-1595). Located next to the Marsamxett Gate (one of the three main gateways
into Valletta - unfortunately no longer standing), it appears to have been
constructed as some form of bombproof magazine for the storage of merchandise
off-loaded from the ships and other vessels berthed in Marsamxett Harbour. Its
location close to the Falconeria (a building that was used as a reserve armoury
from the mid-1700s onwards) also suggests some form of military use. As a matter
of fact, the upper floor of the building was used as an artillery school (scuola
per gettare bombe) by the Knights of St John.
Another important asset
which helped influence the choice of the building for the Centre was its very
location which, close to St Andrew's Bastion, places it on an important access
route into Valletta and more over, provides direct immediate access to the
Valletta's main bastioned enceinte, as well as excellent panoramic views of the
fortifications inside Marsamxett Harbour, namely Fort Manoel, Fort Tigné and
the sea walls along the northern flank of the city itself.
Besides its location, the
building's other important asset is its spacious interior which comprises some
1,200 m2 of exhibition space over three floors. The Centre is designed
around the existing historical building together with a new annexe that houses
the circulation and ancillary spaces. The brief for the project evolved very
closely with the building itself. Its constraints were transformed into design
opportunities which led to the formation of a series of spaces, individual yet
interrelated, that were designed to house the various functions and activities
of the Centre.
The project comprised a
myriad of interventions that were required for the rehabilitation of the
derelict historical structure and its adaptation into a new public centre. From
the start of the project, it was decided that ecological design was to be
favoured together with traditional materials and minimal interventions.
Environmental sustainability was given prominence with the introduction of PV
panels, the limited use of air-conditioning, the enhancement of natural
ventilation, rainwater collection and the reuse of building materials.
Despite their inherent
historical and architectural significance, the larger part of these
fortifications never truly figured in the national cultural agenda. Until the
present large scale restoration projects were undertaken, the majority of the
forts and fortresses were to be found in a poor state of preservation. The
story of their predicament can be largely traced to the last fifty years and
begins with the terrible punishment inflicted during WWII followed by the
widespread neglect and misuse that ensued from the demilitarization,
industrialization, and urbanization of the post-war period. Equally lacking has
been the public appreciation and understanding of the historical and
architectural significance of this vast heritage. With the exceptions of a
handful of historians, the larger part of who were foreigners, the military
architecture heritage has attracted relatively little attention and academic
However, the past decade
or so has been witnessing a slow reversal of this attitude as a growing number
of entities, both private and non-governmental, have been directing their
attention to the problem of the conservation of fortifications while in recent
years various books on the subject of Malta's forts have been published.
Aware of the uniqueness
of this architectural heritage, and the scale and magnitude of the effort that
is necessary to safeguard this unique patrimony, the Maltese Government, sought
in 2004, to benefit from assistance offered by the European Union through its
various programmes to partly fund the necessary interventions on some of the
most important historic fortifications of the Maltese islands. To this
end, in 2007, the Ministry for Resources and Rural Affairs submitted a
proposal for funding by the European Regional Development Fund, of a project
entitled "The Conservation and Rehabilitation of the Historical
Fortifications of Malta and Gozo". This ambitious project address, for the
very first time, and in a holistic manner, some of the main conservation issues
presented by the Maltese islands' unique mass of historic fortifications.
Accordingly, four major works of fortification were eventually chosen to
benefit from such funding, in all comprising a very substantial investment of
around 36 million Euros spread over a period of seven years. The chosen sites
comprised the fortifications of Valletta (Malta's renowned fortified capital
city built in 1566), Birgu (a maritime fortress later renamed Vittoriosa by the
Knights for its valiant resistance during the Ottoman siege of 1565), Mdina
(the island's ancient capital) and the Cittadella in Gozo - a combined
perimeter length of around 6 kms of some of the Maltese islands' most
architecturally and historically important bastions and ramparts.
projects were motivated by the desire to revalorize this important aspect of
Malta's rich architectural patrimony with the aim of integrating the historic
fortifications more effectively into Malta's cultural and touristic product.
The project is
part-financed by the European Union through the European Regional Development
Fund under Operational Programme I 'Investing in Competitiveness for a Better
Quality of Life' for Cohesion Policy 2007-2013, with a co-financing rate of 85%
EU Funds and 15% National Funds." This new holistic approach also provided
a unique opportunity for the creation of a suitable medium for the proper
presentation and interpretation of this patrimony of forts and fortifications.
To this end, the Restoration Directorate within the Ministry for Resources and
Rural Affairs designed a Fortifications Interpretation Centre specifically to
help showcase, explain, and interpret the history and architecture of Malta's
rich legacy of fortifications to both Maltese and foreign visitors alike.
This project has set in
motion a nation-wide process of 'rediscovery' of the islands' fortifications
and a new urgent awareness for the need of a thorough revalorization of its
entire vast military architecture heritage. The benefits of this large-scale
conservation and restoration effort, the first of its kind to be undertaken in
the Maltese islands, will hopefully spill over onto the islands' other
fortifications equally worthy of preservation and act as a catalyst for their
productive re-integration into the social, cultural, and economic spheres.