Valletta is changing shape as we write. The City Gate project is redefining our approach to the city creating a contemporary grand entrance that does not seek to evoke the past.
Today, we enter Valletta passing by hoardings sheltering us from building works in progress. Fast forward a few years though and imagine the development done: what will remain in our memories of what was once there, and how will we use the city gate space differently? What social changes will the new architecture bring? And will they be for better or worse?
The TRANSIT project – a collaboration among academics and creatives – aims to help us find out. We talked to one of its members, David Pisani, about TRANSIT. David is one of Malta’s most renowned photographers and lives in Valletta. Many of his photos documenting the city in the past 20 years were chosen to form part of the French National Collection.
Q. After you published your collection ‘Vanishing Valletta’ in 2007, you said that perhaps it was time to move your lens on from the city. What drew you back to documenting the Valletta of today?
I keep saying that, then I keep going back to the site. The changes around city gate, which is what TRANSIT is focusing, on are a huge change for Valletta and I wanted to be there to document them.
Q. TRANSIT is billed as an ‘urban art study on the social and urban changes in the Valletta city gate project’. What exactly does that mean?
TRANSIT is not only about documenting. The central issues of the project deal with urban changes, how they affect us, the way we interact with the city, and what their long term consequences may be. The health and longevity of a city depends on good urban planning and we felt that the Renzo Piano Project had been shrouded in so many petty political issues as to whether to rebuild the opera house and so on that the people who actual use city gate every day and the life that revolves around the site were completely ignored.
It’s an urban art study because we want to use art to create an awareness of the changes that are occurring; many of them are not about structural change, which is the obvious part but about a more complex change, or dialogue that goes on between the city and its inhabitants and visitors. The process of demolition is one of the key topics we are working on, on the blog we called it “Temporary Ruins”, and we look at how buildings take on transient forms of beauty as they are demolished, brief yet significant moments in the life of a building which, unless captured photographically, are lost forever.
We also ask questions about how demolitions effect our memory of a particular site, do we change as structures change? At what point does nostalgia set in? Is a site capable of preserving memory?
Q. Is TRANSIT neutral – a mere documenter of the evolution of Valletta as the new city gate area takes shape – or is it acting as a commentator?
We are politically neutral but we have our own ideas of how our cities can be improved and how the city dweller can also aspire to a better quality of life. Our blog plays an important part in sharing our ideas as we look at urban change in other cities around the world and post comments on these, always with a reference to what is happening around city gate.
Q. Why has such an important project largely ignored the social impact it will have?
TRANSIT is very much in favour of the Renzo Piano Project for City Gate however the whole ordeal of getting it approved (which took almost 15 years) resulted in the project being ‘Lost In Translation’; the citizens and visitors who ultimately inhabit the site (and the city as a whole) have been for the most part ignored. Or someone has simply assumed that everyone will be happy with the final result because nobody loved city gate anyway so anything was going to be better than that. But we need to see what the change means to a whole gamut of people who interact with the city gate area - commuters, hawkers, hanger-ons, bus drivers and more that bustle around the site.
Stay updated with the project through its blog: http://transitproject.tumblr.com
TRANSIT is funded by the Malta Arts Fund.