"Architecture, for us, is more than space, setting, context and form. We would like to create an architecture that is a place-maker, a container of meaning, a catalyst for the creation of kinship, a fabricator of myth and a producer of narratives."Konrad Buhagiar
1. Please describe the philosophy and methodology of AP.
AP has grown naturally, organically and, to a certain degree, spontaneously. Its spirit is independent of any specific mission, chosen a priori. It is the product of the convergence of several tasks which has been commissioned over the years to undertake and of the orchestration of the multitude of disciplines required to achieve the goals envisioned by the client. Each project tackled, whether architectural, interior design or planning related, contains a collection of ideas, some tried and tested, others new and unprompted, whose unorthodox overlap and unsettling combination is what brings the product to life. Projects drift through varying facets of architecture, interior and space, tracing trajectories that are derived from specific areas of research and expertise, be it that of the architect, the engineer, the critic, the educator, the artist, the writer or the anthropologist.
Although solutions may seem simple, the origins of each project are complex, articulated and unstable, admitting and encouraging accident and, in the future, reinterpretation. Paradoxically, however, the only certain conclusion that emerges from this research is the ineffable quality of architecture. In spite of this, we have the undiminished ambition to evoke, in varying ways, a common sense of architecture as a generator of real life, not only the backdrop to events, big or small, historical or routine. Architecture, for us, is more than space, setting, context and form. We would like to create an architecture that is a place-maker, a container of meaning, a catalyst for the creation of kinship, a fabricator of myth and a producer of narratives.
For if it is true that the freedom gained from the birth of reason has not fully substituted a spiritual vision of reality embedded in myth consciousness, we sincerely hope that the mythical and the rational can coexist and contribute both to depth and meaning in today's architecture and architectural discourse.
2. AP was founded in 1991: how has AP evolved and what has changed over the course of 25 years for your work in Malta and abroad?
For centuries man has been looking at the buildings erected by his forefathers, searching for the reasons why these structures have remained so meaningful to him and his kin centuries later. Some of the answers to these timeless questions have been recorded in countless ways, from paintings to architectural criticism, from travellers' recites to poetry, ineffable explanations that have been interiorized by contemporary practitioners and architectural theorists and that have found their way into the collective subconscious.
A close reading of these texts, whether pictorial or literary, can give up clues that, once revisited and reapplied, can imbue contemporary works with a timelessness that guarantees their survival through the ages. In a world where buildings are consumed like any other disposable item necessary to realize our everyday activities and dreams, the city has remained firm and unmoved, a champion and expression of human achievement. Some buildings are imbued with a timeless spirit. They belong to mythical time, to the realm of the eternal and cosmic. As such, they provide an anchor against the shifting tides of fashion and taste.
During the last twenty five years, the major shift in the philosophy of AP has been the result of this research, encapsulated in the critical texts that the office has been responsible for, the international exhibitions it has organized, but mostly in the buildings it has produced. From regionalism and 'new into old' to a search for the recipes that create the qualities of timelessness is a big jump that only a mature practice can take.
3. AP is also known for its restoration and rehabilitation projects in historic buildings and urban sites: please explain based on for example on St. John’s Co Cathedral Museum Extension how you develop an idea and implement it accordingly?
When Isabella, Infanta of Spain and Portugal, Governor-general of the Netherlands, collaborated in the early 1620s with Peter Paul Rubens to design a set of tapestries that would describe the Triumph of the Eucharist, this was conceived primarily as a marketing tool to counter the onslaught of the Reformation and was the start of a fascinating story. The set of monumental tapestries was presented by the Infanta to the Monasterio de las Descalzas Reales where they decorated the convent church on important occasions. More than half a century later, Ramon Perellos y Roccaful conceived a plan to commission a full set of these tapestries as a gift to the co-Cathedral of St John on his election as Grand Master to the Order, a tradition that held sway for the two and a half centuries during which the Order of St John of Jerusalem governed the island of Malta. His intention was to outshine the gifts of all previous Grand Masters, and to add a soft and sumptuous touch to the interior of the church whose walls, vault and floor had been, over the previous decades, covered with polychrome marble sepulchral slabs, gilded sculptural decoration, and paintings by artists of the calibre of Mattia Preti and Caravaggio.
The twenty-nine tapestries were hung in the Cathedral every year on the Feast of St John, but centuries of handling, inappropriate storage and harmful lighting and climate conditions had left their toll on these rich but delicate images made from silk and silver and gold thread. Today they constitute the only full set of these designs by Rubens in the world and are considered one of the greatest artefacts of the Baroque age. The Cathedral Museum currently exhibits only some of the tapestries resulting in the loss of the grand narrative that celebrates the glory of the Roman Catholic Church.
AP was commissioned, three years ago, to design the rehabilitation and extension of the current Museum which, besides restoring and reusing the neglected and underutilised historical spaces annexed to the Cathedral, includes the design and construction of a beautiful stone box to house this precious set of tapestries.
The blind walls, a requirement springing from the need to shut out all harmful natural light in the hall, measure 50 m in length and 12 m in height and are articulated with the classical, albeit forgotten, use of the niche and rotated pilaster. The latter have reducing dimensions and proportions to create a melodic relief, the shadows of which also form a false perspective that gives the illusion of depth and transparency. The end effect is that of a monumental reliquary containing the mystical narrative describing the principle mystery of the Catholic Faith.
Access to the Tapestry Hall is through a circular stone staircase supported by what looks like a giant stone bell. All these stone structures, including an asymmetrical dome, are the product of the marriage between traditional stone stereotomy construction techniques and contemporary parametric design methods.
Like all the multifarious additions to the Cathedral complex that have added layer upon layer of spiritually charged spaces to the premises, this new extension is conceived to work hand in hand with the precious objects belonging to the treasury of the church in order to create a contemporary yet timeless experience for the visitor.
The search for a seamless historic continuity and timelessness is again the driving force behind the design development of the project.
St. John’s Co Cathedral Museum Extension, Valletta
"The tradition of a building solid and essential as a rock and lasting as the hill from which it was extracted, is firmly rooted in the Mediterranean architectural mythology."Konrad Buhagiar
4. AP and Renzo Piano Building Workshop (RPBW) have collaborated for Valletta’s City Gate project comprising of several parts: Please tell us the concept of this project and how important it is for the capital of Malta.
The tradition of a building solid and essential as a rock and lasting as the hill from which it was extracted, is firmly rooted in the Mediterranean architectural mythology. It is understandable, therefore, that it should have served as a springboard for the creation of a new construction in Valletta whose location at the entrance to the town, and whose vocation as a symbol of National Democracy should require it to transcend the conventionally limited aspirations of building to act as a container of meaning. Maltese stone, a sedimentary rock whose properties evoke the perfect picture of Mediterranean culture, was, in this context, a fundamental choice.
When Renzo Piano Building Workshop set about designing the new City Gate and Parliament House for Valletta, they had one thought in mind: for these new contemporary structures to participate in the homogeneity of the urban tissue of the town, as well as to contribute to the harmonious composition of volume and scale of which Valletta is made, then it had to be an expression of both the limestone landscape before Valletta's birth, the rock-outcrop of the untamed Mount Sceberras, and the historic evolution of its built fabric itself. By so doing, the building would insert itself irrevocably in the time-honoured Maltese building tradition and architectural expression.
The most important determining factor was therefore inevitably the overall presence of the local stone and the dominating presence of St James Cavalier. Also influencing the final product was an obligatory analysis of historical documents (plans and photos), providing an understanding of the evolution of the situation of Valletta's entrance in the ancient and more recent past. Architectural elements such as the two grand staircases along Republic Street that existed before Bergonzo's plan for the new Gate, the original dimensions of the ancient bridge (dated 1612), the sixteenth century façade of the Auberge d'Italie that has all but disappeared behind the Police Station Building and the complex subterranean presence of wells, vaults and tunnels of different epochs, have all influenced and enriched the final solution.
The desire to create a building all of one piece was also the driving force behind the architectural concept and detailing of the Parliament house itself. The building is divided into two wings, one containing the Chamber and the second housing the offices of the Speaker of the House, the administration and the offices of the Prime Minister, Ministers and Members of Parliament. Each of these two volumes is lifted on slender, receding pilotis in order to increase the flow of public space beneath the building itself where it leaks into a central courtyard dividing the blocks, the street between St James' Cavalier and the back of the Parliament House, the remains of the Old Opera House and the new Square fronting the Auberge d'Italie. The facades themselves are designed as compact, uniform stone blocks whose blank facades are etched away by the elements as it were, to create the voids for windows, but whose monolithic scale is aimed at creating the image of unique stone blocks.
So, the project participates in the punctured cubic forms that characterize this building tradition and that date back to the first millennium BC. Here, ramparts, fortifications, vernacular buildings, terraced walls and open fields are juxtaposed harmoniously to form a complex composition where nature and architecture are intertwined. The result of this relentless, centuries-old labouring and remodelling of the limestone land has produced an expressive landscape, that evolved only gradually and remained virtually unchanged until the advent of modern construction technology. Like the Maltese stone landscape, the project has the Maltese psyche deeply engraved in it.
Photos of the City Gate by RPBW and AP are in this story.
5. Where is your favourite spot in your hometown and why? Your favourite location abroad?
My favourite spot is my rooftop from where I can enjoy beautiful views of the town below, changing with the different colours of the time of day, the varying winds and changing moods. Abroad, my favourite locations are many, but I think I would choose Piazza del Panteon in Rome. It reminds me of my student days in the Eternal City!
Farsons Brewery, Mriehel
Barrakka Lift, Valletta
"My aim in architecture is to bring history into the future."Konrad Buhagiar