Almost two years ago, Architect Edward Said submitted a request to the Planning Authority and the Superintendence of Cultural Heritage in order that they take steps to protect a Villa along the St Julian’s promenade. The Villa known as Palazzina Vincenti was designed and constructed for his own use by Architect Gustavo Romeo Vincenti. Architect Vincenti died in 1974.
As far as is known, neither the Planning Authority nor the Superintendence of Cultural Heritage have acted upon the submissions received requesting the protection of Palazzina Vincenti. At the time of writing the Superintendence has passed the buck to the Planning Authority! In the meantime, a development application has been submitted for the demolition of Palazzina Vincenti and its substitution with a 17-storey 136 room hotel, including three levels below street level providing garage space for 58 cars.
In a report drawn up by Architect Edward Said, Palazzina Vincenti is described as “a masterpiece of architecture defined by pure geometric volumes”. It is considered as one of the earliest examples of the use of reinforced concrete in domestic architecture in Malta. Quoting from a 2018 Masters of Architecture dissertation by David Ellul, Architect Said emphasises that by taking full advantage of the potential of reinforced concrete, Vincenti’s artistic expression was freed from the limitations of traditional materials. The result is this masterpiece which can be lost quite soon!
Even though to the untrained eye Palazzina Vincenti may seem to be an ugly building specimen, ill-fitting in its present-day concrete jungle surroundings, it is still a masterpiece worth preserving for posterity.
I fail to understand why two years after a request for protection has been submitted no action has yet been taken. As a result of such inaction, the message conveyed by the authorities is a very clear one: that the site occupied by Palazzina Vincenti is ripe for development. This is an inevitable conclusion conveyed by those in charge as a result of their failure to act.
At this point in time, as a minimum, it is expected that an emergency conservation order protecting Palazzina Vincenti is issued urgently. This would be a clear sign to those currently benefitting from a prolonged phase of “development greed” that a red line has been drawn around our heritage, thereby protecting it. It would also provide some breathing space which would be of considerable help in order that the Planning Authority may bring its house in order.
Some have the mistaken idea that all our heritage is necessarily old, very old, going back centuries. This is certainly not the case as this specific architectural masterpiece is less than 75 years old. Unfortunately, there have been other worthy examples of our architectural heritage which have been lost through carelessness, insensitivity and institutional ignorance.
I could remind readers of another outstanding example of modern architecture which has gone to the dogs, this time in Gozo, some 15 years ago. Parts of the Qala Primary School in Gozo were demolished to make way for an Institute of Tourism Studies campus in Gozo. The said school was designed and constructed under the supervision of Architect Joseph Huntingford who as the government architect in charge of schools was responsible for most new schools constructed in Gozo between 1950 and 1961.
Way back in 2006 the Chamber of Architects and Civil Engineers had described the Qala Primary School as one of the finest examples of modern architecture on the island. Even then the Planning Authority was advised to handle our heritage with care. But it was of no use. The advice was ignored as parts of the school were demolished to make way for the ITS campus.
There is still time to save Palazzina Vincenti from being sacrificed on the altar of “development greed”. We need to be more appreciative of our heritage. We have so little of it. I am not however so sure as to whether the Planning Authority is capable of taking decisive action. It has been desensitised for far too long.
published in The Malta Independent on Sunday: 12 December 2021