The Slave Within: Safeguarding ‘vernacular’ architectural heritage

Nobody is listening because the building is now satisfying need. The desire in its making is not evident. As time passes, when it is in ruin, the spirit of its making comes back. It welcomes the foliage that entwines and conceals. Everyone who passes can hear the story it wants to tell about its making. It is no longer in servitude; the spirit is back.

Louis Kahn, Conservations with Architects

 

Fig. 1

Four years ago, on 8th March 2017, the Maltese (and Gozitans) held their breath as they helplessly read the news of the tragic collapse of the iconic Azure Window (Fig. 1 and Fig. 1b), in Dwejra (Gozo), in the early hours of that morning. I was one of them, and I recall letting out this long and sustained sigh, elicited by what could be described as a ‘shock factor’ when faced by ‘uncontrollable’ ruin—ruin and collapse which was, indeed, imminent, and inevitable. That day we lost something irretrievable and, for some, the grief is exacerbated each time its image resurfaces, in film or otherwise. That something so distinct—an inanimate rock—could leave such and impressions on us,

Fig. 1b

so much so, that it still defines the place and inspires our imagination even in its absence is, perhaps, indicative of some other over-arching reality, thus serving as a window, quite literally, into the constructed world of mankind. That ‘man’ and ‘rock’ carry some form of synonymity or are, at best, cross-referential[1]—as it is with ‘dwelling’ and ‘building’, as Heidegger so incisively construes—gives us scope to reflect further on the implications of structural loss, be it natural or, as I shall discuss here, architectural. To put it differently, what, then—if anything—may such loss and absence reveal about our human condition, our own mortality, and how may the threat of this very loss and absence prime the imagination into a vital source for the recovery of man’s knowledge, experience, and progress?

To be sure, to speak of progress is to infer some form of preceding regression; a phase which we would rather delimit to the penumbras of the past.

Fig. 2

However, the slightest glimpse of the countless, newly constructed, soulless buildings (Fig.  2 and Fig. 3) degrading Malta’s built (and natural) environment would elicit yet another long, breathless sigh, as their ominous shadows encroach the locals’ hopes for the future of both traditional and contemporary architectural heritage.

Fig. 3

Had we to project our thoughts and vistas into the future, towards those years when such buildings will cease to exist and when the ground to their being no longer sustains them— in some cases, perhaps, all too literally— would they be mourned as the Dwejra window was, or as many felt (and still feel) about the scheduled destruction of one pink modernist house in Ħal Balzan (Fig. 4), among countless others that have been irreversibly ruined through the terrorism of facadism? (Fig. 5)[2] What will happen to those pencil buildings once they become obsolete, when they cease to have a purpose, a reason for their existence?

Fig. 4
Fig. 5

 

What then? Demolition, yet again? Or should they be left standing as icons of desolation, neglected, left for us to ask:

 

‘What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow / Out of this stony rubbish?’ to borrow two verses from T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland.[3]

In the same way that we pass judgment on a building’s past—be it in its preserved form, as a ruin, or in its complete absence—perhaps it might not be futile, then, to envision the future of such seemingly homogenous buildings, an exercise which may effectively highlight the dangerous and alienating nature of sameness—the ‘strong roaring of the Same’[4]—and thus inform the choices we are faced with now. As architect William Pereira puts it, it is a matter of seeing the challenge of the future ‘as an opportunity to make history anew’.[5] Here, imagination plays a fundamental role; it is through its transcendent quality and ability to baptise and expand our vision, that it might contribute something to our current state of knowledge. To be sure, it might not be fair to place a temple, a church, a twentieth-century house and a block of apartments on the same plane, or to compare the qualities of concrete to those of limestone, or a rural landscape to an urbanscape. Nevertheless, do not all buildings essentially speak of an age and of a people, no matter how close or distant in time? As Mies van der Rohe infamously claimed: ‘Architecture is the will of the epoch translated into space’.[6] Yet, in time, if left to itself, roots and branches would grow in any case. So, what would these roots and branches have to say about our current architectural atrocities and, essentially, our creative condition and will?

Usually, the more remote in time a building is, the more we are compelled to treat it with care and respect—with love even—even though we know less about it. Perhaps, this stems from our desire to know it better, since knowledge, and especially knowledge of otherness, is such an essential factor in addressing those ontological questions underpinning existence and meaning, and man’s own condition and identity. Time, like imagination, contributes to this knowledge and, therefore, to the truth of things, which, on some unconscious level, we find seductive and beautiful. This reasoning, however, might at first seem to contradict our case. If knowledge leads to care, respect and, ultimately, the appreciation of beauty, then why are we so repulsed by what is being constructed (and destroyed) now, buildings which—it stands to reason—we know better; buildings designed by architects and firms who, also, should know better? Or is it precisely because we are lacking knowledge and also imagination, that we have come to this point—a lack in the sense of who we are and what we have inherited, which is implicitly bound with a sense of belonging and place? Heidegger’s notion of ‘dwelling’ or bauen cuts uncomfortably close to home.[7]

do not all buildings essentially speak of an age and of a people, no matter how close or distant in time?

‘The fundamental character of dwelling is this sparing and preserving’, writes Heidegger.[8] In practical terms this might be translated to imply tradition. Indeed, according to sculptor and architect Rob Krier, writing in 1975, architectural masterpieces are ‘based on a perfectly refined awareness of building requirements using simple means; the result of an accurate understanding of tradition as the vehicle for passing on technical and artistic knowledge’.[9] The test, as James S. Ackerman argues, rests on the ‘architect’s sense of tradition and invention’, where tradition is ‘the inescapable continuity of the work of today with that of the past…the vital life stream of architecture that protects our environment from chaos’, and where invention—or imagination—is ‘the injection into that stream of a fresh substance which…becomes part of the tradition of tomorrow’.[10] But in the absence of the imagination, we seem to be witnessing, rather, a kind of betrayal.

To put it differently, we could say that even though tradition passes on knowledge (tra-dare) it may also invite a betrayal of some sort (tra-dire). Yet, we could also argue that the betrayal is necessary in order to move some kind of project forward. Think Judas’ betrayal of Christ and the whole project of salvation and redemption, for example. The act of passing on and the act of betrayal, however mistaken and seemingly unforgivable, are both part of the drama of man’s progression towards a better end, one progression which tends towards the truth, towards a greater sense of unity, harmony and peace. To quote Heidegger once again: ‘The word for peace, Friede, means the free…preserved from harm and danger, preserved from something, safeguarded. To free really means to spare’.[11] To build and to dwell, then, implies the act of setting free, which is, essentially, allowing something to be what it innately is but which it is not yet; the freedom—if we can sustain the paradox—to ‘become what one already is’, as Nietzsche would put it.[12]

in the absence of the imagination, we seem to be witnessing, rather, a kind of betrayal.

From this, it might seem as though I am trying to defend—or even justify as necessary—some of the construction projects which most of us feel have sold us off cheaply for thirty pieces of silver. Admittedly, it is through a Christian mindset that the act of betrayal may be reframed within a redemptive view of new creation, in which being is restored anew and ‘set free from sin’ to become ‘slaves of righteousness’.[13] So, what does this mindset really have to offer the topic at hand? What even does it have to do with it? As I have tried to argue, the knowledge of tradition not only contributes to progress, but in the act of preservation through continuous ‘passing’ or ‘handing’ over, it effectively ‘frees’ the subject; architecture becomes more itself, so to speak. That the term ‘vernacular’—which is often the term used to refer to architecture with a more distinctly local character—derives from the Latin word for a ‘home-born slave’, verna, is slightly more than a happy poetic coincidence. Yet, our subject is not singularly concerned with the vernacular of the past but with the current activity of local architectural practice, in that Maltese-built heritage is not only being threatened and terrorised but, indeed, that new dwelling places are not acknowledged for their origin and, therefore, for their innate enslaved condition which also need to be ‘freed’. What results is something doomed from the start: a truly hopeless architecture that lacks the faculties—knowledge and vision—to become what it is. It is a kind of architecture landlocked in a stalemate.

Fig. 6

‘The real dwelling plight lies in this’, maintains Heidegger, ‘that mortals ever search anew for the nature of dwelling, that they must ever learn to dwell’.[14] The root of the problem, then, burrows deeper than any concrete social and housing problems, or any economic and political motivations we might speculate about or read of in the news. In this view, rather, the root is tangled up with our inability to come to terms with our nomadic identity as ‘free slaves’, where ‘we are in urgent need of understanding places before we lose them, of learning how to see them’,[15] before we subject them to our increasingly alienated and misconstrued will. Yet, as it were, it seems we would rather be unlearning, stubborn, and immovable masters of space, doing with it what we will. In doing so, we become, most unwillingly perhaps, slaves to a false sense of freedom. But what is even more tragic than this inability to embrace a core aspect of our human condition, is the failure to acknowledge it. This might be one reason, perhaps, why we do not rest easy in the face of loss and absence, and less easily still when faced with buildings that look like prison cells (Fig. 6), externalised projections of our deepest suppressed fears as ‘slaves’ to space, to time, to some disembodied authority, to suffering, to our alienation and, indeed, to our mortal condition. Is this, dare I ask, what the roots and branches would have to say about our epoch, an epoch that seeks to translate its will into a language it fails to truly understand or is even able to utter? And if this were indeed the case, will we, then, take on the real challenge to ceaselessly learn it?

 

IMAGE CREDITS

Featured image:  A re-imagined interpretation of the Azure Window by Russian architect Svetozar Andreev. (Image courtesy of Svetozar Andreev)

Figure 1:  The Azure Window, Dwejra, Gozo (before collapse). (Image courtesy of Darrin Zammit Lupi / Reuters)

Figure 1b:  Dwejra, Gozo on the site of the collapsed Azure Window; after 8 March 2017.

Figure 2:  An example of a colloquially termed ‘pencil building’. (Image courtesy of UglyMalta)

Figure 3:  Another example of a colloquially termed ‘pencil building’. (Image courtesy of UglyMalta)

Figure 4:  ‘Walmarville’, the pink modernist house in Ħal Balzan built in the 1960s. (Image courtesy of Daniel Cilia)

Figure 5:  Image of a demolished housed with preserved traiditional doorway, in Ħamrun, Malta. (Courtesy of UglyMalta)

Figure 6:  Peter Halley, Apartment House / Prison, 1981 (Courtesy of MoMA, New York, https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/751426)

 

 NOTES

This paper was presented during the online conference Maltese Cultural Heritage: Neglect, Preservation and Regeneration, on 19th May 2021, organised by HoASA and Pop & Art, and endorsed by the Department of Art and Art History (University of Malta).

[1] For example, in Hebrew, as in Maltese, the word for ‘son’ is ben (-בֶּן), whose etymological root may be traced to benah (-בְּנָא), literally, ‘to build’. See Robert Lowth (trans.), Lectures on The Sacred Poetry of The Hebrews, 2 ed., (London: S. Chadwick & Co., 1847), 342.

[2] Facadism is an architectural practice wherein the façade of a building may be retained or designed regardless to the structural decisions and alterations made to the rest of the building. I am here referring to the former practice. See Jonathan Richards, Facadism (London: Routledge, 1994).

[3] T.S. Eliot, “For Ezra Pound. Il Miglior Fabbro,” The Waste Land, I.2.1-2. Retrieved from https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/47311/the-waste-land.

[4] Byung-Chul Han, The Expulsion of the Other: Society, Perception and Communication Today, translated by Wieland Hoban (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2018), 35.

[5] Cited in Wolf von Eckardt, A Place to Live. The Crisis of the Cities (New York: Dell Publishing, 1967), 54.

[6] Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, “Architecture and the Times [1924],” in Mies van der Rohe, trans. Philip Johnson (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1947), 183.

[7] Martin Heidegger, “Building Dwelling Thinking,” in Poetry, Language and Thought, trans. Albert Hofstadter (New York: HarperCollins, 1975 [1971]), 143–159.

[8] Ibid., 147.

[9] Rob Krier, Urban Space, trans. Christine Czechowski and George Black (London: Academy Editions, 1979 [1975]), 167.  

[10] Cited in von Eckardt, A Place to Live, 8.

[11] Heidegger, “Building Dwelling Thinking,” 147.

[12] Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, Ecce Homo, trans. Anthony M. Ludovici (New York: Dover Publications, 2004 [1911]), 49.

[13] Romans 6:18 (NIV).

[14] Heidegger, “Building Dwelling Thinking,” 159.

[15] Charles W. Moore, “Towards Making Places,” in Landscape (Autumn 1962), 31–41, here at 34.

 

Author

  • Giulia Privitelli holds an M.A. in Art History from the University of Malta and is currently furthering her postgraduate studies in Theology and the Arts at the University of St Andrews, Scotland. Her current research interests concern the eschatological dimension of architectural ruins. She has formerly worked as Assistant Editor with a cultural non-profit organisation, Fondazzjoni Patrimonju Malti, and was curator of the Victor Pasmore Gallery, in Valletta. She is also a freelance tourist guide and writer, regularly contributing culture-related articles to various local newspapers, magazines, blogs, and exhibition catalogues. With Kite Group, she has published a collection of poems in Walking in Circles, a project funded by the Malta Arts Fund.

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