Some of the most delightful houses in Malta and Gozo, indeed all over the world, did not begin as houses at all.
During the barbarian invasions of Rome, many citizens whose homes were either destroyed or confiscated, created new living spaces for themselves in the Colosseum. In Malta the sporadic raids by the Moors in their bid to pillage and capture the natives, later to be sold as slaves, necessitated an escape to the fortified city of Mdina where the Maltese made domestic use of churches, stores and other spaces in their bid to escape the war-mongering pirates.
Besides wars, other disasters like earthquakes and flooding, both natural and man-created, were instrumental in creating shelters within structures that were not initially conceived as homes. After all it is easier and more economical to adapt an abandoned church, monastery, farmhouse or stable, to serve as a home than it is to build a new house.
During the seventies when an environmental awareness started being perceived all over Europe there developed a rapidly growing interest in the old and in preserving what already exists. Real estate in Malta was quick to perceive the development of this new movement which manifested itself in various ways.
The tell-tale signs included a passion for collecting antiques, a craze for nostalgia, an interest in conservation while respecting (and studying) the ecology of the area involved, and of course the restoration and preservation of historically significant buildings.
After having spoken to various people involved in the Malta property market I was introduced to some tenants who harbour a love of the unusual, a desire for interesting architectural design and solid construction and who desire to live, and oftentimes work, in unconventional spaces. In a nutshell these are people who get a kick in frequenting places where the aesthetic and the practical are intermingled.
There are various reasons as to why, say a converted farmhouse, wholly satisfies its owner. This may range from the delight of inhabiting aged patina surroundings to the whimsy of entering a room through a massive arch once used to shelter some ancient aristocrat and his horse. It certainly provides an unusual living experience far removed from the increasing modern-day conformity that sometimes smacks of the artificial craftsmanship that characterises modern society.
In Malta, oftentimes unwittingly, the art of conversion has been turned into a veritable art-form. Some of the former British Services’ quarters, or barracks, like those found in Pembroke or the Marshall Court in Gzira, have been converted into modern-day houses; or a Secondary School in the case of Sandhurst. Other former military venues have been artfully converted from instruments of war to touristic establishments like il-Fortizza in Sliema and the Gun-Post in Floriana.
Over the years Maltese architects have garnered some unique expertise in visualizing and actuating radical changes to old buildings. Suffice it to mention the fate of the Auberges in Valletta; which in the mid-sixteenth century used to host the various langues (languages) which made up the venerated Order of the Knights of St John of Jerusalem and Malta. Of course the most famous is the Castille, which originally housed the Spanish branch of the Order, and is now the Office of the Prime Minister.
From amongst the considerable number of old Maltese buildings mainly situated in Valletta, Mdina and the Three Cities; whose original role has been significantly transformed over the years, one cannot but mention the Mediterranean Conference Centre. Formerly known as the Sacra Infermeria it served right up until the Second World War as a military hospital, earning a lot of respect from the international medical community, both during the period of the Knights and the Crimean war. Its tasteful conversion, in 1979, to a top Conference venue, and a flexible exhibition space, had prompted the Council of Europe to award the coveted Europa Award for Restoration to the Maltese Government. Other remarkable conversion edifices must be the Arts’ Centre, at St James Cavalier, described by Architect Richard England as “a former citadel meant to keep people away; now re-designed to draw in the crowds in order to patronize the Arts” and the Maritime Museum in Cospicua, which from a derelict store now houses some of the country’s fine and unique maritime heritage.
I was pleasantly surprised to hear from the experts who are au courant with the Malta property market that houses of character are still sought. Sometimes such a request creates long drives to out-of-the-way places and plenty of detective work in order to trace the history of these abodes. However, according to these experts, there is nothing more fulfilling than the energy spent in such a “Rescue & Restore” operation.
Written by Tony Cassar Darien