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TRIBUTE TO Joseph M.Spiteri, (1934-2013)
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TRIBUTE TO Joseph M.Spiteri, (1934-2013)

Joseph M.Spiteri graduated from the University of Malta in 1958. During 1956 to 1975, he worked as an architect in the Public Works Department, as it was then known; he then worked as Senior Architect with MaltConsult, for three years, until in 1979 he joined the Department of Architecture and Civil Engineering. He taught architectural design to generations of architects, between 1979 and 2002, during a very tumultuous and difficult period for the Department, and, subsequently, new Faculty. Amongst his many works, the ones that I have always admired, even before I knew the architect who had designed them, were the towers at Qawra Point, the new town at Sta. Lucija, and, most of all, his villa, at Ta’Xbiex. He was a strong believer in sketching and drawing, as a means of communicating ideas, and a skilled water colourist. His passionate concern with the built environment, which he incessantly transmitted to his students, is encapsulated in this essay, written in 1991 for a Faculty publication, but never published, and which I uncovered in my many papers. His analysis of the “State of the Environment”, and his heartfelt “j’accuse”, remain completely applicable to day. Students of the built environment would do well to listen to his words.

Prof. Alex Torpiano
Dean, Faculty for the Built Environment



VISUAL LITERACY

Joseph M. Spiteri, 1991

Rash Assault

Walking in many of the streets in a recently developed area, be it residential or otherwise, it is more likely than not that the visual crassness encountered is of such a degree, and carried out with such unabashed nonchalance, that the sensitive eye will, in no time, demand some response.

Hastening to one’s car and fleeing to the countryside would be an instinctive reaction. Out there, one is, in turn, shocked by the rash assault on the landscape, not to say anything of the staggering number of rubbish heaps, as the reckless dotting with incongruous intrusions shows no sign of abating.

But it was not inevitable that it should be so; indeed, it is the knowledge that a great deal of harm done to the surroundings was avoidable, which brings forth the heartfelt lament.

Notwithstanding the pace that building development had managed to attain, particularly in the 70’s and 80’s, the demonstration of public concern about the whole question of the environment was too tepid.

Those of us who were in “Development Control” as far back as the 60’s, had sensed the considerable environmental problems looming ahead, but the majority thought we were over-reacting.

It is not surprising, therefore, that we had to reach the mid-80’s before concern about environment was to become a main topic, and consequently drive political parties to study planning legislation about the environment’s guardianship, afresh.

In previous years, governments have hesitated and procrastinated, and though some measures were formulated, these remained inadequate and incapable of coping with the ensuing situation.

By the late 80’s the topic of environment evolved into having universal importance, although for different reasons, and with different issues. This undoubtedly led to an increase of the public awareness of the problem.

Visual Atrocities

As an example of the minimal concern about the environment in the 70’s, I can relate my experience of series of public “dialogue” sessions held in 1981. I had chosen to attend the one reserved for professional people, and which had the cultural needs of the Islands as its debating theme. Many issues were discussed – from the dubbing of films in Maltese for TV, to the state of ballet teaching facilities – yet not a single person brought up for discussion anything that had to do with the environment, built  or unbuilt.

Noting the omission, I drew attention to four aspects of the problem, namely (1) wastage of land; (2) amount of sprawl; (3) despoliation of landscape; and (4) proliferation of visual atrocities.

I concentrated in particular about the last mentioned aspect, the one which constitutes the greatest threat to the appearance of our towns and villages.  

Nobody who has followed the evolution of local architecture over the last decades can have failed to notice how depressingly ugly many of our buildings have begun to look, frequently to the point of repulsiveness. It is incomprehensible how certain designs go past the drawing board.

Ugliness in buildings is not a problem which is peculiar to any one country. In Europe, America and other countries, the great critical debate has tended to be aimed at the Modernist Movement, and ugliness seen primarily as direct effect of its ideology.
Modernist must not be confused with modern. Architect L.Krier writes “Twentieth century historians and critics endemically confuse the terms modern and modernist(ic). The term modern merely indicates period and time, whereas the term modernist(ic) has clear ideological and moral connotations. When historians write about ‘the Modern Movement’, they clearly mean by this term ‘the modernist movements’ as opposed to the traditionalist movements.”1

Until the early 70’s the tenets of Modernism, as developed in Germany and France held sway, and Modernism still provided to many architects a ready gauge for judging whether a building was right or wrong.

As soon as Modernism was questioned, other new trends appeared (e.g. Post-Modern) and the battle about styles has since never ebbed away. Only a couple of days ago, Richard Rogers, in one of a lecture series at the Tate, reiterated that ‘most interesting part of architectural crisis of the Modern movement has been the recognition of the new and different approaches to design.”

Ecstatic enthusiasm for technology provided the roots for modernist theory. It is therefore understandable that local architecture was destined to respond to the movements’ ideas in a slow and unsure manner.

The abundant supply of stone, a versatile and load-bearing material, and the introduction of structural concrete that was largely adopted as roof slabs, accounts for the survival of a system of construction which though not ignoring use of modern aids, has in essence remained dependent on old ideas.

No doubt the mannerisms of leading Modernist architects were imitated, but rarely was there a grasp of the movement’s underlying philosophy. Aping of the superficial frills did appear, but no great thought was spared on the essential new spatial possibilities. A building is recognised as Modernist, if it succeeds to express clearly the structure on the outside and yet still manages to manipulate ingeniously the internal space. What really counts is a more than skin-deep solution.

Whoever has stood inside, and admired, such buildings as Hans Scharoun’s Concert Hall for Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, or MVR’s Museum also in Berlin, will understand what I mean without need of further information.

The spatial effects in both cases are calculated with extreme care, at once dramatic and subtle, simple and complex. In both cases the spatial effects were only possible because of technological feats.

The Flaws of Modernism

Despite the occasional masterpiece, Modernism had its flaws. An important one lay in the newly discovered freedom which technology encouraged. Architects could design to criteria other than which were known at the beginning of this century. This laid heavier responsibilities on the architects’ shoulders since the sole arbiter of good or bad was now their artistic conscience.

In a lecture delivered in 1957, John Summerson referred to this problem when he said…… “(the architect) has to face up to the ordering of a vast number of variables and how he does this is a question. There is no common theoretical agreement as to what happens or should happen at that point. There is a hiatus; one may even be justified in speaking of a ‘missing architectural language’. Gropius has stated the difficulty as the lack of an ‘optical key’…… as an objective common denominator of design – something which should provide ‘the impersonal basis of as a prerequisite for general understanding’, which would serve ‘as the controlling agent within the creative act’. That is a precise description of the functions served by antiquity in the classical centuries. The dilemma is really an enlargement of the flaw already apparent in the mid-eighteenth century theory – the flaw that while antiquity was eliminated as an absolute, nothing was introduced which took its place as a universally accredited language of architectural form”.2

Criticism of the movement was eventually to be on two fronts – aimed at ideology as well as its grammar. This development was unavoidable, as it soon became apparent that a full measure of success remained resolutely elusive, unless the skill in handling basic design principles, like proportion, scale, relation of part to whole, sense of detail etc. was inherently present in the end result.

In commenting on Quinlan Terry’s Riverside Development at Richmond, Roger Scruton, a professor of Aesthetics at Birbeck College, London asks: “Is there something wrong with the height of this door, the breadth of this arch or window, the length of this façade? Do these steps descend too steeply, turn too abruptly, or end with too great an anti-climax?...... For when was it that a modern building last gave you the opportunity to ask them, let alone to find comfort in your answers?”3

He elaborates further on these lines, in his review of the book ‘Dilemma of Style’ by J. Mordant Crook. “In the battle between the Classical and the Gothic, both sides were agreed over the most important point, that nothing matters more in a building than its public appearance. Facades, towers, roofs and pinnacles are the essence of architecture, and the duty of the architect is to compose them successfully.

Height proportion and form are rendered intelligible by detail and the true discipline of architecture, therefore, lies in a sense of detail, how to see it, how to draw it and how to combine it in a harmonious totality.

That discipline was destroyed by the modern movement, and replaced by a false paradigm of artistic expression, by a rhetoric of Titanism, and by the cool mathematics of the engineer. Thus arose the ‘new nude style’ as Lutyens described it, “grammarless and cheaply adjectived”. Our present need is not for the congeries of uncoordinated parts which the postmodernists would wish on us, but for an architectural grammar.”4

Whilst not necessarily agreeing fully with the views expressed, the two passages do ably draw attention to the importance of visual literacy. The nature of disenchantment with contemporary design is therefore twofold. Apart from the stylistic shouting match, there is awareness of a marked decline in visual qualities.

In the climate of disillusionment that has developed, a rise in hankering for past styles has become evident, even among technologically advanced societies. It would be wrong to interpret this reaction as a show of sentimentalism. It is better explained as the sensing of the need for visual aesthetics, which are more than an optional extra.

Author K. W. Smithies, in his book ‘Design Principles’ writes: “If people say they like the work of the Elizabethan or Georgian periods, it is not to say that they like only that period of design in that form. They are expressing a liking for the visual qualities they see in those works and find lacking today. An assertion in favour of the eternal verities should encourage us to find why they are lacking today, not to attempt to create past styles!”5

All this means that there are fundamental lessons about visual literacy that are learned best from our ancestors, and the importance of study of historic examples can never be underrated. “The principles discoverable in the works of the past belong to us, not so the results. It is taking the end for the means”, writes Owen Jones in ‘Grammar of Ornament’.

Lowering of Visual Standards

In Malta, the bulk of architecture has remained largely traditional in outlook, and therefore the profound uneasiness felt elsewhere about stylistic trends hardly applies to us. Modernism’s influence on our architecture is marginal. The spread of ugliness, in our case, is to be pinpointed more accurately on the general debasement in visual literacy. Our greatest problem is that we seem to have lost all sense of the basic visual standards which are essential components of the designer’s vocabulary.

The worrying upsurge in the execrable visual quality of the built environment is the outcome of several factors, but the important three, readily identifiable are:

1.    ignorance of design principles by architects and public alike;
2.    bad manners resulting from the neglect of principles of deportment, in turn caused by an absence of a general standard of good taste and;
3.    application of alien planning measures.

The lowering in visual standards is eloquently exemplified by the modern versions of the traditional balcony. In the past our forefathers handled the balcony with a sure eye for correct proportions, details and its placing in relation to other features.

The old timber balcony, now replaced by its modern stone or aluminium variations, was nearly always one hundred per cent visually successful and contributed positively to adornment of our streets. Today this national feature has been transformed with its crude details galore, into a coarse parody of its elegant prototype. The fake, puny, ill-placed corbels are shaped to a weak profile, ridiculously shallow depth, and left to fall short of the cantilever’s edge. The whole composition is a general mess. Complete loss of visual discipline can best be seen if one looks at the way these balconies are treated, design-wise, as they sweep around corners. It is not just balconies that look sloppy. No feature from arch, window, balustrade, flight of steps, columns etc. down to detail of mouldings is free from the vagaries of the untutored builder’s or designer’s mind. Columns from the historic styles twirl and swirl to house owners’ heart content, ignoring the rules of proportion – diameter to height, and the inter-columnar spacing, oddly enough, is determined by the concrete lintol.

And one must not forget the foreign mannerisms. An influence which has left an indelible mark on recent buildings first appeared in the 60’s, and has remained fashionable to this day. It is a motif consisting of a vertical band, shaped from a slightly recessed plane and which groups superimposed doors and windows all kept to constant width. The band begins at ground level and ends at top, right at parapet’s edge. Since emphasis of vertically is rare in past buildings, this motif has no resonance with our traditional architecture. On the contrary, our buildings have a profusion of horizontal accents. Even when a building rises to a height which markedly exceeds the width of frontage, the horizontal fascias are discarded.

These vertical shallow bands first appeared at St. Andrews, and later at the University in the early 60’s. Ever since, they have been applied ad nauseam, obviously without much thought regarding their appropriateness or not. These vertical bands provide a ready way of rubber-stamping elevations. The fascias look ghastlier when painted in colour.

When Sir Basil Spence used this vertical treatment in his buildings, critic D. Pryce Jones described it as consisting of “recessed vertical lines which just stopped in the air, suggesting that more floors could be mounted when more funds were available”.6

Architectural Balance

Good manners and observance of the correct planning formulae are not only inseparable but serve to complement each other.

The popularity of fully and semi-detached villa accounted for introduction of layouts that relied on inclusion of villas on a lavish scale. Apart from swallowing up precious land at an alarming rate, these villas normally do not exert much of a unifying force on their surroundings. Instead, they create visual repercussions which need to be controlled and held in check. They make the design of streets that is comparable to the work of our forefathers, in any sense, almost impossible.

The front garden which is essentially a foreign influence, and which by no means is found only in villas, was originally introduced as a means of embellishing our street. It has, more often than not, done the right opposite. All these negative effects were, strictly speaking, fairly predictable, as many designers and planners had drawn attention to the problems such developments generate.

The following written in 1924 is an example: “The quality of our culture is expressed far more completely in the built-up common thoroughfares than in the detached houses, which rich men may choose to erect in rural surroundings. The main school of good building has always been the town, for it is in the town alone that architectural merits can be studied and acquired… A training in urban values will help the architect to design a dignified house which is fit to take its place in a rural landscape; but if he makes the detached building his first and principal study, it is extremely improbable that he will be able to contribute worthily to the architecture of a city.”7

In the past, streets had an architectural balance and serenity, because they were composed of buildings which relied on use of common features, and asserted individuality principally through subtle variations in the arrangement of these features, which, in turn, differed slightly, but retained closely related detailing. The wild and undignified scramble for attention by new buildings destroys the visual unity of street, inserting in its place undesirable visual fragmentation. With an abundance of unrelated bits and pieces, restraint and harmony suffer and in their place an impression of near-disarray induces predominance of an unnerving feeling of visual tensions.

Doubtful Values

The greatest dilemma we may be facing is that in the development of new attitudes there is a genuine desire to create beauty. We all need beauty. The problem is that our notion of beauty can be flawed.

Visual literacy, not unlike language literacy, requires no small extent, but sound and assiduous study. The uninitiated cannot be judges of beauty, and architecture is far too serious an activity to leave it in unskilled hands, unless we want to court disaster. The architectural debacle, of no small proportions, that we are experiencing is the logical consequence of having far too many buildings displaying the whims and fancies of the layman. The prevalent notion of beauty is, by and large, based on a brief in spurious values, one which is spiritually superficial and unedifying.

“Architecture and urban planning are the direct expression of a particular social pattern. They express in a clear way the values and the very nature of the society which creates them. The way buildings grow into cities and their own relationships to landscape is very likely to be relative to the degree of order and integration of the society itself”.8 This was written some years ago. More poignantly, I would add that architecture is the outward sign of an inward and spiritual culture.

It appears paradoxical that our ancestors, who were, on one hand, considered illiterate in matters of language, had, on the other hand, displayed uncanny sense of visual judgement.

A mood of despondency will certainly grip those who are obliged to search for the forces responsible for the unhappy shaping of our built environment, which is not only composed from an arbitrary agglomeration of kitsch, but which also lacks the delicate touch visible in our forefathers’ work.

The ugliness which has assumed such pervasive proportions in our buildings may be understood as a sign and symptom of degeneration in vital, enduring values.

Indeed, the indications are that we may well be engulfed in the throes of a galloping social and cultural malaise! It is to affect a change in this state that a healthy and vigorous discussion has to be unrelentingly and continually stimulated.


Notes and References

1. Leon Krier, “The Reconstruction of Vernacular Building and Classical Architecture”, AJ 12.9.84
2. John Summerson, “The Case for a Theory of Modern Architecture”, Architect & B.N. 6.6.57
3. R. Scruton, Sun. Telegraph, 16.10.88
4. ditto, S.T. 3.6.88
5. K. W. Smithies, Principles of Design in Arch., p.4
6. D. Pryce Jones, Colour Suppl. Telegraph, 28.9.73
7. A. Tryston Edwards, Good and Bad Manners in Architecture, 1946, p.44
8. J. M. Spiteri & M. Malovany, Projects Review 84, SACES



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