A Printed Thing
When an architecture practice undertakes to commit itself to print, what is the result? Here is one, an architecture practice attempting ot lay itself bare – open submissions, a project defined by its content. This then is the result. A ‘book’ of comment, theories, illustrations, photography, prose. An act of definition through experiment. A printed thing.I am at a loss how to tackle this book. It is anything but what I expected it to be. Dealing with a thriving, and daring, architectural practice celebrating itself, I was tempted to think inside the box when it came to guessing what it would be about: a review of its achievements, surely, the projects in hand, perhaps, all illustrated by stunning, if unbashfully arty, narcissistic photography. There is a bit of that too, but mostly it is about the beauty of thought, of words, even if often enough the words and the thoughts are merely slaves of architectural creativity.This book seems to want to say that architects are not only sculptors of spaces that contain man, and organizers of habitat, but that the best of them are also goldsmiths of language. Their aesthetics spill over from material form into a compulsion to beautify the word and the concept.Yes, this volume is also about the firm AP, Architecture Project, its past contributions to raising the aesthetic bar in Malta’s ‘development’, its philosophies and the persons who steer them to fruition. We know they have done sterling work, and that without them the built environment would have been more dismal, if one wants words to stay on the side of kindness. They feel on a mission to challenge some ugly gospels. In the words of one of the partners, they work, aware that “development taking place is mere building, and there is only a small proportion that can be called architecture”.Advertising their achievement does not seem to have been the main aim of this book. Rather, proving that all the arts can, in the hands of the right spirits, end up in a natural symbiosis.It is also about the architect when not devoutly living his architectural dimension, about the architect exploring other arts, about the architect having fun – and I hope that a serious person having serious fun does not have to carry a health warning.Many of the chapters seem to flirt deliberately with the undefined: sometimes they verge on the narrative, sometimes on the aesthetics of philosophy, sometimes on the philosophy of aesthetics, others with all and with none. The constant seems to be the exploration of existence in its many and quirky layers, the mapping of compulsions and of dreams. Jon Banthorpe describes the process “the printed thing is as much the product of confusion and growing pains, as it is of embracing the architectural essentials of experiment, exploration, tradition and an attempt to move ahead”.I loved those chapters which are consciously, but not pantingly, literary. Some short stories like Columbidae, a black parable all around pigeons,<em>Il-bar ta’ Livia</em>(in Maltese and English – a cocktail flambé: the head of an apostle at Pentecost); and the re-elaboration of the Thomas Sweeney epic in reverse – from life to drama, and then from drama back to life. This killer-martyr is still a tenant of Senglea’s collective memory, emblematic of political tensions and of spiritual puzzles that the passage of years neither solves nor resolves. Running through them all, an unflagging cleverness, a love of words that lets neither the authors nor the readers down.Even on the level of the technical recording of projects, the wordsmith’s search for the striking phrase becomes obvious. In the new Stock Exchange inside the old Garrison church in Castile Square “the hand of the new has been slid softly into the glove of the old”. Valletta is “a combination of an appealing beauty with an appalling ugliness”. Yes, most of the prose is clever. A couple of chapters perhaps overdo it – but then, the line between clever and too ruddy clever cannot be chiselled by laser. More often than not it remains quite blurred and subjective.Architecture Project’s hands-on work falls into that type of concept that “wraps itself round the work of centuries”. Layering the past with the future is the principle challenge and also the main added-value, of the architect’s creative mind – his input is determining, for the better as well as for the worse. A bracket: I was present many many years ago when an old English lady, quite hard of hearing, found herself at the centre of a heated and concerned conversation about a politician who had once been a busy architect, uninspired without restraints. “What are you all worrying about?” she reflected when I explained why the lamentation about that architect-turned-politician. “You should be rejoicing. The errors of politicians last a few years; the follies of architects last forever”. Agreed, this is almost irrelevant. On second thoughts, is it?Sometimes the authors have the daring, or integrity, to go against the grain. It had become a national pastime to revile Zavellani Rossi’s Valletta gate, which in reality was what the politicians specified it should be, so why blame him? Timothy Brittain-Catlin has some intuitive, and amusing, reflections on the gate now removed to make space for the Renzo Piano project: “Even after everyone had had a go at it, Zavellani Rossi’s thin arcades created a space that looks like it would have been more at home in Asmara in Eritrea, by way of Giorgio de Chirico and EUR; and his gate, simultaneously austere and camp, was rather like a grossly inflated piece of furniture from Signora Mussolini’s boudoir, with its thin laurel wreaths and coloured stone”. I like.A word about the illustrations – again, a mixed bag, ranging from straightforward records of the firm’s developments to conceptual drawings, from installations to antique maps, including images that fall into the bracket of stunningly arty photographs which I mentioned earlier. Particularly striking I found four tear-away postcards which Rory Apap Brown created by overlaying segments of paintings by the gifted Italian medical doctor Vittorio Boron with festoons of lettering, myriads of white ants marching in almost orderly columns over the canvas. Not many will want to detach those postcards from their matrix.I do not believe this book set out with a deliberately didactic purpose, but it does convey an existential message just the same: in the hands of those whose soul burns bright with that fuel called poetry, architecture has a better prospect of generating beauty. Architecture could arguably be one of the more functional disciplines around, but it is also the one with the most aggressive aesthetic potential.I have no ambition to be a facile prophet. But let me hazard one guess: AP’s works will one day be treasures of Malta. No, I’ll rephrase that. Some of them already are.