Malta - Architecture From the Beginning

Malta - Architecture From the Beginning

by: Paul Sterling Hoag, FAIA

June 1995 saw the launching of a Malta Architectural Study Program as part of the AIA program for continuing education. From California, Oregon, Washington, Florida, and Illinois, practicing architects traveled to a sunny little island in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea: not really certain what they would find there, but prepared to be surprised. Overall reactions of the group were overwhelming. Although impressed by many aspects of the Maltese culture and historical architectural development, the group members were most fascinated with Malta’s megalithic temples: “the earliest existing structures by humankind which define space.” Here is one man’s report of an astonishing encounter with architectural pre-history.

The rich rewards of the AIA/CES Architectural Study Program in Malta were derived from two sources: both remarkable and, because separated by 6,000 years of Maltese history, almost indescribably exciting.

At the Neolithic end of the spectrum we saw the oldest buildings in the world: truly beautiful structures built by stone-age people, constructed of multi-ton limestone slabs quarried and carefully shaped and fitted one to another with nothing but stone tools. With the wheel not yet invented, they shaped round stones to roll the slabs from quarry to building site. As to how they set their tons upright to form the walls, we are still uncertain. Today’s architects has to ask the question: why?

It took a cyclopean motivation to make a cyclopean effort - the pure, back-breaking, gut-wrenching effort to move cyclopean stones with bare hands and tender muscles. What motivated them?

Lets go back through the possibilities. Fortress protection against attack? No. No weapons have ever been found at these sites. A place for a powerful chief? No. No burial remains of Pharaoh figures with afterlife treasures. Temples for oppressive priestly cults? Hardly. The only deity was the Earth Goddess - the Great Goddess. They were agrarian people who revered her for bringing the seasons and the rain, and enriching the soil which grew their main source of food. They sculpted beautiful figurines of her: gorgeously plump and fecund, forever pregnant with a newly dead soul who needed to be reborn into a happy afterlife, just as she saw to it that new crops appeared from the mystery of last year’s death.

The motivation then, was to create “life centers” for the whole community - the same community whose members erected the buildings: gathering places for festivals, rituals, trade, and even astronomical observations of sun and moon to keep track of the seasons for the crops. For these, the community’s “architects” provided special sites with special orientation. The mood that prevailed was that everything that benefited the community was worth limitless effort.

As for technology, metal for tools was many centuries away; and Malta, being entirely limestone, contained no flint or obsidian for tools. They had to cross to Sicily and trade for it, and must have developed extremely effective tools to have quarried and then shaped such huge slabs of limestone at one extreme, and carved such delicate designs at the other. Again: what extreme motivation!

As for the building material, there is no certainty that wood, the material of choice for its ease of working, existed in anything but sparse growth, but there was unlimited limestone for quarrying near the surface. It caught on early, stayed popular for 5,000 years, and is still the material of choice today! Unfortunately, it weathers rapidly in the salt air of Malta. Clear sealers have not yet been developed to preserve the surfaces of the megalithic structures in their natural color. Modern buildings are protected by plaster or paint.

To summarize Neolithic man’s architecture then, we can emphasize two components: One - his society was peaceful and marked by the immense energy implicit in the common goals and motivation of tightly knit small communities of individuals unburdened by the inevitable stresses of hierarchies - communities focused on the simple goal of growing food and worshipping a goddess who helped them grow it. Their buildings were an expression of the immense energy and artistic process released by the community and its simple goal. Two - their insular position protected their society and its goals until aggressive, warlike bronze-age people were able to develop ships to cross the protecting waters and put an end to the Earth Goddess culture and its building forms, about 2,500 BC. But she had prevailed for well over a thousand years!

Perhaps a thousand years later the Phoenicians, the Mediterranean’s first great trading people, dropped by, stayed long enough to gift the Maltese people with the roots of their modern language, No discernible architectural legacy from them, nor the Carthaginians, Greeks, and Romans that followed - except a few copycat buildings from their homelands. The Arabs came in 870 AD; the Normans 200 years later, and stayed for 200. Still later, in 1530 came the Knights of St. John who accomplished an astonishing architectural transformation. They demolished a huge Muslim fortified city and replaced it with a new one of their own design - not a trace of Maltese character, of course, since the Knights were Europeans, all powerful and wealthy; and in Europe, Renaissance and Baroque were the styles of choice at the time. They were well done, naturally: interiors flushed and glowing with marble, although many exteriors were still of limestone - native Maltese limestone! Except for the Maltese limestone, the Knight’s city of Valletta is quite pure European. Napoleon took over in 1798, but could make little architectural imprint in the two years allowed him before the English ousted him.

The English lasted 150 years and were bound to make a difference, but English design was too quiet to be noticed, submerged as it was in fanciful Baroque. Good background buildings!

So, our Maltese! Their own masters again after 4,500 years! But who are they now? Hardly descendants of their Neolithic ancestors, certainly, not at first thought. More of a melting pot of crossbreeding from virtually every Mediterranean who stopped off for an invader’s adventure, plus a few northern Europeans as well through all those ages. Anything recognizable, neolithically derivative architecturally?

Certainly. Forms first: envision the main entrance facade of the temple of Hagar-Qim, then scan the countryside and the prominent outskirts of village and city. Large and small flat-roofed rectangles with neat square windows and doors echo their old ancestor. Look closer for the rough drystone walls of the occasional farmer’s tool house. They’re circular in plan like the ancient circular apses in the temples. Farmers learned from the old ones that a circular wall is easier to make stand up than a straight one - they’re self-bracing - elemental structural engineering. And, of course, they’re all limestone - not cyclopean slabs, however, but standard limestone blocks, laid up like bricks. Modern forms? Yes. Vernacular regionalism strongly shapes the modern buildings of Richard England, for example.

But societal attitudes, most certainly! Still so very attached to the land, farmers cultivate their crops on terraces protected from erosion by miles of stone retaining walls. And small service buildings of stone are scattered across hill after hill. Most importantly of all, theirs is a society of communities - small enough to work together spontaneously like the old ones. High density apartments in village and city alike, each community clustered around and identifiable by its church and its church’s saint. A hardly-changed continuum of societal strength, unique in our western world. The visitor to Malta today senses it in the smiles on the faces and the hospitality which greets him everywhere he moves amongst today’s Maltese: a people with an exceptionally painful history of invasion and subjugation, but just very happy to be alive!

I can’t think of any other country in the western world where the American architect could educate himself to be a better practitioner than Malta... and a better citizen as well.

Paul Sterling Hoag, FAIA (excellence in design) has been practicing architecture for forty years in the western U.S. For five years he wrote a monthly column for "L.A.Architect." Paul and his wife Nancy live on an island in the State of Washington.

For information about the next Architectural Study Program in Malta, contact The OTS Foundation