The ephemeral art beneath the face of Renzo Piano's parliament for Valletta
Founding Partner Architect of AP Valletta
Senior Visiting Lecturer at the University of Malta
The Overlooked Performance
Give me some mud off a city crossing, some ochre out of a gravel-pit, a little whitening, and some coal dust, and
I will paint you a luminous picture, if you give me time to gradate my mud, and subdue my dust…
John Ruskin (Elements of Drawing)
Those of us who grew up enjoying the adventures of Asterix and his gang learnt our first Latin sentence thanks to the comic’s ubiquitous classical remark: Alea jacta est. The die is cast. Julius Caesar had said it, according to Suetonius, as he led his army across the River Rubicon. There was a noble ring to the phrase, an acceptance of the irreversibility of events, a kind of perverse fascination with the unknown and the accidents of history that decide the trajectory of our lives.
The construction of a new parliament and city gate in Valletta triggered off a similar sensation of awe and expectancy as the crossing of the Rubicon. At the intersection of chance and program, of the aleatory and the necessary, time’s unfathomable agenda is now beginning to unfold at the entrance to the city. Everything is there but is unforeseeable. Houses live and die, as TS Eliot wrote, and if, as he said, my end is in my beginning, then what are all the ephemeral events, ineffable images, momentous meetings that that are already inscribed in the new spaces, the fresh surfaces? And what are the passing sensations and irreversible transformations that will determine the gradual alteration of these walls until their inexorable end? The story of the new entrance to Valletta is yet to be written, but is contained, latent and undecipherable, in the fabric of the new building.
Many years will unravel and will leave their mark on these inventive facades, relating charming histories. Even before its inauguration, the new parliament narrates one essential story. It is the story of its construction, starting from its foundation and leading up to today. Here, in this collection of photographs, it is told, simply and unemotionally, by the articulate eye of Alex Attard. He has captured for the unknowing public, the effort, the rigour and discipline that has given birth to and created this building. And still, he shows, all the planning, calculation and attention to risk that are the domain of the architect and project manager, are inevitably tempered by the spontaneity of accident and chance, hidden inside the enduring stone walls.
Several of the photographs featuring in this exhibition represent a section of the wall of the east elevation of the Parliament Building. They document, amongst other subjects, the paint applied to the bare concrete surface as a base for the application of a waterproofing membrane or the random overlapping and welding of strips of silver membrane with seams and joints of black bitumen.
These jobs themselves required no particular attention. They give rise to chance happenings and accidents which take priority over control. The haphazard movements of the brush and the paint create arbitrary splash and splatter markings and drippings on the surface. Only for an instant they are the protagonists of the blank canvas that is the new building.
In recording these transitory moments, Alex Attard appropriates the fundamental materials existing on a building site to prove that architecture must necessarily involve the hidden harmonies contained in Nature’s ludus ordo. At this extended moment of the birth of the building, accident and control, nature and architecture come to coexist harmoniously. This is the miracle of creation that Paul Valéry described in Eupalinos ou L’Architecte (1921) as a dialectic of opposites that momentarily finds an ideal equilibrium. Past and present, accident and essence, ephemeral and lasting, proximity and distance, motion and rest, lightness and gravity are all represent