Space represents the next generation of consumables. The old adage that ‘time is money’ can now also be extended to space: Space is money, and most of us cannot afford it.
We are paying more for less space to live in. Even ‘public’ space is subject to ‘rental’ fees. If you need to set up tables and chairs for your business, if you organise an event, or if you need to temporarily secure an area, you need to pay. The equation is simple – if you have enough money then that space is yours.
In a heavily consumerist society like ours that might seem natural, almost logical. You want something – you pay for it. Except that it is a dangerous and immoral dictum by which to regulate our existence. The underlying sinister message is that money is the regulating factor – not ethics or any form of human rights. This has far-reaching consequences on how we interact with the space at every level.
Here are three examples of use of public space in Malta – but the issues dealt with here are indicative of a global urban crisis. Gentrification is an international movement and the gentrification of space an international problem.
TOP: Paola Square 2018 (NOTE: The photograph shows the works in progress and are not the final aesthetic result. It merely highlights the change of use of space). BOTTOM: Paola Square prior to the refurbishment.
I shall start from Paola Square because it is the most recent and the least offensive. There is no doubt that Paola Square was in need of a revamp. The square probably had not seen any serious maintenance since the 80s. The project involved redesigning the square from Kordin prison all the way to the health centre on the other side. The project involved rerouting the traffic flow, new street furniture, replacing the existing trees, and reimagining the church parvis.
Two things become immediately apparent when comparing the before and after. The first is its colour – it is now a vast expanse of grey. It might seem the least important aspect of the project, but it is the one that strikes you first. It is worth remembering that the visual impact of a space is generally our first interaction with that same space. Before you start experiencing the spatiality of a space, the first thing that you take in is its appearance. The edges of the square are the ones where this is least felt – the trees (apologetic shrubs and pot plants really) and bright yellow branches mitigate the greyness of it all. But in between is a vast expanse of grey – all ripe for commercial use (and indeed cheap plastic tables have already appeared). And thus public space has quickly turned into commercial space.
Even the traffic management – for all its good intentions – is counter-productive. Sure, it reduces the traffic flow and slows down passing traffic. But with ever more cars on our roads and the grey open spaces overlooking the road, most of the square is constantly bombarded by traffic. Even the church parvis is subject to vehicle mobility – with coaches and vans now reversing onto the parvis right up to the main door of the church (God forbid we should walk 10 metres from the pavement to the church door).
The old square, with its many faults, had one great advantage – the parvis and the central square where sealed off with a balustrade (and large trees in the middle of the square) which gave intimacy to the space. The few remaining ‘intimate’ spaces are so thinly separated from the rest of the surrounding environment as to render them marignal and insignificant.
Tucked away on one side of the square are two war-shelter entrances that have been uncovered and made visible. Their uncovering is laudable as they do afford a continuity of spatial narrative. But the whole project is apologetic – public space approached cautiously lest it offend businesses. The absence of children and families, the vast grey expanse in the middle, the few people tucked away at the edges of the square, and the lack of a barrier between the square and traffic – all of these create a fragmented and feeble space despite all the good intentions.
Never mind the height of the buildings – that is probably the least offensive aspect. This project swept away a whole British era military complex (with only fragments surviving) in order to build a shopping mall with surrounding ‘luxury’ apartments. The word ‘luxury’ has become a favourite with real estate agents. Put in a lift and a private garage and a bit of a sea-view and -voilà – everything has become luxurious.
The Tigne Point project represents the first major step towards this gentrification and commodification of space. It has swept away the existing narrative of the place (the remains which have been incorporated in the project are so out of context as to render them irrelevant), and replaced them with generic apartment blocks. The apartments might be comfortable to live in (although I personally find the arrangement claustrophobic) but they are simply ordinary apartments with effective branding.
That obsessive and excessive branding extends into the shopping mall (that capitalist space par excellence), made up entirely of high street brands. Yes it is convenient and comfortable – but it is also characterless and soulless. Every inch of space is used to sell – even the recreational areas. Shoppers are constantly bombarded with advertising – human beings are reduced to consumerist machines. The best part of the project is the Marsamxett side, with its suspended pontoon overlooking the harbour. It is a simple and unassuming space that embraces the harbour and extends into it.
One might think that the only historical narrative in that area was the British barracks, but in fact it contains a much richer past that has now been obliterated and consigned to the history books. It was here that Malta’s post-Modernist theatre scene started, as well as the local rock music scene. Even when it was pretty much an abandoned complex, it was a real hub of creativity (long before so-called cultural strategists came up with the words ‘hub’ and ‘creativity’). And the best thing is that it was spontaneous.
But nothing now remains of that space. The result is a generic space that could be anywhere in the world, where you can shop for brands that can be found anywhere in the world, and eat food that you can find anywhere in the world.
Valletta Food Market (Not showing the additional tables and chairs that have since been set up in the middle of the road in front of the building).
Valletta Food Market
Dulcis in fundo – as they say. The Valletta market is one of the flagship projects for Valletta 2018. The project involved the restoration of the old market building, the creation of a food market, and the creation of public and cultural spaces. The result? A glorified airport departure lounge (minus the aeroplanes).
Despite the excellent restoration of the original building fabric, the result has swept away almost all of its community narrative. The food market now consists of a very expensive supermarket at the lower level, and high street food brands on the first level. This is coupled with a dull brown interior that is as generic as they come. You can only distinguish the different stalls from their logos – you remove the logo and all you have is a brown box with food in it (compare the damnably ugly brown containers passing off as kiosks outside City Gate on Triton Square – it’s pretty much the same concept).
To add insult to injury, the market has completely taken over the outdoor space with more tables and chairs. This usurpation of public space will forever remain a blemish on all the parties involved, including and especially Valletta 18. The circumstances which led to this arrangement also merit comment – the investors complained that as it was the project was not profitable, and that the extra chairs were necessary. Well, quite frankly, if the investors miscalculated their profit margins, that is their problem. But we all know that this was only a carefully calculated move to maximise profit – making money at all costs.
Is there an upside to all this? Yes, in a smug perverse sense. The Valletta Food Market is a dead space. The place is barely half full at any time of day – and its customers are mostly hapless tourists trapped into an expensive giant kiosk. The additional tables and chairs only exacerbate the bleakness of it all.
The Valletta Food Market is the cherry on top of Valletta’s merciless gentrification. A sweeping away of city narrative for commercial use. Every inch of Valletta is being exploited, its residents pushed out of the city, and its narrative erased. Words like ‘regeneration’ and ‘master plan’ have become the weapons with which gentrification levels everything before it. Valletta is now a giant theme park full of pretty attractions, boutique hotels, cafeterias and cheap souvenir shops.
Space is money – everything is money. Our relationship with space is a complex one. We are both conditioned by space as well as manipulators of that same space. The idea of space for the sake of recreation and socialising has become unthinkable. Children are no longer encouraged to play on the streets (and in many cases expressly forbidden), and adults…well adults no longer have the time to devote to outdoor space. We must all work harder to meet the demands of the market. Recreation, art, culture, sport, politics, religion…and of course space – these are all subservient to the market.
Space is money. We are money. All is money. Can you afford to live?