an interview with Richard England

In present-day Malta, architecture and environment are often at loggerheads. RICHARD ENGLAND discusses their relationship with Joseph Agius and talks about his current exhibition Richard England: Architect as Artist.

JA: In British novelist Susanna Clarke’s 2020 novel, Piranesi, one of the characters in the novel describes himself in these words: “People call me a philosopher or a scientist or an anthropologist. I am none of those things. I am an anamnesiologist. I study what has been forgotten. I divine what has disappeared utterly. I work with absences, with silences, with curious gaps between things. I am really more of a magician than anything else”. Do these words define you in some way? Is Richard England an ‘anamnesiologist’?

RE: I am not quite sure that I would define myself as an ‘anamnesiologist’. I would think that I am perhaps more of a ‘Janus’ figure interested in the past as a threshold and doorway to the future. While we still certainly have much to learn, I am convinced that perhaps we have more to remember. The ancients knew something which we regretfully seem to have forgotten; perhaps they were more shrouded with wisdom than knowledge.

Church of the Resurrection, Dar il-Ħanin Samaritan, Santa Venera, MaltaChurch of the Resurrection, Dar il-Ħanin Samaritan, Santa Venera, Malta

I think it is an obligation for every architect to remember that he or she should perform not only as a designer of the future, but also as a defender of the past. In order to build the new, we must of necessity understand the old and use it as a springboard for the future.

JA: The architecture of your churches evokes a sense of wonder in being in a sacred space where mathematics, colour and harmony are key, away from the Baroque excesses to which we are accustomed. One of your masterpieces, the Manikata parish church, extols these architectural virtues. The girna-like main structure invites the faithful for solace within it, in much the same way as the traditional girnas in the surrounding once pristine countryside afforded shelter to farmers and shepherds. Now that the surrounding countryside has been ravaged by unscrupulous developers and the old girnas have been demolished to make way for ugly construction, do you feel that the Manikata church has lost its context and subsequently its poetic symbolism? Has it become an ‘anachronism’, for a lack of a better term?

RE: My architectural philosophy may well be defined in the words of Tennessee Williams “I don’t want reality, I want magic” and Jorge Luis Borges’ “my business is to weave dreams”, for I believe that the job of the architect remains that of adding poetry to the pragmatic, while creating ambiences which enrich and elevate the spirit.

Manikata Church, MaltaManikata Church, Malta

My search is for an architecture where less is more, opposing the local Baroque-haunted penchant of “more is never enough”. The indigenous vernacular “architecture without architects” not only of our land, provides valuable lessons and paradigms as to how to build in harmony with site, climatic conditions and in most cases very limited building materials. It seems that for the builders of the vernacular, the land had more meaning.

Although Manikata church is often referred to as having drawn its inspiration from the local ‘girna’ toolsheds, its origins are also embedded in a more distant past, that of the architecture of the Neolithic period, when architects were magicians, mythmakers and high priests. There is no doubt that as William Blake states “we become what we behold”. What we inherit and absorb visually must however be further enriched by intellectual overlays which in my case was provided by inspirational mentors, in my early days Gio Ponti, Sir Basil Spence, Victor Pasmore and more recently Daniel Libeskind, Juhani Pallasmaa and Ian Ritchie. 

The Avenue of HopeThe Avenue of Hope

Regretfully, the context around the church, as you correctly state, has now been ravished by insensitive out-of-scale developments; I have however more remorse for the demise of the village itself, once an enchanting vernacular hamlet now completely destroyed.

JA: According to Finnish architect Alvar Aalto, “Architecture is not merely national but clearly has local ties in that it is rooted in the earth”. Does the hideous architecture that, in the last decade or, mushroomed all over the country showcase any local ties at all? Or have this country become so soulless and anonymous that it identifies itself with this architectural mediocrity?

RE: I have always believed that architecture must relate to both place and time. In adhering to place the mnemonic residue of the past is reinterpreted, yet it is also paramount that buildings belong to the zeitgeist of their age. Regretfully over the last decades Malta has suffered intense environmental damage due to unscrupulous developers interested solely in monetary gain and profit.

Parliament (nightview), Valletta, MaltaParliament (nightview), Valletta, Malta

Building has become a commercial self-indulgent Mammon worshipped road map. It is therefore not surprising that the public at large have completely fallen out of love with what is loosely termed as architecture but is in fact solely construction since it misses the essential quality of what the Roman architect Vitruvius termed ‘venustas’ which is what raises a building from the realm of construction to that of architecture. Yet it is quite possible to create a commercially viable project without it having any negative effects on its surroundings, all it takes is an enlightened client and an excellent architect. Architects should think globally but act locally.

Building has become a commercial self-indulgent Mammon worshipped road map– Richard England

The blame for the destruction of the spirit of place of our island must be borne on the tripartite shoulders of the greedy developers themselves and their condescending architects, but much more so on the Planning Authority since it is the body which is responsible for the final approval of all schemes.

Papal Pavillion, Floriana, MaltaPapal Pavillion, Floriana, Malta

JA: In your 1970 Save Malta Manifesto, published in the exhibition catalogue, you state: “It [Malta] is the testament of 5000 years of human habitation”. You had envisioned the path to architectural bedlam that post-Independence Malta would follow, all in the name of so-called progress. Fifty-two years later, our architectural heritage, 5000 years of it, is still being plundered as this country’s priorities are hopelessly skewed. Do we need to be ‘colonised’ for our architectural legacy to be protected?

RE: The 1970 Save Malta Manifesto regretfully proved to be a portent prophesy of what was still to come. You ask if we need to be colonised for our architectural legacy to be protected; I think what we need is to be educated to learn to love and value our land and its heritage and to realise that eventually, as the world becomes more of a global village, it is the localities which will have preserved their original spirit of place that will become the most successful monetary-making and visually enchanting sought after ambiance.

Seven Chapels of the RainbowSeven Chapels of the Rainbow

JA: Your concept drawings can be considered as instances in which your artistic side and your academic education meet to create a hybrid of mixed parentage. In your words: “They are a thought process and a dialogue between idea and image”. Is it difficult to achieve a compromise to satisfy the more prosaic at the expense of the more poetic? Or does your architecture, as a finished product, satisfy both sides of the creative equation?

RE: In the concept drawings for my architectural projects, the tendency is to draw more freely, perhaps more as an artist than as an architect; while on the contrary my field drawings of Malta, Italy and other places I have travelled to, lean more towards pure architectural renderings. Drawing as opposed to photographic documentation, leaves one with a deeper understanding and appreciation of the subjects delineated, for what you draw remains with you.

Citadel in ReverieCitadel in Reverie

JA: The series Viaggio in Italia is a rather recent ‘COVID-period’ body of work that draws nostalgically on your sketchbook of visits to Il Bel Paese. You develop these ideas originally executed in situ, and weave in memory and poetry. How has the claustrophobia of COVID affected you as an artist? Is Architect as Artist an act of catharsis?

RE: The process involves an absorption of all the qualities of what one is viewing, and then through a process of the elimination of the non-essential reducing the depicted image to capture the essential essence of the edifice concerned. The Viaggio in Italia series were re-workings of original on-site drawings. Due to COVID restrictions, one had more time for working at home and consequently, in a strange way, the pandemic restrictions allowed time for the manifestation of one of the most productive of my creative periods.

From the 'Mythopoli' series.From the ‘Mythopoli’ series.

JA: The two series Citadel in Reverie and Mythopoli showcase sublimely the artist in the architect in an expressive act of letting loose. I feel that these dreamscapes evoke the worlds of Escher and Piranesi who used actual architecture as springboard to their creations where perspectives and narratives are intentionally altered. They also remind me of the magic realist worlds of Italo Calvino and Jorge Luis Borges. Are these two series your polemical observations as regards the architectural plight of contemporary Malta? Does one just give up and recalibrate one’s aesthetic to rationalise architectural ‘pollution’, make it more poetic and tries one’s best to factor in the destruction and bad taste?

RE: The Mythopoli series draw their inspiration form the imaginary literary Utopian cities of reverie conceived by such authors as More, Calvino, Borges, Swift, Juster, Lewis, Okri and others. They are fictitious mirages, unrealities suspended between metaphor and magic, all hand drawn as I still believe that despite advanced digital technologies the bridge between mind and paper remains best crossed by the hand. In a way, these graphic depictions are a testimony that imagination can surpass reality, and also that imagination perhaps remains the best ticket for travelling.

Another work from the 'Mythopoli' series.Another work from the ‘Mythopoli’ series.

JA: Richard England is also a published poet, and this exhibition explores this dimension too. Can these poems be defined as architecture in words?

RE: As an architect who writes poetry, I am interested in the way words occupy the space on the page in a form of visual geometry perhaps due to my early penchant for Concrete Poetry. Poetry similar to building is a process of making and creating. Architecture and poetry share the aim of enchanting and elevating the human spirit, while sharing the qualities of precision, matrix, structure, rhythm and a play of contrasting dichotomies; solid and void in architecture, sound and silence in poetry.

One reads not only what is written, but also that which is not written. It is about the alchemy between the heard and the unheard, the said and the unsaid. The true poet is the one who casts a web of magic that can carry the reader away, just as the architect should cap into his buildings emotions to lift up the souls and spirits of their users.

Cittadella, GozoCittadella, Gozo

The world in general needs to be reminded that architects create the environments within which man lives and operates “we shape our buildings then after they shape us”. Present conditions seem to indicate that we need to change our living environments and lifestyle if we are to survive as a species. We need to relearn to respect and love nature, pollute less, waste less and recycle more and to remember that monetary gain is more often than not obtained through our being socially and economically irresponsible. Perhaps most of all we need to learn to tread gently on our planet.

Richard England: Architect as Artist, hosted by Il-Ħaġar Museum, Victoria, Gozo, runs until April 18. Consult the museum’s Facebook page for opening hours.

Basilica San ĠorġBasilica San Ġorġ

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