St. James Cavalier
From War Machine to Centre for Creativity

The spectre of another Turkish attack loomed over the islands a few months after the Great Siege of 1565.

The knights were still deciding on whether to abandon the island or attempt to raise the necessary funds for the general rehabilitation of the island.

La Vallette, it seems, preferred to remain and ask for help.  This promptly arrived from, amongst others, Pope Pius V who, besides financial assistance, also sent over Francesco Laparelli da Cortona, a military engineer of considerable fame.



"The theatre itself is an independent structure placed inside the old well.  The particular design of the theatre and strategically placed glass panels will allow the visitor to read the shape of the old cistern.  It is as if, it is possible to lift the theatre out of the well in one piece; a sort of giant matrioshka doll"


Laparelli prepared a masterplan for Valletta as we know it today.

St. James one of the two cavaliers built out of an ordinary projected nine was designed by Laparelli himself who, when he left Malta in 1569, entrusted the continuation of the work to the Maltese architect Gerolomo Cassar.

In practical terms, the original function of the St. James Cavalier was that of a raised platform on which guns were placed to defend against enemy attacks from the landward (later Floriana) side of the new city.  Designed to prohibit entry, it was also meant to make it as difficult as possible for any unwelcome guests to move around inside.

Viewing the building from the outside gives the false impression of a huge internal space.  Infact, half the structure was filled with compressed; the rest consisted merely of a series of chambers and a ramp from which cannon were rolled up onto the roof.

Architecturally simple, it was not meant to rival the more sophisticated Auberges.  Its functional design is purely utilitarian and down to earth, a no-nonsence, straightforward solution to a problem.

The British Period

The rulers changed, and so did the demands of the time, which called for a completely different function for the St. James Cavalier.

During this period, the British first converted St. James into an officer's mess.  They then realized they could exploit its position and height to solve a problem very common to Maltese islands.  Valletta was in need of a water supply system.  The British dug two wells in the top part of St. James to be used as a store for water pumped into them via the Wignacourt aqueducts.  From these cisterns the water could then flew freely to the rest of Valletta.

This change in use brought with it three more structural changes.  For practical reasons, the ramp leading to the roof was replaced by a staircase.

Next, to increase the number of rooms the British built arched ceilings in rooms at ground floor level creating two rooms where there was one.

The stone in some parts of the building was hacked; this was probably done to counter problems of dampness.  Finally, during, the latter part of their rule, the British turned St. James into a food store.

Today

St. James Cavalier has been transformed once more to become a Centre for Creativity.  The war machine becomes an art centre.

An edifice which was designed to prohibit entry will now invite visitors and offer them a warm welcome.  Making such a radical change of the use possible was one of the toughest aspects of the job, a job assigned to one of Malta's best-recognized architects, Prof. Richard England.

Professor England describes the philosophy behind as 'making it possible for the building to accommodate new needs in a way that while respecting the past aspects the concept of change, without fear'.  For instance, one of the problems Professor England encountered was of how to make it possible for visitors to get round the place, something that the building was originally designed to prevent.  This necessitated a major structural intervention.  Consequently, the very difficult decision of identifying which area had to undergo the drastic operation had to be taken.

As is usual in such cases the choice fell on the newest part of the building: the water cisterns.  One of the cisterns, today hosting the theatre, only underwent relatively minor changes.  The theatre itself is an independent structure placed inside the old well.  The particular design of the theatre and strategically placed glass panels will allow the visitor to read the shape of the old cistern.  It is as if, it is possible to lift the theatre out of the well in one piece; a sort of giant matrioshka doll.

The second cistern, the atrium, is where structural change has taken place.  The lift and stairs constructed here provide vertical access to all the areas.  To accommodate these changes the base of this cistern had to be lowered to ground floor level.  Here too, Prof. England has installed glass panels to give us the opportunity to read the narrative of the building.

According to Prof. England, the architect has always had to respond to the needs of a particular time.  However whatever the reason for intervention or transformation, this does not give an architect the right to eradicate the past.  With this aspect in mind the transformation also included the restoration of areas which needed attention.  This work was carried out under the supervision and with the close collaboration of restoration expert Michael Ellul.  However this restoration was not done by creating replicas or imitations.  The building is allowed to say its story.  In simple terms, anything that looks 16th century is authentic 16th century and anything that looks contemporary is contemporary.

The rooms on the ground floor clearly demonstrate this.  In the music room the ceiling built during the British period has been removed and the room restored to its original state as built by the Knights.  The bookshop, on the other hand, is still spoilt into two rooms by this arched ceiling.  In other halls only parts of the ceiling have been removed allowing both periods to be represented in the same space.

The restoration of St. James, already being hailed as a masterpiece, is only first phase of a much larger project that will radically change the entrance to Valletta.  In the subsequent phase St. James Cavalier will join forces with an 800 seat theatre what will be built on the site of the old Opera House. Together these will function as a single building.


 
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