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
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 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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.