About a boathouse

Inspired by Francesca Zammit’s reflections on Marsakala’s Boathouses / 01/08/2020

On a densely sprawled island it is tempting to dichotomize the land and the sea. The land is quantifiable, and can be manipulated for settlement through prescribed formulas. The sea is infinite and boundless – a site of transience which slips through the fingers of any attempting colonist. The point at which the sea meets the land is often traceable as a demarcation of an edge; a line drawn across a map to mark the end of one entity and the start of another. At closer inspection however, that line expands into a band or fringe of vigorous negotiation; a producer of something entirely new. Under the gaze of the land, the sea takes on new nuances in the production of collectible capital.  

The boathouse occupies this in-between territory of land and sea with its name aptly pointing towards its dual nature of simultaneous transience (boat) and rootedness (house). From humble beginnings in the hands of fishermen requiring storage close to the sea, the boathouse has come to simultaneously mutate away from all things fishing and continue to hide under its guise and air of legitimacy. In doing so the often ramshackle structures play into and reinforce a fantasy of the beach as a site that stands the test of time. 

“As a site of such fantasy production, the beach’s job is not to conceal but reveal and revel in revealing just such play, announcing itself as playground and transgressive space par excellence, displacing by far all previous rituals of reversal and pleasure. The beach, then, is the ultimate fantasy space where nature and carnival blend as prehistory in the dialectical image of modernity.”

Taussig, M. (2000). The Beach (A Fantasy). Critical Inquiry, 26(2), 249-278.

At which point then, does the boathouse become suspect of being an agent in the erosion of that fantasy of the picturesque, carving out the path for natural shorelines to be sanitised into promenades with high end developments? Is it the accumulation in numbers? The slow and intentional layering of mass that turns a modest outcrop into a substantial accretion? Is it the resemblance of that structure to what we constitute to be urban? Is it the addition of a roof to four walls? The inkling of somebody settling where they were previously assumed only to be in transit? 

When the boathouse mines the sea for its exchange-value, it normalises a contemplative relationship with the sea rather than a productive one, slipping into the violent grasps of real-estate accumulation. 

The boathouse stops being cute when it is recognised to become a commodity for something other than boat-housing. In serving all sorts of auxiliary functions and events, the boathouse quickly drops the boat, and takes on a long list of appendages: water tanks, electricity supplies and WiFi connections, staged barbecues, picnic benches, fairy lights and lawned front porches. Permitted or otherwise, the boathouse anomaly oscillates between temporary and permanence, between on the grid and off the grid, a place to call home and a place away from home. As masses grow, paths and driveways begin to etch into relief, a heterotopia takes shape: a world within a world, mirroring and yet upsetting what is outside.

Observations by University of Malta Architecture student Francesca Zammit;

> Boat houses observed in the outskirts of Marsaskala, close to St. Thomas’ bay. Though mostly used in summer by locals, a number of the dwellings were also clearly in use at the time these photos were taken, in November, possibly being rented out to immigrants.

Whilst taking these photos I felt like I was intruding upon a closed community. The voids between the dwellings, forming pathways and a sense of organisation that add to the feeling that this is more than a couple of illegally placed limestone blocks, this is a place someone calls home.

This was further amplified by a level of personalisation seen through the brightly coloured garage doors which offers the owners a way to distinguish themselves from their neighbours.

A secondary ‘community’ was also formed by a number of mobile homes parked close to the boat houses. Again, though usually seen as a temporary place of dwelling, the small patios formed around the caravans and water and electrical utilities suggest otherwise.

Through this simple exercise of observing different areas of my hometown, a place I automatically associate with my personal place of dwelling, made me reconsider how and what it means to dwell.<

Photographs by Francesca Zammit – architecture student participating in the Housing, Dwelling Thinking Workshop in collaboration with University of Malta.

Further Reading / Photographic Documentation of Armier boathouses by Therese Debono