Drawing the Line – A Pavlovian Experiment

Parliament Building, Valletta

How are people’s interaction with buildings normally mediated? Is it the facade that governs the extent of dialogue between the people on the street and the occupants on the inside? How much of the outside can be allowed in? Where do we draw the line between in and out? And is that line a brick wall, or a transparent curtain wall, or maybe a dislevel ground plane? And how are people’s behaviour and perception conditioned by the line?

Few would argue that the new Parliament Building doesn’t push the line towards an unconventional openness uncommon to Malta. By allowing people in the street to stream through the carved canyon in between the parliament’s stacks, the architecture opens itself up to a dialogue between the street life and buildings that normally doesn’t happen. The line between facade and street is greyed out: the monumental overhang pulls the passerby into its space, engaging the street with the ground floor activities in the stacks, until the elevated walkway overhead, bridging the stacks, grabs people’s attention, only to be once again distracted by the crater-sized opening in the ground containing a courtyard surrounded by offices. By instigating this dialogue, the architecture begins to etch away at stubborn norms of behaviour, to uncover new possibilities of interaction.

Old habits die hard – the same line that is drawn far enough to subvert norms, can also be dialed down to reinforce them. The erection of barriers lined up around the parliament, along the extents of the overhang, cuts short the colourful dialogue that began to take place. Instead, the boundary between facade and street is thickened: the public is instructed that the freespace under and around the parliament is not theirs, erecting an impassable invisible wall in the social conscious. And just like the dogs in Pavlov’s experiment trained to salivate at the sound of the bell, the innocent stroll into parliament’s canyon becomes a silent protest against the norm delineated by the line of barriers.

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