Pretend it’s a City

Text Catalogue x University of Malta Workshop /

The ensemble of people responsible for shaping the environment (architects, developers, bureaucrats and politicians) are almost solely preoccupied with the contents within the strict boundary of a plot (generally termed the private realm). The space in between these plots (loosely defined as the public realm) is, more often than not, left-over space belonging to all but owned by no one. Planning policy relating to development within the private realm is conspicuously notorious, while that on the public realm is notoriously inconspicuous. So who is planning and designing the public realm? And what does the public realm really consist of? How do people inhabit and traverse these spaces?

Throughout the documentation workshops we have studied how the mushrooming neo-apartment typology is a space engineered for detachment and insularity from the collective. By extension, is the public realm also a continuation of this capsular culture? From the apartment into the car, individuals play out life in a Tati-esque dystopia, jumping from one closed box (the apartment) into another (the car). The gluttony of flyovers and road widening projects is evidence of governance inclined to manufacture a public realm that reinforces capsular culture, making it physically and culturally problematic to traverse.

The public realm is to the city what the living room is to the home: “think of a city and what comes to mind? Its streets” (Jane Jacobs). Our Perec-ian gaze therefore turns towards the threshold between the public and private realm, the observations and documentation echoing the writings of Walter Benjamin ‘The Arcades Project’:

“Streets are the dwelling place of the collective. The collective is an eternally wakeful, eternally agitated being that – in the space between the building fronts – lives, experiences, understands, and invents as much as individuals do within the privacy of their own four walls. For this collective, glossy enameled shop signs are a wall decoration as good as, if not better than, an oil painting in the drawing room of a bourgeois; walls with their “Post No Bills” are its writing desk, newspaper stands its libraries, mailboxes its bronze busts, benches its bedroom furniture, and the cafe terrace is the balcony from which it looks down on its household. The section of railing where road workers hang their jackets is the vestibule, and the gateway which leads from the row of courtyards out into the open is the long corridor that daunts the bourgeois, being for the courtyards the entry to the chambers of the city. Among these latter, the arcade was the drawing room. More than anywhere else, the street reveals itself in the arcade as the furnished and familiar intel or of the masses.”

Pretend it’s a City is in part a documentary of differences in the norm of what constitutes the public realm – shifty pavements along car-dominated streets – and in another part, a design exercise where the documentary – a collected archive of typologies of difference within the public realm – is deployed towards a new imagining of the space in-between, around and through the private realm. For the latter exercise, Calvino’s ‘Invisible Cities’ served as the backdrop for the assemblage of typologies sewn together to form quirky, Escher-esque landscapes.

Pretend it’s a City is part of an ongoing collaboration with the University of Malta and supports an investigation into the current state of dense dwelling typologies in Malta. The workshop emphasises the development of design project proposals using theoretical and critical processes on the observed local built landscape. The workshop is shaped by a series of collaborative exercises and discussions with BSc 2nd Year students from the Faculty for the Built Environment. This takes place annually over 4 weeks through a series of presentations, roundtables and studio sessions involving students, tutors and guest speakers. Students are guided through field work, documentation and design tasks which serve as the basis for critical and theoretical explorations, eventually culminating in a collective project. The workshop is supported by Prof. Alex Torpiano, Dean of the Faculty for the Built Environment and Dr. Irina Miodragovic Vella, Head of Department of Architecture and Urban Design and Perit Alex Spiteri, Architect and class coordinator.

The workshop is an opportunity for students to explore different forms of practice from those traditionally belonging to the realm of architecture. Invited guest speakers Fay Darmawi and Micro Azzopardi both employ a cross-field approach to their work; Fay, an urban planner and filmmaker, directs the San Francisco Urban Film Festival while also working in affordable housing financing. Her talk focused on the concept of the 15 minute city and film as a medium for storytelling and urban practice. The ensuing discussion considered the agency of communities, urban planners and policymakers in their roles as storytellers as well as city-makers. 

Similarly, Mirco, an architecture masters student at the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague, takes a cross-field and critical approach to architecture. Written publications, short films, image-making, installations and photography are all part of his repertoire. In his talk, Mirco shared not only the result of the work but the process of questioning and working through doubts – certainly a relatable process for any artistic practitioner.

These talks have been a fundamental part of our workshops from the first edition. They offer students a new perspective on modes of practice, where they can freely engage with and perhaps challenge what it means to be an architect in the trajectory of their own architectural development.

Pretend it’s a City features works by 2nd year Built Environment Studies students (class of 2022/2023); Len Abela Vassallo, Bradley Attard, Nathan Attard, Christel Attard, Nicola Attard Montalto, Jodie Azzopardi, Matthew Bonanno, Shaniah Bonello, Sean Bonnici, Philip Borg, Julia Christina Borg, Luca Borg Bartolo, Adam Mark Bradshaw, Zainab Buabbas, Dylan Bugeja, Luca Cachia, Michela Calleja, Jeremy Calleja, Christa Marie Camilleri, Carla Camilleri, Ryan Caruana Melbourne, Edgar Caruana Montaldo, Mark Ciantar, Lee Darmanin, Jake Degabriele, Jan Delicata, Veronica Sarah Di Pofi, Alex Diacono, Cara Dodds, Lujain Majdi Ahmed Dribika, Luke Ellul, Alexia Ellul, Michael Farrugia, Nathan Farrugia, Alec Farrugia Cachia, Jaz Fenech, Chanelle Formosa, Nicola Friggieri, Eric Grech, Michela Grech, James Nicholas Grima Delia Spiteri, Jade Kemper, Ben Fiete Kroger, Kyra Nicole Magro, Martha Magro, Laura Maniscalco, Nikolai Mercieca, Nicole Micallef (nmic0041), Nicole Micallef (nmic0153), Matthew Micallef, Lydon Mifsud, Isaac Mifsud, Christabelle Muscat, Cleaven Muscat, Frankie Pisani, Angele Pocock, Maja Rohloff, Marion Said Pullicino, Niall Saliba, Stefan Scerri, Michaela Marie Schembri, Michael Spiteri Staines, Christine Sultana, John Vassallo, Jade Vella, Melvin Vella, Samuel Vido, Matthew Zammit, Noah Zammit, Corinne Zammit, Daniel Zarb, Andrei Peter Zarb, Chantal Mifsud Giles and Alessia Testa.