When Maltese architect Richard England returned home in 1962 after completing his studies at the Polytechnic University of Milan and an 18-month apprenticeship in the studio of Gio Ponti, he was handed what would become his most treasured gift – his very first independent building commission. It was the small Parish Church of Saint Joseph in Manikata, a village in northwestern Malta. The project had originally gone to his father, also an architect. But when the son showed the father a letter that Ponti had written him, praising his work, England the elder was so impressed (the Italian legend was his favourite living architect) that he passed the commission on to him. It took 12 years for Richard England to complete the project. And even though his father did not live to see it completed, he enjoyed being briefed on its progress along the way.
The church was built by some 500 of the area’s farmers on a volunteer basis. Curiously, at first the farmers wanted a building in the Baroque style, with a dome bigger than that of the village next door. And it would have been very challenging to convince them otherwise had England’s initial project not been published around the same time in the prestigious Architectural Review. Even though they could not read, that publication served as a sign of authority for the villagers. They embraced their new church’s unorthodox form and the young architect’s idea of integrating the celebrant and congregation. The design was approved some months before the Vatican Council started promoting a more unified church layout. Building his first building with his own hands taught England a great deal. “In a way, it was, a medieval process,” he told me. “We cut the stone and handled it with great care and precision, one stone at a time.”
The architect’s first project was followed by a string of important built works – all in Malta, although he also worked in Baghdad and Belgrade. His buildings on the archipelago include the Central Bank of Malta in Valletta (and its annex, built years later); a theatre stage–like pool in the Aquasun Lido in Paceville; an extension at the University of Malta, where he continues to teach; and the castle-like St Francis of Assisi Church and Cloister in Qawra. There’s also the Garden for Myriam in St. Julians, which is dedicated to his wife; it’s part of the extension to their house, which was his childhood home and originally designed by his father.
In this interview, we discuss England’s early doubts about the Modern Movement and International Style, the pioneers of regional architecture he admired and learned from the most, the need to create architecture with love, lessons he learned from Gio Ponti, and what makes a church the most difficult building type for an architect to design.
Vladimir Belogolovsky: You are referred to as “the fun uncle of Mediterranean modernism.” How do you feel about that and how would you describe your architecture and its intentions?
- Richard England
Well, I don’t know about the architecture of fun and I don’t know about what I suspect is hidden in this question, which is Post-Modernism. In principle, I oppose all isms. They pass too quickly. Architecture is not about either brand or fashion. Now, about my own architecture: I started when I was very young. I was lucky because my father was an architect. So, we had architecture in the house. When I came back from Italy, where I completed my studies, and joined my father’s practice, my intention was to establish an architecture primarily of its time and place. So, even though I said I hate isms, it was about regionalism, in a way. My original dream about architecture was about making it belong to the place while reaching out and looking forward. This was, of course, the time of the rampant Modern movement and International Style; so, there were not many of us with such beliefs. We were somewhat renegades, causing a bit of trouble.
Who would you name as your peers, those you admired at that time?
Most of all, Geoffrey Bawa in Sri Lanka, Louis Barragán in Mexico, Rifat Chadirji in Iraq, Patrice de Mazieres and Abdeslem Faraoui in Morocco, Aris Konstantinidis in Greece, José Antonio Coderch in Spain, and French practice Candilis-Josic-Woods. There was this intention in all of these architects to establish architecture which would belong to the place and relate to its memory. The point was to search for alternatives to the Bauhaus traditions. [Walter] Gropius said, “Modern architecture is a new tree. And we should eradicate all the old trees.” But I thought – why can’t we nourish a new branch or a new leaf? Why not have a sense of continuity? And I found a lot of inspiration in the vernacular.
A lot of people have forgotten the vernacular completely. Bernard Rudofsky, of course, reminded us. Gio Ponti played an important role in reviving the Italian vernacular. And what is great about Italy is its continuous reference to the past, which you can feel by just walking the streets of great Italian cities. Memory is hugely important; a man without memory is a lost creature. So, any architecture is an extension of the past that belongs to the present and is a stepstone to the future. But I continuously learn from many great minds. Once you declare that you learned everything, we can close the box. I can’t stop myself from growing old, but I can stop myself from growing up. In his famous book The Neverending Story, Michael Ende said, “Man dies when the last part of a child in him becomes an adult.” I struggle to keep that one last part of a child in me because it gives me innocence and the will to continue to learn.
You grew up the son of an architect. Would you say you had no choice but to become an architect?
Oh no, on the contrary. My father was wise enough to push me to become a doctor. Because he always believed that if you push a child in one direction, there is always an opposing force. But as far as I can remember, I was interested in both drawing and sculpture. So, I started my education by taking these classes first. That experience gave me an important insight – for architecture to become art you need the element of art, which comes out of the Vitruvian triad that buildings should have three attributes: firmitas, utilitas, and venustas. In other words – strength, utility, and beauty or delight. If the first two belong to the construction, then the third element is about art because it is the geography of the space that influences the geography of the mind. This means that an architect can create a space that either uplifts your senses or puts you in a darker mood.
And it is important to create architecture that’s not only uplifting but also regional. I always like to ask, Can we make an architecture that cuddles? Can we make an architecture that will make us feel happy? Obviously, the design itself should be made with love, not merely to make a profit. As Paul Valery remarked in his Eupalinos ou l’architecte, certain buildings are dumb, others have the ability to speak, and there are those rare ones that can sing. That’s what I aspire to.
How was your experience in Italy at the Milan Polytechnic – studying under Gio Ponti there and then working for him?
One thing I always remember Ponti saying is, “Draw first, measure later.” In other words, use your eyes and be intuitive. What was important in those days is that at least one hour would be spent with him at the drawing board. Can you imagine doing that with a starchitect today?! I was absorbing and learning constantly. There were just five of us at the office. That was also the period when he was the editor of Domus. So, not only was it the golden age of mid-20th-century Italian architecture, but everyone would be coming to see him: Pier Luigi Nervi, Giovanni Michelucci, Luigi Moretti, Ignazio Gardella, Bruno Morassutti, and so many other architects and designers. This experience at the office was, of course, combined with regular visits to many masterpieces, both historical and built throughout Italy at the time.
You have said that you learned more from 18 months working for Ponti than in seven years of university.
It’s true. The problem with architectural education is that it is exam-based, and it is theoretical. Students graduate and they have never met a client and they have never been out on site. But the making of a building is far more complex than drawing it. I always say, to draw a building is easy but making a building is like fighting a war.
Trying to make changes in education is also like fighting a war.
That’s right. In fact, after serving as the dean at the architecture school in Malta for two years, I resigned because I was arguing that architecture is more about making a building than drawing and theorizing it. It is a lot more about how it is made and how it works than about its mere image. And it is important for students to understand the process, from the first sketch to working drawings, and all the way to construction. Once you make a sketch, you are against so many forces – the client, contractor, planners – and you have to present your ideas to the public as well. That’s what I learned from Ponti, as I was able to see the whole design process. He invited me to all crucial meetings with his clients.
So, to me, practice is an essential part of architectural education. That’s why I wanted to move my own practice into the university: for students to see what it means to run a practice. Architecture is art but it is a serving art. The client’s brief is paramount. Architecture must answer the brief’s questions. So, when my proposal to shift the focus of education toward practice was denied, I resigned.
When it comes to your intentions in architecture, you have said that you aim for two things: the harmony of opposites and eliminating the non-essential. Tell me about your design process and how you typically start a project.
The elimination of the non-essential I learned from a pioneering British abstract artist, Victor Pasmore, who lived in Malta and we became good friends. His philosophy was very close to Mies’s “less is more.” He would say that he worked hard to produce almost a blank canvas. In architecture, Barragán with his few walls, his vibrant colours, and the background of Mexican ambiance, is a good example of that essentialism. This comes from understanding the brief and listening to the voices of the site. If you are a sensitive architect, the site will always tell you what it wants to become. Sometimes you need to be bold, more often you need good manners and to be humble. And when you start drawing your project, leave its concept light. Come back a couple of weeks later and try to be more objective and critical. That’s a good process for eliminating the non-essential. It is a cleaning act.
And so often architecture needs to negotiate with what was there before. If we take something down, we must be certain that what we are building in its place is going to be better. But, ultimately, what makes a good project is what Mother Teresa said: “The important thing is not what you do but how much love you put into doing it.” And I believe it is that love that is observed in the energy of the materials which make up the architecture that will feed back to the users.
You once said, “It still remains the architect’s solemn duty to create, not only shelters for the body but more so homes for the soul.” Most of your buildings are churches. What are the key challenges of this building type?
Monasteries and churches are good examples of spaces that are designed with great love. It was Antoni Gaudí who said that the most difficult task for an architect is to build a church – and he knew something about churches – because in the end, the problem is that you are measuring against the immeasurable. That’s a tough task, and I remember Ponti telling me, “Religious architecture is not a question of architecture but one of spirituality.” In my career, I have designed 25 sacred buildings. The main challenge, of course, is to enhance the spirit and enlighten the soul. This is a good place to bring in the words of Tennessee Williams: “I don’t want reality, I want magic.” That’s what architecture can do and let us not forget that in ancient days architects were myth-makers, magicians, alchemists. They produced an architecture that related to the earth, sky, and their own wisdom. Jorge Luis Borges said, “My business is to weave dreams.” That’s exactly what I want to achieve as an architect. Whether I succeed is another matter.
Let’s talk about your first independent work, Parish Church of Saint Joseph in Manikata, Malta. What was your initial intention?
Of course, all my projects are like children to me and I shouldn’t have favourites. But if there is one that touched my heart more than the others it is Manikata. When I returned from my studies in Milan and I had a wonderful letter from Gio Ponti, which I showed to my father very proudly, he said, “You’ve done very well. I am going to give you a present. Five days ago, I was commissioned to build a little church in the village of Manikata. It is yours.” It was like handing me a baton. That’s how it started.
What I had in mind then was to reflect on what would be appropriate regionally. I explored the megalithic temples of Malta, the girna, a type of traditional corbelled stone hut common in rural Malta and so on. And conceptually we asked this question – What should the church of our time be? In those days there was a great distinction between the celebrant and the congregation. So, I said – the congregation is made up of spectators, but they should be more than that. They must be participants. Hence the building’s plan is made of two curved walls that represent two embracing arms almost on equal grounds. Once I produced my plans and model, I had to go see the 86-year-old archbishop, who took a complete and utter dislike to my integration idea. Thankfully, there were other members of the building committee who supported the project.
Did your father make any particular observations about this building? Did he offer any critique?
He was very supportive throughout the whole process. From the beginning, he told me, “This is yours. You have to deal with it the way you understand it best.” And he did not mind that my architecture was quite different from his, which was very much rational and influenced by such Italian modernists as Luigi Moretti, Giuseppe Terragni, Adalberto Libera, as well as by Gio Ponti. But he never interfered. He would keep saying, “Keep fighting.” And it was a fight.
Maltese architecture has a very strong and distinctive character. Its uniqueness is exemplified in such structures as the Parliament building in Valletta by Renzo Piano, which looks nothing like any of his projects elsewhere.
That only speaks highly of an architect of such renown as Renzo. His work is all about looking carefully at the history of a place and its cultural background, and understanding the materials. The sole building material we have on the island is stone. We don’t have wood here. What Renzo did with his building is he turned Malta limestone, which is called Globogerina, into an intricate lace. You see, cities change. You can’t petrify a city. The challenge is how to envision a meaningful continuity between what is valuable historically and what will be aspiring in the future.
When you describe your architecture, you use such words as dreamscapes, poetry, myth, magic, painterly and utopian worlds. What other words or phrases would you use to describe your work or the kind of architecture you try to achieve?
Pastoral arcades, meditation gardens, an oasis of peace. You see, in the world we live in today, we need silence, a place where the soul is uplifted. We live in such an age when we know the price of everything and the value of nothing. The world is all about noise, greed, and whoever makes the most money. But, as Axel Munthe pointed out, “The soul needs more space than the body.” Therefore, I would like to create settings where one could dream freely and be able to borrow time to try to realize them. To me, architecture is not a profession, it is a vocation because I do it from the heart. The aim is to create spaces that can lift our spirits and enhance the way we live. I see the creation of such spaces as the antidote to what our hectic cities have become. We need spaces where we feel enlightened. Therefore, an ultimate dream project for me would be a place where the floor is the earth, the walls are the wind, and the ceiling is the sky.
A world-renowned post-modernist architect reflects on a career of designing beloved regionalist buildings – including lots of churches.