Between Marsamxett Harbour to the northwest and the Grand Harbour towards the southeast, lies the strategic fortress, Fort St Elmo. Built in 1552, it was constructed as a defensive countermeasure following numerous Turkish attacks upon the Islands of Malta and Gozo. Subsequently over the years, the Fort has undergone many changes in use and development, upgrading according to the latest technological warfare discoveries. Therefore, since inception, the original purpose and intent of the Fort was to act as the primary guardian of, not only this archipelago, but also the surrounding region of the Mediterranean.
The sensitive nature of the site led us first of all to take up the lengthy and thorough exercise of recording in great detail its current state of preservation. The building fabric is in itself the best source of information through which the site’s passage through time can be reviewed and in some instances almost relived.
The main aim of a project of this nature is that of rehabilitating the structures on site for sympathetic and complementary re-use. This in turn necessitates the removal of that which is deterring from the full enjoyment of the monument and the addition of supporting structures and interventions which complement and aid in bringing to life the spaces and places of this historic Fort. For example, we often remove cement that was put in in previous restoration attempts. Cement does not let the old stone breathe and contains salts that are detrimental to the stone. Therefore, we have replaced the cement in the piazza with a macroporous, breathable plaster. We have also worked on fixing up the flaking of stone, biological growths, and pollution stains to restore the fort to its former glory.
Given the high intrinsic value of the Fort’s fabric and what this fabric represents, the site was treated with the utmost dignity and respect. All investigation was compliant with the relevant National and International Conservation and Heritage laws and charters. The project involved a vast amount of research and academic study in order that the staff involved, together with key consultants, could compile a detailed historical analysis to act as a springboard from which all the interventions and design concepts could be launched. A sound knowledge of the historical background allowed us to derive meaning from the anomalies found in the built fabric and space configurations. These mirrored the progress of history and changes in the culture of warfare with the most radical modifications being made by the British for the Second World War.
These studies which included archaeological excavations led us to the realisation that the site is a minefield of cultural and historical wealth, and any proposed interventions should be such as to enhance the legibility of this wealth whilst in no way detracting from its significance. Once investigations were completed, the design team took off and started work on a proposal which had to ensure that the richness discovered could be ably transmitted to the public visiting the site.
With this in mind, the designs produced revolved around the concept of creating an interactive cultural experience. Emphasis was made on ensuring return visits to the site. This can only be achieved by creating a dynamic environment with spaces, which allow for mixed use and temporary installations. One example of this dynamism is the May 2014 exhibition of Malta Design Week, which used the space for artists and designers to display their recent work to the public. On the other hand, fixed routes were designed to take the visitor through the different stages in the development of the Fort and its defences, revealing breathless views of the Grand Harbour for its beauty to be enjoyed too.
While aiding to increase as much as possible the legibility of the Fort’s rich history, the use of high end technological tools and installations from the 21st century will leave their contemporary mark on the site, bringing the Fort back into today’s urban fabric. This reintegration is also achieved through a re-design of all pedestrian and vehicular traffic around the Fort. Whilst retaining and strengthening key elements which relay a sensation of awe and the feeling of entering a fortified and closely guarded space, new routes are introduced which act as crowd pullers, drawing the crowds which daily populate the upper streets of Valletta down to the Fort. By restoring and re-using what has stood for centuries, the historic, touristic and commercial potentials of the Fort come to fruition. Furthermore, opening up the Fort for public enjoyment aids in funding on-going maintenance and preservation programs. However, adaptive reuse will allow the public to walk in and wander through about 70% of the floor space free of cost.
The success of the project will in the end be measured not by the number of tourists which pay their once in a lifetime visit but by the extent to which it will manage to reintegrate the Fort back into the socio cultural environment of the Maltese Islands.
Remnants of a now buried, yet important secret access between Fort St Elmo and the sea towards Fort St Angelo. This access acted as a lifeline, as it was the means of bringing all-important supplies into the fort, during times of great peril.
Sir Ralph Abercrombie (1734-1801) was a well- respected Scottish lieutenant-general. He was struck by a spent ball and died seven days later, while on sea. He is buried at St Elmo and one bastion and curtain bear his name. We discovered his grave when studying at an old photograph of the site.