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Keeping the spirit alive

The renovation of this 19th-century house in Valletta’s Battery Street, undertaken by architect Godwin Vella, attempts to address the dilemmas that arise from trying to balance the old with the new and ensuring its rehabilitation did not erase its soul – the original source of inspiration.

The renovation of an old house that has seen better days is always an ambiguous journey of hesitation for its designer.

What can be retained and preserved? What is to be thrown out? How do you balance the old with the new? And most of all, will the renewal project itself erase the soul of the building that was the original source of inspiration?

This renovation of a 19th-century house in Valletta, undertaken by architect Godwin Vella, attempts to address these dilemmas through the careful, judicious use of materials and design.

And along the way, it aims to create a serene sanctuary from the, sometimes, chaotic environment of the capital city.

The idiosyncratic form of this house – perched on high ground, but caught between two streets, with a short depth – gets its generous habitable spaces by stacking up its rooms over four levels.

In this respect, it has the configuration of a tower, or as a neighbour once remarked, “it is like living in a rocket”.

The house is accessed from a typical Valletta street that is a narrow enclosing passageway. However, once you climb up, even to the first floor, the rooms open onto the sweeping panorama of history and drama that is the Grand Harbour.

Every room in the house is an explosion of Mediterranean light reflecting the shimmering sea below. And the new layout of the house makes use of these different levels and easy access to natural light by creating separate zones on each floor.

On the top, a large open-plan room is reserved for the daily living area, while below it, two rooms become a main bedroom suite, and below that, a double-height space is turned into a self-contained guest studio with a mezzanine level. A large roof terrace is serviced by a kitchenette and storage facilities.

Some renovation projects take a clean-slate approach to design, stripped bare to their shell and starting afresh with new materials. In contrast, this project strove to build on those elements of the house that were considered worth preserving.

Elements such as the central Carrara marble staircase, with its wrought-iron railing that snakes up the building, the traditional Maltese patterned tiles that pave the main rooms, the simple but distinctive wooden apertures and the characteristic wooden beams under the ceiling become the basis for a new aesthetic vision.

The art of the designer is to blend the old elements with the new in a harmonious way such that there is no incongruity between the two. Here, the new design is consciously spare and minimalistic so as not to overwhelm the original materials.

Similarly, new materials and colours are restricted in their quantity and in their finish, limiting them to natural raw textures and hues, producing a coherent and continuous theme throughout the house.

Another fundamental concept that characterises this project is that of wabi-sabi. In traditional Japanese aesthetics, thisis the philosophy of the beauty of imperfection, reminding that perfection is impossible and that life itself, being impermanent, is always uncomplete.

As the American writer Ralph Waldo Emerson observed: “There is a crack in everything God has made.” In this way, the old parts of this project are not embarrassed to show their age. It does not matter that the old floor tiles are chipped, the railings are slightly skewed, the marble stairs are stained, and the wood is cracked all over.

“This is all part of a longer history than the present moment. It is about retaining the story of this house such that this renovation is just another chapter and not another book,” says Vella.

“In this way, the spirit of a house is maintained throughout the ages over the illusion of material perfection and the allure of the new.”

General view with loft. Photos: Alex Attard

The self-contained guest studio includes a double-height space, with a mezzanine level for sleeping. This loft structure is designed as a sculptural abstract element, where the architectural materials of steel, wood and glass come together in a minimalistic way. The wood is American walnut, which has warm, substantial and elegant characteristics that lend themselves well to the scale of the room.

The bathroom

The bathroom walls and floors are finished with white marble with dramatic veining to various textures to enhance the rawness of the material. This echoes the original extensive use of marble in the staircase – a distinctive feature of the original house. The fixtures and fittings in the bathroom are kept to a minimum and their elemental lines produce a timeless quality to the design.

Main bedroom

The pared-down character of the main bedroom maintains the original spirit of this space. The subdued colours of the furniture and back wall are used to blend with the colours of the original paving.

Dining area

The furniture was carefully sourced to reflect the pure lines and natural textures of the design. As it is raised from the ground on metal legs, it allows the uninterrupted flow of the traditional tile pattern to dominate the room.

Main living/kitchen

At the top floor, a Bulthaup kitchen, which includes two self-contained cabinets and a stainless-steel worktop table, maintains the spatial integrity of the open-plan living space. All the usual kitchen fixtures and fittings, including appliances, are fully integrated within these three elements.

Main bedroom viewed from doorway

New materials and colour are chosen discreetly to blend harmoniously with the original colours, in particular the floor paving that dominates the rooms. The sparse, pared-down effect of this design project produces a serene and sober atmospheric interior.

Entrance staircase

The original Carrara marble staircase with its wrought-iron railing was retained and preserved as the dominant feature of the entrance stairwell. The design of the materials, colours and lighting around it accentuate the qualities of the staircase.

View of Grand Harbour from balcony

The simple rectangular configuration of a traditional Maltese balcony is used to frame the dramatic views of the Grand Harbour. The use of simple dark grey furniture and white walls helps to accentuate the vibrant blue of the Mediterranean Sea and sky so that it becomes part of the interior design.

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