A house like me

This 450-year-old Birgu townhouse is a big part of its owner, Claude Zammit Trevisan. A life-long project, at once fragile and fascinating, he believes the house chose him… and is now an extension of himself.

When Claude Zammit Trevisan first viewed this Birgu house, he could not quite go up it and walk on some floors as the roofs were in a dangerous state.

The house had been left vacant for a while since the last family members who lived in it had passed away.

It needed total renovation, but he was “lucky enough to find a house that had not been molested by previous ‘renovations’”.

Most of its charm and original features were still intact when he bought it in 2003.

Described as an evolution in time by Zammit Trevisan, the oldest parts of the house – the cellar and ground floor – date back to the mid-1500s, at around the same time the first auberges were built in Birgu when the Knights set foot in Malta in 1535.

The second floor was a later addition and has a colonial feel, built in the 1800s when Malta was a British colony; while the top floor is contemporary and is the owner’s own contribution to the house – a job he “commissioned” himself to do when he acquired it.

The house renovation was done in phases, and although it was turned into a liveable space within three years of acquiring it, Zammit Trevisan was still doing important works in it as recently as two years ago.

“I would say it is a life-long project and requires constant maintenance and care. It is a centuries-old property, whose location – on a corner and within 100 metres from the sea – its age and the globigerina limestone and timber beams it is built from make it at once fragile and fascinating.”

Love at first sight

When Zammit Trevisan first saw the house, he was still a student, living and studying in Italy.

“Ironically, I got to know about it through friends in Milan. Malta was not yet a European member state and I remember thinking I would probably never get a chance to afford a house here, given the property market would change once it joined the EU.

“It was the EU referendum weekend in Malta, and I can still vividly remember the day I went to view the house with my mother,” he recalls.

Upon entering, they found themselves knee-high in water, coming in through a gaping hole in the roof.

“Notwithstanding, my mother, ever so positive, immediately told me she felt serene, and the energy was good.”

The views from the upper floors were outstanding. And within days, Zammit Trevisan acquired it, only to renounce it at the promise-of-sale stage a few weeks later when all the ceilings collapsed onto third-party property after a winter storm.

Eventually, he approached the owners once again and finally acquired it – this time at a higher price.

“I would say it was really meant to be. As the saying goes, you do not choose a house. The house chooses you!”

Structurally, Zammit Trevisan tried to leave the house as original as possible, retaining everything he could.

All wooden apertures were kept and restored. The wooden beams were treated and retained, and where ceilings had collapsed, they were rebuilt in the traditional way, using stone slabs and timber red deal beams.

However, where parts were lost through deterioration and time, Zammit Trevisan did not always resort to replacing these with what was originally there.

In the new addition on the top floor, for example, he introduced new materials such as steel, light wood parquet, and micro cement flooring.

Today, the founder of Birgu Blue Rendez-Vous – an atelier boutique directly opposite his home on Hilda Tabone Street – is also particularly proud that he has given an old property a new lease of life.

The main concern in terms of preservation was the challenge to equip the space for modern living, while retaining all the character and charm of a traditional Maltese dwelling, Zammit Trevisan says.

Timber and stone were the predominant original materials used in the house, and he introduced steel particularly for the furniture in the newer additions.

“I find steel brings out a contrast when used against wood and gives a modern and contemporary feel to the house,” he continues.

Like most houses that rise vertically, the stairs can be an issue. So, a home lift was installed with minimal possible impact when the collapsed ceilings were being replaced.

The biggest headache was carrying out the works without disturbing the neighbourhood. Bringing in cranes and heavy equipment was also challenging, Zammit Trevisan admits.

But ultimately, he is also happy he restored it “with tempo, and not all at once”.

Ideas need time to evolve and mature, he believes, and because he did not rush the house conversion all in one go, he could do a good job and “shape the spaces of the house to suit my personality and my needs”.

If stones could speak

When faced with the challenge of reconstructing the ceilings that had collapsed, Zammit Trevisan needed to find enough xorok ideally from the same source.

His architect, Adrian Mamo, told him to go to St Aloysius College as he had heard the Jesuits were about to replace all the classroom ceilings.

“Being an old college boy myself, I went to speak to Brother Frank, who let me choose the stone slabs coming from the very same classrooms I had spent my secondary school years in.

“Those stones were salvaged and recycled, and now give me shelter. If they could speak, they would have a lot to say!”

Upside down

The house spans four floors, with over 260 square metres of indoor and outdoor living space.

Its upper floors are more spacious as the house tapers upwards and its walls get slimmer. They also enjoy beautiful light and incredible sea views.

So, it was only natural to design the kitchen and living space on the top floors and the sleeping quarters on the cosier, lower levels.

“Over the years, we have given pet names to some of the rooms, as we often find ourselves getting confused when referring to different spaces,” Zammit Trevisan laughs.

The ground floor is the marina floor because the marina can be seen from its balcony.

On the first floor is the blue room, which is the main bedroom and enjoys a blue Maltese balcony; the second floor is the ‘colonia’ floor because of its colonial feel and grand architectural doorway, while the modern top floor is affectionately called the ‘sky room’.

The perfect blue

Most walls were painted, and these were kept that way, rather than stripping them down to the stone.

“We drew inspiration for the colour palette from the tones we found in the many layers of paint that were unearthed when we were restoring the property.

“The blue room, for example, was always blue, while the ‘colonia floor’ has shades of green, which had always been the predominant colour.

“I was very much guided by the past to come up with the present colour scheme. As for the outside apertures, I went for cobalt blue.

“It took me a while to research that ‘perfect blue’ and there were many discussions with artist friends and many trials,” Zammit Trevisan highlights.

“I wanted a blue that was truly Mediterranean; an intense, clear shade of blue, which faintly recalls the ‘Majorelle bleu’ of Marrakech, but which remains distinctly Mediterranean… I guess I found it.”

Sea inspiration

Zammit Trevisan did not want to move away from the original ‘vocation’ of the property, a Maltese traditional townhouse, probably serving a maritime community and built a few steps away from the sea and Grand Harbour.

So, many aspects of the interiors are inspired by the sea. The place is functional, and every inch was used, with little to no wasted space.

On the top floor, for example, a shower cubicle was installed creating an interesting volume and split level, with a reading area above that makes good use of the volumes of the room.

Care was also taken not to move away from the original room dimensions, most of which are a perfect square.

The house orientation was also considered when assigning ‘functions’ to the spaces. Perfectly aligned at 0 degrees facing the sea, this meant its back rooms and terrace were north-facing and cooler, while its façade, front rooms and terrace are all at 90 degrees, facing south and, therefore, much warmer.

“The south terrace is a wonderful suntrap and one of my favourite spots of the house, where I spend time gardening, reading, or sun worshiping in the summer months,” Zammit Trevisan says.

A white steel railing was added around the north terrace perimeter wall, facing the sea and giving the feeling of being on a grand cruise ship.

Birgu is the ‘best’

Zammit Trevisan now lives in France, but he misses “the serendipity of the place”.

In all his years living away from home, he has come to appreciate life in Malta, and life in Birgu is as Maltese as can be.

“Today, I consider Birgu to be one of the best places to live in on the Maltese Islands. It is residential, still very authentic, not overly commercial, and yet within the vicinity of Valletta, with excellent sea links connecting the two.

“In Parisian terminology, Birgu may well be an arrondissement of Valletta. Indeed, here is where it all started with the great story of the Knights of the Order of St John.”

Zammit Trevisan is unsurprisingly concerned about what is happening to similar village cores in Malta.

The price we have to pay for progress is high. Our historic urban cores have once again become desirable places to live in.

“As a result of a shortage in townhouses and an increase in newbuild apartments in newer (and not so newer) parts of Malta, property prices in historic urban cores have skyrocketed, often driving the local community out and causing entire quarters to be gentrified,” he acknowledges.

“Sadly, with this goes away a part of the character of our towns, with some risking the very essence and genius loci of the place.”

Another concern is the sheer number of vehicles on the island, with an infrastructure that favours the use of private cars as opposed to alternative means such as rail, bicycle, or pedestrian travel, Zammit Trevisan continues.

This puts unnecessary strain on towns and cities and drastically deteriorates quality of life, he laments.

On a positive note, he enjoys living in Birgu precisely because of the great sea links available, adding a Venetian feel to the city and making commuting so much more pleasant.

“This house has unknowingly taken up a lot of space in my life. It has accompanied me through the years and is, indeed, a part of me.

“It is ‘a house like me’, much like Malaparte’s was, inviting endless speculation as to what meaning lay within…”

Zammit Trevisan is also particularly proud of the city transformation he has witnessed in these last 20 years.

“I would like to think I was a part of it. So many new neighbours moved in and there was, indeed, a domino effect in practically all the streets of Birgu. One started restoring a house, and others followed…

“I was one of the first in my street.”

Related Posts
Read More

Our [glass] house

This Balzan apartment is the home of architects Steven and Patricia Risiott from A Collective, partners both in work and in life. The duo’s dynamics came into play as they embarked on what could be described as their most contentious project as husband and wife – but also their most fulfilling.