A light touch approach

Architect Godwin Vella is behind the design and renovation of a unique Mdina townhouse, where the core concept of the restoration project was based on subtle intervention to bring the finishes to life and renew the building’s original soul.
Each room in this renovated Mdina townhouse was an explosion of floral, geometric patterns, such that each space created around itself its own distinct identity. Photos: Sean Mallia

The historical city of Mdina conjures up images of ancient churches and palaces, medieval streets, with looming walls and cavernous architecture. So, it is quite unusual to find, nestled within one of its narrow ways, a traditional Maltese townhouse dating from the 1930s.

Built on an infill site, it manifests all the architectural peculiarities of a townhouse of that era: a traditional Maltese wooden balcony, patterned mosaic tiles, a winding stone staircase known as taraġ tar-raġġ, high ceilings on wooden beams and a typical backyard.

The plan of the property is similarly of its time, with a series of rooms following each other, without the use of a connecting corridor. This arrangement produces a more dramatic spatial setting, where sightlines are maintained from one zone to another, sometimes along the whole length of the house.

While it was lived in for many years, it has had minimal interventions since its construction. This endowed the property with an enduring aura of the past that percolates every detail and material, says architect Godwin Vella, who worked on the rehabilitation project.

While the wooden apertures, the floral mosaic tiles and wrought-iron works showed signs of usage, all finishes had remained surprisingly serviceable, needing only the lightest of touches to bring them back to life. In this way, a ‘light touch’ became the core concept of the restoration project, he says.

A minimalist, spare aesthetic

The scope of Vella’s proposed design was “not to restore like new, but in a more subtle way, to trigger the memories inherent in the materials”; to renew the building’s original soul.

Mindful of this integral resource, the new interventions were, therefore, rendered around the existing core elements in a minimalist, spare aesthetic.

This concept is perhaps best explained in the context of the traditional mosaic-tiled floors of the house. Each room was an explosion of floral, geometric patterns, such that each space created around itself its own distinct identity.

To balance this exuberant visual outburst and to form a common visual thread around the house, the new décor was designed to soothe and relax. Materials were chosen in neutral colours, or natural finishes.

Similarly, new fixtures have simple, minimal lines, so as not to interfere with the original existing design, while a subdued and limited colour palette of white, cream and olive green was applied to the walls and ceilings.

Being the first room adjacent to the entrance hallway, the kitchen is an essential space to this house, as it immediately sets the tone of the interior. Given its size and location, it was conceptually critical to conserve the architectural homogeneity of this room as a sort of leitmotif to the interior design of the house.

So, in the spirit of the traditional kitchen, the units and fixtures were placed as a series of independent objects and not as a comprehensive block, as is the prevalent trend in modern homes.

Three large metal cabinets were, therefore, arranged around the room to serve as storage for all the kitchen utensils, accessories and groceries. On the side, a retro-styled refrigerator and cooker unit diffuse a note of mid-20th-century design, which is also prevalent in other fixtures around the house.

A centrally-placed restored table is topped by a thick slab of Carrara marble. This is also the material of choice for the kitchen worktop, which, apart from its practical qualities, also visually displays a clean calm surface that is simultaneously both modern and traditional.

The back of the house overlooks a cosy courtyard, flanked by high limestone walls. Citrus trees and a scattering of potted plants, along with a timber deck, have been introduced to break up and soften the monolithic nature of the walls.

The central focus of the house is a traditional stone staircase that winds its way from the ground-floor hallway to the rooftop. The stairwell and stairs have been stripped to a bare whitewashed space to maximise the sculptural quality of the dark grey wrought-iron railing that snakes along the stairs.

A box-like skylight was punctured into the stairwell’s ceiling to accentuate its drama with light and shadow. From this skylight, a sculptural light fitting, with two globular light sources, is suspended into the vertical space below.

Over the years, the stone steps have been worn out by the passage of tired feet, such that the stone surface is slightly curved. These imperfections have been retained in the restoration works as this is also about “the preservation of the consequences of time”, Vella explains.

Upstairs, the two bedrooms and lounge present an ambience of controlled luxury through carefully selected pieces of furnishings and fixtures. Plush fabrics, such as velvet, in striking warm colours, and retro-style fittings, with brass detailing, contrast with the austere architecture of the rooms.

The traditional tiles, with their colourful patterns, are retained to further animate the sober surroundings, Vella points out.

Mindful of the traditional detailing of the house, the new interventions are designed in a simple and spare manner, he highlights. The bathroom fixtures and fittings are carefully chosen for their minimalist and elegant lines.

Furthermore, whenever possible, existing quality pieces were retained to enhance the link between the old and the contemporary. A typical example is the Victorian bathtub that was found on site and professionally restored to its former glory. This was then reintegrated within a modern bath and shower system that combined a grand antique with practical plumbing.

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