Art and urban living

Art and urban living

David Pisani (left) has joined forces with Elise Billiard, Julia Pallone and Mark Dingli.

David Pisani (left) has joined forces with Elise Billiard, Julia Pallone and Mark Dingli.

Documenting months of structural works around the entrance to Valletta, Transit Project has reached its zenith with an art publication that examines the link between the built environment and the social characteristics of a city. Ramona Depares interviews architecture photographer David Pisani, the man behind the project.

When architect Renzo Piano’s proposals for the entrance to Valletta were finalised, the reactions were many and contrasting.

We should have been asking how all these new plans were going to affect residents and day-trippers

However, photographer David Pisani believes that one essential element was missing from the discussion: the people angle.

Pisani, who specialises in architecture and design photography, has been visually documenting Valletta for the past twenty years.

He is also the author of Vanishing Valletta, a photographic essay which was included in the permanent collections of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France in 2000.

“Any structural change to a capital city is important. The discussion revolving around the new City Gate project was always about the building and never about the people. We really should have been asking how allthese new plans were going to affect residents and day-trippers. This is why we decided to launch Transit Project.”

The project, which was supported by the Malta Arts Fund, tackles the demolition of City Gate and the new plans for the area from the point of view of sociological urbanism.

Pisani joined forces with anthropologist Elise Billiard, sound artist Mark Dingli and visual artist Julia Pallone to document what are probably the biggest changes to the capital’s landscape since the city was founded, excluding war ravage.

“As a comprehensive project, Transit includes a number of stages. We ran an exhibition on site near the old City Gate, another exhibition at Hotel Splendid in Strait Street and we also run an ongoing Tumblr blog that includes an audio experience set up by Mark to showcase recordings of people going through the area.” Now the project has reached its zenith with the release of Transit, an art publication that is likely to be the only printed documentation of the demolition and rebuilding process. The book catalogues the different stages ofthe works through various media, from the written to the visual.

“Transit is heavily visual and almost offers a photographic diary of the site at different times of the day, with different subjects. I decided to start off this visual experience by showing what I call ‘the dividing line’ that serves as a cut-off point for pedestrians. This dividing line symbolises many things to those who visit Valletta, mainly because it brought about overnight changes.”

Pisani explains how one of the biggestcontroversies raised by the new plans wasrelated to the fact that pedestrianscould not see what was happening behindthe no-access line.

“The old City Gate was undeniably ugly and in no way are we saying that it should have stayed. However, we do believe that people needed to be given a chance to become familiar with the planned changes. Although the architects’ plans were put up, reality is that the majority of people out there could not really make heads or tails of what the area was going to look like. Granted, this is something that happens in every other major city. But it’s also precisely why formal documentation was of the essence.”

The photographic evidence contained in the publication goes a long way towards dispelling the mystery that seems to have surrounded the project. This is complemented by interviews with pedestrians and residents conducted by Elise Billiard. People’s reactions to the changes, Pisani says, continue tobe mixed.

“The interviews bring out the memories that tie so many of us to the old City Gate. The demolition did not simply pull down a building. It also removed a number of social rituals which were tied to the place.

“We all remember meeting our dates at City Gate, buying bread from the van on our way in... The project affected the dynamics and habits of many.”

The interviews are presented by Billiard in fictitious format, in order to take the shape of a flowing story.

The book concludes with a transcript of a lecture given by Billiard on the topic and with a photographic chronicle of the exhibition in Strait Street.

“The exhibition presented French artist Julia Pallone’s interpretation from the point of view of an outsider. She even went as far as to re-imagine the map of Valletta artistically.”

Transit is available online from

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