Tuesday, 11 January 2011

Dereliction of Duty

My speciality is British architecture, but that doesn’t mean that interest stops at the lapping shores of the English Channel. British architecture can be found all over the world.

I was recently on Malta. It was here that the British military was strategically posted for nearly 150 years. Britain acquired it from the French at the Treaty Paris in 1814. The British only left in 1979.

Located in the centre of Malta is the small town of Mtarfa, close to Rabat and Mdina. It was here in 1890 that the British military medical facilities were centralised.

The old military hospital at Mtarfa - now a secondary school
The main hospital building, commissioned in 1912, was officially opened on the 29th June 1920. However, it was in full use during World War I. The hospital treated the allied casualties from Gallipoli. During World War II, the Mtarfa Hospital and barracks were reorganized as the 90th General Hospital and developed to house about 1200 beds. At the ends of hostilities, the 90th General Hospital was disbanded and reformed on peacetime footing as the David Bruce Military Hospital.

The main building is now a secondary school but the Sisters House (where the nurses lived) and the Isolation Block – although listed and apparently protected by the Maltese authorities - are derelict and facing a gloomy future.

The Sisters House - Mtarfa

No protection from the elements
 I went around these buildings. They’re built from the ubiquitous maltese sandstone that makes the island and dominates the construction of the historic as well as modern buildings. One key feature of this stone is the rapid effects of wind erosion – so stone replacement is a common and easy method of maintaining the buildings.

The Isolation Block at Mtarfa
 However, the auxiliary hospital buildings at Mtarfa have bigger worries than a little wind erosion. Fundamentally there is nothing wrong with these buildings. They have been solidly and beautifully built and could be brought back to working use or become desirable residential properties. But the windows have gone as well as the roofs. Vandals have taken a torch to the isolation block and while modern developments are constructed around these buildings – nothing has been done to at least arrest the old buildings' decay.

Damage and Decay - Isolation Block - Mtarfa
 The redevelopment of the old barracks at Mtarfa shows that such conversions can be done successfully. These are now apartments for local people and are in a very good state of maintenance. See below:

Old Barracks at Mtarfa - converted into family homes
 Heritage and historic buildings are amongst the first to come off the Priority List during a recession. In addition, there are 65,000 newly constructed residences lying empty on Malta, so a demand for converting historic properties for a renewed purpose does not exist on the island. Before the recession came, the Mtarfa Planning Authority had ear-marked the buildings for redevelopment. We can only hope this does happen - before the buildings are beyond saving.

Isolation Block - Mtarfa