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This architect quit his ‘toxic’ job to fight for Malta’s heritage


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Patrick Calleja used to wake up demotivated, down and disillusioned – until he shed his architectural practice to take on the full-time role of heading the country’s national trust.

Now that the “toxicity and frustration” of his work as an architect dealing with the Planning Authority is over, he feels liberated, positive and energised to focus on safeguarding Malta’s historic, artistic and natural heritage as the new president of Din l-Art Ħelwa.

Like others in his profession, Calleja has found himself between a rock and a hard place, on the one hand needing the PA for his work, and on the other, fighting against it to the point of exasperation.

His appointment as DLĦ president could not have come at a more opportune moment as he was planning to wind down his practice, with, until then, only a plan to write a play to fill his time. His new role has given him a strong sense of purpose.

About to turn 61, Calleja said he had been waking up feeling dejected due to the state of the built environment in Malta and his work in this field.

“I was not looking forward to working and had become quite disillusioned with what was going on. I really wanted to do something more meaningful,” he admitted.

He felt his job was leading nowhere, citing as an example his recent objection to a proposed development in the Dejma area of Għargħur, where he lives. It is just one of seven projects he has been battling in his backyard on his own initiative.

It transpired that the developers had already signed promises of sale when the application for maisonettes had not even been processed.

Referring to another proposed five-storey building on the border of the village’s UCA, overlooking a garden, he said it certainly did not encourage people to purchase and preserve these properties.

Calleja has had to contend with situations where case officers recommended for refusal a permit application on several grounds. But when the developer got approval anyway and a third-party objector appealed, the same case officer would switch sides and argue in favour of its approval.

Describing the PA as “a political football”, Calleja said it was the main cause of “the horrendous uglification of Malta”.

Architects were also involved in the mess; in the paradoxical situation of both needing and fighting the PA.

“It should not be like that. In an ideal world, the interests, including those of politicians, should be the same.”

Calleja has now converted that frustration into a more active role, serving the community on a more permanent basis.

Calleja ties a black ribbon on a tree as part of a demonstration to highlight trees due to be removed to widen the road to Marsalforn, Gozo.

“Now, I feel I do not have that pressure on my shoulders; that weight holding me back,” he said, admitting that clients may have felt he was too aggressive towards the authority they needed.

Much of Calleja’s time as a practising architect was already spent supporting and guiding residents and communities, not just from his village, in their battles with the PA.

He singled out Valletta as an example of the “downward spiral, culturally” that the country was facing, with the capital’s public spaces having been usurped and devalued.

“How can they allow louder music to play later than anywhere else on the island in a UNESCO World Heritage Site?”

The damage to the built environment could not be easily undone, but he said some things could be reversed such as the encroachment of public spaces.

Calleja is now continuing to offer this sort of support through DLĦ’s Heritage and Environment Protection sub-committee, made up of professionals and volunteers, who vetted development applications – an exercise, together with appealing permits, that costs money and time.

“We will even look into individual cases if policies are being breached,” he said.

Calleja is heartened by recent DLĦ victories that have seen decisions overturned and permits revoked.

This sent a message to the public and the authorities that things should be changed.

A criminal waste of money

A lifetime DLĦ member but never active, Calleja says he is again feeling passionate about his vocation.

And that passion is now being injected into the controversial plan to remove trees to widen the picturesque road to Marsalforn, Gozo – the first protest he attended since he was appointed DLĦ president last month.

Calleja started his term fighting to save the “obvious” and considered this one of the most disillusioning and important issues on his agenda. It is “criminal”, useless and a waste of money.

“What on earth is this for? There is never any traffic on this road, so why? To get there a few seconds earlier?

“Or to give out some contract just for the sake of using up the money when it could be spent on something else.”

Unfortunately, Calleja noted, not many Gozitans attended the protest, with more foreigners leading the charge.

He appealed to the ministers involved to reconsider the decision to tear down the trees and widen the road when there was no reason to do it.

Since he took on the post, a re-energised Calleja hit the ground running, visiting all the DLĦ sites and meeting volunteers.

Outlining his two main goals, he said one was the idealistic situation of getting the State and society to work in tandem.

“Our constitution has a clause that explicitly states the State will look after our cultural and artistic patrimony and environment. But there is a void here and it is getting bigger. NGOs have had to fill in, but ideally, the State should look after this and prioritise it,” he said.

Funding will be his main focus – in particular for the San Ċir medieval chapel on the outskirts of Rabat, for which DLĦ was inching closer to being given the guardianship deed.

That came with some trepidation because of the self-funding involved, he said, adding that the Australian Bungalow was also undergoing restoration and money was running out.

Guardianship deeds have also been chased for Gozo’s Qbajjar Battery, which is falling apart, while he is also pushing for the management of a park near Torri Sopu in Nadur.

DLĦ president Patrick CallejaDLĦ president Patrick Calleja

A constant and relentless battle

His interest in heritage and the environment started back in his university days, when, as a Sliema boy in the 1980s, he began witnessing buildings being torn down.

“As a student, we had a university project to regenerate the Birgu waterfront, and it was a sudden realisation of the terrible state of our rich heritage. One of the palaces was a depot for used mattresses from the hospital, while the beautiful old bakery, a unique and innovative structure, was used to store posters and placards of ministers,” he recalled.

Today, the fight remained constant and relentless as a string of DLĦ presidents can attest to since the national trust was set up in 1964.

Calleja could remain president for up to six years. When his time is up, he wants to look back and say he did something for Malta and for generations to come.

“We should want to leave Malta in a better place. But there is so much that needs to be done. It is not going to stop with me.”

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